Roman aristocratic women influenced politics, but they could not serve as magistrates, senators, or military commanders. During the empire, the wives of emperors began to wield more power than women had ever held before.

Livia, the wife of Augustus, advised her husband for 51 years of marriage before living her last 15 years under the rule of her son, Tiberius. She was deeply devoted to her husband and family and only appeared in public to display the virtues of a Roman matron, which included chastity, modesty, frugality, loyalty, and dignity.

Behind the scenes, Livia and Augustus were extremely close, and she played a part in his important decisions, although some sources unfairly portray her as the evil, manipulative power behind the throne. Roman society accepted senatorial advisors, but invariably regarded women close to power as grasping and devious.

Only archaeology provides much material about the lives of lower-class Roman women. Stone carvings and funeral inscriptions show that women worked as nurses, waitresses, midwives, weavers, and food sellers. Women performed other jobs such as jewelry making, leather working, and ceramics alongside their husbands in family businesses, but this type of work was rarely recorded. The brief texts and crude images of working women do not provide much detail about their lives, although there is a similar lack of information about lower-class men.

Romans traditionally depicted the ideal woman as a virtuous daughter, brave wife, or devoted mother. Some women were cast into heroic roles in reaction to political persecution; they hid their families, or even followed banished husbands or children into exile. Like men, upper-class women also won praise through public generosity; they built public monuments and temples, subsidized games, and became patrons of their home cities. As a sign of their rank, aristocratic women were given seats with the senators at public games, where they could display fine clothing and jewelry.

Women had long played an important role in Roman religion. Vestal virgins, who were priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, kept the sacred fire burning at Vesta's temple in the Roman Forum. They lived in an elaborate house near the temple and occupied a place of honor at public ceremonies. Some festivals and rites were reserved for women, but these ceremonies were usually private.

It is more difficult to assess how women were involved in cultural and intellectual life. Upper-class girls went to elementary school and often learned to read and write. Generally they were not permitted to pursue higher study with men of learning, although Stoic philosophers were sympathetic to women's education. Even without higher education, Nero's mother, known as Agrippina the Younger, wrote a biography of her mother. The empress Julia Domna, wife of emperor Lucius Septimius Severus (193-211), was a patron of learning and served as the primary advisor of her son, Caracalla (211-217), throughout much of his reign as emperor.

Roman society had long valued boys above girls. Poor families sometimes abandoned infant daughters in the countryside to avoid paying dowries, the gifts traditionally given by a girl's parents to her husband's family. The practice of allowing baby girls to die, called female infanticide, continued down to the Christian era and had an impact on the size of the female population. Childbearing was dangerous. Tombstones show that the life expectancy of women was 34 years as contrasted with 46 years for men because women often died in childbirth.

Some male writers attacked imperial women's education, political power, and sexuality. Roman women did have one kind of real power - the wealth that came from their right to own and inherit property.

Despite this wealth and prestige, no Roman woman actually ruled the empire in her own name, although some other countries did have women rulers: Egyptian queen Cleopatra, Queen Boudicca of the Britons, and Zenobia, who reigned over Palmyra in Syria. In Rome, men held political power and women could only exercise indirect power.



Livia Drusilla was originally married to Tiberius Claudius Nero until the emperor Augustus forced him to divorce her and become his own wife. Political marriages of this type were common during the Republic and early empire. Livia was a member of the powerful Claudian family and the new emperor needed her wealth and influence to establish his position. Livia had two children from her previous marriage, Nero Claudius Drusus and Tiberius Claudius Nero, who later became the emperor Tiberius. Drusus was a popular military figure but was killed by a fall from his horse while on maneuvers in the Summer of A. D. 9.

Livia was an intelligent and efficient administrative helper to her new husband who had his hands full consolidating his power while maintaining the appearance of not doing so at all costs. In spite of the political nature of their marriage, Augustus and Livia loved each other deeply. With his dying words, the emperor asked his wife of fifty-two years to remember their life together. The imperial couple had had no children together and Tiberius was the one to inherit the throne after the death of Augustus.

Livia continued to exert her influence over her son Tiberius until her death in A. D. 29 at the age of 85 years. It was probably because of her political acumen and ability to watch out for her son that the problems with the praetorian prefect Sejanus did not occur until two years before her death.

