Six Roman Emperors & their Mothers, Daughters and Lovers

A black cat with green eyes wanders between the columns of an ancient Roman Temple behind which Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. The area is now a cat sanctuary. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. Rome, May 19, 2016

A black cat with green eyes wanders between the columns of an ancient Roman Temple behind which Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. The area is now a cat sanctuary. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. Rome, May 19, 2016

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.

 

Massimo De Filippis showing a photo of a statue of Julius Caesar at Piazza di Torre Argentina in Rome. May 2016

Massimo De Filippis showing a photo of a statue of Julius Caesar at Piazza di Torre Argentina in Rome. May 2016

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.

Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini

Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini

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.

Statue of Emperor Hadrian at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 2016

Statue of Emperor Hadrian at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 2016

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.

Statue of Vibia Sabina, wife of Emperor Hadrian, from Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli

Statue of Vibia Sabina, wife of Emperor Hadrian, from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli

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.

 

Statue of Antinous, the lover of Emperor Hadrian, at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May, 2016

Statue of Antinous, the lover of Emperor Hadrian, at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May, 2016

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.

Bust of Julia, Daughter of Emperor Augustus

Bust of Julia, Daughter of Emperor Augustus

 

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 in a procession behind her husband Agrippa and a child - Photo of a screen in the Ara Pacis Museum with coloring as the original relief on the side of the Ara Pacis would have been. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2016

Julia in a procession behind her husband Agrippa and a child – Photo of a screen in the Ara Pacis Museum with coloring as the original relief on the side of the Ara Pacis would have been. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2016

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.

Painting of an imagined Julia alone on a deserted island but Russian Painter Pavel Svedomskiy

Painting of an imagined Julia alone on a deserted island but Russian Painter Pavel Svedomskiy

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.

Roman coins with Nero and Agrippina

Roman coins with Nero and 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.

Statue of Emperor Nero with his mom Agrippina in the Aphrodisias Museum in Turkey. She definitely has her hands in his hair or perhaps she is crowning him. Credit: Leon Mauldin

Statue of Emperor Nero with his mom Agrippina in the Aphrodisias Museum in Turkey. She definitely has her hands in his hair or perhaps she is crowning him. Credit: Leon Mauldin

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

A four-pawed witness to history. A cat rests in the shade of an ancient marble piece of a Roman Temple at the Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. Rome, May 19, 2016

A four-pawed witness to history. A cat rests in the shade of an ancient marble piece of a Roman Temple at the Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. Rome, May 19, 2016

 

 

 

 

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Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

21 Comments

  1. Gwen Thomas
    2016/05/19

    Sounds like a fabulous tour! Massimo sounds like a great researcher and story-teller!! Next time I am there, we must do one!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/05/20

      Next time you come I promise to take you on one of his tours. He is a remarkable storyteller! Mom did his courtesan tour and loved it!

      Reply
  2. Adri Barr Crocetti
    2016/05/19

    Oh my, but what a terrific thing! Isn’t Roman history just grand? These talks alone are worth a visit to Rome. I enjoy Roman history – somehow I am utterly captivated by these industrious people. Their belief in themselves was just amazing, and Julius Caesar is one of my favorite people. There are many wonderful histories of Rome; if you really enjoy it, though I highly recommend Colleen Mc Cullough’s books on the subject. Perhaps best known as the author of the novel “The Thorn Birds”, she was quite a scholar of Roman history. Her books on the subject are riveting, most especially those that deal with Julius Caesar.

    By the way, I love the shots of the Roman cats.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/05/20

      Thank you Adri — I knew you would like the cat photos. I have a couple more that I will send you in an email. I think you suggested once that I do a blog post on the cat sanctuary. I am not really a cat person, so I never have, but I must say the place is special. And yes, Roman history is fascinating. I have read one of Colleen McCullough’s books “Antony and Cleopatra” — she is really good. I must read her other ones.

      Reply
  3. Ginnie Siena Bivona
    2016/05/19

    I LOVE your writing and your adventures!! It’s been a while since my last trip to Italy, but reading your blog posts always take me back to the very places I’ve visited. A vivid memory of Piazza del Popolo popped into my mind as I was reading. Now that’s fun!! And of course, your stories are always fascinating, whether they take us into the long ago past or up to yesterday. Growing up ( a very long time ago) in a very Italian family lifestyle in Cleveland Ohio, I get to re-live a lot of my childhood through your work. Thanks!! Now I’m smiling…

    Regards, GB

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/05/20

      Thank you Ginnie — and now your kind words are making me smile!

      Reply
  4. Kittie
    2016/05/19

    Sounds like a great way to spend an evening! I’ll keep the link for Massimo’s site. Thank you.

