Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ancient Roman Women - Octavia Minor

What do you know, I got a special request to write more about Octavia after yesterday's post. She would have gracefully accepted the attention she got, I'm sure, so today is her spot in the light.

Octavia was the sister of a guy named Gaius Octavius Thurinus, who'd became known later as Emperor Augustus. She's called Octavia Minor because there was another older half-sister, also named Octavia, of course (the Romans had that annoying habit – the result being that nobody could tell sisters apart; even ancient authors, like Plutarch, mix up the two, so we don't really need to know any more stuff about Octavia Maior).

When she was about 15, Octavia married a man of consular rank named Gaius Claudius Marcellus, who's of relatively little consequence to this story, but they had three children together – two daughters named, of course, Claudia Marcella, and a son - Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Yes, they were stunningly creative when it came to names. But this is about to grow even more confusing, so bear with me a while.

Julius Caesar had little reason to like Octavia's husband, who took the wrong side in the political debates of the troubled 1st century BC, so at some point he tried to get Octavia to divorce and marry Pompey in order to forge an alliance (Pompey was married to Caesar's daughter before – this is so much better than any desperate housewives plot). Anyway, Pompey declined the offer – probably because he didn't want a new alliance with Caesar rather than because of Octavia herself, who was said to be a real beauty, and already had a reputation of being a good and faithful wife (read: she was fertile and refrained from having children with anybody besides her husband).

Octavia Minor
Octavia Minor - Don't you think she looks a little like Lorelei Gilmore? 

So Octavia continued to live besides her inconsequential husband until his death (of natural causes, big surprise). In the meantime, both Pompey and Caesar were also dead, and the big names battling it out on the Roman power scene were Marcus Antonius and Octavian, Octavia's brother – so she drew the short straw again in the lottery of political alliances.

As luck would have it, Antonius' wife, Fulvia, died about the same time as Octavia's husband, so Octavian arranged a quick marriage between his arch enemy and his sister. It caused quite a fuss at the time – Octavia was supposed to be in mourning, and apparently pregnant with her previous husband, so a Senate decree was needed to allow the ceremony to proceed. The propaganda machine was put at good use to present it as a marriage that would guarantee Rome's safety and peace for the next thousand years – a little something that depended on Octavia's ability to bear a male child with her new husband. She was about 30 at the time – which means old, but she sure tried her best. The couple only had two daughters together, named, of course, Antonia and Antonia. To keep herself occupied, Octavia also took in and raised the son Antonius had from his previous marriage (or his sons, assuming he had two – this is a bit blurred, but there are so many children already, who's counting?)

Then things got messy. Antonius left to fight against Parthia, and he fought so hard, he had three children with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen, creating a neverending supply of plots for Victorian playwrights and Hollywood screenplayers. (Antonius, by the way, didn't look anything like Charlton Heston or Marlon Brando. He was fat like a pig and had a neck like an obelisk.)

Octavia kept playing her part as a victim-wife. She gathered troops and money for her husband's campaign (not that he was actually taking part in any battles), but, when she tried to visit, Antonius instructed her not to set foot in Egypt. He did, however, accept the troops and money she brought him. Later he divorced her – by mail, by all means. Didn't even have the decency to come to Rome and tell her in person.

Marcus Antonius - What's with the hair anyway?

Octavia was probably messed up by the public scandal her life had turned into, but her brother Octavian found a window of opportunity, and he stepped up the propaganda, constantly playing Octavia, the good Roman wife, against the image of the exotic and lavish mistress, Cleopatra. All in all, this allowed Octavian to fight his war against Antonius and to present it to the general public as a war on Egypt, instead of the civil war it actually was.

So, Octavian won at Actium, effectively establishing his undisputed rule over the entire Roman territory, Antonius and Cleopatra both committed suicide, leaving three more children unattended – Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene and Ptolemy Philadelphus (don't assume they got more creative with names in Egypt, all of them had a long tradition going back at least 13 generations. For now, however, they are a convenient break from all the octavias and antonias).

Yay, more children. Octavia took them all in. This means she had at least nine, isn't that lovely. Actually, it's not lovely, but it's weird. Antonius had divorced Octavia before he died, and Roman women did not retain any rights over their own children after a divorce, let alone the children the husband might have had from a different woman. This was clearly Octavian's intervention, to enhance his sister's image and turn her into a saint. Well, he succeeded.

In fact, Octavian's initial plan played out well on the long term: the heirs of Antonius were effectively neutralized and became part of the imperial family, thus killing any serious opposition for the following Julio-Claudian rulers.

The results of the obsessive inbreeding in the imperial family were funny. Emperor Caligula sentenced to death people who celebrated the battle of Actium (because they were celebrating the defeat of his famous great-grandfather, Marcus Antonius) and also those he didn't celebrate the battle of Actium (because they weren't celebrating the victory of his famous great-grandfather, Octavian Augustus). Also, our Octavia was, at the same time, the maternal and paternal great-grandmother of Emperor Nero. No surprise they all turned out nutters.

Now, Octavia had a bunch of children, so her brother, now officially the big cheese in Rome, decided to adopt one, Marcellus, as his heir (remember Marcellus? Yeah, he was in the first litter, it's difficult to keep track). Marcellus died young, as it generally happened to the heirs to the imperial throne, so in the end, Octavia's daughters would have to take the political path that ran in the family and live up to the expectations. Both Antonias would become surprisingly powerful players on the Roman scene, apparently inheriting their mother's fierce loyalty and their father's appetite for power and blood thirst.

When Octavia died, she received public funerals and her brother built several monuments in her memory (including the Porticus Octaviae, which still stands today, and which should not be confused with Porticus Octavia, which was... never mind. He built stuff named after her.) However, he refused some of the honors the Senate tried to vote for Octavia – probably thought enough was enough, after all, she was just a woman. Still, Octavia was one of the first Roman women to have her image minted on a coin – but was in good company, since two of Antonius' other wives, Fulvia and Cleopatra, had their own coins too. The numismatic evidence now helps us establish beyond reasonable doubt that Octavia was the most beautiful of the three, and that Antonius was an ass.