Powerful Women of Imperial Rome: A Three-Part Course with Livia Galante

Powerful Women of Imperial Rome: A Three-Part Course with Livia Galante


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As the saying goes, ‘“behind every great man is a great woman”. This course aims to examine the role of women in the Roman Imperial age. We’ll meet strong, capable ladies such as Livia, Agrippina the Elder, Agrippina the Younger, Julia Domna in this three-part course. These ancient first ladies were brilliant politicians, highly educated, and determined to maintain power behind the curtain. They provoked stark emotions: from admiration and envy to suspicion, fear, and sometimes, hatred.

A major obstacle to studying the lives of women in Ancient Rome is the lack of surviving primary sources—those available to us were all authored by men. As a result, nearly everything we know about Roman women is filtered through the lens of how Roman men viewed them. Despite this–thanks to extensive field surveys as well as better studies of ancient sources–it is now possible to have a better understanding of the key role these extraordinary women played in the Empire.

Led by an expert on ancient Roman topography Livia Galante, this course will focus on key female figures who lived in the Roman Imperial Age. Designed to inform curiosity as well as future travels, participants will come away with an increased comprehension on the political importance of women in antiquity.

 

Lecture 1: LIVIA, the First Lady of the Empire

Livia, lived from 58 BC to 29 AD. When Livia met Octavian, he fell in love with her, even though she was married and pregnant with Drusus, her second son. Octavian was also married at the time, to Scribonia. On the same day that Scribonia gave birth to Octavian’s daughter Julia, he divorced her and then forced Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce Livia. Awkwardly enough, Tiberius Claudius was the one to give away his ex-wife at Livia and Octavian’s wedding ceremony. Livia and Octavian (Augustus) were married for over 50 years. Despite the fact that they both had children from previous marriages, they never were able to have children together. During Augustus’ long reign as emperor, Livia was a constant adviser. Since Augustus had no sons of his own, Livia began promoting her own sons as heirs, and it was around this time that rumors began spreading about Livia’s habit of killing anyone who got in the way of their accession, including Augustus’ nephew Marcellus and his grandsons. It was even said that she poisoned Augustus with figs, to prevent him from changing his heir from her son Tiberius to someone else.

We’ll explore the image of Livia as a heartless serial killer and understand how this was possibly common at the time because of the Roman archetype of the evil step-mother figure. In reality, despite her ambitions for Tiberius and the odd coincidental deaths of Augustus’ heirs, there’s no proof to support the murders. We’ll discuss her brilliance, her love of beauty and nature, and the (probable) poor judgment by jealous men of the establishment.

Lecture 2: THE TWO AGRIPPINA'S

Vipsania Agrippina, commonly known as Agrippina Major or Agrippina the Elder (14 BC - 33 AD) was an important member of Rome's first imperial family, the founders of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. She was the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus; wife of the politician and general Germanicus; mother of Emperor Caligula (born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus), as well as Nero Caesar, Drusus Caesar, Julia Agrippina (Agrippina the Younger, mother of Emperor Nero; later married her uncle Emperor Claudius, and maternal grandmother of Emperor Nero. Agrippina was the first woman of high rank in the Roman Empire to travel with her husband on military campaigns.

We’ll learn how she was actively involved in politics, causing the enmity of Augustus and Tiberius. We’ll discuss how in 29 AD Tiberius tried her for treason and banished her to the island of Pandataria (today Ventotene) in the Tyrrhenian Sea, where Augustus had banished her mother for adultery in 2 BC. Agrippina died on the island in 33 AD. Her daughter, Agrippina the younger, was one of the women who would Rule Rome trying to escape the restrictions imposed on her sex. Wife of one emperor (Claudius), sister of another (Caligula), mother of a third (Nero), Julia Agrippina the Younger dominated Roman imperial politics with willingness and determination.Ancient sources portray her as a scheming seductress and sexual siren, but their bias against powerful females may have skewed their perspective. Whatever the truth about her character, Agrippina’s life defined the second half of the Julio-Claudian era, the mid-first century AD, and her sensational murder helped bring that era to a gruesome close.

Lecture 3: JULIA DOMNA, an Exotic Empress From Syria

Our final seminar will discuss Syrian-born Julia Domna, the educated and strong-willed wife of Septimius Severus, mother of Caracalla and Geta. We’ll learn about the happy relationship between Julia and Severus: she would often advise him politically and traveled with him during his military campaigns, which was unusual for a woman. We’ll explore how many Romans felt she wielded an inappropriate amount of power over the empire whenever her husband was gone on a campaign. She often faced accusations of adultery or treason, but none of these were ever proven. After Severus died, Julia tried to help Geta and Caracalla rule successfully as co-emperors. Caracalla eventually had his brother killed. After this event, we’ll learn how things became a bit more strained between Caracalla and his mother, but she still traveled with him during his campaigns. We’ll close with discussing Caracalla’s assassination and Julia’s suicide.

Livia obtained a degree in Archaeology at the Sapienza University of Rome and has a Master's degree in the History and Conservation of Cultural Heritage from the University of Roma Tre. Her main field of interest is ancient Roman topography and early Christian architecture; however, she is an accomplished scholar whose teaching ability extends to the Renaissance and Baroque Rome. As a native Roman, Livia is very enthusiastic in sharing the deep love and knowledge she has for her hometown with clients.

 

How does it work?

This is a three-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in Roman history there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $105 for three lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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