Celebrities of Ancient Rome

Augustus of Prima Porta

Who's in the news today? A quick look at Australia's Ninemsn news feed brings up this:
Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth, Sophie Monk, Gwyneth Paltrow and some Big Brother contestant getting his chest waxed (!). All front page news.
In ten years time will we even remember these people - and if we do - it's probably for all the wrong reasons (Miley...)
Not so the impressive roll-call of Ancient Roman celebrities. We're still talking about them today. Octavian Augustus, Julius Caesar, Nero, Caligula, Mark Antony -  household names after 2000 years. Then there are the second tier famous ancient Romans - Marcus Agrippa, Vespasian, Emperor Claudius, Tiberius, Marcus Aurelius, Constantine - and my favourite - Agrippina the Younger.
These people are more than just marble busts in some dusty museum - they were real people, they had kids, jobs, friends, went on vacations, loved food, loved a drink and even did their laundry (well their slaves probably did that job) and - especially in the case of Octavian Augustus - managed to shape the destiny of the Roman Empire for centuries to come.

Here are some biographical snapshots of my personal favourites.


Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made this building when consul for the third time
Inscription on the pediment of the Pantheon
The greatest naval commander and tactician of all time, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was born in 64BC. He was a loyal and trusted supporter of Augustus and became his son-in-law when he married Augustus' only child Julia in 21BC. Agrippa commanded the navy at the Battle of Actium in which Antony and Cleopatra were defeated, was made Augustus' successor  when Augustus was ill in 23BC and was given proconsular imperium over all imperial provinces. He had five children with Julia, among whom were Agrippina the Elder - the future grandmother of Emperor Nero. Agrippa died in Campania when he was just 51 years old.
Agrippa built the original Pantheon in 27BC as a dedication to all gods. It burned down twice before being re-built in AD126 by either Hadrian or Trajan (archaeologists are unsure about this). The pediment inscription was retained in honour of Agrippa.

I love Agrippa. Here was a guy who had the smarts to be 'king' but instead, he supported his childhood friend Augustus and using his astonishing military abilities, destroyed the might of the Egyptian navy, led by Cleopatra and Mark Antony.
Millions of tourists walk by the Pantheon and see the inscription on the pediment with his name on it. I often wonder if they wonder - ' who was Agrippa'? or even 'WHAT was Agrippa'?
I think Marcus Agrippa's life was so important that over 150 years after his death - in the era of 'look at me' Roman politics, Hadrian/Trajan decided to keep the dedication to Agrippa on the Pantheon's pediment. Today it is still there, reminding us that this man - although never Emperor - was one of ancient Rome's most extraordinary citizens.


 Iuravit in mea verba tota Italia
(The whole of Italy swore allegiance to me - Augustus Res Gestae Divi Augustae)
Founder of the Roman Empire, it's first Emperor and architect of the Principate - a system of government that would ensure the Pax Romana for the following two centuries, Augustus deserves his place as one of the greatest leaders of the last three thousand years.


Augustus inherited a chaotic, troubled Roman world that was fearful of another dictatorship (Julius Caesar) and wanted some stability after years of civil wars - Roman against Roman, brother against brother in the Battle of Philippi and the Battle of Actium. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and was groomed for the role - a role for which he was more than capable.
He calmed troubled waters, installed a system of government known as the 'Principate' - and installed himself as 'Princeps' - meaning first among equals. This system was to prove so effective, it enabled a virtual conflict free Roman empire for the next two centuries.

Augustus IS one of the greatest leaders of the last three thousand years. He took a messy conglomeration of states, provinces and cities and - and turned them into an Empire. He was strong, confident, self-assured and inspirational. If he were alive today, he would be placed among the Kennedys, Mandelas and Churchills of our time. And his famous words 'I found Rome a city of bricks and turned it into a city of marble' - and oh boy, did he ever.


Let him kill me, so long as he reigns
Agrippina crowning her son Nero - from the relief at Sebasteion at Aphrodisias in Turkey
So, who is she? Who has heard of her?
Nope...thought not.
If it wasn't for the Roman patriarchy and male succession, we would be hailing Agrippina, Empress of Rome - and if family lineage was a factor - what an Empress she would have made.
She was the grand-daughter of Agrippa (see above), the daughter of the loved and adored Germanicus (I love him too but Google him and see why he is so amazing), the sister of Emperor Caligula, the wife of Emperor Claudius and the mother of Emperor Nero.
So why have we not heard of her? Because she was a Roman woman and Roman women could not play a direct part in Roman political life. So Agrippina played an indirect part.  Coming from such a privileged and loved background - her father was adored - she knew her importance but she also knew her place so she worked the system.
Her most important role was mother - to Emperor Nero. She was so utterly determined to see Nero succeed, she even  (allegedly of course) arranged for the murder Nero's immediate rival, Brittanicus - the son of her husband Claudius who was in line for imperial succession. When her dream of Nero becoming Princeps was fulfilled, she didn't step back and let him rule - NO - she continued to 'help' her son - much to his embarrassment and eventual fury.
One anecdote mentions her rising to greet a delegation from a Roman province - at the same time as her son - but no one had told Nero. He had the embarrassing misfortune of watching his minders gently guide his mother out of the picture off to the side while he went about his business of meeting the delegation. Agrippina thought she was just as important as her son and was therefore entitled to greet these people. And she was right - but according to ancient Roman tradition - she was wrong.
This was just one example of Agrippina's meddling. Nero was infuriated that his mother was undermining his authority - and his fury built until he eventually arranged for her murder. On her deathbed, she was still batting for her son, hoping he would succeed and rule - as she - due to her gender - never could.
'Let him kill me - as long as he reigns' - were said to be her last words.
The ancient Roman world is full of people like this - Marcus Aurelius the poet and philosopher, Hadrian who finished Claudius' conquest of Britannia and built the wall and in my opinion, the most influential of all - Constantine who went to the battle of Milvian Bridge with an image of a cross and a vision of Christ - and changed the world.
In another two thousand years humanity will still talk about Augustus and Julius Caesar. The Mileys, Liams and Gwyneths of this world will pass but the immortals of our world are not cartoon characters - they are real people who lived and walked among us. We are all better off for them having been here.



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