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"Caesar's wife must be above reproach." - Plutarch
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.