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Annelise Freisenbruch studied Classics at Cambridge University. Her (unpublished) PhD about the correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto is from 2004. This account about the first ladies of Rome is her first book. It is an impressive debut (although there are a few unfortunate mistakes).

The main text is divided into nine chapters which follow a chronological line from the Julio-Claudian dynasty founded by Augustus and Livia in the first century BC until the Theodosian dynasty in the fifth century AD. At the end of the book we find notes with references, a bibliography and an index.

What about illustrations? In the beginning of the book we have a map of the Roman Empire and some useful charts (family trees of six imperial dynasties). In the middle of the book we have 34 photos, most of which are in colour. Each object in the photos is mentioned in the main text. Unfortunately, there is no cross reference from the main text to the photo (or the other way: from the photo caption to the main text).

The book is well written. It is based on ancient literary sources and modern scholarship. Archaeological evidence - such as coins, statues and portraits - is also used extensively.

The author presents a large number of persons, both men and women, but the focus is on the women, as far as this is possible. Here are some examples:

** In chapters 1-4 we meet some of the women who are connected with the Julio-Claudian dynasty: Livia, Octavia, Julia, Antonia Minor, Agrippina Minor, Livilla, Messalina, and Poppaea.

** In chapter 5 we meet some of the women who are connected with the Flavian dynasty: Julia Flavia, Domitia Longina, and Berenice.

** In chapter 6 we meet some of the women who are connected with the adoptive emperors: Plotina, Vibia Sabina, Annia Galeria Faustina (married to Antoninus Pius), and Faustina (married to Marcus Aurelius).

** In chapter 7 we meet some of the women who are connected with the Severan dynasty: Julia Domna, Julia Maesa, and Plautilla.

** In chapter 8 we meet some of the women who are connected with Constantine's dynasty: Helena and Fausta.

** In chapter 9 we meet some of the women who are connected with the Theodosian dynasty: Galla Placidia and Eudocia.

Freisenbruch got some good reviews. On the U.S. edition of the Amazon website there are excerpts from several highly positive reviews. But one of them, Publishers Weekly, includes a negative observation. It says the book is:

"Weakened only by a slight tendency to compare and contrast events with the modern media versions of Rome."

Actually, I think it is a good idea to explain how the history of ancient Rome has been - and is being - used by modern media such as film, television, and books. I am more annoyed with the modern parallels which pop up from time to time. They are not necessary and sometimes rather far fetched. Thus we hear about:

* Martha Washington (page 8)

* Nancy Reagan (page 85)

* Traditions in the White House (page 94)

We even hear about "the cookie-bake-off competition held every four years between potential American presidential spouses" (page 50).

These modern parallels cannot be described as a big problem. In my opinion they are just a case of poor judgement. But there are other problems. And, as far as I can see, they have not been mentioned by any other reviewer. Let me explain:

# 1: Several times the author reports a rumour that a member of an imperial family was murdered (e.g. by poison). Each time the reader must raise the question: what about this case? Is it true? What is the answer? Is it yes? Is it no? Is it maybe? But the author never gives a clear answer. On page 196 she tries to deal with this matter in the following way:

"Given the regularity with which such episodes recur in both ancient and later historiography and with such convenient similarities, the case for treating them with caution would seem particularly strong."

[There is an almost identical passage on page 85.]

To say we must proceed with caution is just to state the obvious. By saying this and no more than this she simply evades the question, which is not fair.

# 2: On page 195 we hear about Trajan's death in 117:

"... he fell seriously ill off the coast of southern Turkey, was forced to draw into harbour at Selinus on the south-west coast of Sicily, and died there on 8 August..."

There is indeed a Sicilian town Selinus. The Greek name is Selinunte. But Trajan did not die there. The Selinus where he died is in Cilicia in modern Turkey.

# 3: On page 196 we hear about the birth of Hadrian: "Born in the late 70s in the same region of Spain as his predecessor..."

Hadrian was born on 24 January 76, so the phrase "in the late 70s" is not quite accurate. His as well as Trajan's family came from the Spanish town Italica, located around 10 km north of modern Seville, but we do not know where he was born.

Thorsten Opper, whose book Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is listed in the bibliography, says Hadrian was born in Rome (pp. 32 & 34). Opper quotes the Historia Augusta. But as Freisenbruch explains several times, this ancient source is not always reliable (pp. 189, 201, and 214).

For the modern historian the only safe option is to say we do not know where Hadrian was born.

# 4: On page 218 we hear about Septimius Severus who was born in 145 in the Libyan town Lepcis Magna (sometimes spelled Leptis Magna):

"Septimius Severus was to be the first emperor to celebrate his provincial origin in public building projects."

This is not true. As emperor from 117, Hadrian organised a huge building project in Italica. He built a new town next to the old one. Today most of the old town (urbs vetus) is covered by the modern village Santiponce (except for the theatre). But the remains of the new town (urbs nova) are still visible.

[For more information on this topic see Mary Boatwright, Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp 162-167.]

