‘Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.’ ~ Virginia Woolf
‘Don’t take no for an answer. Argue with silence.’ ~ Amy Richlin
When Julia was born, at the tail end of 39 BCE, she was named Julia Caesari Filia: Julia, the daughter of Caesar, because her father was in the second of his many transformations and was, at the time, known as Gaius Julius Caesar. He’s not the Julius Caesar you are thinking of, though. This is his posthumously adopted son, who was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus (Octavian). When Julia was eleven years old, her name was changed along with her father’s when he entered the third phase of his life. Octavian became Caesar and then Caesar became Augustus, and Julia became Julia Augusti Filia: Julia, the daughter of Augustus.† In her naming, and in the eyes of so many who have thought about her, Julia is little more than an offshoot of her dad, an appendage to his glory as he rose to become the first Roman monarch in five hundred years and she was dragged along behind him to be made the first Roman princess.
Julia was born while her dad was about half-way along his Pokémon evolution from awkward sickly teenager to the Great Augustus, and right at the end of his second marriage. And I really mean right at the end. The day she was born, her dad served her mum Scribonia divorce papers. Right as she’s lying there, having just survived her third labour without painkillers, holding her swaddled, hours-old daughter, he walks out on their marriage because it is no longer useful to him. Augustus is ice cold like that his entire life. Modern descriptions of Augustus’s decision to divorce Scribonia are emblematic of the misogyny permeating, well, everything. The description most often quoted is that of Suetonius which says, in the original, ‘“pertaesus,” ut scribit, “morum perversitatem eius”’. This broadly means that he was bored or wearied by her ways. But that little adjective, perversitatem, had variously been translated as bitter, shrewish and nagging. Perversus means none of these things. It just means wrong or bad. Nagging and shrewish and bitter are how male translators have interpreted a ‘bad’ wife. And none of them managed to resolve in their minds the later statement by Suetonius that Scribonia’s main issue with their marriage had been that Augustus wouldn’t stop knobbing other women. Shrewish indeed.
Anyway. Because of her incessant refusal to let him fuck whoever he wanted, Augustus abandoned Scribonia with their daughter while he went off to continue waging war on everyone who blinked. At the time of her birth, Julia’s dad had completed his campaign of revenge against Brutus and Cassius two years previously and was beginning to deliberately pick apart the Triumvirate he was using to legitimise his wars. He started this by handing over his long-suffering sister to endure Mark Antony as a husband, thus making Lepidus an outsider in his own Triumvirate. He’d spend the next couple of years warring his way around Italy and stealing people’s wives. Meanwhile Julia stayed with her mother who did her best to stay out of things, and that’s where she probably would have stayed for the rest of her life, living the average life of a very rich girl, had her father been normal or if he’d had any other children.
Unfortunately for Julia, Augustus was not in the least bit normal. He was terrifying. And, due to some strange quirk of biology, he and his final wife Livia never had a successful pregnancy. As both had children from previous relationships, one can’t help but wonder whether some god or other wasn’t trying to interfere with whatever Augustus would have done if he had had a son. Or maybe fate just has a sense of humour. Either way, at some point Augustus came to some kind of terms with the fact that Julia was going to be his one and only child, and so he retrieved her from her mother’s household and installed her in his own magnificent palace on the Palatine Hill. This definitely happened before Julia was in her tweens, at some point between the age of one and eleven. I’m never sure whether I hope this happened earlier or later, because she was taken from what was probably a relatively normal aristocratic household and placed into Augustus’s luxurious cage.
Augustus’s palace felt like a cage because he was a micromanager obsessed with his image. This obsession was both deeply creepy and the key to his success. Hyper-aware of how he looked to his contemporaries and how he would look to historians, he once wrote a casual letter to his stepson Tiberius claiming that he didn’t make the people he gambled with pay their debts because ‘my generosity will exalt me to immortal glory’. Obviously this makes him sound like a maniac. Even more bizarrely, he forced his grandsons to imitate his handwriting as part of their education and boasted about it. Augustus was also powerfully, and apparently sincerely, dedicated to ‘bringing back traditional values’, including locking his daughter away so she could remain modest and private and spend her days weaving tunics for her father to wear. According to Suetonius, who read and quoted extensively from Augustus’s letters, Julia was prevented from meeting any strangers and anyone who popped in to visit her would receive a sternly worded letter from a man no one ever wanted to receive a sternly worded letter from. Her father instead made sure that she was taught to spin and weave, like the old Republican women of myth and yore, and forbade her from ever saying anything that could not be safely recorded in the household diary. So I am never sure whether I would want Julia to have some years of relative freedom, with her own friends and her mum, before she was shoved into her golden cage, or whether she would have suffered more from knowing a world outside of the walls of her prison. I do know that I would probably stamp on a puppy to get my hands on that household diary though.
