Julia (39 BCE–14 CE)

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Julia (39 bce–14 ce)

Only daughter of Augustus, first emperor of Rome, who was a favorite and politically useful child—until her love affairs brought him disgrace and he banished her from Rome forever. Born in Rome in 39 bce; died in Rhegium near the end of 14 ce of malnutrition and despair; daughter of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus also known as Octavian or Augustus (63 bce–14 ce), first emperor of Rome, and Scribonia (c. 75 bce–after 16 ce), a Roman noblewoman; educated at home in spinning and weaving, also in literature; married Marcus Marcellus (a son of Augustus' sister Octavia, and thus Augustus' nephew), in 25 bce (died, autumn 23 bce); married Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, in 21 bce (died 12 bce); married Tiberius Claudius Nero (emperor), in 11 bce; children: (second marriage) Gaius Caesar (20 bce–4 ce); Julia (b. 19 or 18 bce); Lucius Caesar (17 bce–2 ce); Agrippina the Elder (c. 14 bce–33 ce); Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa Postumus (born after March, 12 bce); (third marriage) one son (b. 10 bce) who died in infancy. Prosecuted for adultery and banished from Rome, 2 bce.

In the year 39 bce, when Julia was born to Scribonia and Gaius Octavius (Augustus), Rome was in the midst of one of the most turbulent points in its history. The Republican government that had sustained it for centuries was buckling under the responsibility of administering an empire that fairly spanned the known world. Powerful and ambitious men of the great families were asserting themselves as much for the sake of personal power as civil stability; civil war was the frequent result of this rivalry. At one point in the 1st century, the strife looked as if it might cease through the efforts of one Julius Caesar, who with the extraordinary but constitutional office of dictator sought to bring the disparate interests of the powerful under his own domination. But when he began to flirt with kingship, a notion abhorrent to Roman citizens since they had abolished their own centuries earlier, a conspiracy of well-born senators assassinated him.

It was left to Julius Caesar's young great-nephew, Gaius Octavius, who was posthumously adopted as his heir in 44 bce, to set Rome on a new course. Known from the time of his adoption as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (and to modern historians as Octavian or Augustus), he first allied himself with, and then defeated various of his compatriots from the Roman nobility. The Battle of Actium (31 bce) marked the beginning of his second transformation. In this decisive sea-battle, Octavian and his trusted lieutenant Marcus Agrippa decisively triumphed over Mark Antony, the last of his Roman rivals, who was fighting with the aid of Egyptian forces under his paramour, Cleopatra (VII) . Gradually, and by means that had the superficial appearance of constitutional sanction, Octavian consolidated for himself supreme monarchical power: in 27 bce, he was given the name "Augustus" ("venerable," "magnificent") by the Senate, and in 2 was named "Pater Patriae" ("father of his country").

Julia was born at a pivotal point in her ambitious young father's public career. Throughout the history of pagan Rome, marriages, like adoptions, were rather freely taken up and broken for political purposes; they were used to seal the alliance of powerful families and individuals. Thus, Augustus divorced Julia's mother Scribonia only a few months after Julia's birth in order to marry Livia Drusilla , a noblewoman of excellent family and exceptional character. It was not long at all before Augustus tried to exploit the marriage value of his tiny daughter. His sister Octavia had been married to Mark Antony, and in order to shore up their precarious alliance the two-year-old Julia was betrothed in 37 bce to Antony's son (by a previous wife) Marcus Antonius Antyllus. The marriage never took place, for after Antony's estrangement and defeat, such a union was worse than useless in Augustus' eyes. Foreseeing a potential danger in the living heir of his greatest enemy, he had Antyllus executed soon after the battle of Actium. It was also circulated in the scandalous literature of Antony's party that Augustus betrothed Julia to Cotiso, king of the Getae, a tribe in the Roman province of Thrace. But such a marriage between a freeborn Roman and a barbarian would have been all but unthinkable at the time, and there cannot be much truth in the claim.

Julia's upbringing took place in a home presided over by her stepmother Livia Drusilla and Augustus. From her earliest youth, Julia would have felt the effects of Augustus' program for the regeneration of Rome. In order to guarantee the fresh imposition of order that he had accomplished, Augustus and his ministers engineered a return to the "Republican morals" of the imagined past: to the customs of a simple and upright people as yet unperverted by luxuries of body and spirit imported from the East. By means of sumptuary laws and artful (indeed, much artistic) propaganda, he sought to purify his people. But as princeps or "first citizen," he also had to provide them with a worthy example. Julia was reared strictly and under Augustus' direct supervision. She was taught traditional spinning and weaving because the wealthy princeps preferred homemade clothing, and her exposure to young men was very closely monitored. Yet this austere household did not despise learning. Augustus was a patron of the arts, and Julia would have had ample instruction in literature at home.

