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Caesars' Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire
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Caesars' Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire

by Annelise Freisenbruch
 

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In scandals and power struggles obscured by time and legend, the wives, mistresses, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the Caesars have been popularly characterized as heartless murderers, shameless adulteresses, and conniving politicians in the high dramas of the Roman court. Yet little has been known about who they really were and their true roles in the

Overview

In scandals and power struggles obscured by time and legend, the wives, mistresses, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the Caesars have been popularly characterized as heartless murderers, shameless adulteresses, and conniving politicians in the high dramas of the Roman court. Yet little has been known about who they really were and their true roles in the history-making schemes of imperial Rome’s ruling Caesars—indeed, how they figured in the rise, decline, and fall of the empire.

Now, in Caesars’ Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire, Annelise Freisenbruch pulls back the veil on these fascinating women in Rome’s power circles, giving them the chance to speak for themselves for the first time. With impeccable scholarship and arresting storytelling, Freisenbruch brings their personalities vividly to life, from notorious Livia and scandalous Julia to Christian Helena. Starting at the year 30 BC, when Cleopatra, Octavia, and Livia stand at the cusp of Rome’s change from a republic to an autocracy, Freisenbruch relates the story of Octavian and Marc Antony’s clash over the fate of the empire—an archetypal story that has inspired a thousand retellings—in a whole new light, uncovering the crucial political roles these first "first ladies" played. From there, she takes us into the lives of the women who rose to power over the next five centuries—often amid violence, speculation, and schemes—ending in the fifth century ad, with Galla Placidia, who was captured by Goth invaders (and married to one of their kings). The politics of Rome are revealed through the stories of Julia, a wisecracking daughter who disgraced her father by getting drunk in the Roman forum and having sex with strangers on the speaker’s platform; Poppea, a vain and beautiful mistress who persuaded the emperor to kill his mother so that they could marry; Domitia, a wife who had a flagrant affair with an actor before conspiring in her husband’s assassination; and Fausta, a stepmother who tried to seduce her own stepson and then engineered his execution—afterward she was boiled to death as punishment.

Freisenbruch also tells a fascinating story of how the faces of these influential women have been refashioned over the millennia to tell often politically motivated stories about their reigns, in the process becoming models of femininity and female power. Illuminating the anxieties that persist even today about women in or near power and revealing the female archetypes that are a continuing legacy of the Roman Empire, Freisenbruch shows the surprising parallels of these iconic women and their public and private lives with those of our own first ladies who become part of the political agenda, as models of comportment or as targets for their husbands’ opponents. Sure to transform our understanding of these first ladies, the influential women who witnessed one of the most gripping, significant eras of human history, Caesars’ Wives is a significant new chronicle of an era that set the foundational story of Western Civilization and hung the mirror into which every era looks to find its own reflection.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A groundbreaking study of some of the most powerful women in early Western civilization….The author breathes new life into these overlooked subjects. A captivating look at imperial Rome’s roots in the making of the modern stateswoman.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Fascinating and enjoyable.” —Publishers Weekly

“A book both scholarly and racy…[Freisenbruch] restores to life some of the toughest, most colorful, and most bizarre women who ever existed.” –Robert Harris for Sunday Times (London)

Publishers Weekly
Former BBC freelance researcher Freisenbruch addresses a long-neglected topic in this intriguing study of the first ladies of the Roman Empire. While emphasizing such colorful individuals as Livia, the long-lived, scheming wife of Augustus; Agrippina, the mother of Nero, whose assertion of authority over him ended in her execution; and Julia Domna, the brilliant and tragic wife of the African-born Emperor Septimius Severus, Freisenbruch has also given us valuable information on less dramatic but steadier women whose presence enabled the Western Empire to flourish. Particularly significant were the roles of Helena and Fausta, the mother and wife respectively of Constantine the Great, in ensuring the triumph of Christianity in the Empire. Weakened only by a slight tendency to compare and contrast events with the modern media versions of Rome, Freisenbruch's debut is both fascinating and enjoyable. (Nov.)
Library Journal
The calculating Livia; the licentious Messalina; the devout Christian Helena—Roman history is populated with famous and infamous women, giving classical scholar Freisenbruch ample material for her survey of the wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters of the Roman Empire's ruling dynasties. While she doesn't skimp on the scandalous details, Freisenbruch's central aim is to examine the complex lives of a group of women who might have lacked official power but still held enormous sway in the political arena. In particular, she delves into how the public images of an emperor's wife and his female relatives became a powerful force to influence popular opinion and bolster the legitimacy of his reign. Although there was resulting pressure on imperial women to be models of virtue, it also opened the door for them to become patrons of the arts and public works, appear as symbolic figures in statuary and on currency, and even become deified after death. VERDICT Those already well versed in Roman history will find little new here, but for general readers this is an entertaining and educational book that captures the vividness of its subjects' lives while drawing an interesting parallel between the political treatment of Rome's "first ladies" and their counterparts in the modern world.—Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
Kirkus Reviews

A groundbreaking study of some of the most powerful women in early Western civilization.

Latin teacher Freisenbruch examines how Rome's leading ladies were expected to perform two millennia ago. Drawing from sources both classical and current, the author explores the biographies of Rome's imperial women during a 500-year period, from the flourishing of the empire to its demise—roughly 40 BCE to 450 CE. Freisenbruch convincingly argues that many of these women—Livia (wife of Augustus and first Empress of Rome), Agrippina Minor (wife of Claudius and mother of Nero), Messalina (wife of Claudius), Helena (mother of Constantine)—actually figured large in the political rise and fall of their husbands and sons, as well as in laying the foundation for female conduct at the highest level as empress and in subsequent generations of the patrician or senatorial class. Freisenbruch shows that their influence extended not only to behavior but to all areas of fashion—from dress to hairstyle—and commerce, with their depictions on Roman currency often contributing to the political spin of the day. Classical biographers faced with the challenge of constructing a coherent life from fragmentary or conflicting sources must overcome the additional hurdle of having to gaze through the centuries-thick male lens when trying to portray female subjects. Freisenbruch ably rises to the occasion, taking an "agnostic approach to the eclectic array of narrative choices and prototypes that face us." Providing well-chosen, scintillating details—e.g., enemies being boiled alive, familial bonds savagely snapped in an instant—alongside careful historical analysis, the author breathes new life into these overlooked subjects.

Not nearly as soporific as most classical studies—a captivating look at imperial Rome's roots in the making of the modern stateswoman.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416583059
Publisher:
Atria Books
Publication date:
10/25/2011
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
740,572
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Annelise Freisenbruch was born in 1977 in Paget, Bermuda, and moved to the UK at the age of eight. She studied Classics to postgraduate level at Cambridge University, receiving a PhD in 2004 for her thesis on the correspondence between the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and his tutor Cornelius Fronto. During that time, she also taught Classics at a private school in Cambridge. She has worked as a research assistant on a number of popular books and films about the ancient world, and regularly gives talks to schools about Classics in popular culture. Annelise Freisenbruch was the researcher to Bettany Hughes on her critically acclaimed book Helen of Troy (Vintage). She was also a specialist series researcher on the BBC1 docu-drama series Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, and is currently working on films on Attila the Hun and Spartacus for the BBC. Annelise holds a PhD in Classics from Cambridge University and has worked as a freelance history researcher in the media for the last four years. She lives in Cambridge, where she teaches Latin to middle-school children. Caesars' Wives is her first book.

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