Caesar's Wives: Sex, Power, And Politics In The Roman Empire by Annelise Freisenbruch: A Book Review

Caesars' Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire
Author: Annelise Freisenbruch
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History
Publisher: Free Press
Release Date: November 2010
Pages: 368
Source: My State Public Library
Synopsis: In Scandals and Power Struggles obscured by time and legend, the wives, mistresses, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the caesars have been popularly characterized as heartless murderers, shameless adulteresses, and conniving politicians in the high dramas of the Roman court. Yet little has been known about who they really were and their true roles in the history-making schemes if imperial Rome's ruling Caesars--indeed, how they figured in the ride, decline, and fall of the empire.

     Now in Caesars' Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire, Annelise Freisenbruch pulls back the veil on these fascinating women in Rome's power circles, giving them the chance to speak for themselves for the first time. With immpeccable scholarship and arresting storytelling, Freisenbruch brings their personalities vividly to life, from notorious Livia and scandalous Julia to Christian Helena. Starting at the year 30 BC, when Cleopatra, Octavia, and Livia stand at the cusp of Rome's change from a Republic to an autocracy, Freisenbruch relates the story of Octavian and Marc Antony's clash over the fate of the empire--an archetypal story that has inspired a thousand retellings--in a whole new light, uncovering the crucial political roles these "first ladies" played. From there, she takes us into the lives of the women who rose to power over the next five centuries--often amid violence, speculation, and schemes--ending in the fifth century AD, with Galla Placidia, who was captured by Goth invaders (and married to one of their kings). The politics of Rome are revealed through the stories of Julia, a wisecracking daughter who disgraced her father by getting drunk in the Roman forum and having sex with strangers on the speaker's platform; Poppea, a vain and beautiful mistress who persuaded the emperor to kill his mother so that they could marry; Domitia, a wife, who had a flagrant affair with an actor before conspiring in her husband's assignation; and Fausta, a stepmother who tried to seduce her own stepson and then engineered his execution--afterward she was boiled to death.

     Freisenbruch also tells a fascinating story of how the faces of these influential women have been refashioned over the millennia to tell often politically motivated stories about their reigns, in the process becoming models of femininity and female power. Illuminating the anxieties that persist even today about women in or near power and revealing the female archetypes that are a continuing legacy of the Roman Empire, Freisenbruch shows the surprising parallels of these iconic women and their public and private lives with those of our own first ladies who become part of the political agenda, as models of comportment or as targets for their husbands' opponents. Sure to transform our understanding of these first ladies, the influential women who witnessed one of the most gripping, significant eras of human history, Caesars' Wives is a significant new chronicle of an era that set the foundational story of Western Civilization and hung the mirror into which every era looks to find its own reflection.

     My Review: The Roman Empire was one of the darkest and notorious eras in history. The emperors are known to be ruthless killers with an unquenchable lust for blood and gore. They are known for having gladiatorial games, persecuting Christians, and some are even known for burning down the city of Rome so that they can take the credit for "rebuilding" Rome. In Freisenbruch's novel, she recounts the Roman empire from the perspective of the lives of the Roman Empresses.

     The classical Roman sources written by men and are biased against women have stereotyped Roman women into two categories. The first stereotype is that of a good virtuous Roman wife, who is loyal to her husband, but when her husband or son died, she continues to mourn for her loved ones to the end of her life, never to get over her own grief. The second type of woman is a power-hungry schemer who carries poison and uses sex and murder as a means to attain their own ambition and power. In Freisenbruch's novel, these women who were considered masculine, (for instance being in the army frontlines of a battle and having power and influence over their husbands and sons) were seen as an offense to Roman men. Many were attacked and accused of crimes of sexuality just so they could be rid of. These accused women were sent into exile where were brutally beaten and died of starvation.

     Freisenbruch's second half of the novel focuses on the less violent reign of the Christian emperors. It starts with Helena, the mother of Constantine (the first Christian emperor). Helena started the tradition of the empresses to go on a holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem and founded the true cross. Her successors have donated money to the Church, and three sisters of a Christian emperor decided to devote their life to God by being virgins and living a monastic life, though one of the sisters was forced to get married in order to help ensure the dynastic survival (but still kept her vow to God having her marriage remain unconsummated). The author gives a detail about how the Christian era had given women the freedom that had once been denied to them, and we can see why Christianity had appealed to them, and why some men criticized the Christian religion.

     The Emperors of Rome, with the exception of Marcus Aurelius and the Christian emperors, are portrayed in a negative light. Most of them cruel tyrants. Some are portrayed as weak, allowing their wives and mothers to have power and influence. Most have murdered their rivals to the throne. Some have even committed fratricide. Others, like Nero, have ruthlessly killed their mothers, who had raised them and help them become emperors, just so they could marry a beautiful woman.

     Overall, this book is full of treachery, betrayal, danger, scandal, passion, and intrigue. We get to know the women that have been shrouded by the emperors. However, I would suggest to anyone interested in this book that before they read it, they should have some prior knowledge of the history of the early Roman empire, or watch an episode of HBO's Rome or BBC's I, Claudius, for the author has mentioned these two tv shows frequently, and the way her book is written, it is assumed that the reader is meant to have some knowledge of Roman history. Readers that do not have any prior knowledge of Roman history would most likely get lost, may find it a frustrating read, and will give the reader a giant headache. This book will appeal to fans of soap operas, The Godfather movies, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and the tv historical dramas like The Tudors and The Borgias.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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