Antonia Minor (36 BCE–37 CE)

views updated

Antonia Minor (36 bce–37 ce)

Ranking Roman woman at the center of imperial power under the first Caesars. Name variations: Antonia the Younger, Antonia Augusta (given the title Augusta [Revered] by Caligula posthumously in 37 ce). Born on January 31, 36 bce, in Rome; died in Rome, either by suicide or was poisoned by grandson Caligula, on May 1, 37 ce; daughter of Marc Antony and Octavia (c. 69 bce–11 bce, the sister of Octavian, later Caesar Augustus); married Drusus the Elder (also known as Nero Drusus, brother of the future emperor Tiberius), in 18 bce; remained a widow after his death in 9 bce; children: Germanicus (b. 15 bce–19 ce); Livilla (c. 14/11 bce–c. 31 ce); and the emperor Claudius (10 bce–54 ce); grandchildren: the emperor Gaius (Caligula), Drusilla (15–38), Agrippina the Younger , and Julia Livilla (c. 16 ce–after 38).

Reared in Augustus' household (32–18 bce); accompanied Drusus the Elder to Lugdunum (modern Lyons, 10 bce); became effective head of her family after Drusus' death; as mother of the heir-apparent, Germanicus, visited her father's former possessions in the Roman East (17 ce); under Tiberius, wielded great influence in the imperial family; voted thanks by Roman senate for helping to convict the conspirator Gnaeus Piso (19 ce); informed Tiberius of the conspiracy of Sejanus (31 ce); executed her daughter Livilla by starvation for her ties to Sejanus; granted public honors by Caligula (37 ce); commemorated on scores of surviving inscriptions, coin-issues, portraits and statues throughout the Roman Empire (12 bce–74 ce).

Antonia Minor was one of the most powerful individuals alive during the first decades of the Roman Empire. She not only helped educate three generations of the first imperial family but also played an active role in imperial politics for many years. From historical sources, it seems clear that she represented a moral counterbalance to the dissolute practices of some of her relatives. It is no wonder that she came to represent the Julio-Claudian dynasty in official propaganda and perhaps even in the popular sentiment of the times.

Her birth and childhood followed the fortunes of the disintegration of the Roman republic and the formation of a new government of one-man rule under her uncle Octavian, later the emperor Augustus. Her father Marc Antony was Augustus' last serious rival. Marc Antony had married Augustus' sister Octavia to renew political association with him in 37 bce. For a time, Octavia functioned as an unofficial mediator between the two rulers. According to the Greco-Roman biographer Plutarch, she negotiated a five-year treaty between them. At the time of their marriage, Octavia and Antony already had one daughter, Antonia Major (b. 39 bce). When the younger Antonia was born in 36 bce in Antony's house at Rome, Antony was in Syria already consorting with Cleopatra (VII) , the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt.

Antony officially divorced Octavia in 32 bce. In the year following, Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra's forces at Actium. Antonia Minor was six years old when her father took his life in 30 bce. She had lived with Augustus' household (familia) since she was four and would spend the next few years there with her older sister, her half-brothers and sisters (among whom were Cleopatra's children), as well as the sons of Augustus' wife Livia , including Antonia's future husband Drusus the Elder. Like any Roman aristocratic household, Augustus' familia would have included huge numbers of male and female slaves and former slaves. The imperial residence on Rome's Palatine Hill undoubtedly was also crowded with visiting clients, political supporters, and foreign emissaries.

Little is known about the lives of children in the imperial family. One source (Strabo's Geography) tells us that Octavia hired a Greek philosopher to teach her children. Antonia clearly grew up in an environment unique even for a girl of the Roman upper classes. Women in the household, and especially her mother Octavia, held unprecedented influence in the affairs of state: in 35 bce, Augustus granted Octavia and Livia the equivalent of the special legal protection associated with the political office of the tribunate. Richard Bauman in his Women and Politics in Ancient Rome makes the convincing argument that Octavia played a leading role in the imperial household during its first years, particularly with regard to policies of imperial succession. She died in 11 bce.

