The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars – Review

Graves’s own unflattering portrait of Rome’s leading women did not spring unaided from the creative mists of the author’s imagination. He simply chose to co-operate, for the most part, with the descriptions of them written by ancient Rome’s best-known and most revered commentators, and, indeed, made a virtue of doing so.

This book is not unlike the last book about Ancient Rome that I read in that it deals with an incredibly broad scope of history. Freisenbruch covers over five hundred years, from the better-known Julio-Claudian dynasty to the more obscure Christian emperors in the dying days of the Roman Empire – empresses, I should say, for the book claims to focus primarily on the lives of the imperial women of this period – mothers, wives, sisters and so on, the power behind the throne. The First Ladies of Rome is incredibly well researched especially since, as Freisenbruch points out, sources about women during these five hundred years, never mind history written by women, are very limited – not only in their amount, but in what they tell us. ‘Yet it is undoubtedly [the] more notorious, unchaste and dictatorial female [empresses] who, assisted by popular fictionalisations of their lives, have come to dominate the popular conception of what Rome’s imperial women were really like,’ she goes on, ‘and even the saintly examples seem like cardboard-cut out gynoids, the ancient equivalent of Stepford wives.’ The literary terrain is hazardous, not only as the womens’ identities were dictated by the political agenda and that of their respective emperors – an empress deified one year could be villified the next – but also because the various authors we rely upon often presented very different portraits. Not only this, but women were praised not for their own achivements but for ‘facilitating the interests of their husbands and sons and, through them, furthering the glory of Rome’. This book does not claim to be a biography of each of the important imperial women of the various dynasties, but rather attempts to give a more balanced view of their historical roles. In some ways it achieves its aims, but in other ways it doesn’t.

Only Caesonia succesfully carried a pregnancy by Caligula to term, reportedly giving birth just after their wedding to a daughter […] of whose paternity Caligula was convinced when she tried to scratch out her playmates’ eyes, thus proving she shared his own violent temper.

The First Ladies is a very comprehensive book, well organised into chapters covering the different women and their dynasties, and giving context to its explorations of the lives of the women it covers. This being said, due to its scope and the writing style it comes across as overwhelming at times, especially in the later chapters. The earlier chapters, dealing with the famous figures of Livinia, Agrippina Minor, Messalina and so forth, prove much easier to read – the last few chapters of the book suffer by comparison as the emperor and his heirs change so often, and so little is known about their consorts in comparison, that oftentimes they just feel like lists of names at worst, the bare bones of a biography at best. While this is not exactly the author’s fault, it is certainly the case that ‘the women these new emperors chose as their consorts receive little attention both in contemporary accounts of the period and in the works of later artists and dramatists who pounced on the trials and tribulations of their more disreputable and glamorous first-century sisters with such glee’ – as the role of imperial women changed from Roman matron to Christian ascetic, so the excitement and pacing of earlier chapters slowed down. Due to the lack of information avaliable, even about her more famous subjects, Freisenbruch often has to rely on explaining what may have happened, and makes many broad statements.

The book overall may have been quite dense and scholarly, even if there was occasional humour – thank goodness I watched and read I, Claudius before tackling it – but I still learned a great deal. The Emperor Elagabalus hid behind his mother’s skirts as both he and his mother were assassinated. Slander about Livia poisoning her relatives is most likely to be untrue, considering the stock figure of the murderous matriarch in history and myth. But one of the facts I was most intruiged and horrified by was that of Agrippina Minor’s famous last words – ‘Baring her belly to the centurion preparing to run her through with his sword, she cried out ‘Strike here!’, pointing to the womb that had spawned her treacherous son.’

The First Ladies of Rome is not an easy book to read, more so for its dense style than its content, but it is one I would reccomend for learning more about a well-known period of history from a female perspective – and the less well-known years of the Empire as well. Although there is precious little to learn about some of the women, as knowledge of what they were really like has been lost to time, it is still a worthwhile investment for the attempt made to bring together their stories over five hundred years of history in a single volume.

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