This week on Two Friends Talk History, Zofia interviews Dr Elke Close about Polybius, an Achaean statesman, teacher, and historian from the Hellenistic period. Polybius was active in Megalopolis at the tail end of the period of Greek independence following the wars of the Hellenistic kings and the rise of the Roman empire. His surviving text, Histories, has provided scholars with unparalleled evidence for the social and political changes that led to the changing balance of power in the Mediterranean in the second century BCE.
From the introduction of Polybius’ Histories, we are told of the weight and significance of his treatise for readers to understand the rise to power of Rome, while synthesising the events more broadly around the Mediterranean.
But all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labour, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for political actions is the study of History.
His aims are outlined, and through his unique position as Achaean statesman and hostage in Rome, Polybius had intimate access as a teacher and client to one of the most powerful Roman families, the Cornelii Scipiones. Due to his proximity to power and usefulness, Polybius rode shotgun on several watershed moments of the Republic.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, I’d like to talk about five powerful, clever and resilient female leaders in antiquity: Apama, Cleopatra II, Fulvia, Regilla and Zenobia.
When looking at women in the ancient world, it’s important to recognise they had significant hurdles to exercising power in public spaces. It was generally oriented from the perspective, as Sarah Pomeroy writes, that “the private preceded the public: when public roles existed, they developed from family relationships.” So strategic marriages, powerful parents and acting as regent for future rulers offered elite women many opportunities to exercise more authority than any other women in society at many points throughout history. By acknowledging that their pathways to power lay through their bonds to family relationships is not to say they lacked agency or diminish their accomplishments, but simply to contextualise the perspective through which power flowed. The five fierce females I’ve picked took power for themselves by hook or crook and were forces to be reckoned with, facing the triumphs and tragedies they were dealt.
1. Apama, the first Queen of the Seleucid Empire (4th century BCE)
Though there is not much written about Apama, I include her first on my list because she came into power from a politically disadvantageous position and ended up having three cities named after her and was key to the founding of the Seleucid dynasty of Asia Minor!
Apama was born into a high-ranking family in the Sogdian region of the Achaemenid Empire in the 4th century BCE. Apama’s father, Spitamenes, was a powerful military leader who successfully led armed resistance against Alexander the Great. Spitamenes was murdered in Bactria by local clans wishing to sue for peace with the Macedonian army. It is unknown what transpired following this – with the elite women of Spitamenes’ family or other Sogdian elites – but four years later, Apama was married to Alexander’s top-tier Companion, Seleucus, at the Great Wedding of Susa. This was a mass marriage between Iranian noblewomen and the higher status Macedonian military, orchestrated by Alexander.
It is impossible to know what the women thought of this, since their voices are entirely absent from the record, and they were effectively high-status captives being married to an enemy army to cement their new political reality. Perhaps the elite women of Sogdiana were kept in relative protection like the captive women of Persian King Darius’ household (Diod. 17.37.5-38, Curt. 3.12.15-26). Given the brutal circumstances of her father’s death, it’s unlikely this was a comfortable period of her life, however, she would climb to the highest position possible in the new empire that Alexander was carving into Asia Minor.
Apama was the only wife we know of from these unions who was not abandoned after Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE. It is very likely that she was a formidable person. Surviving and navigating the wars between the Macedonians in the Achaemenid territories, the wars of the Successors (Alexander’s Companions) and carving out an empire with her husband across the largest and most ethnically diverse of all the territories was surely no easy feat. Seleucus took control of the conquered eastern empire and managed to hold it through the twists and turns of alliances, marriages and wars in the 20 years that followed Alexander’s death in 323 BCE.
Her familial and cultural connections were likely assets to Seleucus holding this territory in the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s death. Apama spoke the languages and understood all the court customs. Over nearly 30 years Apama and Seleucus raised three children, who were part of dynastic marriages themselves, and continued the dynasty they founded. Apama disappeared from the record around the time Seleucus took another wife, Stratonice, a princess of the Antigonid dynasty of Macedonia. Romantics suggest that it was only after Apama’s death that Seleucus remarried again, and only for political gain. This is suggested since Seleucus allowed his son and heir to marry Stratonice when it became evident that they had a romance of their own.
