Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Top 5 Evil Roman Matriarchs


When Octavian changed his name to Augustus and became Rome's first Emperor, rather than sharing too much power with senators who might start another civil war, he surrounded himself with freedmen (who could never become senators) and family members. The family had always been central to how Roman business was conducted with wives playing an important behind-the-scenes role in business or politics (depending on their husband's level of wealth and ambition) but Augustus' wife and his sister enjoyed more power than any other Roman women ever did.

As the rule of the Emperors went on, the potential influence of lower creatures like women and former slaves over the most powerful man in the world came to be seen as a potential threat, not to mention a good stick for historians to beat unpopular emperors with (e.g. 'Claudius was so rubbish he was ordered around by women and former slaves!'). And so was born the stereotype of the Evil Imperial Woman. Manipulative, sex-mad and twisted, this woman will stop at nothing to further her own ambition through her male relatives.* The Ur Example is Augustus' wife Livia. Although Cassius Dio is quite positive about her and Suetonius is sort of on the fence, Tacitus accuses her of multiple murders, offing all of Augustus' heirs until only her own biological son remained (playing on the existing stereotype of the wicked stepmother who harms her husband's children to favour her own). Livia gives us the manipulator and the poisoner, and is quickly followed by Messalina (Claudius' wife) and Agippina the Younger (Claudius' wife/Nero's mother) who add sex-mad to the list (Romans thought women were all slaves to their sex-drives anyway).

*In the interest of fairness, we do also get Good Imperial Women, who work tirelessly for the good of their husbands/sons/lovers and the Empire. But there aren't quite so many of them.

In popular culture, the trope of the Evil Roman Matriarch found its way into audiences' consciousness through Robert Graves' I, Claudius, and especially through the BBC TV adaptation. Siân Phillips' Livia is one of the most fantastically ruthless and fascinating characters in the series, completely dominating the first half, her absence felt quite keenly in the second. Livia's cool, collected serial killing and masterful manipulation of everyone around her, up to and including Augustus himself, are the model for all the psychotic, completely batsh*t insane Roman matriarchs that come after her.

The only part of the stereotype that doesn't come from Livia is the common aspect of the overactive sex drive, which owes more to Messalina, combined with the fear of imperial women controlling Emperors through sex. (This may be one reason for the frequent accusations of imperial incest, on the assumption that these crazy women who want to control their men will have to do so through sex - though incest also implies a connection with monarchies like the Egyptian Pharaohs). Other than that, whenever you see an Evil Roman Matriarch pulling everyone else's strings, you know you're looking at the latest incarnation of I, Claudius' Livia. (To the extent that, in one of the most obscure casting gags ever, Polly Walker, who plays Atia in Rome, who is partly inspired by Clavdivs' Livia, also plays Cassiopeia in the 2010 Clash of the Titans, just as Siân Phillips plays her in the 1981 version).

And so, time to celebrate the five best examples of an ancient Roman stereotype that remains remarkably popular to this day thanks to witty scripts and some very talented actresses.

(Kills refers to anyone who dies as a result of our Evil Matriarch's actions. This is usually accomplished by manipulating and/or paying other people, though occasionally they personally murder people with poison. Poison was considered a woman's weapon in ancient Rome, since it was assumed women couldn't wield other weapons.)

5. Livia Soprano, The Sopranos
What she wants: To make everyone else miserable, by the sounds of things.
Kills: Tries to have a hit put out on her own son.
Weaknesses: IBS.
Rome has a severe mother: OK, I confess - I've only actually seen one or two episodes of The Sopranos so I know very little about the character of Mama Soprano. But you don't call an Italian character 'Livia' unless you're trying to say something about their personality. Siân Phillips explains on the I, Claudius DVDs that she wasn't quite sure how to get a handle on Livia until the director suggested playing her as mafia-type figure - in Livia Soprano, the cycle of influence has come full circle.
In a few words:
Tony: You know, everyone thought Dad was the ruthless one. But I gotta hand it to you. If you'd been born after those feminists, you woulda been the real gangster.

