Powerful women in ancient Rome

Valeria Messalina
Valeria Messalina

You lived in a world that was dominated only by men, but completely? In a society as macho as that of ancient Rome, a woman would never have been allowed to rule the fate of the empire. However, there were some who, always in the shadow of the emperor, had as much power as they did. Meet among the most powerful women in ancient Rome.


Valeria Mesalina was the wife of Emperor Claudius, the aunt of the famous Caligula, and you could say that she reached great heights of power by jumping from bed to bed.

Mesalina is said to have slept with virtually the entire Senate and, thanks to his nymphomania, received important information. In addition, the only man she loved, Cayo Apio Juno Silano, never replied. Messalina slipped against him to be executed.

Julia Domna

Julia Domna (Emesa, ca.160 – Rome, 217) was consort to the empress from 193 to 211. In 193 she married Septimius Severus, who declared himself emperor of Rome after a victorious civil war.

As Empress, Julia Domna's influence was remarkable in all aspects until he accompanied Septimius Severus in his campaigns and was named Mater Castrorum (Mother of the field). His strength and recognition is reflected in coins that were minted with his portrait and are cataloged as Augusta. She was by far the most distinguished empress.

Coin with the face of Julia Domna, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2010), CC BY 3.0, link

He is also credited with patronizing architectural projects such as the "Aedes Vestae", the Temple of Vesta, which was destroyed during the fire under Commodus.


Livia Drusila, also known as Julia Augusta (59/58 BC – AD 29), was the third wife of the Emperor Augustus. Her first husband was Tiberio Claudio Nerón and she was the mother of the future emperor Tiberio Claudio Nerón. Claudius promoted her to the goddess and Caligula awarded her the title Augusta.

Livia Drusila
Livia Drusila

Livia was the best example of the Roman matron: discreet and simple, she never displayed an empress's own wealth, she took care of the housework and her husband, even though she was actively involved in politics and was considered the greatest adviser to Emperor Augustus .

In the year 35 a. C. Augustus granted Livia complete independence to manage his own finances and maintain them with a public statue. He had his own clientele and placed his proteges in official positions for nepotism.

Agrippina the little one
Bust of Agrippina the Little in the Warsaw National Museum – Image by Anonymous (Rome) – Own work (BurgererSF), CC0, Link

Julia Agripina, better known as Agripina la Menor, was one of Caligula's sisters, Claudio's wife and niece and Nero's mother.

When her brother Caligula became emperor, she and her two sisters enjoyed the privileges reserved exclusively for the imperial family. After Caligula's murder and the appointment of his uncle Claudius as emperor, Agrippina and his sister returned to Rome from exile after losing Caligula's favor. Back in Rome, she married Cayo Salustio Pasieno Crispo. This brought him closer to Claudio, his uncle, and achieved such a high level of intimacy that when he discovered his wife Messalina's infidelity, he ordered the execution and Agripina took her place as a wife.

After Agripina received the title of Empress and Augusta, the first after Livia, and received exceptional honors and privileges, she persuaded her husband, Nero, to adopt her son as heir.

Bibliographic sources:

  • Pliny the Elder (2007). "Natural history"
  • Plutarch (2006). "Roman questions"
  • Abbott, Frank Frost (1912). Society and politics in ancient Rome

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