“Who could resist the chance to take time out at Tivoli? It’s the Roman world in miniature…”
Notorious. What other word can encompass the lives led by the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty? As Rome morphed from a Republic to an Empire under the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero their wives and mothers took centre stage. With varying profiles of courage, ruthlessness, and skill women such as Livia, Octavia, as well as the elder and younger Agrippina, emerged as the true backbone of the dynasty. Their stories are familiar from the pages of I, Claudius. The various and nefarious paths each woman took to power are chronicled in Guy de la Bedoyere’s Domina, a behind-the-scenes tour of the machinery and chicanery that really made the Roman Empire tick.
Guy de la Bédoyère was born in Wimbledon and studied Archaeology and History at the Universities of Durham and London. Starting in 1998 he appeared regularly on the Channel 4 archaeological television series Time Team. That same year he became a freelance writer and broadcaster. In addition to his many respected studies of the Romans, especially during their occupation of Britain, Guy has published books chronicling the lives and friendship of the diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.
Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome was published in September 2018 by Yale University Press. To find out more click here.
Domina was the formal name for the female head of a household. Indeed, it comes from the word for a house, domus. The senior women of the imperial family were addressed by that title though some were also called Augusta if they had been given that title (not all empresses were). Domina covers all of them.
Roman women ran the household, many of which were staffed by people held as slaves. Why are we still surprised that Roman women knew how to successfully manage, manipulate, and tyrannise?
Roman history is completely dominated by accounts of men and written in terms of their lives or careers. There are no ‘lives’ of the empresses, for example. Roman women, especially powerful ones, were subjected to a great deal of stereotyping by Roman historians who either depicted them as women of great honour and purity, or as duplicitous and immoral schemers. These were rhetorical devices that were used by them to depict their husbands and sons in a good or bad light. Extrapolating the truth is very difficult and perhaps now impossible.
What is clear is that while women were able to operate outside the ‘system’ because they held no office, they were also restricted by having to work through men. There is no doubt that this led to a certain amount of subterfuge and lateral approaches. Those who were most successful were also the most vulnerable and liable to terrible retribution. But it is important to understand that the men of the dynasty suffered equally hideous fates too. It’s too easy to depict the women as the only victims of the ambition and cruelty that pervaded the dynasty.
The book details many of the objects created to enhance the image of the Julio/Claudian dynasty. If you could pocket one, even if you needed a very big pocket, which would it be?
I already have it. It’s the silver cistophorus coin of Claudius and Agrippina the Younger made at Ephesus in 51. There they are with their heads beside each other in the manner of joint rulers. It was unprecedented and never repeated. It shows how far she had managed to get. I was so fascinated by the coin I purchased it. It inspired the book.
Did Agrippina the Elder live up to the hype? Would she have made a good Augusta?
Agrippina the Elder was dealt a terrible blow when her husband Germanicus died in 19 in Syria. That destroyed any chance she had of becoming an empress unless she had been allowed long enough to survive into her son Caligula’s reign. Again, what is the truth? Tacitus was keen to depict her as a victim and as a woman of great dignity. It would seem that in some respects he may have been right. Germanicus and she would have been celebrated by the mob had he been made emperor. But for all we know he could have descended into despotism like their son Caligula. Who knows what Agrippina would have turned into?
Might the stupendous fabric of the Roman system have resisted yielding to the pressure of its own weight for longer if women had been woven in directly and able to exercise power in their own right, rather than through an occasionally pliant male?
Again, this is completely speculative and with so many factors involved it is impossible to say. The rise of the Severan women in the third century and then certain women like Galla Placidia in the fifth show that under certain circumstances women could gain even more remarkable power than the Julio-Claudians. But the Roman world was a militarized superstate and it depended on military leadership to survive. The women would have had to be prepared to lead armies. Agrippina the Elder showed that some women came close to being able to do that.
I’m guessing there’s a copy of ‘I, Claudius’ somewhere on your bookshelves. Are there any contemporary novelists (who use ancient Rome as their setting) there too? Who do you esteem and recommend?
In all honesty, I do not read much fiction and especially not ancient fiction. The real story is quite compelling enough. In fact, had a novelist invented the Julio-Claudians and their story he or she would have been laughed at for writing something so implausible. The little ancient fiction I have read usually contains the odd quite significant error that makes them totally implausible.
You’ve got a one-way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family. When and where are you taking them?
Funnily enough, not Rome. It would either be Pompeii and the chance to see the faces of the people who lived in the houses I have visited there, and to smell the place, or it would be Lullingstone Villa in Kent. I know Lullingstone very well. The setting is little changed and I’d love to see the original house as a living home with the people who lived there.
You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the Library of Alexandria. Which do you choose?
Who could resist the chance to take time out at Tivoli? It’s the Roman world in miniature with fabulous buildings and doubtless visited by interesting people, but most especially because of Hadrian. I’d like to meet him. He’d have been mesmerized by tales of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.
Will there ever be anything as good as Time Team on telly again?
Was it really that good? There’s a lot of rose-tinted spectacles going on with Time Team. It was great fun to be on and a privilege to participate in. I saw some remarkable places and met some very special people. But it was around for too long. The experience became repetitive and began to turn into a dog-day afternoon, especially on dud sites where we scrabbled around for a story. In fact making TV programmes is generally very boring and I got very bored of it.
On the whole I avoid TV like the plague now. The thought of hanging round all day on set is too ghastly to contemplate. Time Team was very expensive to make and those days are long gone. There will certainly be nothing like it again, at least not in our time, because the budgets do not exist to make shows like that. As for ‘as good’ I’m sure that as time moves on later generations will find plenty in their own lives that is just as good, even if it’s completely different. All things must pass. And Time Team is past – forever.
What’s next for you?
Perhaps I should think about selling one of my 1970s Honda motorcycles before I do anything else! I’ve been writing books for over thirty years. That is what I mainly do now, but with an increasing sense of uncertainty about where books and publishing are headed. I have two books on the boil at the moment, one a survey book of life in the Roman army from original sources, and one about how the Romans became rich and what it did to them.
I have lecture tours in Australia and New Zealand in 2020. After that, who knows? I travel a lot with my wife and we are enjoying seeing our granddaughters grow up. I’m 61 now and keen to make the most of being fit and well and having the time to do things I haven’t an opportunity to do before. Mick Aston was only five years older than I am now when he died. Robin Bush, Time Team’s archivist, was only six years older than I am now when he went. Tragedies like that are a lesson not to sit around waiting for the ‘right time’ to do something. As Mr Micawber said in David Copperfield, ‘something will turn up’.