    I haven’t been to Italy in ages – hope to get back next year sometime. I’ve always made a point to visit Torre Argentina to see the kittys! Rome is such a fascinating/frustrating city, so much history all jumbled together. Have you read Susan Vreeland’s novel “The Passion of Artemisia”?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/05/20

      You are absolutely right, I think Rome must be the most fascinating and frustrating city in the world. It has been going to pieces lately due to all the Mafia Capitale corruption — public parks a mess, roads full of holes, garbage uncollected. There is an election for a new Mayor on June 6th and let’s hope we get someone in there who can turn things around. The cats in the roman ruins though are lovely. I had fun going over there with my AP photographer friend Alessandra and watching and waiting for the cats to wander in and out among the columns so she could get a could photo. And yes, I have read Susan Vreeland’s “The Passion of Artemisia” I actually did a long post on Artemisia Gentileschi. Here is the link:
      http://www.mozzarellamamma.com/2013/artemisia-gentileschi-an-italian-heroine/

      Reply
  5. Mura D'Angelo
    2016/05/19

    So there has been” back-stabbing ” and manipulation in politics from day one. To the Trump campaign…et tu Brute?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/05/20

      Ha! I thought the same thing at one point during the tour. Back-stabbing and manipulation have always been a part of politics, but something else also struck me and that is a big difference. Two of the Roman Emperors who were discussed on the tour – Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius – were true intellectuals – big readers, writers, poets and deep thinkers. I can’t imagine Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton whipping off any poetry worth reading. It seems as though no one has any time to read anything beyond the length of a tweet these days!

      Reply
  6. Laurel Barton
    2016/05/19

    Thank you for posting this. I am always looking for new things to do to expand my understanding of Rome, especially at night in the hot weather!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/05/20

      This is definitely a great idea for a hot summer. Much better to take a nighttime tour than drag yourself around in the heat of the sun. Also, Massimo is very relaxed about stopping and taking a break. My daughter and her friend wanted a slice of pizza, so we took a 20 minute break at Piazza Sant’Eustachio. It was calm and enjoyable.

      Reply
  7. Nancy Rockwell
    2016/05/19

    Wow! Terrific post, and fascinating stories, every one. I knew a bit about Claudius’ wife, mother of the horrible Emperor, Nero. But the rest are entirely new to me. I am going to send this off the Harvey Cox, to see if he is interested in Massimo as part of our tour in October!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/05/20

      I am amazed at how little I know about these important Roman figures even though I have been living here over 20 years and i am determined to change that. I just started reading “Memories of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar which I think you would really like if you have not already read it.

      Reply
  8. Annie
    2016/05/20

    WHat a wonderful idea and story. I would sign up in a minute…the regular kind of tours….even though I’m a history nut…Are..Yes, exhausting. Massimo is brilliant , and I too am always cheered, and stillll surprised..sadly…when someone,…puts a spotlight on women. Gosh, it’s still so far from normal! thanks Massimo!

    Loved the vineyard story too..yet another hard working brilliant woman.

    OH , and the Forum! JUst fantastic reporting and photos. What a thrill!

    Thanks for Sharing,Trisha,
    Annie

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/05/20

      Thank you Annie! So glad to learn you are reading all my posts. I am a bit obsessed with stories of women in history and happy to hear you share my interest.

      Reply
  9. Kay
    2016/06/03

    Oh so sorry I got to this late. I just love this post, Trisha! One of my favorite BBC programs was the old series I, Claudius. This takes me back to the fine storytelling of that wicked Claudian dynasty. By coincidence, I just rewatched it a few weeks ago so all if it is fresh in my mind. I will definitely check out Massimo’s tours when I am back in Rome later this year.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/06/03

      There are a lot of good series on Rome and Roman history and I have not seen many of them but I want to see them all. I need to find some time during a vacation. What a crazy, powerful, brilliant, terrible lot they were. I am now reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memories of Hadrian” which is fascinating.

      Reply
      • Kay
        2016/06/04

        Thanks for the recommendation. I will add this to my reading list!

        Reply
  10. Cristina
    2016/07/01

    Wow what a fascinating tour. I will have to see if I can take one when I am in Rome in a few weeks. I was a bit confused when reading about Giulia and Ventotene. I wrote a blog post a while back on the Isole Tremiti and I knew that Giulia was exiled there by her grandfather for having an affair with a Roman senator and she died there. It turns out she was Giulia ‘the younger’, the daughter of the Giulia you discussed! Both mother and daughter suffered the same fate! Ciao, Cristina

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/07/01

      Yikes, I did not know about Julia the Younger meeting the same fate. How dreadful! What a bunch of jerks those men were. I will check out your blog post now. Thanks for telling me about it.

      Reply

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