Antonia married her cousin Drusus the Elder in 18 bce and gave birth to her first child Germanicus on May 24, 15 bce. Her daughter Livilla was born between 14 and 11 bce. During this time, Antonia's husband pursued the traditional political and military career of a Roman senator, although at a more rapid pace than usual because he was the stepson of Augustus. There is some evidence that Antonia accompanied Drusus to Spain in 12 bce. Her youngest son, the future emperor Claudius, was born while she was with Drusus at Lugdunum (Lyons) on August 1, 10 bce. The Roman biographer Suetonius says that the couple had children who died in infancy, but no other mention of them has come down to us.

Drusus died while campaigning in Germany in 9 bce, the same year he had attained the consulship, the highest formal political office in the Roman state and a mark of imperial favor. The cause of his death has been variously laid to a riding accident, illness, and poisoning. A poem attributed to Ovid depicts Antonia as wholly bereft and suicidal at the news of his death. The poem praises the couple as "a pair well suited." Antonia refused to marry again, though her uncle Augustus encouraged her to do so. The historian Flavius Josephus indicates that her obstinacy was a benefit, "she kept her life free of reproach."

For the next 25 years, the details of Antonia's life are obscured. We hear mostly about the fate of her eldest son Germanicus, who was adopted by his uncle Tiberius in 4 ce and became the heir-apparent when Tiberius assumed the imperial power at the death of Augustus in 14 ce. Germanicus, who had married Agrippina the Elder , was given wide-ranging authority and honors by Tiberius. In 18 ce, he toured Rome's eastern provinces, the former powerbase of his grandfather Marc Antony. Nikos Kokkinos has established that Antonia accompanied her son on part of this journey, and he believes that one of the purposes of this visit may have been to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Antony's defeat at Actium. Germanicus died after a lingering illness in Syria on October 10, 19 ce, believing that he was being poisoned by the senator Gnaeus Piso, according to the historian Tacitus. Tacitus tells us that after Piso's condemnation and execution, the senate voted Antonia, along with the emperor and others, thanks for avenging the death of Germanicus. He also suggests that Antonia was kept from attending her son's funeral by Tiberius and Livia so that their own absences would not seem conspicuous.

It was after Livia's death in 29 ce that Antonia's power reached its zenith. She became the most prominent woman of the imperial house. As such, she supervised the upbringing of many royal children from various client states, such as Armenia and Judaea. As Kokkinos observes, this was an outstanding contribution to the political interests of the empire, as far as it acculturated these princes and princesses to Roman ways. She was later an active patron for at least one young noble, Herod I Agrippa, the future ruler of Judaea. Josephus records that she and Herod Agrippa's mother Berenice (c. 35 bce–?) were close friends and that Berenice had entrusted her son to Antonia's care. Herod Agrippa himself "arrived in the friendship" of the great lady. When he was about to be disgraced in front of Tiberius because of bad financial management, Antonia loaned him 300,000 drachmas. She personally interceded with Tiberius when Herod Agrippa was suspected of treason; since her entreaties did not help, she saw to it that he was given special privileges in prison. Antonia's responsibilities also included supervision of her grandson Gaius, the future emperor Caligula, whom, in a forecast of his abusive and destructive reign, she caught in bed with his sister Drusilla .

According to Josephus, Antonia rose even higher in reputation and esteem when she played a decisive role in the fall of Tiberius' potential usurper Sejanus. After it became apparent to her that Sejanus was conspiring to overthrow Tiberius, she prevented him from succeeding "with greater craft in daring than Sejanus had in evil-doing." She wrote a letter to Tiberius detailing the conspiracy and had it delivered by her loyal slave Pallas (who was later to be influential as an imperial freedman in Claudius' reign). Antonia's daughter Livilla had been seduced by Sejanus and had brought such shame on the imperial family (since Sejanus was not even of senatorial rank) that, as reported by the Greco-Roman historian Cassius Dio, even though Tiberius spared Livilla "out of regard for her mother," Antonia executed her by starving her to death. Such an action was not out of accord with the Roman mentality, but Antonia's legal and emotional ability to starve her own daughter emphasizes the central role Antonia played in the imperial family and her occasional severity. In this vein, the writer Pliny the Elder cites Antonia as an example of a "hard and unbending" personality and says that "she never spat."

