Although they could not officially hold public offices, there were many strong-minded women who were able to influence the course of Roman history from a position behind the scenes. Julia, the only daughter of Emperor Augustus, was not one of them. In fact, her name stands out from the list of known imperial women at the time as probably the only one who was not involved in politics one way or the other. She became a largely ignored character and relegated to footnotes in the history relating to her family. From what we can gather from the little information we have about her life, Julia seemed to have been a happy girl and had no head for intrigue. In fact, one gets the impression that if she ended up being a wife of a low-ranking official or a well-off merchant, Julia would have been perfectly content. However, being the daughter of the first emperor of Rome meant that it was her destiny to be a part of the political maneuverings of the empire.
Julia, or Julia Augusti Filia (Julia Daughter of Augustus) was born in 39 BC, when Augustus was still known as Octavian. Octavian divorced Scribonia, Julia’s mother, and took Julia from her soon thereafter, claiming complete parental control over her in accordance with Roman custom. She then lived with Octavian and his new bride, Livia. Julia’s education appeared to be strict. In addition to her studies, in which she had access to the best teachers, literatures and references Rome could provide, she was taught the more traditional arts of spinning and weaving. As her childhood was at the beginning of Augustus’ rule, one would imagine that her father was still finding his stride as Emperor. Julia’s social life, therefore, was severely controlled, and she was allowed to talk only to people whom her father or Livia had vetted for her safety. Julia was well-loved by her father and was well known for her quick wit. The people who knew her described her as good-hearted, kind, and popular with the Roman people. However, this may not have been enough for Augustus who said in “a manner indulgent but serious” that he has two wayward daughters to manage: The Roman commonwealth and Julia.
As with most aristocratic Roman women of the period, expectations of Julia focused on marriage and on the resulting family alliances. She would also have had the added pressure of being the Emperor’s only child. At the age of 14 she was married to Marcus Claudius Marcellus, her cousin who was adopted by Augustus and thus designated as his possible successor. Marcellus died two years after his marriage to Julia and, at the age of 18, Julia was married off again, this time to Augustus’s great friend and general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa who, at the age of 43, was 25 years her senior— the same age as her father.
Despite their age difference, Julia and Agrippa had five children. Their child, Gaius, was born in 20 BC, followed by Lucius in 17 BC. That same year Gaius and Lucius were both adopted as heirs of Augustus, with Agrippa considered as regent in case Augustus should die before the boys came of age. Julia and Agrippa’s three other children included Julia the Younger, Agrippina the Elder who would later play a big role in Tiberius’ reign, and Agrippa Posthumus.
At 21 years old, Julia became the next lady of the empire after Livia. She was young, beautiful, cultured, and loved luxury. Julia lavished money generously, and therefore soon formed about her a sort of court in which featured the most famous names of the Roman aristocracy. It may be said that toward 18 BC, the younger, more “modern” Julia began to obscure Livia in the popular imagination, except for the small number of old conservative nobility. If Livia, like Augustus, wore garments of wool woven at home, Julia wore expensive oriental silks— a ruinous luxury according to the older ladies of Rome because of the expense, and indecent because of the prominence which the fabric gave to the figure. Where Livia was sparing, Julia was prodigal. If Livia preferred to go to the theater surrounded by elderly and dignified men, Julia showed herself in public with elegant and handsome youths. Agrippa, compared to his young wife, was an old, simple man of obscure origin who was frequently absent on affairs of state.
After Agrippa died in 12 BC, Julia was married again the following year, this time to Tiberius, who was the son of Livia by her first husband. However, the marriage between Tiberius and Julia was a particularly unhappy one and Julia bore him no children. This was also the period where Julia’s extra-marital affairs became the most apparent. Tiberius lived in a separate apartment, keeping up with Julia only the relations necessary to save appearances.
In 6 BC, when Julia’s son Gaius was only 14 years old, an agitation started when the “public”, presumably incited by Julia’s group of friends, demanded that Gaius was named as consul. As Gaius was not old enough, Augustus offered a compromise: Gaius was named consul designates with the intention that he would assume consulship in his twentieth year. To immediate effect, Gaius was named princeps iuventutis (youth leader)—an honorific that made him the symbolic head of the equestrian order. This was a manoeuver by Augustus to attract popular attention of the youth, to prepare Gaius as his principal collaborator and to gain a closer hold upon the future head of Rome. Tiberius opposed this law, which he took as an offense to himself. When Augustus sought to placate Tiberius with other compensations, Tiberius indignantly demanded permission to retire to Rhodes, abandoning all his public offices to live the life of a private person at Rhodes away from Rome and away from his wife. With her husband gone, it freed Julia to see whomever she liked without the irritating presence of her husband.
Julia was not doing anything out of the ordinary for an upper class woman at the time, although perhaps she could have conducted her extra-marital affairs more discreetly. Augustus himself was known to take on a few lovers throughout his marriages. However, there was more to the story than that. In 2 BC, Julia was arrested for adultery and treason. Augustus asserted in public that she had been plotting against his life. Julia was banished to Pandateria, a small volcanic island northwest from the bay of Naples. Her mother, Scribonia, went voluntarily with her. Julia was allowed no pleasures on her island banishment, including wine and company, apart from her mother’s.
There are a few possibilities on how this could have happened, since Augustus was as devoted to Julia as a man in his position and temperament could be. Julia’s scandal happened at the time when Augustus had just passed a legislation to promote family values, which threatened heavy punishments for adulterers. Therefore, having his only daughter carrying indiscreet affairs would have understandably undermined his legislation, and it would be understandable if he needed to make an example out of her. However, that did not seem to be a sufficient reason to accuse her of treason and inflict the most severe forms of punishments upon her.
A more likely explanation for the accusation may also have something to do with the friends Julia had around her and the men she was having affairs with. The unease before Gaius’ appointment as consul-to-be tells us that Julia’s friends, perhaps even Julia herself, had ambitions for her son. However, this was no different from Augustus’ own designs for Gaius. Several of Julia’s supposed lovers were exiled or forced to commit suicide, most notably Sempronius Gracchus who was a member of the prominent republican Gracchi family, and Iullus Antonius, son of Mark Antony from his first wife Fulvia. Both men would have had reasons and supporters to overthrow Augustus should they chose to do so. However, as many of Julia’s records and likenesses were destroyed after her banishment, we have no sufficient information on how or why Julia would plot against Augustus’ life.
To get an idea of the gravity of Julia’s punishment, it is useful to look at the different forms of banishments in ancient Rome. The mildest form of banishment is relegation from a province for years, or for life, without a designated place of residence and without the loss of civil rights. This was considered to be quite pleasant and many banished Romans were able to make the best out of their situations. For example, Dio Chrysostom, banished under Domitian from Rome, traveled widely to other parts of the empire during his fourteen years of exile. Plutarch wrote a consolatory essay on exiles to a man who was thus free to travel about, even advised choices of the most pleasant cities as a place of residence.
The more severe types of banishment consisted of relegation to an island or other designated place, banishment without the designation of a place of residence and with loss of citizenship as well as confiscation of property, and deportation to an island or other fixed place, which was always for life. After five years, Augustus moved Julia and Scribonia to a better dwelling on the mainland, in Rhegium, southern Italy. Yet Julia was still isolated, except for the occasional news of her children being killed or banished. She finally died in her banishment by slow starvation in 14 CE.
Even in her supposed “inactivity” in the political life of the empire in her day, Julia’s position as the only daughter of the first emperor of Rome should have ensured us more information or, at least, more likeness of her. Augustus was said to have been heartbroken over her betrayal and refused to speak about her again for the rest of his life. It was possible that he ordered as many traces as possible of her to be destroyed. Tiberius might also have had a hand in damaging her reputation after her death.
For many imperial women, the damnation to their memories not only consisted of attempts at erasing them from history, but also damage to their reputations after their deaths. Julia is almost universally remembered among ancient writers for her promiscuous conduct. Marcus Velleius Paterculus describes her as “tainted by luxury or lust”, Seneca the Younger refers to “adulterers admitted in droves” and Dio Cassius mentions “revels and drinking parties by night”. Modern historians have discredited these representations as exaggerating Julia’s behavior. But it is odd that her supposed treason was barely mentioned.
Portrayals of Julia made her seem like a much more approachable woman in comparison to the other imperial ladies of the time. Whatever information that was left of her does not portray her as ambitious or manipulative like her stepmother Livia, or as fiery and brave as her daughter Agrippina. In fact, she would remind one of the younger Claudius. In his youth, the Emperor Claudius was said to have preferred the life of a scholar away from the city of Rome where he could enjoy his position as the grandson of Livia without the political responsibilities. Perhaps that was the advantage that Claudius had from Julia, despite their seemingly similar distaste of the political life in the empire. Claudius had the opportunity to live away from Rome while Julia was at the very heart of the empire without any means of escaping her fate as the emperor’s daughter.