Historians shape our view of the past in how they tell it. Most of premodern human history is told through the male lens. If they wrote about women at all, it was limited to women with exceptional talents, powerful women, or those who exercised extreme malice and evil. Likely, these male historians didn’t wear out their quill pen elaborating on the women’s point of view or their feelings. So the best we can do is to infer women’s emotional state from their reactions to their circumstances. Historians shape our view of the past in how they tell it. Most of premodern human history is told through the male lens. If they wrote about women at all, it was limited to women with exceptional talents, powerful women, or those who exercised extreme malice and evil. Likely, these male historians didn’t wear out their quill pen elaborating on the women’s point of view or their feelings. So the best we can do is to infer women’s emotional state from their reactions to their circumstances.
In premodern history, women’s greatest contributions was giving birth. Whatever else they may have accomplished, with a few exceptions, their stories died along with them. Unwrapping history to bring light to the exceptions, we discover that even in the most difficult of circumstances a handful of women found ways to make contributions to society through literature, medicine, science, and religion to name a few. As far as the millions of unknown women, we know one thing, something they kept to themselves, their interest in contraception. With fewer children, women could at least begin entertaining the idea of improved life circumstances or what we refer to as equality between genders. It’s been a long fight.
Reading history, we see how humans have changed and remained the same. When Julia, the elder, granddaughter of Julius Caesar, was growing up cruelty towards those who couldn’t defend themselves was routine. Today, we have infants, toddlers, and children locked up in cages at our country’s border. But when I take a longer view of human history, expressed eloquently by a 19th-century clergyman, Theodore Parker, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, I heave a sigh of relief.
Another parallelism could be comparing Julia’s life to Amy, Jenna, Barbara, Chelsea, Malia, and Sasha. These girls lived two millenniums apart, but their everyday life was dictated by who their father was (is). I’ll go out on a Methuselah’s limb (the oldest tree in the world) and say these young women would have made fast friends. But to comprehend the similarities and differences of Julia’s life—around the time Christ was born—we must grasp the cultural expectations and laws. In other words, attempt to walk in her moccasins.
In 27 BC, Octavian, adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar and father of Julia, was flying high after defeating his opponents. He was feeling so good he declared himself “princeps of Rome,” aka first citizen of Rome. The Senate eager to be in his good graces (sounds familiar) granted him the title augustus, meaning great. Historians identify this moment as the end of the Roman Republic (where citizens elected their representatives) and the beginning of the Roman Empire, a government led by emperors. Rulers were determined by the bloodline, not the republic or competency. Augustus invented the structure for this new world, creating laws as needed. After 41 years of Augustus’s rule, most people couldn’t recall any other system of governance.
Augustus’s conservative views were “dad knows best,” and an ideal wife was demure and fertile. He married Scribonia who bore him a daughter, Julia (39 BC). He’d wanted a boy, but you take what you can get. Days later, he divorces her. (San Jóse University) He marries Livia, a modest wife to his liking, who has two sons from a previous marriage. Unable to gift Augustus an heir, Livia put her energy into raising Julia in her own chaste image, with limited success.
Julia, the only child to the most important man in Rome, learned the meaning of public expectations. Spending her days spinning and weaving, she was told how to behave and to speak no evil, even in her private quarters. Anything she said could find its way outside the palace. The list of no-nos must have be long and daunting for a young girl. She and everyone in Rome understood her primary role; to provide an heir to succeed her father. Professor Joyce E. Salisbury, Professor Emerita writes: Augustus would choose whom she would marry. His motives were strictly political, but for him, there was no difference between politics and family. (thegreatcourses.com)
Augustus saw the family unit as the foundation for a well-organized state. He introduced bills in the Senate to regulate public morality. All men between 25 and 60 and women between 20 and 50 had to be married. Behind this law was his concern over the low birth rate, especially among high-class women, and for the men unwilling to take on responsibilities. His approach to winning the women over, instead of taking a mallet to their heads, he offers a rose. Senatorial women who bore three children and free women who had four would be emancipated from their husband’s control. She would be allowed to manage her property and control her own money. But the emperor learned that it’s easier to pass laws than enforce them. Dr. Salisbury: This legislation was written to encourage women to bear children, and it presupposes two things: that women wanted to be emancipated from men’s control and that women were using birth control methods to reduce their fecundity. It turns out that Augustus was correct on both accounts.
Augustus marries 14-year-old Julia to her cousin Marcellus, an engaging young man. Girls generally married between 12 and 14, with some before puberty. After two childless years of marriage, an epidemic swept through Rome taking Marcellus’s life, and Julia returned to her father’s house.
Back to square one for Augustus, find a suitable husband for his daughter. He marries Julia to his right-hand man, Agrippa, who’d been instrumental in bringing him to power. They produced five children: three sons—Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, and Agrippa—and two daughters—Julia the Younger and Agrippina. We don’t know what Julia thought of her new spouse. Her father was pleased.
In 12 BC, Agrippa dies with Julia pregnant with a son who is named Agrippa Postumus (indicating his father passed before he was born). Even so, the succession seemed secure. Augustus adopts his two favored grandsons, Gaius, and Lucius, next in line to rule.
Building a new society and getting people to behave is a big job with a lot to worries. Augustus suspects women are continuing to use birth control, especially when committing adultery. It’s possible that his mistresses, he had many, led him to this conclusion. So, a man does what man has to do. Augustus declares adultery to be a public offense but only for women, especially high-born ladies with much to lose. After all, Augustus’s male friends want to make sure the child they feed shares their bloodline. Men could fornicate all they wanted with lower-class women, slaves, and prostitutes. If they strayed and mingled with upper-class women, there was a price to pay. These laws set in motion future clashes between Augustus and Julia.
After Agrippa dies, Augustus’s laws require Julia marries again. This time, her father selects Tiberius, his stepson from Livia’s first marriage, forcing him to divorce his wife. Tiberius is designated Augustus’s heir if need be until his two grandsons from Julia’s womb come of age. Julia and Tiberius obey even though they can’t stand each other. She gets pregnant but has a miscarriage or an abortion. We will never know for sure. Tiberius has had enough and moves by himself to the island of Rhodes until he becomes emperor in 14 AD.
Since Julia produced more than three children, she’s supposed to be free of male control. Time to kick up her heels. But whispers of her scandalous behavior, from having lovers among Rome’s nobility to selling herself as a prostitute reach her father’s ears. Referring to Julia as” a disease of my flesh,” she’s exiled to Ventotene Island where her mother joins her. After all, he has to set a good example for his subjects.
Romans admired Julia’s wit and good-heartedness towards them and appeal to her father to ease the restrains. Influenced by public opinion, he agrees to move back to the mainland (southern Italy), giving her additional amenities while still restricting her movements and partying.
Augustus and Julia never reconciled. After he dies and Tiberius becomes emperor, Tiberius stops her allowance, confining her to house arrest with no resources. Some sources claim she starved to death in exile.
Returning to Joyce E. Salisbury: The new imperial laws on women and sexuality fell hard on the popular, rebellious daughter of Augustus, and she has been largely forgotten by male historians through the centuries. But the constraints she faced and her struggles against them were [are] confronted by women across time, even if they hadn’t heard of her.
Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, advocated for women’s right. (biography.com) He said women possessed “natural capacities” equal to men when it came to governing and defending ancient Greece. In the United States equal rights for women in the Constitution are denied us. More than two thousand years later, (some) men still resist, so we must persist. Learning their stories reminds us how women in history paid a price for what we take for granted. We have come a long way, but not all the way. Will I live long enough to see women remove the obstacles that remain?