[Boatwright appears in Freisenbruch's bibliography with two articles. But the book about the cities of the Roman Empire is not listed.]

# 5: On page 228 we hear about Caracalla's wedding to Plautilla in 202:

"The wedding took place in April as part of the celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of Severus's rule..."

Severus's rule began in 193, so he could not celebrate his tenth anniversary in 202. He could (and did) celebrate the beginning of his tenth year as emperor.

[This mistake is repeated on page 231.]

In spite of these unfortunate mistakes I have to say this is an impressive and interesting book which is highly recommended.
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on 12 July 2012
The First Ladies of Rome is a study into various empresses of the Roman Empire. The book doesn't just solely focus always on the wife and official empress of the emperor, if he had more influential mothers, sisters, nieces or mistresses. It shows how the political requirements of the Emperor often played a role in how his wife dresses and presented herself. A man who had an organised household and good virtuous wife was considered a better candidate for leading the empire then one with a indiscreet wife. Therefore this book also shows the ways in which these woman could be dangerous to the emperor as well as making useful asserts. I found the family trees convoluted and squished, which made them difficult to read without knowledge of who married or gave birth to who, they were not presented well and did contain a few errors. There is a note on the naming and dating conventions in ancient Rome and a reasonably sized select bibliography, both in the back of the book to help the reader, if they wish to study aspects of the book in greater detail. Major or indepth knowledge in the period is not needed to enjoy this book.

One of the main themes of the book was how the role of empress changed and evolved over time as the empire developed and progressed. Alongside this the power base of a empress was also examined in how it changed through the centuries, first with her memory relying on the memory of her husband until eventually the power base and memory of an empresses had evolved to escape the fates of husbands and an empress could establish her own reputation independent of the emperors. I found these themes throughout the book very interesting. Another point that was well made was the smear tactics like rumours of infidelity, use of poison, being political active and assassinating their husbands, these were used against empresses, especially earlier empresses like Livia but continuing in different ways throughout the Roman empire affecting empresses like Domitia Longina from the Flavian dynasty. The book was good for enriching my knowledge of the later dynasties through the lives of the empresses, like the Nerva-Antonine dynasty or the Severan dynasty of the Roman Empire, as the only period I knew much about was the end of the Republic and the early Julio-Claudian dynasty. I was especially interested in the empresses from the Flavian dynasty onwards because of my lack of knowledge and found the later empresses of the Roman Empire interesting, especially when the empire split and the east moved more towards evolving into Byzantium and the west was steadily over whelmed. The role of the church in the evolution of the role of empress and its requirements was also something I don't know very much about and for this reason I especially enjoyed the last section of the book on Pulcheria and Galla Placidia.

The book skips backwards and forwards between the woman rather then dedicated chapters to one empress at a time, which is something I found confusing, I personally would have preferred a one empress per one chapter format. One of the issues I had with this book was that sometimes when parts of an empresses early life not known, the most probably thing was presented a fact in some cases which I wasn't very keen on. I felt as this is non-faction, an author has a responsibility to state when they are making an assumptions educated though it might be rather then present what might have been normal scenarios for the period as facts that definitely happened to the empresses, even if it is something most Roman woman would have undergone. Although I do recognise that there are very few hard facts for most of the woman as many of the source on them come from a later date and a possibly a writer with an agenda, it is still important to state it is speculation. Due to the sheer amount of woman who became Empresses in the Empires long and turbulent history, space in the book is very limited as to who got in it. Due to this, naturally the author picked and chose the most influential, interesting and scandalous empresses, I would have maybe liked to have heard some more about more of the less talked about empresses, exploring some of their reigns and lives to get a sense of some of the more ordinary empresses. I would have liked to have know more about Nero's wives, especially poor Claudia Octavia and Caligula's four wives who were only very briefly mentioned. There is a large time jump from the Severan dynasty to the Constantinian dynasty and the Theodosian dynasty, I felt there must have been some empresses or influential woman worth mention from the Crisis of the Third Century, which would help illustrate the changes to the role of Empress and the growth of the church as a force between the dynasties. There was a lot of linking certain events back to the first ladies of America, which felt at some points to be unnecessary to have been added the lives of empresses in an attempt to make them look more relevant, I felt that I didn't need to hear about modern American first ladies in comparison.

This book was interesting to read and a good starting part for any interested in learning about the Roman Empresses and how the role of Roman Empress changed throughout different periods of the Roman Empire.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 13 March 2013
This is a fun, `popular' history book on women who wielded power in one form or another during the reigns of the Roman Emperors. The examples come from:
The Julio-Claudian dynasty
The Flavian dynasty
The families of Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines
The Severan dynasty
The Tetrarchs and the Constantinian dynasty
The Theodosian dynasty

I had only a couple of points that I felt needed to be made in my review. Firstly, there is a danger, of course, in histories of this type that extracts from primary sources, or sources written within a few decades or centuries of the narrative, are, without question or context, given authoritative status. This is particularly so, for instance, during the narrative on the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, where extracts of the works of Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Tacitus and Plutarch among others, are offered without commentary. An unwary or unknowledgeable reader could well assume that these offer unbiased and verified truths of what actually happened, or what was actually said. These sources, as always, need to be approached in the context of the writer himself or herself, the possible bias of the writer, the remove of the writer from the times of which they wrote, the times in which the writer was working and the sources that they themselves had available to produce their works.