When she reached the age of 14, Julia was old enough by Roman standards to be married, and Augustus' arrangements for her engagement reflect not only his acute sense of political expediency, but also a personal problem that afflicted him and Livia Drusilla. Having been married for 11 years in 25 bce with no children of their own, it began to seem likely that no direct male heirs would be forthcoming. Augustus accordingly fixed his hopes on his 16-year-old nephew, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, much as the sonless Julius Caesar had looked to the teen-aged Gaius Octavius. Marcellus was the son of Augustus' sister Octavia and her first husband. Marcellus and Julia were married in a splendid ceremony in Rome in 25 to great popular acclaim. Augustus, who was at the time afflicted by one of his frequent spells of grave illness, was unable to attend and entrusted Agrippa to take his place at the nuptials.

Thus it was that [Augustus] once observed, when talking among some friends, that he had two spoiled daughters to put up with—Rome and Julia.


The few contemporary testimonia of this marriage certify that it was a happy union, and this should not surprise us, despite the modern aversion to marriage between close blood relations. In fact, it is likely that as first cousins, Julia and Marcellus probably knew each other quite well at the time of their engagement, and were not, as so often must have been the case with political marriages, complete strangers.

Contented or not, Julia's first marriage did not last long. In the fall of 23, having already advanced far in public life for one so young, Marcellus died suddenly of a fever. Augustus had lost his heir and had no fresh candidates in view, given that his daughter and his nephew produced no children. Augustus himself had been gravely ill again earlier in the year, and the need to marry Julia off to a suitable heir (or to a man worthy to beget an heir with her) was paramount. After some debate, and the rejection of Augustus' friend Gaius Proculeius on the grounds that he did not possess adequate political standing, the princeps was persuaded by his trusted advisor Gnaeus Maecenas that Julia should be married to his right-hand-man Agrippa. At this point in the story, the convolution of Augustan politics, friendships, and family life becomes extreme, and it is useful, if not indispensable, to have at hand a genealogical table of the family of Augustus. (See genealogical chart "The Julian Line," p. cxxxiii in Volume I of this encyclopedia.)

It is difficult to say if the marriage of Julia and Agrippa, which was planned to take place in 21 bce, was an entirely satisfactory arrangement for either of them. It must have been strange for Julia to look for the first time at her father's old bosom friend as husband. Agrippa, after all, had stood in for her father to give Julia away at her first wedding. Moreover, he was nearly twice Julia's age and already married at the time. Nevertheless, both parties apparently played the part well; Julia as Augustus' obedient daughter, and Agrippa as his best friend and son-in-law. In order to marry his new bride, he was compelled to dissolve his marriage to Marcella the Elder , a daughter of Augustus' sister Octavia, and sister to Julia's first husband Marcellus. From the date of this marriage, Agrippa began to be rewarded with high offices and honors both ordinary and extraordinary and, though never officially named as Augustus' heir, was held second in dignity and power only to him.

In about 20 bce, Julia proved to Augustus that he had made a good decision in her second marriage. In that year, the first of her five children with Agrippa was born. At the tender age of three, the child, called Gaius Caesar, was officially adopted by his grandfather—a clear sign of Augustus' dynastic intentions. Following the birth of Gaius, a daughter, Julia , was born in either 18 or 19 bce. (Her life would play out, even to its sad end, like a faint echo of her mother's.) In 17 bce, a second son, Lucius Caesar, was born and immediately adopted by Augustus to share his older brother's distinction. A second daughter, Agrippina (sometimes called Agrippina the Elder ), was born in about 14 bce. Finally, in 12 bce, just a few months after his father's death, another son was born. Given the circumstances of his birth, he was called Agrippa Postumus.

