6 of Ancient Rome’s Most Powerful Empresses | History Hit

6 of Ancient Rome’s Most Powerful Empresses

A fresco (wall painting) of a woman playing a kithara.
Image Credit: Ad Meskens / Public Domain

Whilst the stories of ancient history are often dominated by men, the wives of the Caesars were hugely influential. Powerful and respected, these consorts and empresses not only had the ear of their husbands, but proved their political prowess and independent agency time and time again.

Their influence may not always be recorded in the history books, but it was certainly felt by their contemporaries. Here are 6 of ancient Rome’s most notable women.

Why has history persistently ignored or failed to recognise the role of women? In this Spotlight interview with Dan Snow, Mary Beard explores the many ways throughout history that women have been put down or silenced.
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Livia Drusilla

Livia was the daughter of a senator and was married at young age to her cousin, Tiberius Claudius Nero, with whom she had 2 children. After spending time in Sicily and Italy, Livia and her family returned to Rome. Legend has it that the new emperor Octavian fell in love with her on sight, despite the fact that both he and Livia were married to other people.

After both obtaining divorces, the pair were married and unlike her predecessors, Livia played an active role in politics, acting as a counselor to her husband and using her role as wife to influence policy decisions. In an unprecedented move, Octavian (now Augustus) also gave Livia the power to rule her own finances and govern her own affairs.

When Augustus died, he left Livia one third of his property and granted her the title of Augusta, effectively ensuring she would maintain her power and status after his death. Her son, the new emperor Tiberius, grew increasingly frustrated by his mother’s power and influence, which was hard to remove given that Livia had no formal title but a lot of allies and political sway.

She died in 29 AD, and it was only years later, when her grandson Claudius became emperor, that Livia’s status and honour were restored: she was deified as the Divine Augusta and remained an important figure in public life long after her death.

A bust of Livia Drusilla, wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, in the Roman-German Museum in Cologne.

Image Credit: Calidius / CC


Valeria Messalina was the third wife of the emperor Claudius: born into a powerful family, she married Claudius in the year 38 and history has depicted her as a ruthless, scheming empress with a voracious sexual appetite. Reportedly persecuting, exiling or executing her political and personal rivals, Messalina’s name has become synonymous with evil.

Despite her seemingly infinite power, she met her comeuppance. Rumours swirled that she had embarked on a bigamous marriage with her lover, the senator Gaius Silius. When these reached Claudius’ ears, he was disturbed, and on visiting Silius’ house, he saw assorted imperial family heirlooms that Messalina had gifted her lover.

She was executed on Claudius’ demands in the Gardens of Lucullus, which she had forcibly taken for her own from their original order. The Senate subsequently ordered a damnatio memoriae, removing Messalina’s name and image from all public and private places.

Agrippina the Younger

Labelled by some historians as the ‘first true empress of Rome’, Agrippina the Younger was born into the Julio-Claudian dynasty and married into it too. Her brother, Caligula, became emperor in the year 37 and Agrippina’s life changed dramatically. After plotting a coup, she was exiled for several years, until Caligula died and her uncle, Claudius, invited her back to Rome.

Shockingly (even by Roman standards), she went on to marry Claudius, her own uncle, after the death of Messalina. Unlike previous consorts, Agrippina wanted to exercise hard power, rather than simply soft political influence. She became a visible partner to her husband, sitting next to him as his equal in occasions of state. The subsequent five years proved to be ones of relative prosperity and stability.

Not content with sharing power, Agrippina murdered Claudius so her 16 year old son, Nero, could take his place as emperor. With a teenager on the throne, her power would be even greater as she could act as regent. Iconography, including coins from the time, show both Agrippina and Nero as the face of power.

This balance of power did not last. Nero grew tired of his over-bearing mother and had her murdered in an elaborate scheme which had initially been designed to make it look like an accident. Agrippina was popular and Nero didn’t want to damage his public image, although his botched plan meant his popularity plummeted in the aftermath of the incident.

Agrippina the Younger was one of the most prominent women in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Born during a time of radical political change in the Roman Empire, she had a very powerful pedigree.
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Fulvia’s origins are somewhat obscure, but it seems she was probably part of a wealthy Roman plebeian family, making her an heiress and of political importance. She married three times over the course of her life: firstly to the politician Clodius Pulcher, secondly to the consul Scribonius Curio, and finally to Mark Antony. Her taste for politics developed during her first marriage and she understood that her lineage and influence could promote her husband’s career and their fortunes.

After the death of her second husband in 49 BC, Fulvia was a sought-after widow. With powerful political allies and family money, she could offer a husband plenty of help in public life. Her final marriage to Mark Antony has been remembered in light of his relationship with Cleopatra: Fulvia is often portrayed as the dutiful wife, abandoned at home.

Whilst accounts suggest she was possibly jealous of her husband’s affair, she played a key role in the Perusine War between Antony and Octavian, helping to raise troops in the ultimately unsuccessful war. Octavian came up with plenty of personal insults directed at Fulvia, suggesting he viewed her as having direct agency in the war.

Fulvia died in exile in Greece: Antony and Octavian reconciled after her death, using her as a scapegoat for their previous disagreements.

Helena Augusta

Known more widely as Saint Helena, she was born to relatively humble origins somewhere in Greece. No one is quite clear how or when Helena met the emperor Constantius, or exactly what the nature of their relationship was. They split before 289, when Constantius married Theodora, a wife more fitting for his rising status.

Helena and Constantius’ marriage produced one son: the future emperor Constantine I. On his accession, Helena was brought back to public life from obscurity. Granted the title Augusta Imperatrix, she was given access to virtually unlimited royal funds in order to locate important Christian relics.

On her quest, Helena travelled to Palaestinia, Jerusalem and Syria, founding important churches and helping to raise the profile of Christianity in the Roman Empire. She reportedly found the True Cross, and established the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the spot. She was canonized by the church after her death and is the patron saint of treasure-hunters, archaeologists and difficult marriages.

A 9th century Byzantine depiction of St Helena and the True cross.

Image Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France / Public Domain

Julia Domna

Born to an Arab family in Roman Syria, Julia’s family were powerful priest kings and were hugely wealthy. She married the future emperor Septimius Severus in 187 when he was still governor of Lugdunum and sources suggest the pair were happy together.

Domna became empress consort in 197, accompanying her husband on his military campaigns and staying in the army camps alongside him. She was widely respected and revered, and Septimius Severus was said to heed her advice and lean on her for political counsel. She was granted honorary titles and coins were minted with her image.

Following Severus’ death in 211, Domna retained a relatively active role in politics, helping to mediate between their sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were supposed to rule jointly. She was a public figure until the death of Caracalla during the war with Parthia, choosing to commit suicide on hearing the news rather than suffer indignity and shame that would come with the fall of her family.

Sarah Roller