2. Cleopatra II, Queen of Egypt (2nd century BCE)
It is always tricky talking about the Ptolemies. They all shared similar names and were constantly fighting and making alliances with one another. Also, check out the episode ‘Dysfunctional Families‘ on Two Friends Talk History in series 1, if you’re curious to hear more. Of the Cleopatra’s in this dynasty, I think the famous though lesser-known Cleopatra II was a powerful queen who was dealt a difficult hand but gave as good as she got.
Cleopatra II was born (pre-145 BCE) into a period of war and instability, with two brothers who were frequently at odds with one another. This triad was a pretty dysfunctional, which I talked about in my podcast on their A+ level sibling rivalries. Early in the reign of Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic kingdom was involved in a series of ongoing wars with the Seleucid Empire, which at this point numbered six (170-168 BCE).
Cleopatra II was married first to her brother, the Ptolemy VI Philometor (mother-loving) in 175 BCE. They ruled well together and had several children, though they were essentially always at war with their younger brother, Ptolemy VIII Physcon (fatty). After the death of Philometor, Physcon to wrestle the throne from her which led to a civil war. While she had the stewardship of the kingdom, Cleopatra had been popular with the people, but their warring left her in a dangerous position. To protect her children from her first marriage she agreed to a political union and peace. They were married after 145 BCE and it was pretty rocky, with Game of Thrones levels of twists and turns.
Typically, writers characterise the breakdown of their marriage as some type of jealousy between mother and daughter. I would strongly disagree. After the birth of their son, and Ptolemy VIII’s legitimate heir, he began a relationship with his teenage daughter-in-law, Cleopatra III. Things spiralled into another civil war once Ptolemy also married his wife’s daughter in secret. Cleopatra II raised and army and tried to have her husband killed; Ptolemy VIII fled with his new bride and the children of his sister-wife. Like something out of a True Crime podcast, to punish his sister-wife he had his nephew and next in line for the throne murdered and sent to his estranged wife on her birthday. Obviously, Cleopatra II wasn’t going to take this lying down, and continued to rule from Egypt alone while her exiled husband and daughter ruled from Cyprus from 132 – 124 BCE. This tore the country apart and weakened the empire. Eventually, the three monarchs were forced into a reconciliation, and they reigned together until his death. All. Three. Together.
Cleopatra II had a pretty nightmarish existence by modern standards, but what is fascinating is that through her leadership and strength she gained enough support from the Egyptian people to have them side with her time and again against her brother and managed to rule alone for over a decade. It was very unusual for a queen to manoeuvre a king out of power and hold on to it.
3. Fulvia, The First Lady of Republican Populists (1st century BCE)
This Roman matriarch was a total boss. Criticised for her ambition, publicity and cleverness, Fulvia loyally supported – some suggest manipulated – the statecraft of the Roman Republic. The sign of an interesting woman, Fulvia was maligned by Roman historians and writers as “having nothing womanly about her except her body” (Vell.Pat. 2.74.2). Fulvia was a wealthy and well-connected noblewoman and though constrained by the norms of her day, she was active in politics, commanded the loyalties of street gangs and armies in the Late Republic. Through her three marriages to several of the most powerful and popular Roman political leaders of the first century BCE, Fulvia even went to war against the future Augustus – her son in law! Fulvia is definitely one of my all-time favourites.
Fulvia’s rise to fame was established through her first two marriages to Publius Clodius Pulcher and Gaius Scribonius Curio. Both marriages were cut short by their violent deaths, Clodius by political murder and Curio through military action in Africa. It was her marriage to Clodius that cemented her in the A-list of elite Roman women; Clodius was a massively influential populist leader of the Populares faction (leader of the Plebians). He mobilised gangs and incited violence to suit his causes, seriously aggravating the conservative elite (Optimates) faction, which led to his murder. Fulvia, politically savvy from the start, used her position as the mourning wife of a famous man to show how devoted she was and how his name lived on through her. Every future connection she made drew on the persona she cultivated in the wake of Clodius’ death – that of the dutiful and noble wife. By the time of her third marriage, to Marcus Antonius, she was stratospherically powerful. According to Cassius Dio, Fulvia controlled the politics of Rome through her financial and personal influence on senators and the public.
