30 June 2014

Happily Ever After (or Not): Drusus Germanicus and Antonia Minor

by Heather Domin

You don’t see a lot of epic romances in Roman history – partnerships, sure, passions, affairs, a few obsessions here and there, but not many great true-love matches. The tendency toward political and arranged marriages among the upper classes did not give much consideration to marital love (hence the affairs). But there were exceptions of course, and for me one of the greatest and most bittersweet is the short marriage of Claudius Drusus, aka Drusus the Elder or Drusus Germanicus, and Antonia Minor.

one of the few likenesses
of Drusus the Elder
Drusus was the son of Augustus’ wife Livia from her first marriage, raised from the age of five in his stepfather’s house along with his brother Tiberius. Augustus and Livia never had children of their own, but the boys didn’t lack company; Augustus ran a veritable boarding school of children belonging to his family, friends, and enemies, including barbarian princes. Among the motley brood was Antonia Minor, a daughter of Marc Antony from his marriage to Augustus’ sister Octavia. After her father abandoned them, she and her siblings were raised by their mother as part of Augustus’ family.

the Juno Ludovisi,
modeled after Antonia
Antonia was only two years younger than Drusus, so they most likely grew up together as playmates. It’s romantic to imagine them falling in love at a young age, engaging in adolescent flirtation among the colonnades, but there’s no direct evidence for this. What we do know is that Augustus had great things planned for Drusus, his favorite stepson; and one of them was a match with Antonia, his favorite niece, a marriage to which both parties readily agreed.

They married in 16BC when he was 22 and she was 20, and for the next seven years they were one of the foremost power couples in Rome. He was a famous general, handsome and dashing, destined for greatness and possibly the throne; she was beautiful and vivacious, clever and independent, exercising a level of freedom unusual for women of the time. Augustus had no qualms about rearranging family marriages as often as the furniture, but he never meddled with Drusus and Antonia’s union. They had three children who lived to maturity, and possibly two others who did not. From all accounts they were deeply in love; there is no evidence that either of them ever had affairs or took lovers, which was pretty unheard of in elite Roman society.

But their marriage was destined to be brief. In 9 BC, Drusus died after a freak accident at the age of just 29. Although she was only 27, Antonia never remarried, instead focusing her energy into becoming one of the most powerful women Rome had ever known. As a matriarch of the Julio-Claudian dynasty she advised her children and grandchildren as they rose and fell from power, and she could be brutal when they did not live up to her expectations. She lived to the age of 73, when in one last act of authority she committed suicide as a protest against the antics of her grandson Caligula.

Antonia’s image as a cold and callous woman who rejected her son Claudius and executed her own daughter is not entirely false, though it’s probably colored by historical misogyny; but I can’t help wondering how different her life might have been if she hadn’t lost Drusus at such a young age. No matter what she became later in life, for a brief time Antonia and Drusus shared one of the great love stories of the Augustan era.

Heather Domin writes mixed-genre fiction including historical adventure, unconventional romance, and supernatural suspense. She is preparing to publish Valerian's Legion: The Heirs of Fortune later this summer, in which Drusus Germanicus plays a major role.