Julia’s misfortune was being born to a man who spent his entire adult life, from the age of twenty, dedicated to forging a new form of monarchy and who saw everyone in his life as merely a means to that end. If he had had a son, that son would have been raised to be his partner in ruling and his heir to the throne, but instead he had a daughter and a daughter was useful only for creating sons-in-law and hopefully having sons. Julia had two roles in life. She was to behave as a perfect, ideal Roman girl and she was to be a conduit for her father’s power via marriage and motherhood.
She married her first husband in 25 BCE, aged thirteen. Her betrothed was Marcellus, her sixteen-year-old first cousin and Augustus’s only male biological relative. One can sort of imagine Augustus’s increasing frustration as every single member of his family just kept having girls, because the minute his sister Octavia had a boy as her third child (followed by two more girls) Augustus swooped in on him as his heir. The minute that Julia reached a marriageable age, he rushed them through a wedding that he didn’t even bother to attend. The wedding was unimportant. The important part was that marriage to Julia made Marcellus Augustus’s son-in-law. As we learned from the Sabine women, a son-in-law was the next best thing to a real son. It’s no coincidence that every surviving version of the Sabine women story was written under Augustus’s all-seeing eye.
This was Julia’s use to her father: a prize he gave his favourite men, an honour that demonstrated Augustus’s favour and signalled to the world that her husband was a special member of the imperial family. Julia’s marriage to Marcellus represented a change from the usual practice though, and shows how subtly Augustus used existing norms in slightly different ways to change his whole world.
Previously, the two men connected through marriage had usually been equals, men of a similar age and status who shared a woman in common. That woman temporarily made the two men family and the marriage signalled to the watching world that they were great pals who would definitely not go to war with one another. That’s why Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia. That’s why Antony married Augustus’s sister Octavia. That’s why Julia’s first engagement had been at the age of two to Mark Antony’s son. Marriage alliances in the Republic were a promise between two men of equal(ish) standing to do political favours for one another and an extra pinky promise to try not to kill one another. As a result, almost no young girls within spitting distances of the 0.1% of Roman politics married someone of their own generation for their first marriage, and they never married their own biological cousins because that would be (a) useless politically and (b) gross. Young Republican girls were all married off to their dad’s friends and frenemies. With Julia’s marriage to Marcellus, Augustus changed the rules for his family.
In 27 BCE, four years after Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat at Actium, the Senate and People of Rome granted their new ruler the name Augustus and the title princeps (first man). These titles and some other provisions elevated him above every other Patrician, magistrate, Senator and dictator. As the only man of his rank, he held a position no one had held since Tarquinius Superbus. He had no rivals left so he didn’t need alliances with anyone. He needed an heir. With Julia, Augustus created a whole new type of marriage alliance, exclusive to the newly anointed imperial family. Julia didn’t provide a connection between two equals, either of whom could call off the alliance at any time. Instead she was a vessel for Augustus’s power to travel from one generation to the next, and the right to bang her was the right to create a new generation for Augustus. He reduced Julia to a walking womb.
Just a year or so after the wedding, in 23 BCE, this first experiment in creating a dynasty came to an abrupt and depressing end when Marcellus got sick and died, leaving Julia a widow at maybe fifteen years old. Julia’s reaction to her widowhood is not recorded, partly because Augustus took charge of everything and mourned the kid both as if he were his own son and as a public figure. Marcellus, the teenage Senator who achieved nothing beyond being born into the Julian family and being a boy, got a whole state-funded funeral. Augustus himself stood on the speaker’s platform in the Forum and read the eulogy. Both a theatre and a library were named after him. In a legitimately wild piece of sucking up, Virgil added Marcellus to the parade of dead heroes met by Aeneas in book six of the Aeneid, during his trip to the Underworld, and the description of Marcellus – who was so young he’d not even be allowed to drink or vote in America – is something else. It includes some allusions to Marcellus’s unconquered valour in war. I love this bit because, sure, any teenager who has not been to war can claim to be technically unconquered. Every new recruit to any army can claim to be unconquered. When I die, I’d like everyone to write a poem and celebrate the fact that I was also undefeated in battle, thanks. The point of all this is that Augustus used Marcellus’s death to demonstrate that his family now was the Roman state and his loss was their loss.
Unfortunately, as a girl, poor Julia is nowhere to be found in all of this. All we know is that, after a surprisingly long two years of widowhood while Augustus waited for a new heir to show up, Julia was handed over to a new husband. Augustus had no more nephews so instead he chose a more immediate successor and gave Julia to his long-time best friend and sidekick, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.
Copyright © 2023 Emma Southon