Inscriptional data suggests that Julia accompanied Agrippa on parts of his Eastern diplomatic missions beginning in the year 16 bce; this might have taken her to the Bosporus and as far as the Levant, where Agrippa visited Beirut and contracted a friendly alliance with Herod the Great, king of the Jews. It is uncertain whether Julia preceded Agrippa back to Rome in 13 bce. Early in 12 bce, Agrippa was called to the province of Pannonia (overlapping parts of present-day Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia) in order to redress an incipient rebellion. Shortly after his return to Rome in March of 12 bce, he died suddenly. At 27 years of age, Julia was twice a widow.

Once again, the question of whom she should marry engaged Augustus and his advisors. With Gaius and Lucius thriving in his own house, the problem of succession was certainly not acute, as it had been before. But as a young woman Julia could still be a great asset to Augustus if she married the right man. This time around, the name of Tiberius came to the fore. Tiberius Claudius Nero was the eldest son of Augustus' wife and Julia's stepmother Livia Drusilla, and it is possible, but not likely, that he was chosen at her instigation. In fact, it seems probable that Tiberius' name had been broached in deliberations over Julia's first and second marriages, but the complications of allegiance and personal preference had prevented his being chosen. At the time of Julia's first marriage, Augustus had already campaigned in Spain with both Marcellus and Tiberius. Though both young men had served well, Augustus always showed greater favor to Marcellus, who was of cheerful disposition, in contrast to the sometimes sullen and moody Tiberius. Also complicating the prospects of a union between Tiberius and Julia in 25 bce was the fact that he had been previously engaged to Agrippa's daughter (Vipsania Agrippina ), and Augustus would not risk offending him.

The unforeseen result of the latter calculation was that by 11 bce, when it was decreed that Tiberius and Julia should wed, Tiberius had been very happily married to Vipsania for some dozen years. He was nevertheless compelled to divorce and remarry. Despite the pain Tiberius felt at the loss of Vipsania (he once met her later by chance and was seen to break down), his marriage with Julia was at first satisfactory. What was to follow, however, has led prominent modern historian J.P.V.D. Balsdon to remark on Augustus' "consummate folly" in deciding to pair the two in the first place.

The initial cause for the estrangement of Tiberius and Julia is not clear, but speculation informed by historical reports does expose some possibilities. At bottom, it will not seem farfetched to suppose that whatever the stumbling blocks to marital bliss in the following years, the naturally morose and depressive Tiberius might weigh them against his years of happiness with his first wife, thus causing an uncomfortable situation to worsen. In any case, the couple did experience an almost immediate calamity when in 10 bce their only child, a son, died soon after birth. Moreover, as an exceptionally successful and by this point indispensable general, Tiberius was often campaigning near the borders of the empire to block barbarian incursions or to quell disturbances. His time away from Julia might have made her feel abandoned, and since the responsibilities of bringing up her own children had been largely undertaken by Augustus, she must have felt especially alone when her husband was gone. But several ancient authorities report that it was Tiberius who refused to sleep with Julia in the years following 10 bce. Mention of sex leads the story inevitably to an account of what Julia, justly or unjustly, is best remembered for.

It is unfortunate that the majority of the ancient sources that make reference to Julia's life, and especially those of near contemporaneity, are prone to reproduce gossip and party propaganda. The sheer weight of testimonia alleging extramarital affairs, however, makes the mere fact impossible to disbelieve. Allusions to adultery during her first two marriages exist, though without much substantiation. Surprising as it may seem, the imperial biographer Suetonius reports the popular belief that Julia had harbored a passion for Tiberius, which he perceived and disapproved of, even while Agrippa was still alive. Only one reputed partner in adultery is named for the period of Julia's marriage with Agrippa, the eloquent noble Sempronius Gracchus. Since Tacitus, a generally reliable historian, is among those who report his name, we can have some confidence in the truth of the allegation. Tacitus also tells us that it was actually this Gracchus, a "persistent adulterer," who wrote the insulting letter about Tiberius that Julia sent to Augustus under her own name, apparently hoping that her father would punish her husband for neglecting her.

As his marriage deteriorated, Tiberius' public station increased. Already Augustus' choice general with significant victories in Dalmatia and Pannonia (9 bce), Tiberius was granted special powers of command and immunity in 6 bce. He was at this point indisputably the second man in Rome, yet his position in the line to ultimate authority was blocked by Gaius and Lucius Caesar, Julia's sons by Agrippa, whom Augustus was grooming to succeed him. We cannot know for certain whether it was jealousy of these boys or outrage at the behavior of their mother that prompted Tiberius suddenly to withdraw from public life in 6 bce. In that year, he was reluctantly given permission to relocate to Rhodes in order to study philosophy.