4. Poppaea, Quo Vadis
What she wants: Sex. Specifically, with Vinicius.
Kills: Lots of Christians, including Pomponia, Plautius and St Peter.
Weaknesses: One-track minded.
Rome has a severe mother: Poppaea belongs to an earlier, pre-I, Claudius generation of Evil Roman Matriarchs. Rather than lusting for power per se (she already has as much as she's going to get, anyway), Poppaea simply lusts, like many other elite female characters in ancient world films of the 1920s-1960s. She wants power over men, though the focus is more on her desire for sexual satisfaction than political ambition. She's set up as the polar opposite of the virtuous (dull) Christian heroine Lygia, the evil femme fatale who wants to ensnare the hero in her sinful world. She's a way for the viewers to enjoy the sight of a sexy, glamourous woman throwing herself at the hero, while simultaneously judging her and anticipating her downfall.
In a few words:
Poppaea: I should like to vanquish you Marcus.
Vinicius: Like the spider who eats her mate when he is no longer a necessity?
Poppaea: Something like that.

What she wants: Power, money, a child, good things for her husband. Also, Crixus.
Kills: Titus Batiatus, Melitta (accidentally), Tullius, Illythia, Spartacus and Illythia's unnamed baby.
Weaknesses: Tends to be motivated primarily by emotional factors. Goes crazy towards the end.
Rome has a severe mother: Gods of the Arena reveals that, initially, Lucretia restricted her evil behaviour to making her father-in-law sick and sucking up to potential business clients. Over the course of the prequel series, though, we see how she is gradually driven to murder-for-revenge, murder-to-get-rid-of-annoying-in-laws, pimping out her slaves to rich patrons, turning her house into a brothel and raping Crixus in an attempt to get pregnant. By the time of Vengeance it's all gone so horribly wrong she herself is increasingly victimised, but that doesn't stop her plotting.
In a few words:
Titus: Tell me you're not the serpent I thought you to be.
Lucretia: I am not. I'm far worse.

2. Atia, Rome
What she wants: Power, to stay alive, Antony.
Kills: Glabius, Jocasta's entire family. Her preferred method is to bully and/or torture people into submission.
Weaknesses: Genuinely loves Antony, and underestimates her son.
Rome has a severe mother: Atia is, basically, Livia + sex. She wants power, so she goes about getting it the only way available to a woman, through her lovers and her son (though she also makes use of her status as Caesar's niece). Her tragedy is that she genuinely falls for Mark Antony, which leaves her in a no-win situation when he and Octavian go to war against each other. Being left for Cleopatra is the final straw and she turns her back on Antony for good, and reasserts her position, but she'll ultimately be doomed, because her new, younger rival is our No. 1...
In a few words:
Atia: I know who you are. I can see you. You're swearing now that someday you'll destroy me. Remember, far better women than you have sworn to do the same. Go and look for them now.

1. Livia, I, Claudius
What she wants: Power. While her imitators tend to have a soft spot for a particular man that may or may not prove their downfall, Livia murders the love of her life just to ensure that she will
remain in power through her son.
Kills: Marcellus, Agrippa, Gaius, Lucius, Augustus, Martina the poisoner. Her son Drusus died of wounds before she got the chance to have him killed. She settles for having Julia and Agrippa Postumus exiled, but Tiberius has Postumus murdered as soon as he comes to power.*
Weaknesses: Fear of eternal punishment, leading to a desperate desire to be made a goddess.
Rome has a severe mother: ...and Gaius and Lucius a cruel stepmother, is what Livia's own son Drusus says about her as he dies. Unlike the others on this list, Livia rarely uses her own sexuality to get what she wants, though presumably sex is part of the way she controls her husband, Augustus. Livia manipulates people in other ways, usually through blackmail, often involving their own sexual naughtiness. Having already achieved as much power as it's possible for a woman to hold before the start of the series, she spends the rest of her life trying to ensure that she'll hold onto it after Augustus' death, going so far as to actually induce said death just to make sure - only for it all to backfire when Tiberius finally grows a spine in his old age and becomes determined to escape his mother's shadow.
In a few words:
Livia: Don't touch the figs.

*Historically, Tiberius also ensured Julia's death by cutting off her food supply.

Honourable mention: Cersei Baratheon (née Lannister) isn't a Roman/Italian, but in many respects she conforms to this trope, particularly her attempts to use sex to manipulate men and her determination to rule through her son. Unfortunately, she's not nearly as good at it as most of the other ladies here. And she enjoys the incest part a bit too much.

2 comments:

  1. Now that rates as a lineup of very dangerous women!

    ReplyDelete
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