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Women of the Empire – Julia the Elder
Raven Kamali

Julia was born on 30 October 39 BC. Her mother, Scribonia, was Augustus’s second wife. She was barely two months old when Augustus divorced Scribonia, supposedly for being a nag, to marry Livia, the wife of Tiberius Claudius Nero. At the time, Livia was pregnant with her second son, Drusus. Her husband readily divorced her, and Augustus married her after the child was born, whereupon he sent him to his father. Drusus would return to his mother when he was five years old after his father’s death.

We know nothing of Julia’s relationship with her biological mother or stepmother. But given that Scribonia voluntarily would later share Julia’s exile, she must have had great affection for her daughter. We also do not know what sort of a childhood she had. We can only presume that it was happy because she was surrounded by her four cousins and two stepbrothers: Tiberius and Drusus. The former was three years older than her, the latter two months younger. There was also Iullus, the youngest son of Mark Antony, who Octavia was raising. He was four years older than Julia. Thus, she would have had plenty of playmates while growing up. And there would have been devoted nurses and maids and probably their children too.

Julia had an excellent literary education, according to ancient sources. She also learned spinning and weaving, as Suetonius informs us. In ancient Rome and Greece, the women of the family, regardless of their station in life, made the clothes for their men folks. By contrast, in Persia and Egypt, women of noble birth never engaged in spinning, weaving, and making clothes. These tasks were reserved for slaves and maids.

Augustus was a strict father. Suetonius tells us that Augustus’s daughter and granddaughter were forbidden to do anything either publicly or in private that could not decently figure in the imperial daybook. He took severe measures to prevent them from forming friendships without his consent. Once, he wrote to Lucius Vinicius, a young man of good family and conduct, that he was very ill-mannered to visit his daughter at Baiae. But regardless of how strict a father he was, he would have loved his daughter. After all, she was his only child.

When Julia was two, she was betrothed to Mark Antony’s eldest son, Marcus Antonius the Younger (Antyllus), by his wife, Fulvia. The betrothal was nothing but a temporary political arrangement. After Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s deaths, Augustus had Antyllus killed along with Caesarion.

Having no sons of his own, Augustus would have been looking to his daughter to produce a male heir. As such, he had to choose carefully the man to whom he would give his daughter. Augustus didn’t have to look far. His nephew, Octavia’s son, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, was a perfect choice. Julia was fourteen when she married eighteen-year-old Marcellus. All our ancient sources suggest that Augustus was very fond of Marcellus and lavished him with affection. No doubt, Julia would have been happy in her marriage too. The two teenagers had grown up together, and Marcellus was very handsome.

Unfortunately, the marriage ended with Marcellus’s untimely death at twenty, which devastated Augustus. It is reasonable to believe that Julia shared that devastation too. But for how long, it cannot be known. At sixteen, Julia was young, beautiful, and undoubtedly hopeful of finding love again. So, perhaps her grief might not have been for long. But at the same time, she would have been in a state of anxiety since another husband had to be found for her. And she had no say in the matter.

This time, Augustus chose Marcus Agrippa, his trusted general and friend, as a husband for Julia. Suetonius says that Augustus had to persuade Octavia for Agrippa to marry Julia. Understandably, Octavia wouldn’t have been happy with this arrangement as Agrippa was married to her daughter Marcella. According to Dio, he chose him because he wanted him to be in charge of Rome when he was away. So, to make it easy for him to govern, he elevated him to the position of son-in-law.

We don’t know how Julia felt about Agrippa. She was sixteen, and Agrippa was twenty-four years her senior. But it was at this time that Julia began her love affair with a nobleman by the name of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus.

According to Tacitus, it was Sempronius who seduced her. Since we don’t hear from him again until she marries Tiberius, it is safe to assume that he was not in her life while she was married to Agrippa. Moreover, Agrippa took Julia with him everywhere, and she was constantly pregnant during their marriage. She wasn’t out of his sight long enough to have any affairs with anyone.

Macrobius, who wrote his anecdotes on Julia in the fifth century AD, cannot be taken seriously. According to him, Julia took lovers regularly, but only when pregnant. No other source mentions that Julia behaved inappropriately before her divorce from Tiberius. Julia bore Agrippa five children: Gaius, Lucius, Julia the Younger, Agrippina the Elder, and Agrippa Postumus, born after his father’s death.

Agrippa’s death in 12 BC was devastating to Augustus. In the first place, he had lost his best friend, who was also his righthand man in running the empire. In the second place, he was now forced to find a husband for Julia again. And it would not be easy. With Gaius and Lucius as his heirs, he needed someone trustworthy who had no imperial ambitions. There were no available men in the immediate family. Iullus was unsuitable. He was married to Marcella. Augustus would have been quite unwilling to sacrifice the marriage of his niece for a second time. Moreover, Iullus was the son of his enemy Mark Antony; thus, his trust in him might not have been absolute, even though he held him in high regard and had made him a praetor two years earlier.