In the wake of Caesar’s death and Octavian’s ascension into Roman politics, he and Marcus Antoinus and Lepidus formed a second Triumvirate. This alliance was cemented through his marriage to Fulvia’s daughter (Marcus Antonius’ stepdaughter), Claudia. This went south relatively soon after which relations between Octavian and Antonius soured by 41 BCE. Fulvia spoke to senators on behalf of her husband and then raised an army to defend her family’s interests while Marcus was abroad. She worked with Marcus’ brother Lucius to raise eight legions against Octavian to protect her husband’s interests where she felt he was being side-lined. This brought Fulvia and Octavian to war in 41 BCE, called the Perusine War.
Fulvia and Lucius Antonious’ army occupied Rome briefly, though eventually they were forced to take refuge in Perusia. Marcus appeared to be unaware of the conflict, accused in poetry, of all places, of being too busy with affairs in Cappadocia (with Glaphyra) to resolve his wife’s jealousy. The poem is racy but worth having a look (Martial 11.20). Things did not go Fulvia’s way and she had to flee to Greece, where, apparently, Marcus rebuked and abandoned her. Fulvia died soon after in exile in Greece, and the newly reconciled Octavian and Marcus blamed the whole thing on Fulvia. Her legacy lived on in the children she bore in each marriage, and in infamy, as she became the counterpoint to what a “good Roman wife” should be. Appian blames her weakness and jealousy as the cause of the war (B.Civ 5.3.19). From antiquity onwards, Fulvia has drawn the short straw when compared to Octavia (Octavian’s sister and Marcus’ next wife), however I think there is a lot to learn from Fulvia’s reach and impact on the politics of the time. Even though she was not technically allowed to participate, she left her mark and remains one of the few powerful women of the past we know a great deal about.
4. Regilla, Patroness in Greece 2nd century CE
Appia Annia Regilla was born in 125 CE into a wealthy family with significant influence as relatives of the Roman Empress Faustina the Elder, wife of Antoninus Pius. Regilla was 14 years old when she was married to the richest man in Greece, Herodes Atticus, who was 40 years her senior. This was a fairly typical age differential among the elite, whereas the lower classes typically married much closer in age. Herodes served under Hadrian as a prefect of the Province of Asia, then tutored Antoninus Pius’ adoptive sons, the future Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.
When the couple resettled in Greece, Regilla was part of the upper echelon of Greek elites and welcomed into service as a priestess to Tyche and Demeter Chamyne (in Olympia). This priestess position allowed Regilla the unique honour of being the only woman present at the Olympic Games in 153 CE. From her own funds Regilla dedicated a monumental fountain (nymphaeum) in Olympia with a bull statue in her own name and decorated the fountain with statues of the Antonines and her own family. Herodes commissioned an aqueduct to channel water into this fountain.
Regilla commissioned many architectural works that highlighted her family (she had four children with Herodes) and their links to the ruling imperial family in Rome. It was not commonly the case that women would dedicate benefactions in their own names; more frequently these dedications would be in the names of their family or alongside a male relative. Regilla seemed to have her own interests in doing things for herself, acutely acting by her own agency to leave her mark. It’s fortunate she did. In 160 CE, while heavily pregnant, she was murdered by her husband or a member of his household. Her family brought suit against Herodes, as there was no doubt it was not an accident. Marcus Aurelius stepped in and prevented his former teacher’s prosecution and that was the end of it. The following year Herodes dedicated the spectacular Odeon of Athens in memory of his wife, in 161 CE, which still stands today at the foot of the Acropolis. Herodes spent the rest of his life building monuments, giving expensive gifts to religious organisations and inscribing surfaces with professions of his never-ending grief for the loss of his wife. To see photos of the buildings and decorations Herodes and Regilla sponsored, you can check out my post here on Herodes Atticus!
5. Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra
Zenobia was the next in a line of scary eastern queens that shook the Romans in their sandals. Zenobia led a revolt against the Romans from Palmyra which spread into Egypt and Asia Minor and led to war.
