Caesars’ Wives — an interview with author and teacher, Annelise Freisenbruch

image of the cover of "Caesars' Wives"With us today is the author of Caesars’ Wives : Sex, power and politics in the Roman Empire, Annelise Freisenbruch. Ms. Freisenbruch is a graduate of Cambridge University, has previously worked for the BBC and currently teaches Latin to middle school students in Dorset. She has written an exemplary book about the role of women in Roman society, starting from the early beginnings of the empire with the death of Julius Caesar all the way to the rise of Christianity in Rome.  I have the opportunity to email her some questions which she has so kindly responded to below:

My first question to you is: what made you write this book? Did you feel that ancient women needed a voice?

Yes, I did think they needed a voice, although I’m not claiming to be able to speak for them or to have some kind of psychological insight into their characters. I’m allergic to the kind of history books that speculate on what figures from history ‘must have’ been thinking. But I did think that there was a real need for a book about these very colourful but much misrepresented women that would bring their life stories to a general readership, and paint a portrait that was not just based on scandalous anecdotage but on a wide spectrum of evidence from literature, art and archaeology. At the same time, I wanted to challenge some of the prevailing stereotypes – much popularized in modern retellings like HBO’s Rome series – of Roman women as either passive automatons or scheming, murderous nymphos.

At university I studied ancient history and classics, and, after reading your book, was surprised at how little I knew about the role of women in the politics of Rome. Do you feel that the women of ancient times are underrepresented in academics? On a broader note, do you feel that classics is neglected in secondary education? If so, what can be done to improve the teaching in this area? What other works/authors (besides primary source material) did you consult? Was there any one author or scholar whose work in this area influenced your writing?

Until about the 1970s, the study of women from antiquity was indeed almost completely neglected. Fortunately things have changed quite a bit over the past few decades, thanks in no small part to groundbreaking works like Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, first published in 1975, and work done since then by the likes of Elaine Fantham, Suzanne Dixon, Sandra Joshel, Amy Richlin, Marleen Flory, Emily Hemelrijk, Susan Treggiari, Susan Wood and Maria Wyke, to name just a few of those whose work I was indebted to in writing my book.

As to the health of Classics in secondary schools – I’m a Latin teacher in my spare time so I take a keen interest in this. There are reasons to be optimistic – surveys show that most schools, both independent and state, would be keen to teach more Latin than they do now, and recognize the benefits. Latin teaching has changed a lot in recent decades – it’s not all ‘mensa, mensa, mensam’ any more, there’s a big emphasis on learning about Roman history and culture in tandem with the language, which is as it should be, and makes it much more appealing, particularly to pupils who find the linguistic part difficult. The major problem is not the quality of the teaching, but a shortfall in trained Classics teachers, a lack of space in the curriculum, and residual antagonism to Latin as an elite, ‘irrelevant’ subject. I still get questions all the time about ‘the point’ of studying a dead language like Latin or Greek, both from parents and pupils, even though they rarely ask ‘the point’ of studying Shakespeare, knowing about the American Civil War or learning a musical instrument. Hopefully, campaigns like ‘Classics for All’ can continue to remind people that Latin, as well as bringing huge benefits to a child in terms of their language, vocabulary and understanding of grammar, is an intellectually enriching – and hugely enjoyable, dare I say it – subject that is the gateway to studying the founding culture of western civilization (though I have to admit that, from experience, this answer does not tend to impress a 10 year old

You write a great deal about Livia, Augustus’s wife. There’s been a trend recently to rethink her role in the affairs of Ancient Rome? (for example, Mary Mudd’s : “I, Livia : the counterfeit criminal : the story of a much maligned woman” or Anthony Barrett’s: “Livia: The First Lady of Rome.” Do you feel that she has been treated unfairly by historians, ancient and modern?

Although I really love Robert Graves’ novel, I, Claudius, and have a fondness for the TV series, it’s probably done more to fix in people’s heads the idea of Livia as a cold, manipulative Lady Macbeth character than any other modern cultural force – although Graves himself, to be fair, was just repeating much of what he’d read in Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus. Livia’s actually a very enigmatic and complex historical figure, and it’s true that until relatively recently, as with other Roman women, most treatments of her didn’t really reflect that – although as you rightly point out, works like Anthony Barrett’s biography have been hugely important in offering a reassessment.

Your work is also unique in that you profile the role of women across a broad spectrum of Roman history (instead of focusing solely on one “female player”, such as Agrippina, Livia, Cleopatra). Could you elaborate on this? Were there commonalities between these women that made this structure more appealing and useful?

The idea of doing a ‘group biography’ was important to me, because I really wanted to examine the role of Roman ‘first lady’, and look at what different women brought to it across the centuries – something that hadn’t really been done before as far as I could see. I found it intriguing to compare the ways in which they were expected to act out the role, according to the political needs of the time – so you have Livia, in the late first century BC, who was portrayed as a woman who shunned extravagant dress and could be personally petitioned by ordinary people, a persona that fitted in nicely with her husband Augustus’ agenda of presenting himself as a ‘regular guy’. Then you move ahead to the 4th and 5th centuries AD, and the picture changes dramatically – women like Honorius’ sister Galla Placidia are richly clad in their coin portraits, but were kept in cloistered seclusion. This reflected the more precarious political times in which they lived, when those in power took pains to fashion themselves as untouchable figures.

