Julia Minor (c. 100–51 BCE)
Julia Minor (c. 100–51 bce)
Younger sister of Julius Caesar and grandmother of the emperor Augustus. Name variations: Julia; Julia the Younger. Born in Rome some time after 100 bce, the date of her elder brother Julius Caesar's birth; died in Rome in 51 bce; daughter of Gaius Julius Caesar (a patrician who had attained relatively modest political offices), and Aurelia (c. 120–54 bce, of the Cotta family); received the education of Roman noble woman; sister of Julia Maior; married Marcus Atius Balbus; children: two daughters, Atia the Elder (c. 80 bce–?) andAtia the Younger .
Possible witness in the Bona Dea trial of Publius Clodius Pulcher (61 bce); supervised the upbringing and education of her grandson, the future emperor Augustus (c. 58–51 bce); at time of death, was lauded in a funeral oration by her grandson (51 bce).
The Roman system of nomenclature is not the most daunting obstacle to researching the lives of women in Republican times, but it is a frequent source of confusion for moderns. Julia Minor, younger sister of Gaius Julius Caesar the dictator, is only one of dozens of Julias who have come down to us in written record, and it will be helpful to say a few words about women's names in Rome before discussing her life. Every man from a free Roman family possessed at least two names: the praenomen, or given name, and the family name, the nomen. Frequently a third (or even fourth) name, the cognomen, was added to the other two to further distinguish the individual who bore it. Thus Gaius (praenomen) Julius (nomen) Caesar (cognomen). Women, however, usually bore only the feminine form of the family name. Thus the Gaius Julius Caesar under discussion had two sisters, an elder and a younger, both called Julia. To avoid inevitable confusion in such situations, the Romans distinguished their daughters either by adding the word for "older" (maior) or "younger" (minor) to the family name or, in the case of multiple daughters, by adding an ordinal number to the nomen. It is for this reason that Caesar's younger sister is sometimes called Julia Minor, and not because she was of any less importance than his elder sister, about whom we in fact know much less.
Although we have no explicit date, Julia Minor was probably born in the early years of the 1st century bce, since we know that she was younger than her famous brother and that he was born in the year 100. The Julii were an ancient, and therefore an especially distinguished, family of the first (patrician) rank, and in their own mythology they claimed descent through Iulus, son of Aeneas, the founder of the Roman people, and grandson of the goddess Venus. By the time that Julia Minor's father, also named Gaius Julius Caesar, had entered public life, however, the family's prominence was much diminished: the senior Julius Caesar never attained the consulship, the highest office in the Republic, and his wife Aurelia came from the Cotta family, which was patrician indeed, but of a much more recent elevation than his own.
We may assume that Julia Minor received the typical education of a Roman noble girl, which might have included spinning and weaving along with Latin and Greek grammar and literature. We do not know the exact date of her marriage to Marcus Atius Balbus, but matrimonial custom in the Republic often saw women married as early as 12; she would most certainly have been married before she had completed her teens. The Balbi were an old patrician family that originated in Aricia, a Latin town just south of Rome. Julia's husband attained the judicial office of praetor before 59 bce and was a commissioner in an important agrarian law passed by Julius Caesar in the same year. The 1st-century ce biographer Suetonius reports that in factional propaganda directed against Octavian, Balbus' grandson, the family is derided as having stemmed from an African emigrant who owned a perfume shop, bakery, or operated a money-lending business. None of these "charges" is confirmed.
We know Julia principally for her involvement in the upbringing of her grandson between the years 58 and 51. However, she (or less likely, her sister Julia Maior ) is mentioned by Suetonius for her involvement in an infamous event in the chaotic final years of the Roman Republic. The cult of the Bona Dea (the "Good Goddess") was confined solely to women; her yearly celebrations were held in the house of a high civil magistrate in Rome. In 61 bce, Julia's brother, Julius Caesar, was praetor (as well as Pontifex Maximus, or Chief Priest), and the celebrations were held in his house, under the direction of his second wife Pompeia . During the celebrations, which included the drinking of wine and culminated in the sacrifice of a sow, it was brought to the attention of Caesar's mother Aurelia that a man disguised as a female harp-player had entered the house. She immediately found the man and ordered him to leave. Later she claimed to have recognized him as Publius Clodius Pulcher, a patrician who was rumored to be having an affair with Pompeia; his imputed purpose for infiltrating the female celebrations was his desire to debauch her in the midst of the activities.
It is no wonder that to the religiously conservative Roman public of the day this rather lurid episode was a shock and provoked great interest. It is chiefly remembered, however, because of the political repercussions it caused during a very unsettled time. A debate ensued among various factions about whether or not Clodius could be tried for his crime, for which there was no recorded precedent, and hence no governing law. Eventually Clodius was tried but found not guilty, despite the fact that both Aurelia and "Caesar's sister Julia" (Suetonius does not specify the elder or the younger) provided the jurors "a faithful account of the whole affair." The wily Caesar, it should be noted, refused to give testimony against Clodius, though as Pontifex Maximus he almost surely had a hand in bringing him to trial. And despite the not-guilty verdict, he still divorced Pompeia, claiming that because he was Supreme Pontiff the members of his family should be free of both accusation and suspicion.
If there is some shadow of doubt as to Julia Minor's participation in the Clodius trial, we can be more certain of her involvement in the upbringing of her grandson. Out of her marriage with Marcus Atius Balbus came two daughters (both, naturally, called Atia), the elder of whom married Gaius Octavius, a wealthy member of the middle social rank, the equestrians (or "knights"), from Velitrae, another ancient Latin town south of Rome. Atia the Elder gave Octavius a son, also called Gaius Octavius, on September 23, 63 bce. After the elder Octavius' death in 59 bce, Atia married Lucius Marcius Philippus in the following year, and her mother Julia Minor undertook the supervision of her young grandson's education until her death six years later. Her own importance in Roman circles and in the life of her grandson is borne out by the fact that the 12-year-old boy was allowed to deliver her funeral oration before an assembly. This performance is strikingly similar to one of Octavius' uncle Julius Caesar, who had lauded his aunt (yet another Julia [d. 68 bce]) at her burial in 68 bce. Julius Caesar's oration is often seen as an important stepping-stone in his advancing public career; Octavius' may also have marked his entry into public life. Coincidence or not, Octavius' connection with the political goals of his uncle Julius did not stop with the funeral oration of a beloved Julia. Julius Caesar's will both named Octavius his heir and formally adopted him: from this point, Gaius Octavius became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, later to be known simply as "Augustus," the first emperor of the Roman World.
sources and suggested reading:
Balsdon, J.P.V.D. Roman Women: Their History and Habits. London: Bodley Head, 1962 (reprint ed., Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1975).
Bonner, Stanley F. Education in Ancient Rome: From the elder Cato to the younger Pliny. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977.
Deutsch, Monroe E. "The Women of Caesar's Family," in Classical Journal. Vol. 13, 1918, pp. 502–514.
Gelzer, Matthias. Caesar: Politician and Statesman. Translated by Peter Needham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.
The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. S.v. "Augustus," "Balbus (1)," "Bona Dea," "Caesar (1)." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Alterumswissenschaft. Edited by Georg Wissowa, et al. S.v. "Julia 546." Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Buchhand-lung, 1894–1980.
Suetonius: Lives of the Caesars. Translated by J.C. Rolfe. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Peter H. O'Brien teaches English and Classics at Boston University Academy, Boston, Massachusetts