Guest Post: “Five Amazing Women in Ancient Rome” by Michael Livingston
Earlier this year, I was drawn to a historical fantasy called The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston. First of all, I love stories that blend historical elements with the fantastical, and second, I was thrilled to discover that one of my favorite historical figures, Cleopatra Selene II–only daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony–was a POV character in this novel! Though most have heard about her famous parents, relatively few people know about Selene, and both author Michael Livingston and I think that’s such a shame! Hence I am very pleased to present his guest post for The BiblioSanctum featuring Selene and four other amazing women in Ancient Rome who are most definitely deserving of more attention. I hope you’ll enjoy reading this fascinating post as much as I did!
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FIVE AMAZING WOMEN IN ANCIENT ROME
by Michael Livingston
The end of the Roman Republic — and the corresponding birth of the Roman Empire — gave rise to some of history’s most famous figures. These astounding characters are just one of the many reasons that I set my new historical fantasy THE SHARDS OF HEAVEN across this tumultuous landscape. Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cicero, Augustus Caesar … more than 2,000 years after they died, these men still live and breathe in our historical memory.
There is no denying the importance of these individuals, of course, but history has also preserved the identities of some extraordinary women who stood behind or alongside them. Though largely forgotten in our common roll of the legends of the time, here are just five of the many women of the period who are, in a word, amazing.
Fulvia (83-40 BCE)
Fulvia was the first non-mythological woman to appear on the coinage of Rome. She was married three times, to three of the most powerful men in Rome — the last being Mark Antony himself. For a time she was so powerful that when Antony and Octavian (the future Augustus Caesar) left Rome in pursuit of Julius Caesar’s killers, Cassius and Brutus, it was Fulvia who was left in charge of the Eternal City.
Though Antony essentially abandoned her to engage in an affair with Cleopatra in Egypt, Fulvia continued to support the cause of her husband even as the Republic split into civil war between those who supported Octavian and those who supported Antony. The result was the short Perusine War, in which Fulvia and Antony’s younger brother fought against Octavian’s forces in Italy. Few people can claim, as Fulvia could, to have provoked such ire in the future Caesar that he wrote a poem about them (in Fulvia’s case referencing her husband’s affair with yet another woman):
“Because Antony fucks Glaphyra, Fulvia has arranged
this punishment for me: that I fuck her too.
That I fuck Fulvia? What if Manius begged me
to bugger him? Would I? I don’t think so, if I were sane.
‘Either fuck or fight,’ she says. Doesn’t she know
my prick is dearer to me than life itself? Let the trumpets blare!”
Octavia the Younger (69-11 BCE)
The older sister of Octavian, she became the fourth wife of Mark Antony after the death of Fulvia. This marriage was meant to seal the peace between her new husband and her younger brother, and it seems that she herself worked hard to maintain the union: she followed Antony on many of his travels, and she dutifully raised not only the two daughters she had by him and the three children she had by her first marriage, but also Antony’s children by Fulvia.
Despite his wife’s apparent loyalty, the draw of Cleopatra was too great for Antony. In 32 BCE he left Rome for Egypt, divorcing Octavia in the process. The peace was shattered, and the civil war featured in THE SHARDS OF HEAVEN was begun.
Remarkably, Octavia continued to treat her ex-husband’s children with apparent affection despite this split. Indeed, after the death of Antony and Cleopatra, she became the formal guardian of their children: little Ptolemy Philadelphus and the twins Alexander Helios and the next remarkable woman on this list, Cleopatra Selene. This earned her a treasured place in the history of Rome as a great mother and wife.
Cleopatra Selene II (40-6 BCE)
When I set about constructing THE SHARDS OF HEAVEN, I knew that Selene would be one of my central characters. The child of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, she grew up in the royal palaces of Alexandria, one of the greatest cities in the world. At the age of six, through the so-called Donations of Alexandria, she was declared ruler Cyrenaica and Libya. She was surrounded by an opulence that can hardly be imagined today.
But the year she turned 10, her parents committed suicide. Alexandria had fallen, and she was taken to Rome, where she and her siblings were paraded through the raucous streets in fetters and chains reportedly wrought of their mother’s gold. She and her brothers were adopted by Octavia the Younger, the very woman their father had left behind in Rome, and they were thus raised within the larger household of the soon-to-be-titled Augustus Caesar, the man who had been their conqueror.