Cleopatra VII, Last Queen of Egypt

Cleopatra is one of those legendary and romantic figures of history who have captured the imaginations of every generation since her own time. She was the subject of one of Hollywood’s most popular movies, and her character in this movie was portrayed by an actress whose powerful intellect and personality, as well as whose human weaknesses, were similar to Cleopatra's own.

Cleopatra was an ambitious woman, determined to rule her kingdom and keep it out of the hands of the ever more powerful and expansionist Romans in Italy to the West. She was considered to be one of the most intelligent and canny female rulers of all times and was not afraid to utilize her feminine charms to advance her political ambitions. She was the lover of one powerful Roman leader and married to another.

Cleopatra was born in about 69 B. C., the daughter of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra VI. When her father died, she and her brother Ptolemy XIII were to rule Egypt jointly. It was the custom amongst Ptolemaic rulers that brother should marry sister and rule jointly. This was to ensure that none of the powerful families would gain enough influence to control the throne of Egypt. Instead of marrying her, Ptolemy exiled her and took over the throne himself. Cleopatra gathered an army and tried to take back what was rightfully hers, but was having no success.

In 48 B. C., Julius Caesar landed in Egypt, searching for Pompey, whom he had defeated at the battle of Pharsalus earlier that year. Some Egyptians thought they could gain Caesar's favor by murdering Pompey and presenting his head to Caesar, but Caesar instead mourned the death of a friend, even though Pompey had been his rival. Cleopatra, with her talent for seduction and a flair for the dramatic, used a much more subtle way to gain the attention and affection of Julius Caesar. She had herself rolled up in a carpet, and, disguised as a gift to the famous Roman, she was delivered by one of her slaves to Caesar's camp. Immediately captivated by her charm and wit, Caesar fell madly in love with the Egyptian queen.

Over the course of the next three years, the two royal lovers joined forces to defeat and kill her treacherous brother, took a trip up the Nile, and planned to carve out an empire for themselves. After Ptolemy XIII's death, she was compelled by custom to marry her other brother, Ptolemy XIV.

Caesar then took Cleopatra to Rome and set her up in a household of her own. Cleopatra had a son by Caesar whom she named Caesarion. Cleopatra was not very popular with the Romans, who resented this foreign queen who had seduced their popular leader. When Caesar was murdered in 44 B. C., Cleopatra decided that the wise thing to do would be to return to Egypt and try to make the best of things. After Caesar's death she got her second brother out of the way by poisoning him. She then ruled jointly with her infant son.

By this time, the rivalry between Marc Antony and Octavian had heated up to the point of becoming open civil war. Antony summoned Cleopatra to his camp to have her declare her loyalty to his cause or face the consequences. Instead, she came to him with her court, her royal barge all decked out in splendor. Of course, Cleopatra was the center of everyone’s attention, a rich and powerful Eastern queen surrounded by luxury.

Antony could no more resist the Egyptian queen than Caesar could before him. With Antony eating from the palm of her hand, she believed that she could use Roman military might to further her plans to build an Egyptian empire. Antony fell in love with and eventually married Cleopatra. In the meantime, Octavian was denouncing Antony and his Egyptian queen, saying that he wanted only to make Rome part of an Oriental empire ruled by a despot.

As time went on, Antony lost more and more support from Roman soldiers and citizens alike. The forces of Octavian were becoming stronger day by day. The showdown between the two was not long incoming. At Actium, in 31 B. C., Octavian's naval forces defeated Antony's fleet after Antony himself deserted them. It seems that Cleopatra, who had joined her ships with Antony's fleet, decided to cut and run in the midst of the battle. In fact, the battle was nowhere near a lost cause until after she had fled. Antony chose to take a boat himself and join his lover in flight instead of remaining with his men. The battle was soon over with most of Antony's men deserting or surrendering after he had gone.

Antony and Cleopatra had only a few short months left. After Actium, Octavian's army inexorably pushed onward, conquering Egypt after some spirited but wholly inadequate resistance. With troops entering Alexandria, Cleopatra retired to her own tomb to await the end. Antony had fallen on his sword in despair, but survived his suicide attempt long enough to be taken to Cleopatra, where he died in her arms. Cleopatra herself, rather than be taken alive, preferred suicide. She could not face the prospect of having to march in shame and degradation in Octavian's triumph, having once been a proud queen of an independent Egypt. As Roman soldiers searched noisily in the streets of Alexandria for Cleopatra, she accepted a final gift from one of her faithful serving girls. Hidden within a basket of fruit was a deadly poisonous asp. The bite from the snake was painless, and Cleopatra held the serpent to her breast. The poison worked swiftly, and her two servant girls followed her in death. When the soldiers finally broke into the tomb and roughly demanded where Cleopatra was, only one girl had enough life remaining to tell them that in death, Cleopatra had escaped her captors.