Do you feel that the women of Ancient Rome learned from the successes and failures of those that came before them or did each one re-invent the role depending upon the circumstances in which they found themselves?

I find that a difficult one to answer – partly because it’s virtually impossible to know how much say the Caesars’ wives had in crafting their own public image. Whereas a modern first lady like Michelle Obama will decide – in consultation with advisors – what kind of ‘first lady’ they want to be, what causes they’re going to associate themselves with and so on, we really have no idea whether Plotina’s advisors sat down with her husband Trajan’s and said ‘she wants to champion women’s education’. But there is plenty of evidence of different regimes seeking either to ally or distance themselves from their predecessors, and of the emperor’s wives being deployed in that game of spin – for example, Pliny the Younger, who wrote a speech praising Plotina’s husband Trajan, alluded to the fact that at least the women in this emperor’s family wouldn’t disgrace him as previous emperors’ female relatives had.

In early pages of the book, you discuss how the wives of some of the American Founding Fathers would use women from Ancient Rome as nicknames (xviii-ix, Introduction). These women identified strongly with their ancient counterparts. If the wife of a president or politician (American or otherwise) were to do that today, would it have the same effect or would it be lost on society today? What can the wives of today’s political leaders learn from the wives of Ancient Rome?

To be honest, I can’t think of a single Roman first lady who a modern political spouse might feel comfortable comparing herself! Certainly not Messalina, who was supposed to have traded in secret as a prostitute, or Augustus’ daughter Julia who got herself exiled on charges of drunkenness and adultery. But I think a modern first lady like Cherie Blair or Hillary Clinton – who both had a pretty torrid time of it at the hands of the media – might feel a certain empathy if they knew the extent to which the names of ancient first ladies were often blackened to serve a political purpose.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is how you do not focus the book solely on Cleopatra. Do you feel that Cleopatra damaged the reputation of women in Roman society for future generations, taking away the positives of some of the other Roman wives profiled in your book?

There are already more than enough books on Cleopatra out there to go round, but she does nevertheless have an important cameo role to play in the early stages of my book, because if you look at the way that she was vilified by Roman commentators in the aftermath of the battle of Actium, you get a preview of the kind of prejudices and criticisms that would be leveled against disgraced Roman women like Nero’s second wife Poppaea, who was often compared to Cleopatra.

Today, many young women identify with pop stars and actresses as their role models. If you could chose one woman from ancient history that young women today should admire, who would that be and why? What can the young people of today (women, especially) learn from the women of Ancient Rome?

They can be grateful for a start that a woman’s place in history need no longer depend on who she is married to or who her father is. It drives me up the wall when young girls or adult women are indifferent to the achievements of feminism, and take for granted their right to a vote, an education and equality before the law (rights all denied to Roman women). It would be hard to single out any one Roman woman as a role model – given that, as my book tries to show, their public personas are largely the result of centuries of spin. But I have a fondness for Julia Domna, who was said to have retreated into a world of philosophy and learning when palace politics became too ugly; and Galla Placidia, Honorius’ sister, who having had an exciting youth being abducted by Goth invaders, later had to act almost as regent for her son Valentinian III when he became emperor at the age of six, and protect him from the political egos of those seeking to secure the most influence over him.

Many visitors who read my blog are avid travelers and go to Rome and Italy often. What place/museum in Rome that is still standing today might one of my readers visit that would help them to better understand and identify with these women? Is there a monument/site where the hand and influence of Rome’s powerful women can be seen? Perhaps a work of art?

My favourite place to visit in Rome is the Palatine Hill, where most Roman emperors and their families lived. The light is wonderful, you have a panoramic view of the city, and since the House of Augustus was opened in 2008, so you can go and wander round the remains of the home where Livia and Augustus lived. For the really intrepid traveler looking to go a bit further afield, you could try a visit to Ventotene, a little island about an hour’s ferry ride from the port at Formia. This was where Julia, Agrippina Minor and Claudia Octavia, among other imperial women, spent various periods of exile, and it’s a bit of a hidden gem – though don’t take the fast ferry if you get seasick.

When people purchase and read your book, what is the most important thing that you would like to see them come away with after reading it?

I really just hope they enjoy the ride, and come away with a new appreciation of the little-known part played by women in Roman politics. But it would be great too if we became more attuned to the way in which the portrayal of these women in ancient sources was often dictated by a wider political agenda that sought to idolize or denigrate them as a way of commenting on their husbands or father’s regimes – and that’s something that I think has resonance for us in today’s political culture.

Lastly, you are such an excellent writer, and I hope that you plan to write more in the future. Do you have any plans for future works?

Thank you so much! – I definitely plan to keep writing, and am currently doing some preliminary research on my next book. I can’t tell you its subject yet (too superstitious), but it is about another area of Roman history which I think merits a reassessment. But there won’t be very many women in the picture this time.