A fellow singer of wisdom, her genius saved the whole world.


When Antonia's grandson Gaius became the emperor Caligula after Tiberius' death in 37 ce, he granted her the title of Augusta, previously held only by Livia. He also gave her the privileges of the Vestal Virgins and other honors. Soon, however, the new emperor exhibited less respectful behavior toward his grandmother. He refused to grant her a private audience without a guard. Suetonius believes that Caligula hastened her end and either drove her to suicide or poisoned her. Caligula watched her funeral from his house.

Antonia died on May 1, 37 ce, at age 72. While the historical record shows that she was regarded as a temperate and virtuous woman by her contemporaries, the Roman historians paid little attention to her compared with other imperial women. This may be because, as Gunhild Vidén notes about Tacitus, the greatest historian of the Julio-Claudian dynasty: "It seems that when Tacitus cannot say anything negative about a woman he prefers to say nothing at all." Suetonius cares only to mention Antonia's disparaging comments about her son Claudius.

The literature of the Renaissance, basing itself on these sources, was not much kinder to Antonia. Two plays about Tiberius' reign, Ben Jonson's Sejanus His Fall (1604) and the anonymous Claudius Tiberius Nero, Rome's Greatest Tyrant (1607), fail to create a literary Antonia (a task only fulfilled in this century by Robert Graves in I, Claudius), although other women of the imperial family such as Livilla and Agrippina are characters in these works.

Modern scholarship also has too often followed the ancient historians in giving Antonia less than her due. Only with the publication of Nikos Kokkinos' Antonia Augusta has evidence from several media, not only literature, been brought to the fore in creating a fuller picture of her. For example, Kokkinos has taken into account papyri (scraps of official, private or literary documents preserved in the dry climate of Egypt), which indicate that Antonia had large-scale land holdings in that province. While the papyri confirm the obvious—that Antonia was one of the richest people in the empire—they also give us a fascinating glimpse as to how and where Antonia derived some of her income.

Kokkinos has also gathered evidence for the wide-ranging influence of members of her household. The most famous was her slave Pallas. More interesting was the role she played as a symbol of the imperial household. Numerous inscriptions, both in state decrees and of dedicatory poetry, attest to her importance. Antonia also appears to have had her own priests in the imperial cult in ancient Caria (modern Turkey) after her death, where, as mother of the imperial family, she was identified with the goddess Aphrodite, mother of Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome. Kokkinos has tracked down 50 pieces of sculpture likely to be representations of Antonia at various phases of her life. Most come from the reign of Claudius, but a large number seem to have originated in the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. Finally, Claudius, and perhaps Tiberius, used Antonia's portrait on coins. One depicts Antonia as Ceres, the mother-goddess of the harvest, as a reflection of her maternal role in the imperial family.


Cassius Dio. Roman History.

Flavius Josephus. Jewish Antiquities.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History.

Plutarch. Life of Antony.

Pseudo-Ovid. Consolatio ad Liviam.

Suetonius. Claudius 1. and Gaius 1.

Gaius Fannius Strabo. Geography.

Tacitus. Annals.

suggested reading:

Kokkinos, Nikos. Antonia Augusta: Portrait of a Great Roman Lady. London and NY: Routledge, 1992.

Alexander Ingle , Research Assistant, Institute for the Classical Tradition, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts

About this article

Antonia Minor (36 BCE–37 CE)

Updated About content Print Article