Fulvia with the Head of Cicero by Pavel Svedomsky (source)
As most History and Classical Studies buffs know, women in ancient Rome rarely had access to positions of power. In Rome’s patriarchal society, men ruled over almost all walks of life, from politics and art to business and the household. Women were not allowed to vote, and their husbands were chosen for them—usually by their fathers.
Given the strict limitations placed on women in ancient Roman society, it’s inspiring to learn about the female trailblazers who managed to challenge convention, and rise above their traditional domestic roles.
Read on to discover how a few power-players and rebels changed the course of history by subverting male power to further their own ambitions!
1. Lucilla: A True Roman Revolutionary
As the young wife of Emperor Verus (130-169 AD), Lucilla was granted the prestigious title of empress early on in life – but found herself stripped of the station after Verus’s untimely death in battle. She went from being an influential and respected figure to a widow destined for an unappealing arranged marriage to a man of much lower social status. Defying cultural expectations, Lucilla was determined to retain her place of power in ancient Rome.
When her erratic and unstable brother Commodus took over as emperor, Lucilla recognized him as a threat to the nation, and hatched a daring plan to have him assassinated – an endeavor she ultimately paid for with her life. Lucilla was executed for treason by order of the wrathful Commodus, but went down in history as a revolutionary figure who challenged Rome’s male-dominated political sphere.
2. Aurelia Cotta: Political Advisor to Julius Caesar
Students who study Classical Studies in Rome will recognize Aurelia Cotta as the beloved mother of Julius Caesar. But she certainly did not confine herself to a traditional maternal role!
Although she was descended from a long line of consuls (a political advisor of the highest order in ancient Rome), Aurelia was never intended to assume the role herself, because by law, only men could serve as consuls.
However, when an 18 year old Julius Caesar was sentenced to death for refusing to divorce his wife, Aurelia took on the Roman establishment by leading the lobby to save his life. After this successful intervention, she continued to defy convention by serving as consul to her son, advising him throughout his political career.
Admired by Romans in her own time, and remembered long after as an exceptional figure, Aurelia is often described as a model of intelligence and independence.
3. Fulvia: Rebel & Rainmaker
Fulvia (83-40 BCE) found power through three marriages to influential Romans, and with each alliance became further entrenched in the political power struggles of the Late Roman Republic.
In fact, when her third husband, the famous Marc Antony and Emperor Augustus left Rome to pursue Caesar’s murderers, Fulvia assumed control of the entire city of Rome. It is said that no business transaction or political decision was made without her approval! Undergraduates who study Political Science in Rome will learn about how, without his consent, Fulvia later raised armies to fight against the reigning Augustus in an attempt to further Marc Antony’s power.
Said to be quite ruthless, Fulvia is depicted in a famous painting by Pavel Svedomsky sticking golden hair pins into the tongue of a beheaded Cicero – Marc Antony’s political enemy.
In a tangible tribute to her defiant spirit and unprecedented influence, Fulvia became the first woman (other than goddesses) to appear on a Roman coin.
Interested in learning more about women in ancient Rome when you study abroad in Italy? Which female trailblazers interest you most?