Secondly, it would have been nice on the family trees at the front of the book to have some indicative dates. Given that this book is geared toward a broad readership, it is likely that many would approach the book with little, or no, previous in-depth knowledge of the Romans or their dynastic arrangements, so some perspective could have been immediately given by some dating.

And finally, I did find the references to the American Presidency, the First Lady, and American politics in general which were offered as comparison material to apparent counterparts within the Roman Empire to be jarring, and totally unnecessary. The comparisons do not stand up under scrutiny, and seemed superfluous in my view.

Overall, this book is a great read; there are traps if a reader, knowing little or no historical background, lays too much emphasis on the nature of some of the information provided; but that does not detract from its value as a great introduction to aspects of Roman history, and a very readable `general' read for anyone with an interest in Roman history. It certainly gives plenty of food for thought to a reader who may be keen to follow up with further reading, and a comprehensive bibliography is included at the end of the book. Highly recommended.
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on 16 August 2010
This is history as it should be written - lively, entertaining, engaging and soundly grounded in fact. The scope of Anneliese Freisenbruch's research and knowledge is impressive, and she brings with it the ability vividly to tell the astonishing stories of these long-dead empresses for a modern audience. Highly recommended.
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'Caesar's wife must be above reproach', as the old saying goes. Of course, as Annelise Freisenbruch ably demonstrates, very few of the Caesars' wives (or sisters or mothers) managed to escape reproach, whether fairly or unfairly. Their positions at the very heart of power in imperial Rome held them up to great scrutiny and even greater expectations - the woman of the imperial family were expected to be figureheads, exemplars of Roman matronly dignity, chastity and soberness. It was probably a standard few women short of saints could live up to, and when they fell from grace they fell hard.

The tale of the Roman Empire is characteristically told through the story of its Caesars, so it is beyond refreshing to read its history from the point of view of its women. There are some real characters in this story, which stretches from the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC all the way down the centuries to the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the mid-fifth century. Names such as Julia, Augustus' wild and wilful daughter; Livia, his wife who set the standard for all the empresses to come; Agrippina, accused of forcefully assisting her husband Claudius to his posthumous deification as a god; St Helena, mother of Constantine, the man who converted the Empire to Christianity.

The response of the Romans to their Augustae, as they were known, demonstrates the changing patterns and currents of political thought in Rome. Behaviour condemned as abhorrent in their empresses in the early years of the Empire, such as participating in political debate or accompanying their husband on military campaigns, would be accepted as standard years later. Women began to be represented on the currency in their own right, and as the bloodlines of Caesars failed and adoption became the standard method of succession, it was often links to the female members of the imperial family that could confer the laurel wreath of power on the potential successors jostling for position. But there was always concern and tension about the role of women in imperial life, as demonstrated by the frequency of the accusations of adultery, murder and incest that were used against them. It is entirely possible some of the women of Rome were indeed just as murderous and homicidal as a number of the Emperors turned out to be, but the similarity of the accusations recurring time and again suggest more to tried-and-tested political slander than truth.

This book also serves as a good overview of the five centuries of imperial Rome, moving from one political dynasty to another, with, as mentioned, the women often serving as the links between one dynasty and the next. And it is surprising just how relevant much of this material feels, even today - the role and behaviour of a politician's spouse is just as much a live issue today as it was during the height of the Roman Empire, albeit with thankfully fewer accusations of incest and murder.
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on 21 February 2012
The book was well written and laid out as one would expect. One strange thing was the beginning of the chapter on the Flavian women with Berenice. On the whole it was interesting but most of the content has been covered well else where. This appears just to have been an excercise, a well carried out one, in grouping information on wives and mothers in one dedicated book. I'm not sure that it would stand on its own without a fair knowledge of Roman history. On the whole the rating makes it clear. It's Ok.
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on 27 September 2011
This is a good overview of the better known female power brokers in the ancient Roman world. There are some really fascinating characters like Livia and Agrippina. Because the book covers so much, the space given to each "first lady" is necessarily limited, but it gives a good basis to move on to biographies of specific women.
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on 16 April 2013
This book is obviously very researched but it is a little bit all over the place, which is quite frustrating. it reads a little like a first draft of a book which should have been tidied up a little bit. Also the author's style is very dry and she sticks to the facts without trying to give life to her narrative, which makes it quite tedious to read.
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on 20 March 2016
Interesting read. Quite a lot of detail, but keep at it as there are some real gems to be discovered.
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on 7 March 2015
Thoughtful and as well researched as it could be through the distorting lens of Roman sexism.
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