There was Drusus, Livia’s second son, an outstanding young man, who had distinguished himself as a military commander by carrying out successful campaigns in Germany. But Drusus was married to Antonia the Younger, Octavia’s daughter by Mark Antony, to whom he was devoted. And they had three children: Germanicus, Livilla, and Claudius.

Thus, Augustus turned his eyes in the direction of the equestrian class. How different Julia’s life would have been had her father chosen a Roman knight as a husband for her. At twenty-seven, Julia could have even expressed her views on the matter. Though Augustus was a strict father, he wouldn’t have been opposed to a woman, particularly one of Julia’s age, to have an opinion regarding whom she wanted to marry. After all, he granted both Octavia and Livia the right to administer their own affairs without the need of a male guardian and enjoy the same security and inviolability as tribunes did. In a patriarchal society like Rome, Augustus could be considered very liberal regarding women. He even liberated women with three children from the need of having a male guardian.

It is very possible that Julia might have even had a man in her mind at this stage. It could have been Sempronius with whom she had a brief affair before her marriage to Agrippa. Sempronius was already married, but he could have divorced his wife to marry Julia if he truly loved her. Or perhaps, it could have been another Roman knight. Julia was beautiful and would not have lacked admirers. She could have had any husband she wanted if it was up to her. Unfortunately, it was not. Nor was it up to her father. It was up to Livia.

If Tiberius were to succeed Augustus, he would have to marry Julia. As Augustus’s adviser, Livia would have told him that he would need to marry Julia to someone who could be trusted and was experienced both in military and politics because he would need to fill Agrippa’s position. Augustus was old, and his grandsons, Gaius and Lucius, were too young at nine and seven, respectively, for official duties. She would have enumerated Tiberius’s impressive military and political achievements to convince him that the right match for Julia was Tiberius.

However, Tiberius was happily married. His wife, Vipsania, was the daughter of Agrippa and the granddaughter of Caecilius Atticus, a Roman Knight and Cicero’s best friend to whom many of his letters were addressed. And they had a son, Drusus the Younger, and one on the way. But none of these facts would have mattered to Livia. She would have convinced Tiberius that to let go of his wife was the price he had to pay if he wanted to succeed Augustus as emperor.

Cassius Dio tells us that it was with much reluctance that Augustus had to choose Tiberius for his daughter. Tiberius, albeit perhaps reluctantly, divorced his wife and married Julia. Suetonius says that after his marriage to Julia, Tiberius once accidentally caught sight of Vipsania and followed her with tears in his eyes.

The marriage between Tiberius and Julia was disastrous. Tiberius hated Julia. According to Suetonius, he hated her for her adulterous passion for him while still married to Agrippa, who was then his father-in-law. This is a fabrication made later. Julia had grown up with Tiberius, and other sources do not mention that she harbored any such passion for him. In fact, Tacitus says that Julia hated Tiberius and looked down on him as inferior.

At any rate, despite their mutual resentment of each other, they performed their duty for Rome as husband and wife, and Julia produced a child, who was as unhealthy as the marriage itself. The child died in infancy at Aquileia, whereupon Tiberius broke off all marital relations with Julia and retired to Rhodes. Tacitus gives Tiberius’s dislike of Julia as the main reason for this retirement to Rhodes, where he stayed for eight years. This is also confirmed by Suetonius and Cassius Dio. Though, Dio also gives other reasons that were circulating at the time. Augustus had conferred a priesthood on his grandson, Gaius, and a five-year tribunician power on Tiberius, causing the former to feel slighted and the latter fearful of the resentment. Another reason given is that Tiberius resented that, as yet, he had not been named emperor-designate.

Whatever the actual reason, Julia had no marriage now. Nevertheless, she was expected to sacrifice her life for Rome and remain faithful to a non-existing husband. Her old lover, Sempronius Gracchus, now makes a comeback. Tacitus tells us that a letter from Julia to her father abusing Tiberius was believed to have been written by Gracchus. This is highly unlikely. Julia was an educated woman and quite capable of writing such a letter. Perhaps even in the hope that her father would free her from her marriage to Tiberius. The letter did nothing, and Julia remained trapped in a marriage with no husband.

Julia had never been in control of her life. She, dutifully, married whomever her father chose for her, and it seems that while there was a husband around, she had been a faithful wife. But now, finding herself alone with no husband and no possibility of divorce, she chose to live for herself and not Rome or her father. She had done her duty for king and country by producing an heir and two spares. This was also the time of Ovid, the darling of Roman high society, whose love poems, the Amores, published in 16 BC, were being widely read while Augustus was trying to reform public morals. Though as Scullard points out, moral corruption was largely limited to the governing class in Rome itself, while throughout most of Italy, family life remained normal and healthy.

