Octavia (c. 69–11 BCE)

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Octavia (c. 69–11 bce)

Link and mediator between two great Roman antagonists—her brother Octavian (Augustus) and her husband Marc Antony—who helped to avert Roman civil war for nearly a decade. Name variations: sometimes designated "Minor" or "the Younger." Born around 69 bce; died in 11 bce, probably in or near Rome; daughter of G. Octavius (a Roman senator and governor of Macedonia) and Atia the Elder (niece of Julius Caesar); sister of Octavius (later designated Octavian and finally Augustus [there is some scholarly difference as to whether the Octavia in question is actually Octavian's older half-sister, also named Octavia, whose mother was Ancharia ]); married Gaius Claudius Marcellus (a Roman consul) sometime before 54 bce (died 40 bce); married M. Antonius (Marc Antony), in 40 bce (divorced 32 bce); children: (first marriage) Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Marcella the Elder, and Marcella the Younger; (second marriage) Antonia Major (b. 39 bce) and Antonia Minor (36 bce–37 ce).

Married Marc Antony to seal the "Treaty of Brundisium," capping an agreement for peace between him and Octavian (40 bce); mediated between the two men (37 bce), helping to negotiate the Treaty of Tarentum; received protections of Tribunician office and other legal privileges (35 bce).

Atia the Elder (c. 80 bce–?)

Roman noblewoman. Name variations: Atia Maior or Major; Atia the Elder. Born around 80 bce; daughter of Julia Minor (c. 100–51 bce, sister of Julius Caesar) and M. Atius Balbus; married G. Octavius (a native of Velitrae to the north of Rome who died in 59 bce); married L. Marcius Philippus; children: (first marriage) Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, also known as Octavian (63 bce–14 ce, later Augustus Caesar); and Octavia (c. 69–11 bce).

Octavia was born into a family destined, through its connection to Julius Caesar, to become the most prominent and powerful in the Roman Empire. Her ambitious father G. Octavius, first in his branch of the family to become a Roman senator, distinguished himself by governing the province of Macedonia and winning an important battle in Thrace. Her mother Atia the Elder , niece of Julius Caesar, provided the blood link by which Octavia's brother Octavian (later the great emperor Augustus) was eventually able to assert personal control over the empire. Because of Octavia's warm, personal relationship with him, she exerted an indirect but vital influence on the empire in her own right. The ancient historians portray Octavia as a woman who exercised her powers for good in what was then a culturally appropriate way for a woman: by informal mediation.

Little is known about Octavia's early life, apart from the fact that her father died when she was in her early teens, and her mother died a few years later. She was married at a young age to Gaius Claudius Marcellus, who served in 50 bce as consul, the highest political office in Rome. On one occasion, although she was already married, her great-uncle Julius Caesar offered her in marriage to Pompey in order to stabilize the relationship between the two men. Clearly, she was already considered a possible peacemaking link, but in this case, nothing came of it.

In 44 bce, the overwhelming control Julius Caesar exercised over virtually every aspect of Roman life led an estimated 60 aristocratic opponents to participate in an assassination plot. On March 15, Caesar entered the senate and was stabbed by the conspirators 23 times. Octavian was completing his education with Apollonia in Epirus when he learned that Julius Caesar's will had made him son and heir.

If only Octavia, who in addition to her beauty possessed great dignity of character and good sense, could become united with M. Antony and win his love, … this alliance … would restore harmony to the Roman world.


After the assassination, Marc Antony was all-powerful in Rome until he seized public funds and made for Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) with the legions at his disposal. Declaring Antony a public enemy, the senate gave Octavian full command of the Roman Army to protect the city. In 43 bce, Octavian defeated Antony at Mutina (present-day Modena), but Antony escaped to the south of Gaul (France) and took refuge with the local governor Lepidus. Together, the two raised a new army. Octavian realized that an alliance with Antony would be more beneficial than a civil war and so convinced the senate to reverse its declaration of Antony as public enemy. Granted extraordinary powers by the senate, which feared civil war, Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus formed a triumvirate legally empowered to govern the empire for five years. As the three launched a bloodbath to destroy the "enemies of Rome," 300 senators and over 2,000 knights were slain. In October of 40 bce, the Roman world was divided between them, with Octavian receiving Europe, Antony the East, and Lepidus the African provinces.

Meanwhile, Octavia had given birth to a son, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, and a daughter Marcella the Elder . Her husband G. Marcellus died in 40 bce, just before another daughter Marcella the Younger was born. A Roman widow was expected and required to grieve for ten months before considering remarriage, but Octavia's grief was cut short for political reasons by a special dispensation from the senate in Rome. Octavian and Marc Antony, the two most powerful commanders in the Roman Empire, reached a peace agreement that year, known as the Treaty of Brundisium. Since Marc Antony's wife, Fulvia , had just died, a marriage between him and Octavia was quickly arranged with the intent of cementing the tenuous relationship between the two men. The treaty narrowly averted civil war.

