The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars by Annelise Freisenbruch

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The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars by Annelise Freisenbruch

Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: History is much concerned with conquests and power, and for that reason the history of the women of the Roman world, who could not fight or vote, has gone largely unrecorded. In this book Ms Freisenbruch takes the little evidence left to us from coins, letters and statues, and creates a vivid picture of the first ladies and empresses of Rome which shows that in some ways modern political leaders' wives share many of the same challenges.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0224085298

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Perhaps the most shocking thing to be gleaned from this fascinating history of the women who surrounded the Caesars is how easily their reputations were created, moulded and destroyed. Any woman who put a foot out of line in a culture where men held almost all the power could be accused of a litany of crimes which bore curious similarities with those of many another woman in similar circumstances. Incest and adultery were charges regularly levied against them, and the very fact that the details were identical in almost every case should give rise to suspicion about their accuracy. And yet history has accepted and spread these scandals as fact.

Some of the women discussed in this extremely well-researched book are popular by-words for depravity, greed and lust, due in large part to the witness left by ancient Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius. Indeed the author opens the book by discussing the way the television series 'I Claudius' took the characters from Graves' books but concentrated on a trio of women who calmly, indeed coldly, murdered anyone who stood in the way of their ambitions for themselves and their menfolk. Ms Freisenbruch suggests that their reputations for scheming and manipulation have been a major factor in the refusal of men throughout subsequent ages to allow women free rein in politics. She considers the truth and image of each of these women in turn as far as it is possible to do through artefacts and written records, and looks too at many other of the first ladies who followed them right up to the time of Helena and the rise of Christianity as a world force. It is a tome dense with research, but it manages nonetheless to be readable and indeed a vivid picture of the age for specialists and non-specialists alike.

We are presented, at the dawn of the imperial age, with Livia, the first of those First ladies. How can we discover the truth about this strong-minded woman? During her lifetime the machinery of power carefully portrayed her as a careful, frugal matron, weaving the material for her husband's clothes as every Roman woman was expected to do, and as such she became a model for women of all social strata thereafter. Ovid chose to see her as a chaste matron with beauty of Venus, while Seneca admired her stoic fortitude and Tacitus viewed her as an unruly bully. We end in the fifth century with Helena, who according to legend found the True Cross, and Galla Placidia, who was sister to one emperor, wife to another and mother to a third.

This book makes no attempt to whitewash those of its subjects who were obviously and demonstrably wicked. Although it is weighty with facts and research (a good 315 pages of tiny print before you even get to the Epilogue and notes) it still manages to include a lot of racy detail about spoiled, over-indulged women and the antics they got up to, which to be honest makes our current leaders and their families seem very tame in comparison. We tend not to throw offending women into scalding water these days, fortunately, and few if any of our first ladies have been exiled to a desert island and left to starve. More cynical readers may regret the passing of this more robust approach!

Another book about Roman history which links it firmly to today's political leaders is The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J O'Donnell.

Buy The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars by Annelise Freisenbruch at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars by Annelise Freisenbruch at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars by Annelise Freisenbruch at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars by Annelise Freisenbruch at Amazon.com.


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