Agrippina the Elder

During the early days of the Roman Empire, people of patrician or senatorial rank were married for political reasons. Often, a marriage was broken up because a man was ordered to divorce his wife and marry a woman who would provide a more useful alliance between powerful families. It was for this reason that Octavian, later to become Rome’s first emperor Augustus, was told to divorce his wife Scribonia and marry Livia Drusilla. There appeared to be no hard feelings between the old and the new husbands at this arrangement. In fact, T. Claudius Nero gave his ex - wife a large dowry and enjoyed himself thoroughly at her wedding to Octavian, behaving more like a father than a former husband! The making and breaking up of marriages for political reasons made for some complicated family trees during this period.

It turns out that Octavian, now the Emperor Augustus, had a daughter named Julia by his first wife. She was wedded in a political marriage to Augustus' faithful friend and loyal general, Agrippa. Their daughter was Agrippina the Elder.

Agrippina was married to Germanicus, who was descended from the Claudians, Livia's side of the family. He was a popular military commander and well - loved by the people in Rome. A goodly amount of his popularity was because he made successful raids into German territory. Though he was taking a chance with Roman legions and some said that the military adventures were foolhardy, the fact that they succeeded brought enormous glory to Germanicus, who actually earned the name "Germanicus" because of these raids.

It was probably because of this popularity that both he and Agrippina became entangled in a political web partly of their own creation. The old emperor Augustus had decided to Adopt Tiberius, the son of Livia and T. Claudius Nero. One of the conditions of this adoption was that Tiberius adopt Germanicus as his own son.

In A. D. 19, Germanicus died in the Eastern city of Antioch. Historians have been debating ever since whether it was due to natural causes or murder. In any case, Agrippina was firmly convinced that Tiberius, who had become emperor in A. D. 14, was jealous of Germanicus' popularity and had had him poisoned. Agrippina was herself a very highly respected member of Roman high society and her opinions, if voiced publicly, could be dangerous. Certainly, the reclusive and somewhat sullen Tiberius was nowhere near the popular figure the dead Germanicus had been.

Agrippina scandalized all Rome when she refused to eat or drink at a banquet given by the emperor. From that time on, Tiberius sought an excuse to be rid of her. Finally, in A. D. 29, Agrippina and her two teenage sons were accused of plotting to overthrow Tiberius. They were tried and condemned to exile.

Agrippina's son Nero committed suicide soon after the trial. Her son Drusus died of starvation while imprisoned in Rome a few years later. Agrippina was exiled to the island of Pandateria where she too died of starvation in A. D. 33. Though the official story was that she committed suicide, she was probably starved to death on the orders of the aging emperor Tiberius.

Agrippina the Younger

Agrippina the younger was one of three daughters of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. She was thirty - four years old when the Roman emperor Claudius married her in A. D. 49.

By this time, Claudius had had three wives and his marriages to them had not been very good ones. His previous wife, Messalina, had been not only unfaithful to him but had actually married another man in full public view while Claudius was away visiting the new port of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber. Claudius was so affectionately disposed towards her that he was not moved to action until his private secretary gave the order for her execution. Messalina had been married to Claudius for seven years and had lived a full and very debauched life by the time of her death at the age of twenty - three.

By this time, Claudius was nearing the end of his life. Agrippina, being an ambitious and intelligent woman married to an emperor considered a weakling and somewhat of a dunce by those around him, naturally took the reins of power into her own hands. During the last five years of Claudius’ reign, she grew more and more powerful. At the time of their marriage, Agrippina had a teenage son named Nero who was to become the future Roman emperor of that name. She immediately secured his future by having Claudius adopt him. Claudius also had a son by Messalina named Brittanicus.

In A.D. 54, Claudius died after eating a dish of poison mushrooms. The early historians perpetuate the rumor that Agrippina had murdered him, but she really didn’t have a motive. She already controlled much of imperial policy and had seen to it that her son would be heir to the throne. Even today, people die after gathering and eating poison mushrooms gathered in Italy as they are easily mistaken for the edible kind.

