Discover more from Classical Wisdom
Top Ten Most Scandalous Women Of Ancient Rome
Get Ready to Get Shocked!
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
There are times when studying the ancient world that you sit back and ponder in awe how similar we are to them, how little has changed over the millennia.
For instance, when reading Cicero’s Consolation (in preparation for our exciting panel discussion), I was amazed at his description of grief over the death of his daughter. It was both so moving and so real… it was as if he was tapping into something raw and universal.
There are other times, however, when the ancient world is simply SHOCKING. Like, what in the world were these people doing??? And how on earth did they produce so much while being so… evil?
Today’s article will look at the infamous, the scheming, the malicious ladies of Ancient Rome. Some certainly will make your gut twist and wonder at the extremes of human nature… while others seem to be unfortunate victims to either history… or historians.
Read on below and let me know if you think all of these ladies warrant to be on the list… or if annals has simply given them a bad name…. or perhaps there are other contenders more deserving of the ‘honor’?
All the best,
Founder and Director
Classical Wisdom is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support the Classics, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Top Ten Most Scandalous Women Of Ancient Rome
By Brittany Marie Garcia
Name: Empress Theodora (500 AD-548 AD)
Vices: Roman Actress (Prostitute), Defying an Emperor, Brothel Worker, Wit
Weakness: Responsibility, Stubbornness
Theodora became a prostitute out of necessity(to support her family), but pursued the scandalous lifestyle even when she left her family. In the Secret History, she was recorded for her indecent exposure, theatrics, sexual services off the stage, and even her lecherous portrayal of “Leda and the Swan.” Emperor Justinian I, so enamored with her, repealed the law that government officials could not marry actresses in order to marry her and even treated her illegitimate daughter and grandson as legitimate children.
Ergo: Theodora places 10th on our list due to her “low” beginnings, although she only began working as a prostitute and “actress” to support her orphaned sibling and herself. History regards Theodora as a great empress of Rome, who was strong, courageous, intelligent, and decisive(i.e: she saved Justinian’s throne in the Nika Riots and was firm in religious policy even if it opposed Justinian). While History does not implicate that she was a plotting woman, it’s still very interesting that a former “actress” could seduce the emperor, persuade him to change laws to marry her, make her queen, and give her power to rule… hence making the list.
Name: Faustina the Younger (125-130 AD-175 AD)
Vices: Ordering Death Sentences, Poisoning, Promiscuity, Excessive Adultery, Inciter of Revolutions
Weakness: Self-Control, Victim to Gossipy Literature, and Insatiable Lust
Although Faustina the Younger was given various titles of honor such as Augusta and Mater Castrorum (Mother of the Camp), she has also been recorded as a woman of shameful lust and murder. Cassius Dio records that Faustina, wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, ordered the deaths of several people by poisoning or execution and he claims that she had affairs with sailors, gladiators, and even soldiers (this give the title Mater Castrorum a new meaning). She, also, was accused of inciting a revolution between her husband and Avidius Cassius.
Ergo: Due to her promiscuity and willingness to kill for power, Faustina has made this list of infamous and devious women. However, the sources on her infamy and scandal are somewhat uncertain and this is why she is in 9th place.
Name: Fulvia Flacca Bambula (83BC-40 BC) a.k.a Fulvia
Vices: Gang Leader, Manipulator, Political Match-Maker, Mutilation, Jealousy
Weakness: Power, Politics, and Marc Antony
Fulvia used marriage to acquire power. She acquired the loyalties of a gang or collegium from her first husband, money from her second, and she did not survive her third husband; Marc Antony. According to Plutarch, she was a mass manipulator who was responsible for rendering Marc Antony easily controllable by women. (Now, we know who Cleopatra should thank!) Furthermore, Dio reports that she pierced the tongue of the decapitated head of Cicero out of disdain. Also, in Appian’s Civil War, Fulvia’s jealous supposedly fueled the tension between Lucius and Octavian against Antony, thus sparking the Perusine War.
Ergo: Fulvia earns the 8th spot in this countdown for her immoral actions all for the sake of power. Even though a highborn woman, she went through husbands as a gold-digger, allowed her jealously to fuel a war, performed wanton violence against a dead man’s head, and manipulated all those around her for power.