Zenobia was married to the Palmyrene chieftain Septimius Odenathus, a client king of the Romans, who was subsequently murdered in 267 CE. Odenathus had kept the eastern Roman provinces together against the threat of the Sassanians, once he died, Zenobia continued this policy and remained loyal to Rome. This change in relationship status allowed her to be the sole ruler while acting as regent for her young son. Once in control of her own court and interests, Zenobia seems to have been a patroness of the arts and literature, creating a court of intellectuals and beacon of culture. Fluent in several languages, Zenobia learned Greek and was given a History of Alexandria by Callinicus. It is not hard to imagine that she was visualising herself as a new Cleopatra VII, since the Romans were certainly projecting that on to her at the time.
When the Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus died in 270 CE, Zenobia took the opportunity to revolt against the Empire. Emperor Aurelian fought the armies of Zenobia at Antioch and Emesa, then put down her supporters’ rebellions in Egypt.
Aurelian defeated the queen and took her hostage back to Rome. Achieving one symbolic victory over a foreign eastern queen that was denied the Romans when, instead of capturing Cleopatra VII she took her own life in Alexandria, Aurelian paraded the captured queen in a triumph in 274 CE. If we are to believe the Historia Augusta, a problematic source document but cited none the less, the text also suggests that the queen was retired to an estate on the Tibur. Aurelian is said to have praised her intelligence, military acumen and beauty, praising her as a worthy adversary.
What About Other Women?
The daily lives of women in the Roman world are often characterised as within the home. For women of elite social status, that was in a large part accurate, though not the entire story. From wealthy households, low-income families or the enslaved, women in the Roman Empire were skilled in a broad array of professions which might surprise you.
As now, not everyone could be a homeowner or afford staff, fine objects or even decorations of any kind. Those who could afford a home (domus) would use it as part of how they communicated their status to the outside world. A well-off family might display portraits of ancestors (women and men) in the central hall of their domus, in the atrium. How a matriarch ran an elite home involved many staff and servants, and she might have had to do so alone for many years while her husband was away on campaigns, or in advantageous political posts. The matriarch would have been in charge of assets, correspondences, keeping clients connected to their patron and so on. The nuance of ‘a wife’s work’ in this context really extended into areas like accountant, personal administrator, event planner and social networker. The house staff might include cooks, laundresses, gardeners, pastry chefs, spinners and weavers, hairdressers, butchers, cleaners, waiting staff, artists and artisans – if they were having mosaics installed said atrium or maybe a fresco painted on the wall- and the list could go on. Many of these jobs could be performed by women, and this is only a small fraction of the types of employment if you were a freeperson. Enslaved women might do many of these jobs as well.
In antiquity as ever, having educated or skilled daughters was a means to greater financial stability for the family and into their own adulthood or marriage later on. If a woman came from a family in the trades, it stands to reason she would participate in some way within that trade, and thus her knowledge and expertise would increase her desirability as a partner. Pliny the Elder mentions female painters in The Natural History, who were paid and perceived favourably to their male counterparts. He lists several women whose fathers trained them in the arts: Timarete, daughter of Micon was renowned for her panel painting; Irene daughter of Cratinus (a painter), painted mythical characters and daily life scenes; Aristarete, daughter of Nearchus, painted the god Aesculapius. He notes Iaia of Cyzicus remained single but was a prolific painter of women’s portraits, whose talent and expedition were unmatched; Pliny says she was even paid more than well-known male painters whose works filled galleries (HN 35.40.83-87).
With these professional pathways for women in the ancient world in mind, I have created a series of colouring sheets with an activity related to the characters from Vita Romana! If you’d like to explore the different roles of women in the Roman period.
Milnor, K. (2011). ‘Women in Roman Society’. In The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World. The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World, 2011-02-01, Vol.1. Oxford University Press.
Pomeroy, S. (2009). The Murder of Regilla : A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rowlandson, J. (1998). Women and society in Greek and Roman Egypt : A sourcebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whitehorne, J. (1994). Cleopatras /, London; New York: Routledge.
Athens and Hadrian’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.
The special place Athens held in the minds of the Romans, due to their history and influence in the Mediterranean, was significant. But more broadly, it was the artistic, scientific and cultural accomplishments of the Hellenic people which the Romans were ravenous for.