When Nero ascended the throne, he was only seventeen and could not legally rule in his own name. Agrippina acted as his regent and was a powerful controlling influence on him even after he had reached the age of eighteen and could govern in his own right. For the first time in Roman history, a woman was given the title of AVGVSTA, meaning "empress", and her portrait appeared on coins with that of her son. Up until that time, women of the imperial household had only been portrayed on coins after they had died.

Nero grew to resent his mother’s strong hand in controlling his life. Agrippina had been raised in an upright and conservative Roman home, and was not tolerant of Nero’s frivolous behavior. After about a year, Nero moved her out of the imperial palace and into a residence of her own. With the help of his two closest advisors, Seneca and Burrus, Nero began to undermine her power until she could do little more than complain. She began to denounce her son more and more in public, and soon made a nuisance of herself. After the tension between mother and son grew to a critical level, Nero determined to be rid of her. He was aided in making this decision by the counsel given him by Seneca and Burrus.

Tacitus tells us the story how Nero sent his mother out on the Bay of Naples in a ship. An accident was to be staged in which part of the ship would collapse and pitch her into the sea. The accident was bungled and she escaped with only a hurt shoulder. A woman friend who had been with her was also thrown into the water. The woman began crying out that she was the emperor’s mother, hoping that she would be rescued. When Agrippina saw some of the ship’s crew clubbing her to death in the water instead, the tough old mother of Nero swam to safety in spite of her wounded shoulder. She returned home, believing that Nero would not dare to murder her now that so many people knew about the plot. Agrippina played it cool until the very end. Nero sent an ex-slave and a group of naval officers whom he could trust to complete the foul deed to finish her off with clubs and swords in her bed, to which she had retired to recuperate from her injury.

Agrippina the Younger was hated and feared by many of the Roman nobility amongst whom she lived and, no doubt, many of them were secretly glad to have her out of the way. But the crime of matricide was perhaps the most despicable one in the eyes of the ancient Romans. Today, our society looks upon child molestation as one of the most horrible crimes imaginable and holds the innocence of childhood to be inviolable. The Romans believed the home, hearth, and motherhood to be the very foundation of their society and honoring and protecting his mother were a Roman man’s most sacred duties. The Romans would tolerate Nero’s drunken revels and the wide range of his perversions and sexual appetites. They would even tolerate his brutality in dealing with his enemies, but they would never forgive a man who murdered his mother. Our society remembers Nero as a persecutor of Christians and a degenerate ruler, but it was the crime of murdering his mother that made it inevitable that he should one day be brought down. In A. D. 68, the Romans had finally had enough of him and the Senate declared him a public enemy. Nero finally paid the ultimate price for his crimes by taking his own life while hiding in an ex-slave’s house as soldiers were at the point of arresting him.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni

Boudicca has been the subject of myth and legend for centuries. Revered as a symbol of British freedom, stories of her heroism have been told to English schoolchildren for the past two hundred years. In fact, she was the wife of King Prasutagus of the Iceni, a British tribe that lived near the modern town of Colchester during the time of the Roman Emperor Nero. When Prasutagus, an ally of the Romans died, the local Roman government officials decided that they would seize her wealth and lands for themselves. When Boudicca protested, saying that she was a Roman ally who was being treated no better than a slave, the Roman soldiers flogged her and raped her daughters.

This was an atrocity that Boudicca was not about to bear without a fight. She called her tribe to arms and rebellion against the Romans. The first town to suffer her furious vengeance was Colchester, known to the Romans as Camulodunum. She burned the town and slaughtered the inhabitants. Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman governor of Britain, was away in the North destroying the Druids on the island of Anglesey when news of Boudicca's attack reached him. His army proceeded south in an orderly fashion, marching twenty-four miles each day and setting camp. Meanwhile, Boudicca was headed toward Verulamium (St. Albans). She would avoid any fortified place but attack regions where the plunder was great and the defenses were weak The Second Augusta Legion, under Petillius Cerialis, met Boudicca's eighty to one-hundred thousand rebels with two thousand Roman troops. They were almost totally wiped out, with only the cavalry escaping. After Verulamium was put to the torch, Suetonius entered Londinium (London). He advised the citizens to leave, and offered to take them with him. He didn't have enough troops with him to defend the town, and the garrison there was much too small to deal effectively with Boudicca. The main part of Suetonius’army would not arrive for many days. In the words of Tacitus, he sacrificed a town to save a province.

