Dear Blog Readers,
Did you know that Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates as a boy, that Emperor Hadrian was madly in love with a young man named Antinous, that Agrippina killed her husband Emperor Claudius by feeding him poisoned mushrooms, or that the great Emperor Augustus banished his only daughter to a deserted island and left her to die because she was fooling around with too many men?
These are just a few of the juicy tidbits I picked up the other night on the fabulous storytelling tour done by my friend and raconteur extraordinaire Massimo De Filippis.
You may remember Massimo from an earlier post when I sang his praises for his titillating tour on the Courtesans of Rome. (See Blog Post: “Rome: Simmering with Sensuality for Centuries”) This new tour is called “Julius Caesar and the Roman Emperors’ Nighttime Stories.”
In Rome, you often see masses of tourists trotting along in the bright sun behind some tour guide with an umbrella, all listening in special earphones as they pass one monument after another. I get tired just looking at them.
Massimo’s tours are not like that. They are intimate affairs with fewer people and a chance to soak up fascinating information about historical figures. Massimo spent nearly two years doing intense research on his subjects as he prepared for this tour.
The Emperors’ Nighttime Stories tour is done at night in order to get away from the crowds and the chaos in the center of Rome in the day.
He knows that I have a particular interest in women figures in history so when he wrote to me asking if I would like to try this story-telling tour he promised extensive details on the tragic story of the beautiful Julia, Augustus’ only daughter, and the unscrupulous, power-hungry Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudius and mother of Emperor Nero.
On this tour I brought along my 15-year-old daughter and her friend to see if they would enjoy the stories and they loved it.
The tour started at dusk in Rome’s famous piazza Largo di Torre Argentina that has the remains of four ancient Roman Temples, behind which Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. It is now a Roman cat sanctuary and while looking down at the remaining columns of four Roman Temples that once stood there you can see the cats lounging around among the ruins.
My daughter and her friend were wide-eyed as Massimo dove straight into the story of the life of Julius Caesar. He described how at age 17 the young Gaius Julius was on a boat headed for Greece when he was kidnapped by pirates. The pirates, realizing that he was an aristocratic Roman demanded 20 tons of silver as a ransom from the Roman Senate. Julius told the pirates they had no clue how important he was and should demand 50 tons of silver. The 50 tons of silver were delivered and Julius Caesar was released. He told the pirates he would be back in 40 days and have them all crucified, and he did just that.
Massimo went on regaling us with how Julius became a great conqueror not just of foreign lands and peoples but also of the women of the most rich and powerful men of Rome. Julius’ story winds through his renowned conquests, his relationships with women from his wife Calpurnia to the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and obviously ends up with his dramatic death behind the temple — but I won’t reveal any more details.
I was particularly intrigued by the story of the Roman Emperor Hadrian whom Massimo described in great detail at the romantic Piazza di Pietra. One side of this small Piazza is a series of columns that are what remains of a temple built to honor Hadrian, one of Rome’s great emperors. Another building has been constructed inside the columns. As we looked at the graceful columns, lit up with special lights at night, Massimo told us that Hadrian was born in what is now Spain and raised by a slave woman named Germania.
When his parents died, Hadrian was sent to live with his powerful Uncle Trajan in Rome. Trajan, who later became emperor, did not have much time for Hadrian, but his aunt did. She arranged a marriage with a beautiful, elegant woman from an important family. Her name was Vibia Sabina. The marriage apparently was not particularly satisfying for either one because Hadrian was gay and had no interest in women.
At age 41 Hadrian became the Roman Emperor. At that time Rome was the largest city in the world and one third of the population were slaves. The slaves were treated horribly. They were forced to wear terracotta dog collars with a little badges showing to whom they belonged. Their owners considered them “talking toys” and thought it was permissible to kill your slave if you felt like it. Perhaps remembering the slave woman who nursed him and raised him as a young boy, Hadrian immediately launched a campaign to give rights to slaves. The first thing he did was to eliminate the dog collars.
Although he remained married to Vibia Sabina, the two of them never had any children. Instead, Hadrian met the love of his life, a young boy named Antinous, while traveling in Turkey, then known as the Roman province of Bithynia. Antinous, who was only 12 at the time, joined Hadrian’s entourage and began to travel with him.
Antinous died in mysterious circumstances at age 19 in 130 AD when they were traveling on barges up the Nile. It is not clear if he fell in, was pushed, or decided to sacrifice himself for Hadrian. Emperor Hadrian was desperate, and went into a long depression. After Antinous’ death Hadrian had him deified and Antinous became a cult like figure.
According to Massimo:
“All the statues which portray him, hundreds of them, were posthumous and commissioned in only eight years, between 130 AD (the date of the death of Antinous) and 138 AD (the date of the death of Hadrian)! To this day, we get to see Antinous in nearly 400 ancient original images, out of statues, busts and representations on coins, gems and jewels. Antinous is the 3rd most portrayed Roman character in all of Rome’s history after the emperors Augustus and Hadrian.”