Velleius Paterculus, a minor but significant historian for the period, sums up Julia's behavior after Tiberius' departure thus: "she was in the habit of measuring the magnitude of her fortune only in the terms of license to sin, setting up her own caprice as a law unto itself." At this point, the accounts of her deeds become both lurid and fanciful. Still, there must be a core of truth in them. Readers of the fine historical novel I Claudius by Robert Graves (or viewers of the television series based upon it) are amply familiar with most of the allegations. The 1st-century ce philosopher and courtier Seneca has the most concisely comprehensive account of them, claiming:

that she had been accessible to scores of paramours, that in nocturnal revels she had roamed about the city, that the very forum and the rostrum [speaking platform] from which her father had proposed a law against adultery, had been chosen by the daughter for her debaucheries, that she had daily resorted to the statue of Marsyas [a place of business for prostitutes in the forum], and, laying aside the role of adulteress, there sold her favours, and sought the right to every indulgence with even an unknown paramour (De Beneficia 6.32.1).

If Julia's dalliances had been only a fraction of those reported, it is hard to see how they could have escaped Augustus' notice, given the grip that he held over Roman society. But for at least four years, from Tiberius' departure in 6 until 2 bce, when the scandal broke, Augustus was apparently silent about the matter. Perhaps, having always been an indulgent father to Julia, he allowed some early allegations to slide. We have no record of his private remonstrations with her. But the 2nd-century ce historian Cassius Dio says that it was Augustus himself who uncovered the extent of the scandal, made a speech to the senate denouncing Julia (the quotation from Seneca above purports to outline the content of this speech), and then began legal proceedings against her.

Augustus was enraged, and in one sense we can understand why. As part of his program for the inculcation of old-time morals, he had passed strong marriage legislation in 19–18 bce. These laws were aimed at increasing the birthrate, regulating marriage between the social classes, and maintaining the stability and sanctity of the marriage bond by stipulating specific rules for the prosecution and punishment of adultery. Previously, punishment for adultery had been the sole responsibility of the family; the new law allowed for prosecution by the public at large if a husband refused to act first. The various terms and penalties of the law are well outlined; it is interesting to note, however, that there was no provision for a wife to initiate prosecution against a guilty husband, and that adultery for him included only liaisons with free married or unmarried women. Trysts or casual relations with slaves or registered prostitutes were legal. The regular punishment for a wife, unless the adultery took place in the husband's house or if the lovers were caught by him in flagrante delicto (in which case he was permitted to kill them), was exile to a remote corner of the empire.

Augustus' harshness in dealing with Julia perhaps exceeded the letter of his own law. Suetonius says that he at first considered killing her, but at last decided to exile her to Pandateria (present-day Ventotene), a tiny wind-swept island some 31 miles west of the Bay of Naples. Augustus straightaway divorced her from the absent Tiberius and confiscated her personal property. In her rough island villa, she had only the bare necessities of life and was forbidden wine. For company, there were only her guards and a few slaves, and, by a touching act of kindness, her mother Scribonia, who accompanied her voluntarily. Visitors were very strictly screened, and only unattractive, politically loyal men were allowed to set foot on the island.

Personal humiliation may be the best explanation for the depth of Augustus' anger and the extent of the punishments he imposed on his daughter, but there are hints in the ancient sources that there may be other, hidden, causes. How else, several scholars have asked, can we explain so sudden and final an about-face in a previously doting father? Certainly it is remarkable that even Tiberius wrote to Augustus from Rhodes to request some leniency for his detested ex-wife. The list of Julia's lovers furnished by Velleius may offer a clue. The five names he provides (along with a parenthesis claiming that there were many others) all indicate well-placed men from the senatorial and equestrian social orders, and include not only the ambitious Sempronius Gracchus, but also Iullus Antonius, a surviving son of Augustus' old arch-rival, Mark Antony. It is just possible, as some ancient authors claim and as several modern historians argue, that this young man and his associates may have formed a conspiracy to do away with Augustus and his autocratic regime, and that Julia, either wittingly or unwittingly, was implicated in the plot through her lovers. Following Julia's relegation to her island, four of her named lovers were also exiled, and Iullus Antonius was either executed like his brother before him, or driven to suicide like his father. Further, Augustus soon passed legislation that made male association with Julia or any of the women of his house subject to the charge of high treason. We cannot know for certain if Julia was involved in such parricidal plans; indeed, several recent works of scholarship have strenuously denied it.

