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5 of the Most Powerful Women in Ancient Rome

Updated on May 4, 2010

Everything was epic in Ancient Rome, the battles, the leaders, the gladiators, even the women.

Ancient Roman society prized honor, intellect, and strength. The wealthy of this empire were power hungry and were willing to lie, cheat, and even kill to get it. This was a culture where to much was never enough.

Cornelia Africana

The ideal Roman woman Cornelia Africana was well educated and humble. Once when a woman spoke of her jewels, she pointed to her sons and exclaimed they were her jewels.

Cornelia Africana was married to Tiberius Gracchus Major and the two had 12 children however only three survived into adulthood; a daughter, and her two beloved sons Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.

Cornelia was a staunch supporter of her sons political ambitions  She helped Gaius undermine the consul of Opimus and deeply influenced his rhetoric. Cornelia is one of only 4 women from Ancient Rome whose writings still survive.

A marble statue of Cornelia was erected in Rome after her death but only the base survives today.

190 BC-100 BC

Epicharis

Epicharis was a freed Roman slave who was part of the Pisonian conspiracy against the Emperor Nero. She allegedly became involved in the conspiracy through her lover a brother of Seneca.

Epicharis was very diligent that they must act quickly but her fellow conspirators seemed to be rather hesitant. She was attempting to recruit sailors whenever she made the acquaintance of Volusius Proculus, a chiliarch who quickly betrayed her.

When Epicharis was brought before the emperor she said nothing. She mentioned no names and adamantly denied the existence of any conspiracy to dethrone him. When the conspiracy was finally discovered through the mouths of others Nero ordered Epicharis tortured.

Nothing made Epicharis speak however. No matter how severely she was beaten or burned Epicharis would not name any names. A few days after her torture had began Epicharis was being carried in a sedan chair due to her limbs being broken. Rather than speak or be further tortured she strangled herself with the girdle holding her to the chair.

According to Tacitus Epicharis acted more nobly than most senators who had betrayed many close friends and relatives to save themselves.

?-65 AD

Valeria Messalina

Wife of the emperor Claudius and promiscuous to legendary proportions Valeria Messalina was at one time one of the most powerful women in Rome.

Messalina and Claudius had two children Claudia Octavia and Britannicus . Claudius was quite a bit older than Messalina and in fear of his death she fought mercilessly to ensure that her son Britannicus would inherit the throne.

When Agrippina the younger was allowed to return from her exile Messalina immediately recognized her and her son the future emperor Nero as a threat. She attempted to have him assassinated.

Messalina probably would have remained in good favor with her husband the emperor Claudius had she not been so unfaithful. Legend has it that Messalina and a famous Roman prostitute once had a contest to see who could bed the most men in 24 hours, with Messalina winning.

Her downfall came when she became involved with Silius; Messalina forced him to divorce his wife and the two became involved in a plot to kill the emperor Claudius. Tiberius Claudius Narcissus warned Claudius of the plot while he was in Ostia.

Messalina and Silius were executed in 48 AD and Claudius remarried to Agrippina in 49 AD. The only ones who mourned the fallen Messalina were her children.

17 AD-48 AD


Livia Drusilla

Livia Drusilla was the third wife of the emperor Augustus Caesar, she was also one of his closest advisers.


Augustus Caesar is said to have fallen in love with Livia at first sight and quickly divorced his wife Scribonia to be with her. When the two married Livonia was supposedly six months pregnant with the child of Tiberius Claudius Nero at the time.

Livia experienced great power in Rome. Unlike many women she acted as counselor to her husband and often petitioned him on behalf of others. Much like Cornelia Africana Livia Drusilla was the perfect example of a proper Roman lady. She managed he household, was always faithful to Augustus Caesar, and did not wear ostentatious costumes.

She had many powers that women did not typically have in Rome though. Augustus Caesar allowed Livia to manage her own finances and had a statue erected in her honor. She was extremely politically active even having her own circle of clients such as Galba and Otho.

After the death of Augustus Caesar Livia still remained quite powerful. There was supposedly much discord between the new Emperor Tiberius and his mother, possibly due to her ambitious nature.

Livia died in 29 AD, and her funeral oration was given by Caligula.

58 BC-29 AD

Agrippina the Younger

The wife of the Emperor Claudius, sister of Caligula and mother of Nero; Agrippina is certainly an interesting figure in Roman history.

Agrippina is a woman who allegedly murdered two husbands, displaced a rightful heir, and had an incestuous affair with her son.

Agrippina was noted for her beauty, she was also noted for being ruthless, domineering, and bloodthirsty. She supposedly poisoned her second husband a wealthy landowner and then married the Emperor Claudius.

Agrippina was a very clever woman, she was able to get Claudius to pass his throne to her son Nero rather than his own son Brittanicus. Shortly after Claudius named Nero as his heir he died from eating poison mushrooms. Brittanicus was assassinated at age 13.

Agrippina ruled alongside her son Nero as his regent, and many believe had an incestuous relationship Her last words were 'Stab here', she had directed the soldier to stab her in the lower abdomen. The womb in which she had carried Nero.


15 AD-59 AD


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