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Senatorial Women in the Early Principate: Power without Office

Josiah Osgood

Georgetown University

This paper argues that senatorial women in the early principate, while never holding office, enjoyed significant power individually and were intrinsic to the Senate’s continuing power and prestige.

Previous scholarship has tended to focus on so-called imperial women such as Livia and Agrippina, emphasizing the novelty of their role (e.g., Ginsburg 2005).  Less attention has been paid to the broader category of senatorial women, whom I define as the close relatives of senators (daughters, wives, mothers, and sisters) (cf. Raepsaet-Charlier 1987, 1-25).  Recent studies have demonstrated just how successfully women of status defended their own as well as their family’s interests in the late republican civil wars and, in doing so, helped to negotiate the shape the nascent principate of Augustus took (Welch 2010, Osgood 2014, Treggiari 2019).  I build on this work, while also showing how more attention to senatorial women in the years from c. 25 BCE to 70 CE helps to confirm recent arguments that not all political initiative came from the emperors themselves (Morrell, Osgood, and Welch 2019).

Weisweiler (2015) has argued that three key indexes of senatorial power in the early principate were (1) ceremonial, (2) wealth, and (3) office-holding, and I use this framework to structure my argument, which draws on a range of literary and epigraphic evidence. 

In terms of ceremonial, I demonstrate that women had significant access to the imperial court.  They attended dinners hosted by emperors.  Moreover, in keeping with late republican patterns, they could and did access the emperor through his female relatives.  Attention to women can also help to revise earlier scholarship on the court (Potter and Talbert 2011, Michel 2015).  For many periods, we should speak not of one court but several (e.g., those of Tiberius and of Livia), and while men had roles at the courts of imperial women, these courts were particularly important in insuring representation for women.  The famous lines in the Senatus consultum de Pisone patre on Livia’s intervention with Tiberius on behalf of Munatia Plancina can be read as much as an assertion of Plancina’s power as Livia’s.

Next I look at wealth and status.  No less than senatorial men, senatorial women competed for resources and tried to amass their own fortunes.  However much they might complain of ‘bad’ emperors, the principate allowed them to play this game, just as they had in the Republic.  Literary evidence, as well as inscriptions, including epitaphs from columbaria (Hasegawa 2005), supply evidence for senatorial women’s substantial wealth and their display of it.  I also show how senatorial women paraded status through displays of lineage, even in their nomenclature (e.g., Mummia Achaica, Poppaea Sabina); their movement through the city of Rome; their appearances in public with an entourage of friends; and civic patronage.

Finally, while women could not hold office and normally would not appear in the Senate, they could exercise power through patronage networks (see, e.g., Tac. Ann. 13.19-22 on Junia Silana).  A real index of their power was prosecution of women in the Senate for maiestas and repetundae (Marshall 1990).  During such trials, a woman might speak, even try to take her life.  This represented a real departure from the republican era, and might incline us to see senatorial women as ‘victims’ of the new politics.  I argue that the Senate’s concern over their conduct – extending far beyond criminal accusations – arose not so much at imperial behest (the usual view) and more from an effort by the senatorial class to uphold its own collective prestige.

Male authors such as Tacitus and Juvenal used imperial women to embody claims of a topsy-turvy inversion of traditional hierarchies.  The far more interesting, and important, story is that, while women’s roles remained quite circumscribed, women were deeply integrated into senatorial politics and enjoyed a prestige that, over time, men thought worth sharing and recognizing.  The senatorial woman was on her way to gaining the title clarissima femina.     

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