Word of Boudicca's barbaric deeds paralyzed the British countryside with fear. Again, we have Tacitus to tell us what happened. The British did not take or sell prisoners. They could not wait to cut throats, burn, hang, and crucify. Even today, when foundations are being dug for a new building in the three towns destroyed by Boudiccas's rebels, a thick layer of ash gives mute testimony to the completeness of the devastation. There is an unexpected benefit for the historians, though. By digging to discover what parts of the modern city have this buried layer of ash, they can map the extent of the ancient towns as they existed in the time of Boudicca when they had been in existence only fourteen years

Suetonius' careful planning and patience finally paid off. Instead of rushing into battle against a much larger force, he chose a place to meet Boudicca where his 10,000 legionaries would have the advantage against her rather disorganized 100,000 rebels. With dense woods at his back to protect him from ambush, he waited in a narrow defile for her to attack. The British were so confident of victory that they brought their families out to watch them slaughter the Romans. All day long, the British sent wave after wave of attackers against Suetonius’well-disciplined troops. Towards evening, the Romans got the upper hand and attacked, trapping the British against their own wagons and pack animals. The Romans slaughtered about 80,000 Britons, including women, children, and old men, repaying atrocities in kind. Boudicca and her two daughters poisoned themselves rather than be captured and made to walk in a triumphal procession in Rome as prisoners of war. Though both of them were responsible for much brutality in this, the Boudiccan Revolt, they are celebrated as heroes in English history and legend today.


The marriage between Sabina and Hadrian does not seem to have been a particularly happy one. She had been married to him at the age of twelve in A. D. 100. Hadrian was openly homosexual, and Sabina did not seem to possess the ability to overlook her husband's sexual practices, as most of the imperial women of the period found it expedient to do. She played the part of the dutiful wife, though, even accompanying Hadrian and his lover boy Antinous on their famous tour of Egypt.

As it is well known that the Romans were quite as fond of scandal as we are today, rumors began to circulate that Hadrian had poisoned Sabina because she was resentful of his ongoing homosexual relationships. These accusations do not make sense, however, because Hadrian was a sick old man at the time of Sabina's death and it is hardly probable that he would murder her at this late date after thirty - six years of marriage. Sabina died in A. D. 137, about a year before the death of Hadrian. Hadrian had her consecrated after her death.

Faustina the Elder

Not much is known about the lives of the emperors and empresses of the Second Century. Our best primary sources, Tacitus and Suetonius are dead. The Historia Augusta is not known for its accuracy, being a collection of gossip and fanciful tales. Pliny the Younger sheds some light on this period, and Dio Cassius does not appear until the reign of Commodus. What we know about the two Faustinas, Elder and Younger, must be pieced together from monumental inscriptions, legends on coins, and the few cases in which writers actually describe events of their lives.

Faustina the Elder was loved very much by her husband, the emperor Antoninus Pius. They lived happily together during one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods of Roman history. The empire had reached its greatest extent under Trajan in the early Second Century but Hadrian found it more expedient to give up all territory across the Danube for the sake of a strong, defensible frontier. During the next sixty years the empire enjoyed the economic prosperity that is one of the benefits of a powerful and stable government.

Evidence on coins suggests that Faustina the Elder concerned herself with charitable work and the betterment of poor people's lives in Rome. One coin reverse commemorates the PVELLAE FAVSTINIANAE (Faustina's Girls). This refers to a fund Faustina had established to pay for the education of girls from poor Roman families.

Faustina the Elder died in A. D. 141 and was deeply mourned by her husband. Antoninus Pius had his wife consecrated (declared a goddess) and had millions of coins struck bearing her portrait. These coins are some of the most easily obtained Roman coins and the multitude of types and reverse legends contribute greatly to the archaeological evidence for known history of the period.

The author's first Roman coin was a worn denarius of DIVA FAVSTINA. This was a commemorative coin issued after her death. Though it is quite worn, the elaborate hair style, piled high on her head with the hair interwoven with strings of pearls is still evident. The coin displayed with this article is in far better condition and much more of the hair detail can be seen. Most coins of Faustina the Elder can be identified by this distinctive feature not found on the coins of any other empress.