By Martijn Icks
Women don’t have it easy in politics. They are held to high, often conflicting, standards by men, but perhaps by other women too. If they happen to be attractive, they run the risk of being shelved in the “bimbo” or “dumb blonde” category: all beauty, no brains. Others may be criticized for their lack of elegance or unfashionable appearance, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Female politicians may be discredited because they are too “feminine” (read: too soft and emotional) or too “masculine” (read: too cold and businesslike), a complaint often made against Hillary Clinton.
In imperial Rome, empresses had image problems as well, but for a different reason: while they shared a bedroom with the most powerful man in the world, they were not supposed to wield any power themselves. As good wives and mothers, they were supposed to take care of the household, give birth to children and see them safely to adulthood, but no more than that. Ever the traditionalist, Emperor Augustus boasted that all his clothes were spun by the women of his own family, whose exalted position apparently had not led them to neglect their domestic duties.
Nevertheless, many Romans – at least Roman men, whose voices we usually hear – had misgivings about women occupying such a prominent place in the heart of power. This can be gleaned particularly well from the reputation of Rome’s two most notorious empresses: Messalina and Agrippina. While both have gone down in history as “bad” women, they were bad in very different and very telling ways.
Valeria Messalina was the third wife of Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 CE) and the mother of his only son and heir, Britannicus (who was named in honour of the emperor’s conquest of Britain). An ancient statue shows her as a virtuous wife and mother, her body completely covered, the infant son on her arm reaching out to her. To modern viewers, the image bears a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.
However, a very different Messalina emerges from the literary sources, where she is defined by her unbridled and insatiable lust. Allegedly, the empress snuck out of the palace at night to commit adulteries while Claudius was sleeping and beat the most experienced prostitute of Rome in a sex competition, sleeping with no less than 25 lovers in just 24 hours. She came to a nasty end when the emperor found out that she had married another man. Messalina, in short, represents uncontrolled female sexuality – the very opposite of the chaste image championed by the regime.
Julia Agrippina, Claudius’ fourth wife, was of a different caliber. According to the hostile literary tradition, she was not interested in sex, but in power. As soon as she married the emperor, the historian Tacitus records that:
(…) it was a changed state, and all things moved at the fiat of a woman – but not a woman who, as Messalina, treated in wantonness the Roman Empire as a toy. It was a tight-drawn, almost masculine tyranny. (Annals 12.7)
As the ancient sources have it, Agrippina virtually took control of the government, manipulating her docile husband with great ease to do her bidding. She let no opportunity slip to push her son Nero into Claudius’s eye, even persuading him to adopt the boy and favor him over Britannicus as his heir. When the time was ripe, she poisoned her husband so that Nero could ascend the throne.
Roman coins attest to Agrippina’s extraordinary position during the first years of Nero’s reign, depicting the new ruler and his mother facing each other on the obverse, the side of the coin usually reserved for the imperial portrait. It was a striking innovation that will surely have raised some Roman eyebrows.
Tacitus and other authors scorn the empress’s usurpation of more and more male privileges. Notoriously, she listened in on Senate meetings from behind a curtain and could barely be prevented from interfering in the reception of a foreign embassy. When Nero tried to free himself from his mother’s influence, Agrippina even made a calculated effort to seduce him to bring him back under her sway. In the end he saw no other solution than having her murdered, although it took quite some effort before she was finally dead.
Even to a casual reader, it’s unmistakable that the figures of Messalina and Agrippina as portrayed by Roman historians evoke male anxieties, each challenging male authority in their own way. Their extremely hostile depictions in ancient literature betray a deeply felt unease with women taking initiative to pursue their own goals – especially if those goals were related to sex or power.
We can take these stories as testimony of a misogynist culture from the distant past. Yet there is something eerily familiar about the images of the man-eating seductress and the domineering wife and mother. Modern women have gained more freedom to pursue a career in politics, but the clichés are by no means a thing of the past.