Valeria Messalina is one of the most powerful Roman women of ancient Rome, as depicted in "The Tragedy of Messalina".
According to a 2018 article in The Great Courses Daily, women in ancient Rome had very few rights and were not equal to men by law. Roman women did not hold any power positions or public offices. Instead, their primary role was to care for the children and take care of the home.
Roman society was dominated by their husbands or fathers for most women. Young girls and women from wealthy families were often married to make financial or political relationships. They rarely had the option of choosing their partner.
There are a few women who, despite their lack of rights and privileges, managed to achieve great power and influence in ancient Rome. Some people managed to control events from the sidelines while others took matters into their hands and formed conspiracies or assassination plans to take over the Roman empire.
Here are eight of the most powerful and influential women in ancient Rome.
Francisco Maura y Montaner, "The Vengeance Of Fulvia". (Image credit: Public Domain / Museo municipal de Bellas Artes de Santa Cruz de Tenerife)
Fulvia was born into a noble family in 83 B.C. Fulvia was influential in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar’s assassination 44 B.C. After being widowed several times, she built substantial personal wealth. Fulvia's first recorded death is that of Publius Clodius Pulcher, her husband.
Lindsay Powell, historian, told All About History magazine that Clodius was killed by a mob organized by Titus Annius Milo after a riot broke out during the campaign for his office. "Fulvia, his mother, and the corpse were dragged to the Roman Forum by Clodius and they vowed to avenge his death."
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49 B.C. In 49 B.C., her husband Gaius Scribonius Curio was elected tribune. This is a position of power in ancient Rome. Joanne Ball, an archaeologist from Liverpool, claims Fulvia convinced her husband's followers that Curio was worthy of their support. Ball says Fulvia also recognized the importance of supporting Julius Caesar and his populist cause. She encouraged each of her husbands, Ball said.
Fulvia was again married to Caesar's right-handman Mark Antony in 47 B.C. Three years after Caesar's death, Antony was elected one of the three co-rulers in Rome. The couple carried out many revenge killings and repelled political foes like Marcus Tullius Cicero. After Cicero's death in 43 B.C., Fulvia took the dead man's head, spat on it, took out the tongue and "pierced it with pins," according to Cassius Dio's "Roman History" (translation by Earnest Cary, through penelope.uchicago.edu ).
Her downfall quickly followed the height of Fulvia’s power. Ball says that in 42 B.C. Antony and his fellow-rulers fled Rome to pursue Caesar’s assassins. Fulvia was left "de facto coruler of Rome." Ball stated that Antony's political ambitions led her to open hostilities in 41 B.C. with Octavian Caesar, Antony's son, and Antony’s main rival, raising eight legions for the cause. Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, had already taken Antony's heart. Fulvia died while in exile in Greece in 40 B.C.
After Augustus' death, Livia was still an influential figure in Roman politics. (Image credit: George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Livia, the wife of Augustus (63 B.C. - A.D. 14, Rome's first Emperor), was one of the most powerful women in the Roman Empire's early years. Although the couple didn't produce an heir, Livia enjoyed significant personal freedom and was considered one of the most influential women Rome ever saw, according to Ball.
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Augustus, Livia's child from a previous marriage, adopted Tiberius in A.D. 4 and made him his successor. Tiberius became emperor after Augustus died. However, rumors arose that Livia had murdered her husband, Tiberius, in order to make him his successor. According to ancient historian Cassius Dio, it was rumored that Livia "smeared with poison some figs that were still on trees She ate those that had not been smeared, offering the poisoned ones to [Augustus]," (translation by Earnest Cary, through penelope.uchicago.edu ).
In the will of the Emperor, Livia was given the new name Julia Augusta. This title also served as an honorary title. Dio says she was influential from the time her son ruled until her death at 29 A.D.
Messalina nearly overtook the empire from within. (Image credit: Public Domain/Vienna Museum)
Valeria Messalina, the third wife of Emperor Claudius (10 B.C. - A.D. 54), was at least 30 Years younger than her husband. Some historians believe she was in relationships with many members of the imperial court, and that she allied with others to secure her position. Michael Kerrigan, author of "The Untold History Of the Roman Emperors" (Cavendish Square Publishing LLC 2016,) wrote that "Her lovers were numerous, according to the gossips, and she was exhibitist in her lusts."