Building designs, architectural elements, literary styles (poetry and playwriting) and painting techniques, were all introduced to Romans after several having enslaved and looted the Greek cities of Corinth and Epeiros. The goods were paraded in long processions into the city of Rome exposed many for the first time to the finer things Greek culture had to offer.
The legacy of this influx of Greek art into the Roman landscape and cultural sphere meant that those wealthy enough to possess these items were also possessed by them. The drive to collect, copy and emulate the high art of Greece was strong. As with art, literary and other cultural trends were brought in and filtered up the social hierarchy of Rome.
Farenese -style Herakles replica
As Rome took over politically and militarily, they brought in droves of Greeks into the capital city, though most initially were slaves. These slaves could be highly educated teachers, artisans, courtesans, writers and labourers. Fashionable aristocratic households increasingly required high-quality Greek tutors for their children, which would obviously influence the tastes of their students. Eventually, we end at a point where the Roman elite were importing tutors from Greece to educate their sons and daughters in the language, philosophical and rhetorical practices.
Isis Pelagia – Museum of Egyptology Turin – 2016
The impact of Roman tastes in art can be seen in the photos above and below. A topic unto itself, is the Roman art trade – something which I am very interested in! However, as an example of what it actually meant to have a powerful empire capture and integrate Greek art and ideas into their own is highlighted through these works. As Italian families grew wealthier through empire building, they could afford the purchase of fine works of Greek provenance, or an Italian-made replica. The above examples, cargo from shipwrecks, illustrate the ocasional hazard of transportation.
Even in their fractured states below, the Roman copies show an exquisite attention to detail and rendering of Greek styles. The costs for commissioning works such as these and their transport must have been a sizeable investment!
Crouching Venus – Museo Nazionale Romano – 2015
As mentioned in the previous post, Greeks in Rome could achieve incredibly high status and impact the values and development of future emperors. One such student was the Emperor Hadrian. Educated in the literary traditions of Greece, with notable emphasis on the visual arts, Hadrian was exposed to an appreciation of Greek culture which resulted in exquisite building projects we can see today.
A Roman copy of the Discuss Thrower (Discobolus) – Museo Nazionale Romano 2015
The influence of the ‘Romance of Athens’ on Hadrian, can be seen in his politics and building programme. Hadrian instituted a Panhellenion, and made Athens the capital city of this assembly of the Greek city-states, under Roman rule. This assembly was perhaps an attempt to hearken back to the period of a unified Greece emblematic of the 5th century BCE, their classical heyday. For political expedience and cohesion this move makes sense, but there is also an element of romanticising or idealising the Classical period of Greece by Hadrian, the philhellene (lover of Greekness).
The emphasis of Roman investment into the architectural landscape of Greece had a political motivation behind it. The Romans were basically carrying on the policy of Hellenistic eugeritism.
Having control over powerful former empires and influential cities enriched Rome’s cultural and political capital. Affixing their brand, sometimes directly over-top of a pre-existing architectural and social spaces in this ancient city, allowed them to write themselves into the history of Greece – a history which no one could deny was impressive and marked the most important events in the collective consciousness, often blurring between myth and reality.
Temple of Olympian Zeus toppled column – 2016
Temple of Olympian Zeus (the Olympieion)
I have been lucky enough to have a few encounters with this temple, and it never fails to impress. The massive and intricate Corinthian capitals and fluted columns are familiar examples of what people expect when they go to archaeological sites of the Mediterranean. However, these columns speak to the Roman habit of embeddingtheir brand on to the architectural landscape of Greece as it linked itself into the story of pre-democratic Athens.
Corinthian topped-columns -2016
The temple was built on the foundations of a pre-existing sacred outdoor sanctuary and temple to Zeus. The previous temple structure, built in around 520 BCE by the tyrant co-rulers of Athens, Hippias and Hipparchus, had commissioned a more monumental temple than had existed previously under their father, Peisistratus. They demolished their father’s temple, and set to the task of building a more magnificent temple.
