Barry Strauss, author of “The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination,” gives us a glimpse at some of the powerful women who worked behind the scenes of the political stage.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Portia steals the scene from her husband, Brutus, and Caesar’s wife Calpurnia is the still, sure voice of doom. They are the only two women to have major roles in the play. But when it comes to the history behind the drama, Shakespeare didn’t know the half of it.
In real life, Julius Caesar’s Rome marked a high point of backstage political power for elite women. Terrified that Rome’s first Dictator for Life would trash the Republic and take away their power, a group of Senators stabbed Caesar to death on the Ides of March – March 15, 44 B.C. Meanwhile a small group of powerful women worked behind the scenes, using their wit, their wealth, and their charm to influence policy.
Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, was Caesar’s young and powerful mistress.
Most of us know that the Queen of Egypt was Caesar’s mistress – and 30 years his younger – as well as mother of his alleged son, Caesarion (“Little Caesar”). But few are aware that Cleopatra was in the suburbs of Rome on the Ides of March. Shakespeare does not include that detail. She was visiting Rome on a diplomatic mission and Caesar housed her in his villa in the hills across the Tiber, overlooking the city. Her presence added spice to the rumor that Caesar wanted to become a king himself.
She belonged to one of Rome’s most famous families and she was Brutus’s mother. Servilia was also Caesar’s former and supposedly favorite mistress. Servilia did not get along with Portia (or Porcia, to use the proper ancient spelling), who came from an anti-Caesar family. There is no evidence that Servilia wanted Caesar dead but, after the murder, she wheeled and dealed to try to save her son Brutus, although he was one of Caesar’s killers.
Brutus’s half-sister and Servilia’s daughter, she was married to Cassius, which made that other key assassin Brutus’s brother-in-law. Rumor said that Junia was also once Caesar’s mistress. She outlived everyone and died 66 years after the Ides of March in A.D. 22 – but Brutus and Cassius were still so controversial that images of them were not allowed at her funeral.
She was married to another leading assassin, Decimus Brutus (distant cousin of the famous Brutus). Paula had divorced her previous husband on the very day he was due home from military service in order to marry Decimus. Although he was one of Caesar’s top generals, Decimus turned on his chief. Considering that Paula’s brother had fought against Caesar, she might have played a role in Decimus’s change of heart.
Married in turn to the politicians Clodius, Curio, and finally, Mark Antony, Fulvia was one of the most able women of the era. She may have stage-managed Antony’s role in Caesar’s funeral – the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech in Shakespeare. Although Antony never said the famous words he really did use the funeral to cause a riot and turn the political tide. Three years later Fulvia strapped a sword on and raised an army, which was extraordinary for a woman.
From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on March 13, 2015.
Barry Strauss teaches history and classics at Cornell University. He is the author of The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination (Simon & Schuster, March 2015). Follow him on Twitter @barrystrauss. Visit his website, www.BarryStrauss.com.