Messalina forged an influential group of the most powerful men at the imperial court. They helped her to eliminate rivals and ensure her strong position and influence in Rome. "Roman History" Dio reports that Messalina would terrorize Claudius whenever she wanted to kill anyone.
Brittanicus was Messalina's first child. She used her influence to expel any other claimants to the imperial crown, Paul Chrystal wrote about it in his book " Emperors of Rome - The Monsters" (Pen and Sword Military 2019, 2019). "Pompeius Magnus (A.D. 30-47), husband of Claudius, was the first to die. He was found in bed and was then stabbed.
Messalina married Gaius Silius in 48 A.D., while Claudius was at Rome. Tacitus' "Annals" ancient text, a historian, reveals that the couple plotted to overthrow and rule together. The emperor discovered the plan and executed the couple.
Agrippina, the Younger
After Valeria Messalina, his third wife, Agrippina was executed by Emperor Claudius, Agrippina married Emperor Claudius. (Image credit: Public Domain).
According to Emma Southon (Pegasus 2019, 2019), Agrippina was a sister, aunt, niece, and mother of several of the most prominent emperors in ancient Rome's history. Her brother, Emperor Caligula (A.D. 12–41), exiled Agrippina for plotting against him. However, she returned to Rome in the aftermath of his assassination in A.D. 41.
Eight years later, Claudius, her uncle, was married to her. To marry his niece, the emperor changed the laws regarding incest. He also had great control over her husband.
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Southon wrote that Claudius was "bad at politics and bad in ruling and he was happy accepting help, even from his spouse." "Within one year, she had received the honorific Augusta which made her Claudius' equal. Agrippina was intimately involved with the administration and running of the empire. In every way, she was her husband's partner in the rule. She refused to be quiet and passive, breaking every rule about appropriate female behavior."
According to Tacitus, Agrippina killed her husband by poison in A.D.54, which enabled her son Nero, who was then heir to the throne. This secured her power over the empire by her control over her son. However, Nero soon plotted to kill Agrippina because he became resentful of her control. Tacitus tells us how Agrippina survived multiple failed assassinations ordered by Nero, before she was finally killed in A.D.59.
Helena converted to Christianity, and was canonized in several Christian churches. (Image credit: Public Domain/ National Gallery of Art Washington, DC, United States)
Although very little is known about her childhood, Helena was a pivotal part of the conversion of Rome to Christianity. This led to her being canonized by the Catholic Church. Before Constantius became emperor in A.D. 29, she was separated from her husband. Helena asserted her power only after Constantine, her son, became emperor in A.D. 306.
Anneka Rene, University of Auckland researcher, said that Helena's story is unusual in that her marriage had little to do with her rise to fame. Rene stated that Helena was made a "dowager empress" by her son and given the honorary title "Augusta Imperatrix," giving her unlimited access the imperial treasure.
Helena converted to Christianity and made a pilgrimage in A.D. 326 to the Holy Land. She ordered the construction of churches near Jerusalem and Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem. She also found a variety of relics during her pilgrimage, including pieces from the True Cross that Jesus suffered during his crucifixion.
Rene stated that she would be granted a sainthood later on. Her feast day is May 21st, Feast of Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine & Helena, Equal to The Apostles. Her relics and bones are found all over the globe, including her skull, which is displayed in the Cathedral of Trier, Germany.
Claudia Metrodora, a Roman-Greek priestess dedicated to Aphrodite Livia, is shown here. This statue was found in Epidaurus (Greece) and depicts the contemporary statue of Aphrodite Livia. (Image credit: George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA 4.0)
It was rare for women in ancient Rome, to directly engage in politics. Claudia Metrodora, however, is an example of a wealthy, powerful, and influential member of her community.
Metrodora, a Greek woman of Roman citizenship, held extraordinary power on Chios Island, achieving the highest position. Ball stated that Metrodora held many political offices. She was twice appointed "stephanophoros," which is the highest magistracy of Chios and "gymnasiarch," meaning official, four times.
