Question 1: What influence if any did the imperial empresses have on their husbands and sons.
Question 2: Did they have political agency?
In this dissertation, I will be discussing what influence if any Livia, Agrippina, and Julia Domna had on their husbands and sons. The issue of what constitutes influence in these contexts is a contentious one. For the purposes of this dissertation, I will be defining it as women using their influence through their family connections by which politics was conducted in Rome. Even in the Middle Republic, it was widely understood that the elite women, though barred from holding political magistracies, could wield political power and influence. For example, Cornelia the mother of the Gracchi brothers interceded and succeeded in persuading her son Gaius against introducing a law to prevent a deposed magistrate from holding office. Cornelia received a statue honoring her as the mother of the Gracchi, the first confirmed statue of a woman in Rome.
The concentration of power into the hands of the princeps and his family meant that the potential of a small group of women to influence political events increased even further in the imperial period. Since power was transferred dynastically and not through election, there was an increasing emphasis on the women of the imperial household, both as conduits of dynastic legitimacy and as exerting soft power. This dissertation is an exploration of this shift, comparing ancient literary accounts, many written much later than what they describe and with considerable biases, to the appearance of three imperial women on contemporary coinage.
I am aware I have taken a huge leap from the Julio-Claudians to the Severan dynasty, I have chosen these three women, in particular, to investigate, as Livia and Agrippina set the bar and Julia Domna because she is later echoing it. A key issue is our reliance on the misogynistic writings and constructed ideas of elite writers such as Tacitus for our understanding of these empresses. These writings from the literary sources do not get us close to what these women thought and what they actually did. The sources are weaponizing these women and using them as weapons against their male relatives.
This does not mean that historical narratives are to be discounted, as this is the environment in which these women operated in. The problem we have is how on earth can we possibly understand these women when our main sources for them are written so long afterward and written from an elite male viewpoint who are using these women in a particular way. For this reason, I will be including not only literary sources but also coinage which was a contemporary product of the Roman state, to give a better and unbiased understanding of the role of these women in the Roman empire.
Livia and her marriage to Augustus
Livia’s part in influencing the Augustan principate has been given little thought, the most likely cause of this neglect is the overwhelming attention paid to Augustus himself at the expense of all his associates. Women could not play a public role in the Roman state, no matter how much power and influence they might exercise informally behind the scenes. The fact that Livia survived for over sixty years at the very heart of Roman power, and was admired for many generations after her death, shows her ability to win the support, and affection of her contemporaries.