However, their lofty building programme would remain unfinished. The young tyrants were ousted after a salacious and political scandal turned Athenian sentiment against them. In a series of ‘Telemondo’-esque unrequited love triangle developments, Hipparchus coveted Harmodius, who was already Aristogeiton’s lover. Insinuations and insults abounded on all sides, leading to the two lovers murdering Harmodius and later being killed themselves. Hippias was ultimately overthrown in a Spartan-supported coup, and made way for the democratic government in Athens to take shape.
Temple of Olympian Zeus – 2016
Simply fascinating narrative, you may say. Well, this series of events and all of the moral meaning read into it over time influenced how closely linked the sacred space was with these shameful tyrants. Thucydides and Aristotle discuss these events, with the impression that such massive building projects are vainglorious and lead in turn to loss of fortune and hubris.
Hubris, which brings us to the next phase of the history of this temple – the Olympieion. Whilst Hadrian set to work in the 120s CE on rebuilding the supermassive temple to Olympian Zeus, which was completed and dedicated in 131 CE. Hadrian, who at times was believed to call himself ‘Olympian’ had an altar to himself installed here as well.
Leads on to wonder who precisely was being worshiped here?
The Arch of Hadrian
This arch is not the triumphal sort you see in Rome, where the Emperor or senate would commission for the arch for an impressive military victory, but rather, this arch was an honorific from the Panhellenes or the Athenians themselves.Situated next to the Olympeion, the Arch of Hadrian has quite a few stylistically complex elements and details which are exemplary of Athenian architecture done in a Roman-style. Created from solid Pentelic marble, Corinthian capitals atop pilasters among other features, are representative of architectural imagery in Roman wall painting. There were sculptures in the central niche, it has been suggested, which were of Hadrian and Theseus. This is not such an odd paring when you consider the inscriptions.
The inscription towards the Acropolis (below) states “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus”, who was part of the mythical founding. The other side facing the Olympeion reads, “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus”. These inscriptions denoted the physical and symbolic relationships of the Athenians; their glorious mythical past and their Roman present were delineated by this liminal space.
This, like other examples of eugeritism (benefaction), is how the reciprocal relationship worked. It was expected that they offer honours to Hadrian in this fashion, but that did not necessarily mean everyone was happy with the Romans having control in Greece.Hadrian’s Library
Situated in the Roman Agora, on the north-slope below the Acropolis, Hadrian’s library would have been a richly decorated and comfortable centre of intellectual pursuits. The great classics of Athenian theatre were housed in this, perhaps the greatest, of Hadrianic homages to the city that he loved so much.
Inner-east wall under reconstruction – 2008
East-facing outwards – 2016
West-facing outwards – 2008
The artistic elements that still remain betray Hadrian`s tendency to construct archaising monuments. A mixture of Pentelic marble, and Karystos marble and was comprised of many rooms – one of the most luxurious buildings in Athens. It may be hard to imagine given the images you see, but this ruin held gilded ceilings, painted walls, statues and a hundred columns of Phrygian marble according to the Pausanias.
Library Complex – 2008
Library Complex – 2016
The complex overall had decorative features and spaces for elite academic pursuits. Perhaps Hadrian wanted to re-invest in Athens, renew it as the cultural and intellectual capital of the Mediterranean, supplanting the position which Alexandria had held for centuries with its Great Library.
Tower of the WindsOne of the key buildings in the Roman Agora of Athens, which continues to impress tourists on the north side of the Acropolis, is the Tower of the Winds. As with the other buildings in Athens, it was built of that familiar Pentelic marble into a twelve-meter high clock tower. The building had just been restored with the scaffolding removed before I arrived, which was excellent timing to see a very ornate and beautiful ‘horologion’, or timepiece.
The building we see today, as in all things, is not complete. In antiquity, it would have been topped with a bronze (possibly) weathervane of Triton that would tell a passerby the direction the wind was blowing. If this seems irrelevant to modern viewers, we should always try to take into account that every piece of technology available at the time was as good as could be hoped for. In the seafaring culture of the Hellenes (Greeks), any advantage or extra measures taken for the weather and time was a useful tool.
