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There’s No Definitive List of Roman Empresses. Their Individual Stories Still Matter

8 minute read

A line-up of busts or paintings of the first twelve Roman emperors is one of the commonest decorations in up-market houses in Europe and the United States. Most are not actually ancient Roman, but modern versions created over the last few hundred years, attempting to capture the distinctive “look” of these famous, or infamous, dynasts, from Julius Caesar (assassinated 44 BCE) to Domitian (assassinated 96 CE). They are so familiar that most of us walk straight past them in museums and galleries, without a second look.

Not so with their wives. In the modern world we have been used to spotting female power-wielders or villains, as the power behind throne—whether Nancy Reagan whispering in Ronald’s ear, or Ivanka Trump in the ear of her father. But what of ancient Rome and Roman versions of female imperial power? What do we think of Roman “empresses”? Is there a model for power among the women of the Roman hierarchy? Many of us thrilled to the wicked Livia (wife of the emperor Augustus) in the BBC/HBO’s I, Claudius. But where are the women in our view of Roman power?

It has proved next to impossible for modern artists (or ancient ones for that matter) ever to create a convincing lineup of Twelve “Empresses” to match the Twelve Caesars. It is true that a number of female relatives sit alongside the ancient busts of emperors in the Room of the Emperors in the Capitoline Museums in Rome, and in the overall design of the 16th century “Camerino dei Cesari” at Mantua (decorated by Titian and Giulio Romano) some of the dynastic gaps between the generations were filled with small roundels of the emperors’ wives and mothers. But there is no Suetonius—the second century biographer who wrote the lives of the Twelve Caesars—to define anything like an orthodox set of imperial women. Even if you restrict the focus to the wives only, there are many more empresses than emperors (almost every emperor married several times); and, apart from changing fashions in hairstyles, there is no ancient “look” to distinguish one from another. The familiar modern groups of the Twelve Caesars, whatever their fuzzy edges, substitutions and misidentifications, are usually exactly that: Caesars only.

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Occasionally an adventurous modern artist did attempt a series of empresses to parallel the men, whether out of a sense of symmetry, completeness or maybe a desire to introduce an erotic touch to the otherwise austere imperial landscape. But it was less easy than it must have seemed. The problems become clear in the most famous and influential such series to have survived, from the hand of the engraver Aegidius Sadeler in the early 17th century. For Sadeler had already created a hugely successful series of twelve emperors, mostly copied from Titian’s paintings in the Camerino dei Cesari, But he did not stop there. He also produced twelve matching imperial women to make a complete set of 24, in couples.

Sadeler’s source of inspiration for this has long been a puzzle. There is no original artist named on the prints of the women (unlike the acknowledgement to Titian on those of the men). So did Sadeler devise them himself, in order to get both sexes in? Or, if he copied them, where were, or are, the originals? There have been all kinds of suggestions. But finds in the archives at Mantua and elsewhere make it now virtually certain that these figures ultimately go back to a set of imperatrici (empresses) painted in the 1580s by a local artist, Theodore Ghisi, to complement Titian’s Caesars—and installed in their own room, the “Camera delle Imperatrici,” somewhere in the palace. How this was laid out, even where exactly it was, and what happened to the paintings is largely a matter of guesswork. All we now know of them comes from Sadeler’s prints.

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In some ways, they were a close match with the emperors. The women were shown as the same distinctive three-quarter-length figures. They were also replicated, in several series of frankly undistinguished oil paintings that have turned up all over Europe, and more appealingly in other media too. Their faces were included among the tiny enamels on an elaborate binding in a copy of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars; and the image of Sadeler’s Augustus on one teacup in the British royal collection was matched by his Livia in the center of the saucer (modestly concealed, or firmly obliterated, when the cup was in its place). But there were some telling differences too.

The emperors are distinctive individuals. Not the empresses. All but one of these imperial women in their flouncy frocks look more or less identical; it would be very hard to tell, say, Petronia (wife of Vitellius), from Martia Fulvia (wife of Titus), just on appearance. The fact that there was usually more than one wife to choose from and other marital complications (to put it euphemistically) only added to the problems. These complications lie behind the one and only distinctive character in the lineup. For the emperor Otho had had just one wife, early in his life, Poppaea, who later married the emperor Nero. Presumably in order to avoid the difficulties that this might cause in his set, the artist chose to omit Poppaea altogether, to depict a later wife of Nero (a different, but related, Messalina), and in the case of Otho to substitute his mother for a wife. Her standout appearance is simply down to the fact that she is represented as much older than the others.

It is almost as if the project to construct a series of twelve “empresses” ended up exposing the fact that it was impossible to do so on the same terms as the men. It foundered on the routine similarity between them, on simple confusions about who was who, and on the lack of any distinctive ancient “look,” for the later artists to discover, follow or adapt. There was, however, another side to it. Western artists may have found it next to impossible to recreate a systematic authentic lineup of the Twelve Caesars in female form. But beyond the gaps, uncertainties and identikits (and perhaps partly liberated by them), as far back as the Middle Ages, they enjoyed re-imagining the colorful tales found in Roman writers of these women’s power and powerlessness, as individuals; they used and embellished ancient anecdotes, satire and gossip about particular villains and heroines to expose the corruption of empire and the tragedies of its innocent victims. They have produced some brilliant, if chilling, re-creations of the dynamics of Roman autocracy, through a female lens, although with more than the occasional hint of misogyny. Their empresses appear in different guises, from sexual predators to blameless paragons.

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Painters have repeatedly returned to the figure of Nero’s mother Agrippina, reputed to have been her son’s lover and eventually murdered by him. A particularly nasty series of medieval images shows Nero, wine glass in hand, presiding over the dissection of his mother’s corpse (looking for her womb, it was said, and the source of dynastic power); others show the emperor just gazing, lasciviously, at her body. Another favorite has always been Messalina, Agrippina’s predecessor as the wife of the emperor Claudius: memorably shown by Aubrey Beardsley striding out from the palace for a night out (the story was she challenged the prostitutes of Rome to a contest to discover who could have sex with the most men), and equally memorably killed by a hit-squad sent by Claudius. Popular too, but as a symbol of virtue, was Agrippina’s mother, also called Agrippina (but of a very different character), who forever cherished the memory of her husband Germanicus, supposedly poisoned on the orders of his uncle, the emperor Tiberius; she became a symbol simultaneously of wifely loyalty, and the domestic cruelty of the imperial court.

Some of the tales lying behind these images may now be as unrecognized by most of us as the more arcane byways of the Old Testament (and they may never have been part of people’s ordinary everyday repertoire). But it takes only a little decoding to see how artists were using, and cleverly adapting, them to offer sharp reflections on the role of women in the hierarchy of power. Artists might have been defeated by the line-up of the twelve, but they did use individual empresses to open a window onto the corruption at the very heart of the empire.

Adapted from TWELVE CAESARS: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard. Copyright © 2021 by Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press

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