Cassius Dio tells us that Julia took part in revels and drinking parties by night in the Forum and even upon the Rostra. He further says that Augustus had suspected his daughter was not leading a decorous life but refused to believe it. And once he did, he flew into a rage. This was an incredibly difficult situation for all parties involved. Augustus couldn’t ignore his daughter’s behavior. Most certainly, Livia wouldn’t have allowed him to do so. And Julia couldn’t and wouldn’t live like a Vestal Virgin. Tiberius, too, had no intention of returning to a woman he hated. Augustus had no choice but to banish Julia. In fact, Livia would have insisted upon it.

In 2 BC, after writing a letter to the Senate about his daughter, Augustus exiled Julia to the island of Pandateria off the coast of Campania. Her mother, Scribonia, went with her on her own accord and shared her exile. No man, free or slave, was allowed to visit her except on Augustus’s written permission. Some of Julia’s lovers, including Sempronius, were banished to various islands, while others were executed along with Iullus Antonius.

Cassius Dio says that Iullus was also charged with treason. The charge of treason may have been false. However, Augustus would have been furious with him for betraying him. He had spared his life, given him his niece in marriage, made him a consul in 10 BC and proconsul of Asia in 7 BC, and in return, he had committed adultery with his daughter. There was also a tribune among those exiled, but he was allowed to complete his term of office. There were a number of women involved too, but Augustus took no action against them and forbade further prying into the matter. No doubt, many high-profile families were involved, and Augustus had no desire to make this scandal worse than it already was.

Upon her banishment, Augustus sent Julia a bill of divorce with Tiberius’s name on it. According to Suetonius, the news delighted Tiberius, but he felt obliged to send Augustus a stream of letters urging him to reconcile with his daughter. Tiberius now decided to return to Rome, which strengthens the claim made by Suetonius and Tacitus that Tiberius went to Rhodes to get away from Julia. But Augustus would not let him return. No doubt, he was angry with Tiberius for leaving Julia. Had he been a good husband to Julia and not left her, Julia would not have pursued a wayward life, and there wouldn’t have been a need for her banishment.

Julia’s banishment proved unpopular among the people, which shows that the people really held her in great affection. It is even quite possible that they sympathized with her predicament of being a deserted wife. These were the regular people, not the elites of Rome. And sometimes, more truth is found in the reaction of ordinary people than what official sources record. Julia’s numerous love affairs and drinking parties in the Forum might have been an exaggeration. According to Suetonius, people urged Augustus to reverse his decision and bring back Julia, which made Augustus angry enough to say that if they ever brought up the subject again, may gods curse them with daughters and wives like his. He also declared that he would rather be the father of Phoebe than Julia. Phoebe was Julia’s freedwoman and her accomplice who committed suicide before she could be exiled.

On another occasion, when people urged him again to bring his daughter back, Cassius Dio says that Augustus retorted that fire should sooner mix with water than she should be allowed to return, whereupon people threw many firebrands into the Tiber. That is how much people loved Julia. Eventually, they succeeded. Partially. After five years, Julia was removed from the island and sent to the town of Rhegium, where she lived in a small house and had a modest annual income. And her mother continued to stay with her.

Julia was not the only family member to be banished. In AD 7, Augustus banished his surviving grandson, Agrippa Postumus, for his violent outbursts against Livia. He was exiled to Planasia, an island near Corsica, where he was kept under military surveillance. He was disinherited, and his property was transferred to the military treasury. Next to be banished was Julia the Younger, his granddaughter. She, too, was charged with immoral behavior and was sent to the island of Tremirus in AD 9. While in exile, Julia the Younger gave birth to a child, but Augustus refused for the child to be either acknowledged or reared. He referred to the two Julias and his grandson, Agrippa Postumus, as his three boils or his three running sores.

In AD 14, Tiberius and or Livia had Postumus executed upon Augustus’s death. He also had Sempronius, who had been in exile for fourteen years on the African island of Cercina, executed. Julia did not fare any better either.

Julia’s fate was sealed with her father, and now her three sons, dead. Tiberius confined her to a single house where visitors were forbidden and even deprived her of her allowance on the pretext that there was no mention of it in the will. Not long after her father’s death, Julia died of slow starvation forced by Tiberius. Her mother survived her by two years, but it is not known how she managed to return to Rome. In accordance with Augustus’s will, neither Julia nor his granddaughter was buried in the family mausoleum. Thus, ended the life of Julia, the daughter of Emperor Augustus.

In part five of Women of the Empire, the life of Agrippina the Elder will be examined.

About the author

Raven Kamali is a multi-genre novelist and poet with a degree in Ancient History and Latin. She also writes historical essays on ancient Rome.

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