The Doric GatewayThe Roman Agora shows another product of the Italic investment in the city of Athens. Marking the entrance to the west of the Agora, it bears a dedication to ‘Athena the Originator’, not unlike the other monuments in Athens. However, the Roman gifted through the generosity of Julius Caesar and his son, the Emperor Caesar Augustus.
Indulging me for a moment, let’s unpack that inscription. Augustus’ ascension followed Julius Caesar’s death, a surprise adoption, which ultimately led to Augustus’ years’ long civil war to wrestle control over the Roman Republic. As Augustus defeated his competitors, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, and thousands of Italian dead from both sides of the conflict, he sought to rebuild and polish his image. Further discussion about the impact and persona of Emperor Augustus will follow, but for now, you can rightly imagine, feelings were mixed among the survivors of the war and the purges which followed. Families loyal to the losing side were eliminated and embraced dependent upon their willingness to acquiesce to Augustus.
Part of the importance of smoothing over relations rested in the image he tried to sell, was to gain legitimacy.
Thank you for checking out my post! Feel free to leave comments, messages or questions.
It has often been my inclination when in Athens to sketch the monuments and buildings, whether the drawings came out a bit wonky or not. If you look at the archaeological landscape of Athens, much of what you see was commissioned by the Romans. The Roman additions to the Athenian landscape have some incredibly beautiful examples of second century BCE imperial architecture, with emperors like Hadrian paying homage through benefaction to the heyday of Greek power.The Antigonid’s took over leadership of Macedon and Greece following the end of Alexander the Great’s family line, and successfully wielded the same ideology to justify their control over the Greeks: ‘protectors of Greek freedom’, an iron fist in a velvet glove so to speak; they controlled Greece through benevolent subjugation. Through the general practice of eugaritism (benefaction for honours), the Greeks were given beautiful buildings, festivals, and money in return for obeisance to Macedonian authority. For their own part, the Greeks had spent the last few hundred years restlessly under the yoke of the Macedonians, who they considered barely civilized.
The Antigonid’s power waned as the burgeoning Roman Empire began to orbit around Greece. After generations of skirmishes, battles and dynastic struggles, their depleted resources and weakness allowed a small wedge to open up for the canny Italian republic.
Playing the powers of the Mediterranean against each other and their respective leagues, the Romans effectively weakened them and loosened the Antigonid kings’ grip on their territories. Over time, any political disagreements, wars and finances had to be presented to the Romans for approval and action. Rome’s role in Greece in this period is perhaps it is better understood as a macro-level of benefactor to the Hellenic people, but with massive and tangled strings attached.
The Greek city-states chafed under this control. A last play for self-determination led the Greek city-states to throw their weight behind the pretender to the partitioned Macedonian throne, Perseus of Macedon. After a series of wars, aptly called the Macedonian Wars, culminating in the defeat of the allied Greeks under Perseus in 146 BCE, Greek independence gave way to foreign rule officially, though they were still left to govern themselves nominally. Macedonian cities fared less well however as a result of the war, and were depopulated.
Officially annexing Macedonia and making it a Roman Province, the landscape of power was irrevocably changed in Greece forever. As in most political takeovers, the elites of the conquered peoples are not slow to see the turning tide, and are often installed in important political positions if they are complicit in securing a smooth(ish) submission. Wealthy Greeks could still wield power, as in the case with Herodes Atticus, but they answered to the Romans.
While there is infinitely more to say about the transition of power between the Hellenistic period into the Roman, I will try not to throw it at you all at once. For the purposes of this blog, we can dip our toes into the mire when it suits, and hopefully the obfuscated picture of this complex period of history will form cohesive shapes.
This transition affected the Athenians positively and disastrously at times. Perhaps the Athenians’ position historically as cultural and imperial power over the Mediterranean awarded them a nod of respect from the Romans. Arguably however, not much had changed for the Greeks, as they were controlled again by foreign powers, except gone was the pretense that they were free.
While out for a wander this January in Athens, I was reading the placard next to the wonderfully restored Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The placard mentioned that the great second-century Athenian benefactor, Herodes Atticus, had built it in honour of his beloved Regilla. How touching!