Metrodora also presided over three important religious festivals. Rene stated that Metrodora was described in one inscription as "being desirous for glory for the city... a lover her homeland and priestess to the life of the divine Empress Aphrodite Livia, because of her excellence, admirable behaviour and other qualities." "Metrodora's story in Chios is a great example of the power and wealth women can wield. While it was often believed that women were primarily behind the throne and held all power, she takes center stage in her own story.
Metrodora did not marry to her power, unlike some other powerful women in ancient Rome. Ball stated that Claudia Metrodora's most striking feature was her visibility in public life in Chios [an ancient Greek city in Turkey] and Ephesus [an old Greek city in what is now Turkey], defying all the preconceived conventions that limit female behavior in the Roman-Greek world. She demonstrates that women can participate in civic life in the Romano-Greek universe, funding public works and holding office on her own, as opposed to being influenced by her husband or son.
Agrippina, the Elder
A painting of Agrippina Landing in Brundisium with the ashes from Germanicus. (Image credit: Getty)
Agrippina, the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus was ambitious, but she realized that, as a woman, her ambition would only be possible if she used the men around to gain power in Rome. Rene said. Agrippina, like many Roman women before, knew that a Roman woman could not wield much power on her own so she used her skills to best manipulate those around her and use her children's power to do the same."
Agrippina, who had married Germanicus Caesar in A.D. 5, was a popular army general and joined him on his military campaigns. Powell stated that Agrippina was there with him in A.D. 14 when he confronted mutinous legionaries at the camps of Germania Inferior.
According to Ball, Agrippina also acted to stop the rebellion by presenting herself and Gaius, her son, to the soldiers before they attacked. Ball stated that Agrippina was a bold, quick-witted woman who understood when to take chances in dangerous situations.
Agrippina believed that Germanicus had been murdered after his mysterious death in A.D. 19. With her three sons, she returned to Rome. Rene stated that Artworks recall Agrippina carrying the ashes her husband's husband to Rome. "Her arrival would be met by crowds of sympathizers. These continued to grow as she traveled from Brundisium to Rome. Agrippina would be immortalized as a faithful and dedicated wife by this act.
Agrippina, once in the capital, began to promote the claims of her children to the throne. This created hostilities between her and Tiberius. Ball stated that Agrippina fell foul of Tiberius’ regime, especially Sejanus, his advisor, who was wary about the popularity and potential following Agrippina could command. This was particularly after she tried convincing Tiberius to adopt her children as his heirs. Agrippina was implicated in several plots against the Emperor. She was exiled. Three years after her younger son Caligula became the emperor, she died in A.D.33.
Julia Avita Mamaea
A bust depicting Julia Avita Mamaea. It was dated between A.D. 222-23. Image credit: Getty/Universal History Archive
Julia Mamaea was born in Syria, then a part of the Roman Empire. Her family included her cousin, Emperor Caracalla (A.D.188-217). Julia was reunited with Alexander Severus, her son, after Caracalla was assassinated.
Rene stated that her son's time at court would have him in favor with the Praetorian Guardian, which was a unit that served as the Emperor's bodyguard. "Julia encouraged such support by reportedly giving gold to them and encouraging them keep their son safe from plots against them." Julia, a woman, was not allowed to lead the empire. So she chose to pursue her ambitions through her child.
According to Ball, Elagabalus was assassinated in A.D.222. The Praetorian Guard supported Severus for his successor, largely due to the political support Mamaea had purchased from the Praetorians. Ball stated that Julia Mamaea was her Augusta after she bought her son's throne. This is the highest rank a woman can be granted. She was involved in the management of the Empire to the point that Alexander Severus was seen as ineffective and weak, impassive compared with his mother and a'mama’s boy. Julia Mamaea was the dominant figure in Imperial policy during her son’s reign.
The army was frustrated by the lack of leadership in the emperor and assassinated Mamaea along with her son, A.D.235.
Ball stated that Julia's tight control over her son led to her son's downfall. Her influence meant that he would never be able to become a leader of his own, and that his long-term prospects were limited by his inability to secure long-term support from the army. "Julia Mamaea understood that a Roman woman could only be ruled through her husband or her son, but she forgot that her influence had to be used as invisibly and effectively as possible. Refusing to take a step back, or failing to, would have turned the Roman army against her husband and resulted in his death as well as her own.