Julia the elder, Augustus’ daughter

In the Fourth Eclogue, Virgil describes the providential advent of a child, a puer, who would be the bearer of the ‘golden age’, an extraordinary new era of peace and wealth after nearly a century of civil wars (I). Who was this mysterious child? Many have been identified over the centuries, but in all likelihood, Virgilius’ puer was actually a puella, a baby girl — argues the Italian scholar Lorenzo Braccesi — one of noble birth: Julia the Elder (39 BC–AD 14), the daughter of the winner of the Civil Wars, Augustus. She was still in the womb of her mother, Scribonia, Augusto’s second wife, at the time when the Fourth Eclogue was written. In the absence of ultrasound, the sex of unborn children was unknown in ancient times, explaining Virgil’s misleading use of the masculine term puer. The very same day Julia was born, Augustus repudiated Scribonia and married Livia, to whom he entrusted his daughter’s education. The girl received the traditional teachings to form her into an exemplary ‘Roman matrona’ – she learned, for instance, how to spin wool —, but unlike most women of her time, she was also given the opportunity to study Latin and Greek grammar, literature and poetry. “She had a love for literature and a considerable culture”, the writer Macrobius said of her at the time. Julia grew up as a well-educated, refined, independent intellectual, yet her marital life was entirely controlled by her father, who saw in her — his only offspring and, as such, the only one who could assure him an heir — an instrument to secure a proper continuation of his power. At the age of fourteen, Julia was married to her cousin Marcus Claudius Marcellus (II), son of her aunt, Octavia.

The future of Rome’s first ‘royal couple’ seemed bright: the young spouses were beautiful, rich and powerful, even the Roman plebes loved them. However, the story came to an abrupt, sad end. Marcellus, not yet nineteen, died suddenly (III). Of him remains the theatre bearing his name in Rome, and the moving verses of Virgil dedicated to his memory in the sixth book of the Aeneid. Augustus, however, did not waste any time in the aftermath, and swiftly remarried Julia, now 18-years-old, to a man she didn’t choose nor love: one of his generals, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (IV), winner of the Battle of Actium. Agrippa was twenty-five years older than Julia, and without aristocratic ancestry, nonetheless, she bore him five children. Later when he died, Augustus married her yet again, to a man she grew up with as a child, one whom she despised even more: Tiberius, the son of Livia.

Having been sacrificed to the Reason of State, and given in marriage to men she did not love, Julia, at this moment, began a long phase of rebellion. She decided to begin living as she pleased, refusing to submit to the harsh limitations that the dominant patriarchy imposed on women. She, daughter of the emperor, felt she could do as she pleased. After deciding to frequent fashionable literary circles, and to dress in an eccentric and daring manner, Julia was always surrounded by an entourage of poets, artists, intellectuals and aristocrats nostalgic for the Republic and its intellectuals (V). In open defiance of the Lex Adulteris — a law that punished adultery with banishment — strongly advocated and enacted by her father, she indulged herself in an array of extramarital affairs, flirtations, and transient relationships. Despite repeatedly causing scandal (VI) Julia never lost the love and support of the Roman people. In the course of her life, however, she would truly love only one man: Iullus Antonius, her childhood playmate and son of Antonius and Cleopatra, defeated by Augustus in the Battle of Actium. By his side, she dreamed of a future of power and love. Unlike Livia, however, Julia was a dreamer, not a politician: she wouldn’t be able to shape events at will or to transform her visions into reality. On the contrary, like any true romantic heroin, it was precisely her dreams that led her into the abyss.

Julia ventured on a slippery path. Iullus Antonius happened to participate in the conspiracy that planned to kill Augustus on the thirtieth anniversary of the Battle of Actium. Julia was implicated in the plot, although we don’t know to what extent. When the conspirators were put to death, and Iullo Antonio was forced to commit suicide, Julia was exiled to the island of Pandateria (the modern Ventotene), with the spurious accusations of having broken the Lex Adulteris with her licentious conduct (VII). After five years, she was transferred to the mainland in Reggio Calabria. Meanwhile, her father’s dynastic ambitions began to shatter. Two of Julia’s sons, Lucio Cesare and Caio Cesare, destined to succeed Augustus, died prematurely in suspicious circumstances. In the end, it was Livia who won the game, having taken out Julia and all of her heirs, enabling her son Tiberio to rise to power, an objective she had pursued with quiet determination throughout her life. When he was proclaimed emperor, Tiberius confiscated all of Julia’s patrimony, forcing her to live in one narrow room, where she eventually died in misery and squalor (VIII). A tragic epilogue for the beautiful daughter of the one-time lord of the world adored as a reincarnation of the Goddess Aphrodite in Greece — a cultured, refined, iconic and sophisticated woman, apparently destined by her high birth to a bright future. She was perhaps the first noblewoman in history, to openly claim for herself the use of her body as both an instrument of pleasure and a political weapon to challenge the patriarchal system ( embodied by the father and the “perfect matron” Livia). All of her sons would die or be killed whilst she was in exile. Julia was survived only by her daughter Agrippina, who married Germanicus and opposed with all her strength the power of Tiberius. But this is another story.

Julia’s free, indomitable, rebellious and romantic spirit — so we like to think — continues to hover over the island of Pandataria/ Ventotene, where she was the first in a long line of captives. Over the centuries, this small volcanic island off the west coast of Italy would become famous for further exiles, and especially for the deportation of homosexuals and political opponents during the Fascist dictatorship of Mussolini. And it is here that the dream of a united Europe was first conceived. During his incarceration, Altiero Spinelli, together with Ernesto Rossi, two opponents of the Italian Fascist regime, wrote in 1941 The Manifesto of Ventotene, For a Free and United Europe, becoming the forefathers of the European dream of integration


Michele Fossi



Published on DUST 15



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