Detail of the niches – 2016
The theatre was built after 160 AD, out of local stone and a roof of expensive Lebanese cedar. What is immediately striking is that despite Herodes’ noble Greek ancestry, the theatre he commissioned was particularly Roman.
The stone wall backdrop which enclosed the theatre was of a Roman conception of theatre, not a Greek one. As in all theatre spaces in the ancient world, those of a privileged position were seated up front, with everyone else further away from the stage.
This seemingly small adaptation in theatre design – a Roman interpretation of Greek culture – was emblematic of the way Romans interacted with the Greek world. Something like a patronising mixture of appreciation and the desire to improve on their creations.When I returned home, I began looking into who this beloved woman was and the story behind the dapper-looking Greek who commissioned this glorious theatre on the south-west slope of the Acropolis. The answers to these questions were pretty surprising!
Herodes Atticus was of noble descent and of consular rank. Tracing his heritage to the half-sister of Cimon, a famous Athenian statesman, and of course to Theseus (the hero) and (sure, why not?) Zeus. Interestingly, his family was rife with incest, which luckily he managed to avoid.
Bust of Herodes Atticus – wikipedia
His close relationship with the ‘Good Emperors’ carried through serving Hadrian as a prefect in the Province of Asia, then Antoninus Pius as tutor to his sons (later emperors themselves) Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. So respected and trusted was Herodes that he was given the wealthy and powerful relative of Empress Faustina the Elder, Regilla, as his bride. The family that Regilla came from was very well connected. Her dowry was impressive and family brought her significant power.
Facing north – 2008
When they resettled in Greece, Regilla was part of the upper echelon of the Greek elite and welcomed into service as a priestess to Tyche and Demeter Chamyne (in Olympia). Another example of the 1% getting everything, right? Actually, yes. She was not only able to participate in very important sacred rites, as a priestess of Demeter Chamyne, she was the ONLY woman allowed at the Olympic Games.
Regilla, in her own name (not that of her male family members, which would have been the norm for powerful women to make dedications) paid to have a nymphaeum at Olympia with a bull statue which bore her dedication.
Dedication bull by Regilla – Wikicommons
The niches in her nymphaeum were typical of Hellenistic benefactor statecraft. The families and notable descendants of the emperors Antoninus Pius and Hadrian were represented, as were their wives and children. Regilla commissioned an impressive statement of dynasty and royal patronage placed beside busts of herself, Herodes, and their ancestors and children.
All of this looks like a pretty clear juxtaposition of power, perhaps making an ideological correlation to suggest that her dynasty was of the Emperors of Greece. In all ways they acted in the historic ways in which the Hellenistic kings had; and with the intimate support of the Roman emperors, there was no external military threat for them to worry about.
View of Olympia – 2008
The statesmen, scholar and benefactor followed in the footsteps of the Hellenistic kings before him, sponsoring public works and art all over the Greek world. Following a similar pattern of linking one’s ancestry to divinity, and bestowing generous and beautiful civic structures, Herodes Atticus fits well into the tested and true history of benefactors and the City of Athens. A non-exhaustive list of some of the building projects they engaged in were aqueducts, baths, theatres and stadiums throughout Greece.
All this sounds well and good, but why the titillating title?
Engraving by Piranesi of the supposed tomb / monument to Regilla – Wikipedia art commons
Though the busy couple traveled throughout Greece and Herodes received many honours, as did Regilla, something quite dark happened; Regilla was heavily pregnant when she was kicked to death in her stomach. Very Nero-esqe. What followed is described in Sarah B. Pomeroy’s ‘The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity’. Regilla’s brother brought suit in Rome, where Herodes’ acquittal was influenced by his former student, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Following this, Herodes commissioned many building projects in his wife’s name.
Flipping through my “Oxford Archaeology of Greece”, Herodes’ name continues to pop up all over the country.
His contributions to the architectural landscape of Roman-controlled Greece were impressive and varied. It seems to me, and other writers on the subject, that the building programme that followed her death looks like a guilty man playing the penitent to clear his name. Further, Herodes’ building projects with Regilla were exemplary of a desire to build their dynasty and be viewed through the same lensesas the Hellenistic kings once had, by leaving their mark through public benefaction all over the Greece.
You must be logged in to post a comment.