Name: Julia the Elder (39 BC – 14 AD)
Vices: Promiscuity, Excessive Affairs, Treason
Weakness: Food, Men, Speaking Her Mind, Drinking Parties, Small Islands
Julia the Elder was the daughter of Emperor Augustus. According to Dio and Seneca, although married to Tiberius (who would be emperor after Augustus), she reveled in drinking parties, many love affairs, and even prostitution. This promiscuity was especially scandalous due to her father’s Leges Juliae (Julian Laws) that promoted family units, children, and marital loyalty. The fact that his own daughter was breaking these laws was unforgivable.
Pliny states she had affairs and plotted in public; “adulterium filiae et consilia parricidae” “adultery of the daughter and the plan of patricide.”
Ergo: Julia earns number seven for her crimes against and humiliation of her husband, father, and empire.(Though let’s be honest, the men all committed the exact same actions…)For her deeds, she was exiled, banished from her family, and eventually starved to death. However, her loveless marriages may have caused this outcry for love and attention. It is difficult not to pity her, even though scandalous.
Name: Valeria Messalina (c. 17/20 – 48) a.k.a Messalina
Vices: Lust, Promiscuity, Treason, Bigamy, Seduction, Persuasiveness
Weakness: Selfishness, Pride, Competitiveness, Handsome Face
Messalina was the wife of Emperor Claudius. Although she was the most powerful woman in Rome, she sought to overthrow her husband and rule with her lover. Messalina is infamously known for her clandestine affairs, but most notable for her all-night sex competition against a prostitute. According to Pliny, Messalina won the 24 hour competition with 25 partners. She also humiliated Claudius by marrying her last lover: the intelligent and handsome Gaius Silius. Gaius and Messalina had planned to overthrow Claudius and rule together, but their plan was exposed.
Ergo: Messalina earns number 6 due to her similar nature to Julia the Elder, but the fact that she was plotting against her husband pushes her ahead. As punishment, her name was removed from all monuments, honors and she was sentenced to death. She betrayed not only her husband, her children, but also Roman women.
Name: Claudia Livia Julia (c. 13 BC – 31 AD) a.k.a: Livilla
Vices: Murder, Plotting Treason, Affairs, Rudeness
Weakness: Love for Sejanus, Power, Children, Locked Doors
Livilla was the daughter of Antonia and sister to Claudius. She was reported to be a beautiful, as well as a sharp woman. She once laughed hysterically at the prophecy of Claudius being destined to be emperor. She took on one lover, a praetorian prefect: Sejanus. With her lover Sejanus, they murdered and poisoned her husband Drusus.
Once Drusus was gone, she and Sejanus attempted to marry, but Emperor Tiberius would not comply. Tiberius eventually suggested that Sejanus could marry Livilla’s daughter, Livia Julia. Eventually, Sejanus’ ex-wife told the emperor of Livilla’s and Sejanus’ plan to overthrow Tiberius and rule Rome.
Ergo: Livilla places fifth for murder, treason, and want of power. Livilla, although selfish and vain, was upset at the pretense of Sejanus marrying her daughter even as a formality. Livilla’s death was a treacherous as her life; she was held captive in a room while her mother stood outside it and allowed her to starve to death.
Name: Cleopatra VII Philopator (69 BC-30 BC) a.k.a Cleopatra
Vices: Murder, Wit, Seducing Married Men
Weakness: Desire to Rule Egypt, Love for Marc Antony & her Children, Pride, Sea Battles
While not ‘Roman’, Cleopatra certainly shocked the Roman world. Cleopatra was exiled from her reign, power and home in 48 BC, after which she met Caesar (already married), seduced him and bore his son. Caesar reinstated her as queen of Egypt and she murdered her brother (in the siege of Alexandria), as well as ordered her sister’s death.
When Caesar died unexpectedly, Cleopatra did not give up on her power or prospects for her children. She seduced, married, and started a family with Marc Antony (who was already married). After the defeat at Actium, Antony committed suicide at the news of Cleopatra’s death. Cleopatra later would attempt to seduce Augustus in hopes of securing another powerful married Roman man.
Ergo: Cleopatra places number 4 due to her willingness to kill her siblings for power, seduce married men, excessive shows of luxury to intimidate, and her suicide to preserve her pride. She was an infamous woman of her time and is still to this day synonymous with “seducing for power.”
