Rome's Worst Fear - Women

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), August 29, 2010 | Go to article overview

Rome's Worst Fear - Women


Byline: Matthew Dennison

The First Ladies Of Rome By Annelise Freisenbruch Jonathan Cape [pounds sterling]25 [pounds sterling]20.99 inc p&p ***

Rome was a man's world. In 18 BC, the Emperor Augustus introduced new laws aimed at reforming upper-class morals and for the first time he made adultery a crime.

But the laws did not treat men and women even-handedly. A woman became guilty of adultery if she had sex with anyone but her husband; a man was guilty only if the woman in question was married.

Like many societies before and after, Ancient Rome had a complex attitude towards women - an attitude that was based on double standards and fear.

In my recent biography of Augustus's wife Livia, who has been condemned by history as a multiple murderess, I suggested that the root of Livia's vilification lay in what Annelise Freisenbruch describes as 'the profound anxiety sparked among the Roman elite by the increased visibility of women in Roman public life'.

As Freisenbruch demonstrates in her survey of 500 years of imperial women, that anxiety never really went away.

To our ears, being an empress doesn't sound too bad. The truth is, these women were often riding for a fall as a result of popular prejudices and ingrained misogyny.

Pliny the Younger knew exactly which buttons he was pushing when he said of one empress: 'There is glory enough for a wife in obedience.'

Freisenbruch's account covers the lifespan of Rome's Western empire, from Octavian's triumph over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the aftermath of Julius Caesar's assassination, to the rise of those Goth hordes whose brutal marauding has become the stuff of legends. It examines the wives and daughters of the Julio-Claudians - Livia, the two Julias, Messalina and the two Agrippinas - as well as the women of the later Flavians, whose extraordinary hairdos, as depicted in sculpted busts, resemble towering piles of Liquorice Allsorts.

Her achievement is a tour de force of research. …

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