In honor of my recent trip to Rome, I’d like to profile an ancient Roman woman whose sculpture I found tucked away in a hallway at the Palazzo Massimo museum. It’s a museum not heralded much in my guidebook, just one line, and I was intrigued by the description of a “museum of Ancient Roman Art.”
I found her statue in a long, brightly-lit hall lined with the marble busts of many women – women of influence in Rome. Daughters, sisters, nieces, wives, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. But she struck me as separate from the others. Separate because she was all seven of these things – a woman who played a significant role in the lives of some of the most influential men in Roman history. A daughter, a sister, a niece, a wife, a mother, an aunt, and a grandmother to emperors and generals.
Her name was Antonia Minor. She was born on January 31, 36 BC, the youngest daughter of Marc Antony and Octavia, and the sister of Octavian – the man who would become Augustus, first emperor of Rome.
Her parents’ marriage had been a political one, meant to link her brother Octavian with Marc Antony during a time known as the Second Triumvirate following the murder of Julius Caesar.
Marc Antony had been a close confidante and military commander under Julius Caesar. Following the dictator’s murder, Marc Antony and seventeen-year-old Octavian – Caesar’s named heir and adopted son — split Rome’s provinces in half between them in an alliance called the Second Triumvirate. Octavian ruled the west and Antony ruled the east while a third man, Lepidus, ruled Roman Africa. Within a year, Antony had defeated Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Antonius at the Battle of Phillipi.
But in the end, the Second Triumvirate alliance was doomed to fail. The Roman Republic was on its last legs and empire loomed.
As any fan of the great epic Hollywood films knows, Marc Antony ended up with Cleopatra, the Greek queen of Egypt. The Roman Senate grew nervous at this new alliance between Antony and Cleopatra, and forced Antony to return to Rome and marry Octavia, sister of Octavian, in a political move meant to strengthen the Triumvirate. Antony did as he was ordered, and Antonia Minor was the second daughter of this union.
Eventually, Marc Antony and Octavian went to war with one another, rivals for control of Rome. Octavian and his forces marched on Egypt, and both Cleopatra and Marc Antony committed suicide.
For her part, Antonia never knew her father, as he had left his family for Egypt and Cleopatra when Antonia was still a toddler. Antonia was raised by her mother Octavia and her uncle Octavian, the eventual emperor Augustus. Antonia was just one of a collection of important children brought up within Octavian’s oversight — the children of family, friends, and enemies alike. Growing up in such an influential sphere, Antonia likely learned the political ways of Rome from an early age.
Octavian, once he became the emperor of Rome and took the name Caesar Augustus, began working on the consolidation of the influence of his extended family and worked to strengthen his family’s dynasty by means of marriage alliances.
Augustus’s second wife Livia – herself an influential woman — brought two sons into her marriage with the emperor. Her second son was Nero Claudius Drusus, referred to simply as Drusus, and Augustus chose him as the husband for Antonia Minor.
By all accounts, this arranged marriage was a successful one. Antonia followed her husband on his military campaigns and was so loved by his soldiers that they called her “Mother of the Legions.”
Antonia and Drusus had three children who lived to adulthood — Germanicus, Livilla, and the eventual emperor Claudius. Antonia was also grandmother to the emperor Caligula.
Antonia’s husband Drusus was killed while campaigning in Germania in 9 AD, and was given great honors in death, honors which were also bestowed upon Antonia.
Left the widow of a great hero, Antonia did not shrink from public life, but remained a significant presence at court. She continued to impart broad influence within the imperial family.
As she was only twenty-seven when Drusus died, a new marriage and therefore an additional opportunity for a political alliance for Augustus was possible through her possible marriage. And although Augustus is said to have encouraged this, Antonia never remarried. In remaining an unmarried widow, Antonia embodied the Roman ideal a univira, a chaste woman who had only one husband throughout her life. It was an ideal not often realized, and made her a unique figure within the imperial family and Roman society.
The Senate honored her and offered her the title Augusta, a title given to only one other woman previously – her much beloved aunt Livia, wife of Augustus.
When Livia died, Antonia became the senior woman in the imperial household and inherited the highly respected role of queen mother.
Like her uncle Augustus, she gathered around her the children of dead relatives and raised a household of other people’s offspring, influencing them in the ways of Augustus’s dynastic court.
Antonia inherited a great deal of property and money from both her father and husband, and she managed it on her own, working with men on terms of equality as an independent businesswoman, rare for a Roman woman of the times.
Her son Germanicus died young, and Antonia’s unwavering loyalty to her deceased husband Drusus was noted in her son’s death decree:
“Antonia, mother of Germanicus Caesar, who, having experienced a single marriage . . . has shown by the integrity of her character that she was worthy of such close kinship with the deified Augustus.”
Her most important action regarding political matters was in 31 AD when she informed the emperor Tiberius of a conspiracy against him. She sent a letter of warning to the emperor, who was in self-imposed isolation on the island of Capri. Tiberius quickly removed the conspirator from power, and had him killed. Antonia’s daughter Livilla had become involved in the conspiracy, as well. Some sources say that Tiberius was willing to spare Livilla, but that Antonia had her killed in order to be loyal to the dynasty. The dynasty was above all things for Antonia, even above the fate of her own daughter.
At the age of 73, Antonia Minor committed a final act in honor of the dynasty. When her grandson, the emperor Caligula, refused her advice and acted in a way that brought dishonor to the family, Antonia committed suicide as an act of protest.
After Antonia’s death, Caligula made her a priestess of the cult of Augustus and gave her the privileges of the Vestal Virgins. When her son Claudius became emperor in AD 41, he also gave her the name of Augusta (which the Senate had already conferred), added a ceremonial carriage in her honor at the Circus Maximus, and established a series of games to honor her birth. Antonia was also remembered by means of scores of inscriptions, coins, portraits, and statues throughout the Roman Empire.
In Ancient Rome women were excluded from holding official positions, but many women were there, wielding power behind the scenes. Antonia held traditional roles — daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother, aunt, and grandmother. But she fulfilled these roles in relation to some of Rome’s most powerful men – great emperors and military leaders.
And through her position, she became in her own way one of the most powerful women in Roman history.