A groundbreaking study of some of the most powerful women in early Western civilization.
Latin teacher Freisenbruch examines how Rome’s leading ladies were expected to perform two millennia ago. Drawing from sources both classical and current, the author explores the biographies of Rome’s imperial women during a 500-year period, from the flourishing of the empire to its demise—roughly 40 BCE to 450 CE. Freisenbruch convincingly argues that many of these women—Livia (wife of Augustus and first Empress of Rome), Agrippina Minor (wife of Claudius and mother of Nero), Messalina (wife of Claudius), Helena (mother of Constantine)—actually figured large in the political rise and fall of their husbands and sons, as well as in laying the foundation for female conduct at the highest level as empress and in subsequent generations of the patrician or senatorial class. Freisenbruch shows that their influence extended not only to behavior but to all areas of fashion—from dress to hairstyle—and commerce, with their depictions on Roman currency often contributing to the political spin of the day. Classical biographers faced with the challenge of constructing a coherent life from fragmentary or conflicting sources must overcome the additional hurdle of having to gaze through the centuries-thick male lens when trying to portray female subjects. Freisenbruch ably rises to the occasion, taking an “agnostic approach to the eclectic array of narrative choices and prototypes that face us.” Providing well-chosen, scintillating details—e.g., enemies being boiled alive, familial bonds savagely snapped in an instant—alongside careful historical analysis, the author breathes new life into these overlooked subjects.
Not nearly as soporific as most classical studies—a captivating look at imperial Rome’s roots in the making of the modern stateswoman.