Name: Poppaea Sabina (30 AD–65 AD) a.k.a Poppaea Sabina the Younger
Vices: Adultery, 2 Murders, Plotting, Ruthlessness, Manipulation
Weakness: Ambition, Children, Power
Poppaea was said to have married her second husband, Otho, in order to seduce the Emperor Nero. Ironically, she divorced her husband Otho in order to marry emperor Nero, but Otho would briefly be emperor after Nero’s death. She became the emperor Nero’s mistress and persuaded Nero to murder his mother (Agrippina the Younger), who forbade their marriage. Before marrying Nero, ancient authors also accredited her to inducing Nero to murdering his first wife: Octavia Claudia (emperor Claudius’ daughter).
Ergo: Poppaea places 3rd on her list for her manipulation of men to pursue power. Poppaea has been recorded by several authors to have been ruthless and ambitious. It has been said that she was murdered by Nero either by poison or by assault. Authors attest that, while pregnant, Nero kicked her in the stomach causing death. Other authors say, she simply died due to complications of a miscarriage.
Name: Julia Agrippina the Younger (15 AD – 59 AD)
Vices: Incest, 3 Murders, Plotting, Seduction
Weakness: Her Son, Her Daughter in Law (Number 3 on our list )
Emperor Caligula (brother to Agrippina) was a crazy ruler who was said to have had incestuous relationships with his sisters. She murdered her second husband, Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus, in order to obtain his estates and inheritances. When her uncle emperor Claudius executed Messalina, Agrippina saw her opportunity to become empress. She became the mistress to one of Claudius’ advisers, Marcus Antonius Pallas, in order to persuade her way to royalty. Claudius and Agrippina married and removed everyone that stood in her or her son’s, Nero, path to power.
She managed to have Claudius adopt Nero as his son and for Nero to marry Octavia Claudia (Claudius’ daughter). Lastly, she may have had a hand in the death of Britannicus (Claudius’ son and heir), who Nero succeeded for the throne. She employed the infamous poisoner Locusta to murder Claudius and give her son the Roman empire.
Ergo: Agrippina is placed second on this list for willing to seduce for power, even if it means committing incest (both with her brother Caligula and her uncle Claudius), her employment of a poisoner to remove people from her way, and for the murder of her uncle/husband Claudius and his son Britannicus, her cousin. However, she was murdered by Number 3 on our list: Poppaea Sabina.
Name: Livia Drusilla (59 BC– 29 AD)
Vices: Poisoning, 4 Murders, Mass Manipulation, Viricide, Seduction
Weakness: Family, Tiberius, Power, BBC Portrayals, Pride
Livia was the second and last wife of emperor Augustus. She met Augustus while still married to her first husband and pregnant with her second child. The meeting was said to be “love at first sight,” which caused Augustus to divorce his wife. He was so in love with Livia that he divorced his wife on the very day she gave birth to his child: Julia the Elder (Number 7 on our list). He also forced Livia’s husband to divorce her and married Livia only three days after she gave birth to her second child: Drusus (Claudius’ father). This rush to be married was unconventional at the time and only further implicates her seducing nature.
Furthermore, according to the historians Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus, Livia was responsible ether directly or indirectly for the deaths of several of her family members. She is reported to have murdered Marcellus (Augustus’ nephew and first adopted son), Gaius and Lucius Caesar (Augustus’ grandsons and adopted sons). It is believed that she murdered these young men (respectively: 21, 16, 15 years old) so that her own son, Tiberius (from a previous marriage) would be emperor.
Lastly, she is reported to have killed her husband, Augustus, of 51 years by poisoning his fig trees which he grew and ate from.
Ergo: Livia places first on our list for good reason. She murdered several people, including her husband in order that her son may be emperor. She was perhaps a blueprint for Agrippina the Younger (#2). Disregarding all her faults, historians do attest that she was loyal, proper, and chaste.
Name: Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519)
Vices: Poisoner, Murder, Incest, Adultery
As seen within Showtime’s The Borgias, Lucrezia was a pawn within her family’s politics and social climbing. She was daughter of the Pope Alexander VI and was married off to any man that would ameliorate their family. It was also rumored that she had incestuous relations with her brother.
Ergo: Although Lucrezia is not ancient, she encompasses the idea: “Don’t Mess with Roman Women”.
About The Author
Brittany Garcia is a 2012 graduate from the University of California Riverside with a Bachelors of Arts degree in Classical Studies and Comparative Ancient History. She maintains the Facebook page: Classical Studies and Ancient History.
"Top Ten Most Scandalous Women Of Ancient Rome" was originally published at http://blogs.transparent.com/latin/