According to Plutarch, an ancient Greek biographer, the populace strongly desired this marriage. It was thought that, if they married, the beautiful and wise Octavia would manage to win Marc Antony's love, and "this alliance would prove the salvation of their own affairs and would restore harmony to the Roman world." After the betrothal, according to Greek historian Appian, Octavian and Marc Antony embraced each other and "shouts went up from the soldiers and congratulations were offered to each of the generals, without intermission, through the entire day and night." By all indications, Octavia willingly accepted this marriage as her duty, and she believed she was a crucial link in maintaining peace between the two men. Her influence was effective in this regard for nearly a decade.

An early illustration of her positive influence on her brother Octavian is recorded by Cassius Dio. In this incident, a man who had been designated for death in the cruel bargains struck among the triumvirs (Octavian, Marc Antony, and Lepidus) was hidden by his wife in a chest. This woman then spread the rumor that her husband had died and solicited Octavia's help, hoping that Octavia's influence would somehow save her husband's life as well as the family's fortunes. Octavia succeeded in arranging for Octavian to enter the theater alone during a popular festival—at which point the woman approached him. She informed him of her deed and then had the chest brought in and produced her husband. Octavian released the family from the sentence of death.

Octavia accompanied Antony to Athens where they spent a pleasant first year of marriage. Antony adopted the Greek mode of dress, and together they attended lectures and festivals. The Athenians demonstrated their love for Octavia by bestowing various honors upon her, and during this period, to celebrate their marriage and to show good faith, Antony minted a coin with Octavia's portrait on the obverse, making Octavia one of the first Roman women ever to be so honored.

But by 37 bce, Antony and Octavian were again at odds. Octavia now had a daughter, Antonia Major , with Antony, and though she was expecting their second child (Antonia Minor ) she begged permission to accompany Antony to Italy, hoping to effect a new reconciliation between the two men. Wisely, she first secured the backing of Octavian's influential advisors, and then she approached her brother Octavian personally. When Octavian listed his grievances against Marc Antony, she had a response prepared for each objection. Arguing that—as wife of one and sister of the other—her fate would be unbearable if they should go to war with each other, she prevailed upon Octavian to accept a dinner invitation from Marc Antony. Plutarch dramatically paints the background for this tense dinner: a huge army camped on land and an opposing army in a fleet offshore, poised with the potential for destruction. Yet the Treaty of Tarentum which resulted from this meeting extended the triumvirate, and thereby the peace, for another five years. The men exchanged military resources, and to further cement the agreement arranged a future marriage between Marc Antony's older son and Octavian's young daughter Julia (39 bce–14 CE). Marc Antony again struck new coins, in one case placing Octavian and himself on one side and Octavia on the other.

Nevertheless, the peace agreements showed early signs of inherent weakness. Octavia returned to the east with Marc Antony, yet when they had only reached Corcyra (Corfu) he sent her back, claiming that he did not want her endangered by his upcoming military campaigns. He entrusted Octavia and his daughters to Octavian, and she returned to Rome. It was widely believed, however, that Antony had sent her home on a pretext so that he could spend the winter with his former lover, the charming and politically powerful Cleopatra (VII) , ruler of Egypt.

Antony's affair with Cleopatra was regarded negatively by the Romans mostly because a mutual political alliance directed against Octavian could place Rome in danger of civil war. That winter, Marc Antony further scandalized Rome by recognizing his paternity of Cleopatra's twins—Cleopatra V Selene and Alexander Helios—and by participating in an oriental religious ceremony with the Egyptian queen, implying to the east that they were a divine couple. Although

Antony was still officially married to Octavia, this was the beginning of his breach with the west.

In 35 bce, Octavian had a law passed giving both his wife Livia Drusilla and his sister Octavia "the same security and inviolability as the tribunes enjoyed," as Dio puts it. This grant or rights associated with public office to women was novel, and it legally protected them from both physical and verbal injury. At the same time, Octavian gave both women the freedom to manage their own affairs without the permission of a guardian. Honorific statues were erected for them. In 34 bce, to celebrate his defeat of Dalmatia and to further honor his sister, Octavian named a library for Octavia.

Despite these honors from her brother, and the lack of attention from her husband, Octavia retained a sense of loyalty to Marc Antony and a sense of duty to the empire. In 35 bce, she sailed to meet her husband, bringing troops and gold which she had begged from Octavian in order to reinforce her husband's military efforts in the east. Antony accepted the gifts and the select troops but refused to let Octavia join him, sending her back to Rome from Athens, sight unseen. Again, he used the pretense of the dangers of war. Plutarch says, however, that Cleopatra had convinced Marc Antony to send Octavia home, fearing that if she ever joined Antony he might indeed return to her. Cleopatra maintained that Antony's marriage to Octavia was merely political while their own relationship was based on true love—and there seems to have been some truth in her argument.

Octavia's forced return to Italy placed her in danger of becoming the justification for a declaration of civil war. Plutarch surmises that Octavian gave permission for the gift of troops and gold only to generate an opportunity to declare war based on Antony's treatment of Octavia, now that she held the legal protections of a tribune. Citing the disrespect shown to her by her husband, Octavian suggested that Octavia move back into his own household. For Octavia, however, that move would represent her worst fears and the failure of her life's mission. Still loyal to duty, she exercised her right to act without the approval of a guardian and refused to leave Marc Antony's house. Plutarch says that she begged Octavian, unless he had other reasons for going to war, "to ignore Antony's behaviour toward her, for it would be intolerable, she pleaded, to have it said of the two greatest imperators in the world that they had plunged the Roman people into civil war, the one out of love and the other out of jealousy for the rights of a woman." She continued to raise Antony's children, both her own and those of his former wife Fulvia. She entertained Marc Antony's guests and even asked her brother favors for them, as if the marriage relationship were intact. Plutarch observes that Octavia actually did Antony a disservice by acting so nobly because, by comparison to her, he seemed so unworthy.

In 34 bce, Marc Antony formally set up an inheritance for his children with Cleopatra in an ornate public ceremony, and, in 32 bce, he sent orders to turn Octavia out of his house, thereby divorcing her. He broke tradition, however, by allowing her to keep all the children after their divorce (children normally stayed in their father's household), except for his oldest son who served in the army with him.

Octavia cried bitterly. Not only had she failed to keep the peace, but her treatment had become the very point over which her brother Octavian could rally support against his antagonist. This was indeed the opportunity for which Octavian had been waiting. Perhaps in deference to his sister, however, Octavian did not declare war on Antony, but on Cleopatra. Antony was represented as a great Roman general who had been enticed into weak degeneracy by a wicked foreign queen. The outcome of this war was complete victory for Octavian.

This, however, did not represent the end of Octavia's influence. As her brother Octavian (granted the title augustus in 27 bce) becomes master of the Roman world, she continues to enter the narratives of the ancient sources, chiefly being noted as a mother. After her husband's death in 30 bce, Octavia not only raised her own and Fulvia's children, demonstrating fairness to all (she put forward one of Fulvia's children for extra favor from Octavian), but also raised the children of Cleopatra. Octavia herself arranged the marriage of Cleopatra's daughter with King Juba II in Africa.

Octavia's son M. Marcellus was married in 25 bce to his cousin, Octavian's young daughter Julia, and was groomed as probable successor to Octavian. Octavia's desires, now that her other endeavors had failed, centered on this son and his prospects for inheriting the rule of the empire. Sadly for Octavia, her hopes were dashed when he died young. Seneca, philosopher and advisor to Emperor Nero, criticizes her for what he considers inordinate grief over her son's death, saying that she never again took off mourning clothes and refused to take joy in life.

Yet Octavia's importance as blood link in maintaining the power of the Julio-Claudian family was to be crucial for years to come. Octavia's daughter Antonia Minor would become the mother of Claudius, future emperor, and Antonia Major would become the grandmother of Nero, the emperor who followed Claudius. When Octavia died in 11 bce, the entire Roman Empire formally mourned her death. Her sons-in-law carried her body in a procession, honors were voted for her, and two orations were given at her funeral, one by the great Octavian himself.

Octavia had exercised her influence for good to the greatest degree possible without stepping beyond commonly acceptable boundaries for a woman in her time, place, and position. She had accepted seriously the role of informal mediator and link between powerful men through marriage, even to the point of defying their wishes for the sake of meticulous duty and high ideals. That she did not ultimately succeed does not lessen the fact that she staved off a Roman civil war for ten years.


Appian. The Civil War.

Bauman, Richard A. Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. NY: Routledge, 1992.

Cassius Dio. The Roman History.

Delia, Diana. "Fulvia Reconsidered," in Women's History and Ancient History. Ed. by Sarah B. Pomeroy. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Hewsen, Robert. "Augustus," in Historic World Leaders. Ed. by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994.

"Octavia," in Cambridge Ancient History.

"Octavia," in Oxford Classical Dictionary.

Plutarch. "Marc Antony," in Parallel Lives.

Singer, Mary White. "Octavia's Mediation at Tarentum," in Classical Journal. Vol. 43, pp. 173–177.

Suetonius. "Life of Julius Caesar" and "Life of Augustus," in Lives of the Twelve Caesars.

Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. NY: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Sylvia Gray Gray , Adjunct Faculty, Humanities, Marylhurst College, Oregon