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Julia the Younger’s Fall: Repeating History

The fall of the elder Julia was mirrored by the later disgrace of her daughter, Julia the Younger. She was born in 19 BC to Julia and Agrippa. She was married to Lucius Aemilius Paulus, a member of one the leading aristocratic families in Rome. Her exile is little discussed in our sources and many of the details are unclear. It was probably in AD 8 or AD 9.

The sources are scattered. Suetonius (Augustus 65)  in a general account of the disasters that befell the Julias and Agrippa Postumus tells us that Augustus refused to allow the child to which she gave birth while in exile to be raised.

In the Roman household, a baby needed to be recognized and ‘raised’ by the father or the head of the household to be accepted. The consequence of not being raised was for the infant to be exposed, effectively thrown away. We have no idea how often children were killed in this way. The reporting of this instance suggests that it was unusual for aristocratic families to expose their children and that in this instance it was a punishment that might be seen as reflecting a view that the child was the product of an adulterous liaison. Whatever the cause, Augustus killed his own great-grandchild.

The strength of feeling is reflected in Augustus also banning the Julias from the family mausoleum (Suetonius, Augustus 101). Julia’s house was destroyed, supposedly (according to Suetonius) because Augustus did not like lavish palaces (Suetonius, Augustus 72), though we make suspect that it had something to do with wiping the shame of his granddaughter from the city. Finally, in a list of conspirators against the emperor, Suetonius (Augustus 19) lists Plautius Rufus and Lucius Paulus, the latter being Julia’s husband.

We get more information in Tacitus. He reports the death of the younger Julia in AD 29, telling us that she had been twenty years in exile (which gives us the approximate date for her exile). We are also told that she exiled for adultery (Tacitus, Annales 4.71). We hear of one her supposed lovers returning to Rome in AD 17. Decimus Silanus was brother to Marcus Silanus, who was close to Tiberius. He petitioned for Decimus to be allowed to return, which Tiberius allowed.

Tiberius’ reasoning was that he could find no legal process by which Decimus had been exiled. He seems to have simply been encouraged to leave. He could thus return. But Tiberius would not allow him to return to public life. He maintained Augustus’ antipathy to the man (Tacitus, Annales 3.24).

As with the fall of her mother, we have clear indications of a sex scandal. But politics cannot have been far from the centre of events. Julia’s husband fell also. Since he could not have been guilt of adultery with his wife, he was charged with conspiracy. Once again, on the excuse of adultery, a swathe of the Roman aristocracy was purged by Augustus.

What accounts for the purge?

Most obviously, the disgrace of Julia, Julia and Agrippa cleared the way for Tiberius. The collateral damage in the deaths and exiles of many leading figures in the Roman aristocracy suggest that the upper echelons of Roman society were divided and it is tempting to see a faction in support of Tiberius and another in support of the Julias.

Yet, it is unlikely to have been that simple. The case of Decimus Brutus is important. He is exiled because of his connection to the younger Julia, but his brother remained as one of Tiberius’ closest associates. The destruction of Julia’s house suggests that there was a difference in approach between the old emperor and his granddaughter: one advertised her high status through her lavish ways; the other was stern and disciplined. And finally, there is the sex and the violence of Augustus’ reaction. All this suggests that differences were more than political.

In the last years of the Augustan regime, conflict emerged in the imperial. It was a conflict which was political and cultural. It was about the nature of the regime. The stories of Julia and her daughter Julia demonstrate the ferocity with which Augustus held the moral line. Many commentators, including the ancient ones, have sympathised with Augustus in having such wayward descendants, but perhaps we should think about the women and recognise the ferocity of a moral and political regime in which the emperor exiled his daughter and granddaughter and ordered the death of his great-grandchild.

Julia the Younger                           Agrippa Postumus                      End of Opposition

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