Her two brothers would quickly disappear from the historical record, but Selene’s life story was just beginning. She married Juba II of Numidia, who was himself an orphaned prince: like Antony, Juba’s father had chosen to fall on his sword rather than be captured by Roman armies; his young son was afterwards adopted by the very man who had led those forces, Julius Caesar. In an incredible story of beauty growing from the most tragic beginnings, by all accounts Juba and Selene fell truly in love. What’s more, they were granted near-autonomous control of Mauretania, where they brought the territory to extraordinary economic and cultural success. Selene was undoubtedly one of the great rulers of her age, and the date and manner of her death remains an intriguing mystery.
I happily admit that tracing the arc of this fascinating woman has been one of the great joys of writing THE SHARDS OF HEAVEN.
Boudica (39-61 CE)
The rise the Roman Empire meant resurgent attempts to establish control over the far-flung reaches of Roman claims. From just such a situation came the sudden and bloody revolt of Boudica.
Wife to the king of the Iceni, an independent Brythonic state around modern-day Norfolk that had voluntarily allied itself with Rome, Boudica and her two daughters were named as co-heirs with the Roman Emperor upon her husband’s death. Roman officials, however, saw the will as invalid and instead seized direct control of Iceni territories. The Roman writer Tacitus claims that Boudica was flogged and her two daughters were raped as a result of the subjugation.
Boudica, joining with other bands of native tribes, quietly organized an army that descended on the Roman town of Colchester, which they seized and razed, slaughtering thousands in the streets. Roman military forces that were sent to drive them out were themselves destroyed, and the rebels swept forward, doing the same to the towns that would become London and St Albans. Estimates vary, but Boudica’s rebels may have killed 75,000 men and women of Rome in the attacks. The horror of it sent a shockwave through the Empire, where discussions were had about abandoning Britain altogether.
Boudica’s revolt was nonetheless undone in part by its own success. When she next encountered an organized Roman army — in the so-called Battle of Watling Street, though its location remains tantalizingly unknown — she may have outnumbered her enemy by three to one, but she had relatively little tactical control over these expansive and uncoordinated numbers. This fact, combined with her apparent over-confidence and the Roman army taking an astute field position that helped mitigate its numerical inferiority, resulted in a chaos of battle that culminated in a resounding victory for the disciplined Romans. Boudica died not long afterward, and it is possible that she poisoned herself after the defeat that ended her rebellion.
Zenobia (240-274 CE)
Zenobia was the wife of the king of Palmyra in modern Syria. A remarkably intelligent and astute woman, she claimed descent from both Dido of Carthage and Cleopatra of Egypt — claims that cannot be corroborated but that she put to good political use during her life.
When her husband died in 267, Zenobia took control of Palmyra in the name of their one-year-old son, and she quickly expanded the reach of her power. By 269 her forces had conquered Egypt, often with Zenobia herself riding or marching alongside her men. After subsequent victories put much of the eastern Mediterranean under her control, war finally broke out between her Palmyrene Empire and that of Rome.
In 273, after several battles between these vast forces, Zenobia and her son were captured near the Euphrates and sent to Rome. Like Cleopatra Selene before her, Zenobia was made to don golden chains. Some reports state that she died not long afterward — whether by natural causes or execution — but there are also indications that this highly intellectual warrior-queen lived on for many years in Roman high society, a prominent thinker and socialite of great renown.
That is, at least, how I would end her story.
So there are five of the many remarkable women in Roman history. Now it’s your turn. Who have I missed?
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A native of Colorado, Michael Livingston holds degrees in History, Medieval Studies, and English. He lives today in Charleston, South Carolina, where he teaches at The Citadel.
In his author life, he is a winner of the prestigious international Writers of the Future Contest (in 2005), and his novel Shards of Heaven, the first in a trilogy of historical fantasies, will be published by Tor Books in November 2015. He has also published in a variety of other genres and venues, from a historical retelling of Beowulf to a brief story about quantum physics in the world-renowned journal of science, Nature.