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Review of 'Caesars' Wives : Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire'

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The Bottom Line

Annelise Freisenbruch Caesars' Wives Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire would make a pleasing modern way of getting to know the history of the Roman Empire from its days as a novel form of government when marriage and children were the high-points of a woman's life to the final days of the Roman Empire in the West when, perhaps surprisingly, Christianity had aided the movement towards increasingly powerful women at the top.


  • Filled with evocative detail and great trivia.
  • Makes the history extremely palatable.
  • Reveals details that are not easily available on the women.
  • Analyzes the women without resorting to their traditional pigeonholes.


  • Needs illustrations to accompany descriptions of specifically described styles and fashions.
  • Short on charts, tables, and such.


  • Women in the Imperial period of Rome helped rule behind the scenes, but were also honored, e.g., with titles and on coins.
  • True, there were women in the lives of the Caesars who were adulterers and poisoners, but she shows all their sides.
  • Increasingly, their women were getting too powerful and the Caesars got rid of them. Not always, some loved, others ignored their wives.
  • Women could make or break the public image of the emperor.
  • Wives of the Caesars span the era of the deified Livia and the other infamous Julio-Claudians through the Christian St. Helena and Pulcheria and Galla Placidia.
  • Even if you think you know some of these women well, you'll probably learn something worth knowing.

Guide Review - Review of 'Caesars' Wives : Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire'

The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars is what Annelise Freisenbruch's first book is known as in the UK, but in the U.S., it has the more sensational, but descriptive title Caesars' Wives : Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire.

Freisenbruch writes in the introduction that most reviews of imperial women have been negative, but some of the women have fared better -- as heroines and even a saint, but the popular imagination prefers titillating women or the saintly "gynoid" (early version of Stepford wives). She tries to present a more dimensioned version of the first ladies, a term she says is fitting since the first of them, Livia, wife of Augustus, was a femina princeps -- Latin for 'first lady.' Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus was the first Imperial era woman known for her proficiency in rhetoric and philosophy.

Freisenbruch's jaunt through 5 centuries of imperial women focuses on women worth getting to know, although she's so thorough she seems to touch on every known wife and some mistresses (Emperor Vespasian's mistress Caenis [see 'The Course of Honor', by Lindsey Davis] "pocketed vast sums of money in return for recommending to Vespasian individuals for governorships and generalships") and daughters. Augustus' troublesome daughter Julia wasn't just promiscuous and vain, but had a streak of her father or even her father's adoptive father in her:

"Julia refused to conform to the austere example set by her father, apparently retorting to an entreaty by a friend: 'He forgets that he is Caesar, but I remember that I am Caesar's daughter.'"
It is surprising to see how much detail Freisenbruch was able to amass about these, often behind-the-scenes figures. Some detail is known from literary sources (her ancient sources include Historia Augusta, Aulus Gellius, Cassius Dio, Eusebius, Fronto, Herodian, Jordanes, Juvenal, Macrobius, Marcus Aurelius, Pliny, Plutarch, Seneca, Tacitus, and Velleius Paterculus); other, from imperial portraiture, including statues and coinage.

Freisenbruch, a former student of the equally engaging writer Mary Beard, presents accounts of the women beside the throne in a lively format, making it a joy to read.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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