Despite her scandal, Julia was very popular with the people of Rome, and there were demonstrations in her favor. Later, there were even rumors of a scheme to rescue her from her island prison. Augustus was at first unrelenting, but subsequently softened somewhat and allowed Julia to move to house arrest in Rhegium, in the south of the Italian peninsula (4 ce). When Augustus died in 14 ce, Tiberius succeeded him as princeps, and this was the sad end of Julia. The meager allowance that Augustus had provided her was cut off, and she died of malnutrition, at 53 years of age, later in the same year. Her shamed husband had had his revenge. Finally, an item in the will of Augustus forbade her burial in the family tomb, extending her exile beyond the grave.

For all that we know of Julia's life through her membership in Augustus' family, more than one modern historian has complained about our lack of insight into her character. The 5th-century ce writer Macrobius offers a small collection of her witty sayings, which purportedly come from a source contemporaneous with her life. Some show evidence of her learning, some of her vanity, almost all of her cleverness. A particularly memorable one combines elegant wit with a surprising vulgarity and could emblemize neatly the received opinion of her morality. When asked by certain intimates who knew about her affairs how it was that her children resembled Agrippa so closely, she replied, "passengers are never allowed on board until the hold is full."

Whatever the element of personal culpability in Julia's downfall, her life represents a facet of the history of the Augustan house which, in its quick ascendancy to a previously uninhabited peak on the Roman landscape, saw much suffering and even tragedy amongst its individual members. Even the legacy of children that Julia left behind after her disgrace, those boys and girls in whom Augustus had placed so much hope, came to abrupt, sorrowful, and even disgraceful ends. As Velleius says, "Her many children were to be blessing neither to herself nor to the state." Lucius Caesar died of a fever in 2 ce, Gaius after being wounded in battle in 4 ce. The young Julia followed in her mother's doomed footsteps and was banished twice for adultery, the second time, in 8 ce, for life. The youngest, Agrippa Postumus, grew into such a vicious and troubled character that his grandfather hated and feared him. Soon after Augustus' death, and apparently on his orders, Agrippa Postumus was executed in his place of exile. Finally, Agrippina the Elder, mother of the deranged and detested emperor Caligula, though upright throughout her life, came into conflict with Tiberius and was banished to Pandateria, where she starved to death in 33 ce.


Balsdon, J.P.V.D. Roman Women: Their History and Habits. London: Bodley Head, 1962 (reprint ed., Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975).

Cassius Dio. Dio's Roman History. Edited and translated by Earnest Cary. Vols. 6 and 7. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Macrobius. The Saturnalia. Translated with an introduction by Percival Vaughan Davies. The Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies 79. NY: Columbia University Press, 1969.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Alterumswissenschaft. 2nd ed. Edited by Georg Wissowa, et al. S.v. "Julia 550," "Julia 551." Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Buchhandlung, 1894–1980.

Suetonius. Suetonius: Lives of the Caesars. Translated by J.C. Rolfe. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939.

Tacitus. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated with an introduction by Michael Grant. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1956.

Velleius Paterculus. Compendium of Roman History and the Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Edited and translated by Frederick W. Shipley. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Wells, Colin. The Roman Empire. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

suggested reading:

Ferrero, Guglielmo. The Women of the Caesars. Translated by Christian Gauss. NY: Knickerbocker, 1925.

Serviez, Jaques Boergas de. Lives of the Roman Empresses: The History of the Lives and Secret Intrigues of the Wives, Sisters and Mothers of the Caesars. Introduction by Robert Graves. NY: Wise, 1935.


Graves, Robert. I Claudius. NY: Knopf, 1934.

Massie, Allan. Augustus: A Novel. London: Bodley Head, 1986.

——. Tiberius: A Novel. London: Bodley Head, 1990.

suggested reading:

Giacosa, Giorgio. Women of the Caesars: Their Lives and Portraits on Coins. Translated by Ross R. Holloway. Milan: Edizioni Arte e Moneta, n.d. (contains ancient contemporary coin portraits).

related media:

I, Claudius. (13 episodes), adapted for television from the book by Robert Graves, London: BBC/London Films, 1976, available on videocassette from the Library Video Classics Project of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Peter H. O'Brien , Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts