Ancient History & Civilisation

Imperial Julia:
“Baby on board” was her all-clear sign

Emperor Octavian Augustus pulled a few sly sexual shenanigans in his earlier years; during the five decades of his marriage to the eagle-eyed Livia, he even managed the occasional indulgence with a concubine.

As he aged, however, Augustus grew offended at the moral laxity of Roman patricians and their increasing refusal to procreate plentifully within the bonds of marriage. With that convenient memory lapse that humans often have, he wallowed in memories of the “good old days” and what he saw as the ethical standards and marital fidelity of those times.

His most egregious lapse? His own progeny, which consisted of a single daughter by his first wife Sempronia: Julia. He and Livia had no children. Julia, who was kind, motherly, well educated, and far wittier than her dad, also had his strong sexual drive. She, however, lacked a way to sublimate it, as Augustus did, with the prerogatives of power.

Although willful, she obediently married her first cousin Marcellus, only to lose him to death in two years. A widow at eighteen, at her father’s behest she married his forty-two-year-old right-hand man and general Marcus Agrippa. In classic Roman “musical chairs” fashion, he in turn had to dump his current wife.

When not traveling with her husband Agrippa on his assignments outside of Italy, or entertaining in their glorious villa near Pompeii, Julia birthed five children in nine years: three boys and two girls, all of whom survived childhood.

Julia was quite a multitasker. Although still wed to Agrippa, she began to entertain a string of witty young noblemen who better suited her lively personality and sensuous needs. When a friend asked how she managed to avoid exposure while producing children that all resembled her husband, she quipped, “Passengers are never allowed on board until the ship’s hold is full.”

Julia and her father, however, were on a collision course. In 18 B.C., Augustus, gung-ho about his legislative plan to reform the lackadaisical marital and childbearing habits of the upper class, introduced an elaborate suite of new laws—some of them incentives and others quite punitive. Named (ironically, as it transpired) after his own exemplar of good behavior, his daughter Julia, the Leges Iuliae offered tax breaks for people in the senatorial class who got married and got busy procreating.

Men and women between the ages of 20 and 60 who remained unmarried and childless forfeited their inheritance rights. Other Augustan laws slammed adulterers with a criminal offence. It also allowed fathers to kill married daughters who dallied outside their marriage.

Freeborn women, on the other hand, who gave birth to three surviving children earned the “three kids and you’re out of bondage to male guardians!” bonus.

In 12 B.C. Julia’s husband Agrippa died, and straightaway she was pushed into marriage with Tiberius, the morose thirty-year-old who was Livia’s son from a previous marriage. (Again, in the patrician divorce-go-round, Tiberius was obliged to divorce Vispania, the wife he really quite adored in his own grumpy fashion, to wed the now-notorious Julia.)

The false front of their marriage soon crumbled. Five years into wedlock, Tiberius announced he was “retiring” to the island of Rhodes—sans Julia—supposedly stepping aside to let Julia’s sons by Agrippa assume public office. This greatly angered Augustus, who saw it as desertion. The “perfect family values” of the imperials were being mocked by the hypocrisy of actual events.

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Octavian Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, called the marital shots for his kinfolk. His only daughter, Julia, dutifully wed a string of men picked by Daddy, including Marcus Agrippa, Octavians right-hand man.

When the emperor learned the sheer number of times that his own daughter Julia had broken his new morality laws, he went insane with rage. In the year 2 B.C., on the heels of an ostentatious citywide celebration of the emperor’s twenty-five years as “first man in Rome,” Augustus grimly announced to the Roman senate that he was disowning his treasonous daughter for committing adultery with a long list of men. The juicier statements made by them alleged that she’d even had sex on the Rostra, the platform in the forum where daddy had originally proclaimed his new laws on marital reform.

Since Augustus had made the new rules, he had to abide by them: he also announced that Julia would be exiled to the wee island of Pandateria, forbidden wine and male visitors.

After some years, Augustus allowed Julia to move exile sites, newly banishing her to the city of Regium on the toe of Italy. He never spoke to her again. Julia was disinherited and forbidden burial in the family mausoleum. When Tiberius, always one to hold a grudge, became emperor at Augustus’s death in A.D. 14, he continued to punish Julia by cutting off all financial assistance to her. She died of malnutrition the same year.

In recent years, classical historians who’ve studied the matter feel certain there was more to Julia’s banishment than sexual folly. They theorize that the adultery charges against her cloaked a more serious matter: a political plot, possibly a coup, against her father. Several of the men named (and exiled) as her co-adulterers came from high-ranking families. One, the son of Mark Antony, who’d been the young Octavian’s greatest enemy, was executed.

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