The day after taking the story-telling tour, out of curiosity, I visited the Capitoline Museum in Rome and found a couple of Antinous statues there.
It was during the part of the tour that took us to the Mausoleum of Augustus and his monument the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), that Massimo finally began to tell us the story of Julia.
Julia was the only child of the great Emperor Augustus, the longest ruling Roman Emperor who held power for 40 years. When her mother, Scribonia, was giving birth to Julia, Augustus showed up to tell her that he had decided to dump her and marry another woman, Livia. And if that was not enough, he was taking Julia with him. Augustus’ new wife also had her own son, Tiberius.
From a young age, Julia became a puppet in the hands of her father who used her to try to get a legitimate heir. She was betrothed at age two to her cousin Marcellus and married him at age 14. Apparently she did not mind being married because once married she could go around the city alone. She began to go to the theater and developed a wide circle of friends among artists and poets. She loved fashion and luxury and liked to dress extravagantly. Her behavior did not match up with her father’s conservative politics. He was trying to institute a series of moral reforms in Rome. Marcellus died after a few years so her father quickly arranged a marriage to his best friend and right-hand man Marcus Agrippa. Agrippa was 43 and Julia 18. One of the few images of Julia is on the relief on the side of the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) monument where she is seen following Marcus Agrippa in a procession. (Some say that the image is not of her but of Augustus’s wife Livia)
Julia was not fond of her husband Agrippa. She thought he was vulgar, uncultured and ugly and didn’t even want to stand near him at events. Agrippa was a soldier and not an intellectual. She was interested in poetry and arts. Julia knew her role though and managed to bear him five children. According to Massimo, Julia made a habit of cheating on her husband when she was pregnant with his children so as not to get pregnant from anyone else. She apparently said, “I cheat on my husband only when my ship already has passengers on board,” indicating her pregnant belly.
While with Agrippa, the two managed to work out a modus operandi, he traveled a lot and she enjoyed a cultured, unrestricted existence in Rome. When Agrippa died, things got steadily worse for Julia. She was obliged, again by her father, to marry her step-brother Tiberius (a rather mixed-up and unstable individual). She refused to be faithful to him or to play by her father’s moral rules and continued to frequent her artistic friends and take lovers as she wished.
Her life took an abrupt turn when in 2 A.D., the Roman poet Ovid published a book of poems called Ars Amatoria, “The Art of Loving” and dedicated it to a mystery woman he loved “Corinna.” The erotic poems apparently accurately described Augustus’ daughter Julia. Immediately word spread across the empire and scandal ensued.
As a result, Emperor Augustus exiled the 37-year-old Julia to the island of Ventotene and left her there to die. Several years later, Ovid was also banished to an island in the Black Sea. The reason for his banishment still remain a mystery but he described it himself as “Carmen et error” – “A poem and a mistake.”
Julia died at the age of 53 never having returned to Rome. According to Massimo she was “rebellious, untamable, and provocative,” a woman who refused to abide by her father’s strict moral codes and a woman who considered herself free to think, dress, behave and act as she pleased. Massimo described her as an “icon for modern times: a feminist and a sexual revolutionary.”
From the untamable beauty Julia we moved on to the wicked Agrippina. By this time it was getting late and we had wound our way through the old cobblestoned city streets of Rome to Piazza del Popolo. Sitting on the steps near the obelisk – one of the 13 obelisks the ancient Romans snagged from Egypt and brought back home– we learned about the bizarre Emperor Nero and his mother Agrippina.
It is hard to find a more power-hungry, determined, scheming, cunning woman in history than Agrippina. Agrippina was a beautiful woman and used it to her advantage. She managed to seduce and marry her Uncle Claudius who was the Emperor-in-waiting. Once he was Emperor she convinced him to adopt her son from an earlier marriage, Nero. Agrippina then made fast work out of Emperor Claudius with some poison mushrooms that killed him leaving her 17-year-old son Nero as Emperor. And what an unscrupulous pair Agrippina and her son made. Massimo describes in great details Nero’s confused love life and various attempts to knock off his mother and get her out of his hair.
I could not possibly go into all the figures that Massimo talks about on this 2.5 hour tour. Leave it to say that there are many and Massimo is a captivating storyteller.
After learning about all these crazy characters, it is also fun to chase down their statues, arches, columns, forums and mausoleums scattered around the city. The Capitoline Museum in Rome has many of them. One can see where they lived and worked in the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill and the Domus Aurea (the “Golden House”) that Nero had built in the center of Rome. If one wants to stray a little further there is Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. Personally, I would like to visit the island of Ventotene where Julia was exiled.
For more information on the tour, check out Massimo’s website: www.storytellingrome.com
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.