In 2 BC, the imperial house was convulsed by scandal. Julia, daughter of the emperor, wife of Tiberius, mother of Gaius and Lucius, was accused of multiple adulteries.
She was exiled to the small island of Pandateria (Ventotene) off the coast of Lazio.
Imperial sex scandals raise two questions:
- Are the stories true?
- Is it sex or politics?
The sources are remarkably consistent, but raise difficulties.
Here is the account in Dio (55.10.12)
when he at length discovered that his daughter Julia was so dissolute in her conduct as actually to take part in revels and drinking bouts at night in the Forum and on the very rostra, he became exceedingly angry. He had surmised even before this time that she was not leading a straight life, but refused to believe it. For those who hold positions of command, it appears, are acquainted with everything else better than with their own affairs; and although their own deeds do not escape the knowledge of their associates, they have no precise information regarding what their associates do. In the present instance, when Augustus learned what was going on, he gave way to a rage so violent that he could not keep the matter to himself, but went so far as to communicate it to senate. As a result Julia was banished to the island of Pandateria, lying off Campania, and her mother Scribonia voluntarily accompanied her. Of the men who had enjoyed her favours, Iulus Antonius, on the ground that his conduct had been prompted by designs upon the monarchy, was put to death along with other prominent persons, while the remainder were banished to islands. And since there was a tribune among them, he was not tried until he had completed his term of office.
Lets break it down into key elements:
- Julia took part in drinking and other (sexual) activities in the Forum and on the speaker’s platform.
- Augustus got very angry.
- Her indiscretions were already known.
- The matter was brought in front of the senate (it was thus treated as a public matter, not a familial matter).
- Julia was banished, but her mother stayed with her, suggesting that her mother was sympathetic.
- Several prominent men were involved including
- the son of Mark Antony, who was executed (not the penalty for adultery)
- others who were banished
- a tribune who remained in office and was then tried (showing due process) and exiled.
- Julia was exiled.
Dio’s story stresses the sex, but the prominence of the individuals suggests politics.
Seneca de Beneficiis 6.32 has a similar version (in a rather quaint translation)
The deified Augustus banished his daughter who was shameless beyond the indictment of shamelessness, and made public the scandals of the imperial house – that she had been accessible to scores of paramours, that in nocturnal revels she had roamed about the city, that the very forum and the rostrum, from which her father had proposed a law against adultery, had been chosen by the daughter for her debaucheries, that she had daily resorted to the statue of Marsyas, and, laying aside the role of adulteress, there sold her favours, and sought the right to every indulgence with even an unknown paramour.
Seneca tells the story to make a point about anger. If Augustus had not been so angry, he would have hidden his daughters indiscretions, but because he made them public, the imperial house was tainted by scandal and he himself was constrained to take action.
- Julia had many lovers
- They had parties and sex across the city including in the Forum and on the speaker’s platform.
- She had sexual relations with a statue
- She sold her body as a prostitute.
In this version, the sexual elements of the story are enhanced and the story is used to make a moral point, not a political one.
Velleius has a more detailed version (2.100):
a calamity broke out in the emperor’s own household which is shameful to narrate and dreadful to recall. For his daughter Julia, utterly regardless of her great father and her husband, left untried no disgraceful deed untainted with either extravagance or lust of which a woman could be guilty, either as the doer or as the object, and was in the habit of measuring the magnitude of her fortune only in the terms of licence to sin, setting up her own caprice as a law unto itself. Iulus Antonius, who had been a remarkable example of Caesar’s clemency, only to become the violator of his household, avenged with his own hand the crime he had committed. After the defeat of Marcus Antonius, his father, Augustus had not only granted him his life, but after honouring him with the priesthood, the praetorship, the consulship, and the governorship of provinces, had admitted him to the closest ties of relationship through a marriage with his sister’s daughter. Quintius Crispinus also, who hid his extraordinary depravity behind a stern brow, Appius Claudius, Sempronius Gracchus, Scipio, and other men of both orders but of less illustrious name, suffered the penalty which they would have paid had it been the wife of an ordinary citizen they had debauched instead of the daughter of Caesar and the wife of Nero. Julia was banished to an island and removed from the eyes of her country and her parents, though her mother Scribonia accompanied her and employed with her as a voluntary companion of her exile.
Again, we can break it down.
- Julia engaged in sexual depravities with many men
- These men included individuals from the highest families of Rome
- Iulus Antonius
- Quintus Crispinus (seemingly a morally virtuous individual)
- Appius Claudius
- Sempronius Gracchus
- Many senators
- Many equestrians
- Julia was exiled.
- Scribonia went with her.
Velleius is aghast at the sexual immorality, but his list of sinners suggests that this was a political issue.
There is a reference to the scandal in Suetonius (Augustus 65) in which it is claimed that the condition of her imprisonment were such that she was not allowed wine and that the men were chosen for their unattractiveness, which gives credence to the issue being one of moral behaviour. Suetonius adds that there were popular demonstrations in favour of Julia and it seems that Julia was eventually recalled to Italy, though she continued to be kept under house arrest (Dio, 55.13).
Sex or Politics?
The easiest answer to this question is that it was both. The particularities of Augustan rage and his punishment of his daughter suggests that he viewed her as sexually rapacious. Although the details of her misdemeanours strain credibility, the evidence points to Augustus believing that his daughter strayed.
But the very fact of her adultery was intensely political. Not only did through into question Augustan moral legislation and the reputation that he had built for himself and his household, but Julia’s body was political. Augustus had deployed his daughter politically: she had been married to Marcellus, Agrippa, and Tiberius and these were all dynastic marriages. The person with whom she shared her bed was the chosen partner of her father. To share Julia’s bed was thus political. But she was clearly at the centre of a political grouping of some of the most important individuals in Rome. There is every reason to believe that they might have enjoyed their wealth and status and lived a life of relaxed moral discipline. They were aristocrats and showed it. But was such behaviour compatible with the later Age of Augustus? It was a rejection of the moral disciplines that he had championed.
Any such group was potentially politically. If Augustus had died in late 2 BC, who would have taken over? Gaius and Lucius were still very young men. They would need powerful figures around them, men like Iulus Antonius, Crispinus, Sempronius Gracchus, and Appius Claudius. If this was a regency in waiting the not-yet-dead emperor might not have been amused. In any case, the removal of so many prominent political figures was a major political event, a purge of the highest levels of the Roman aristocracy.