Sky drama Domina finally puts Rome's powerful women centre stage
"Relegated to the footnotes of history, it was in fact the women who shaped so much," says actress and writer Tracy Ann Oberman in a column for RadioTimes.com.
By: Tracy Ann Oberman
Just the other week, I won Celebrity Mastermind. I’d come second back in 2003, stumped by the question 'how many legs does a lobster have?' (Ten! Who knew!) and it always rankled. So to win this time was a boon. My specialist subject was Women of Imperial Rome. The producers and my fellow contestants were bemused: why?
Ever since I was very young and snuck into the TV room to catch my parents watching the BBC One series I Claudius, I have been smitten with early Imperial Rome. That’s Augustus to Nero Caesar if you want to nail it down specifically. Everything about I Claudius called out to me and piqued my interest. I wasn’t allowed to watch the programme - far too adult - so when I reached the ripe old age of 10, I dug out the Robert Graves’s novels I Claudius and Claudius the God from my dad’s office and devoured them.
I was a freaky geeky kid, I’ll fully admit it. I moved on to finding Grave’s original sources. Pliny The Elder, Letters by the Emperor Augustus himself and Cluvius Rufus - who led me to the greatest of all historians, Suetonius, and his “Lives of the 12 Caesars”. Or Roman News of the World, as I liked to think of it. I did Classics for A-level and then started a Classics degree at Leeds University where I immersed myself in Petronius, Juvenal, Catullus, Josephus and everything Roman that I could get my hands on. When a period of history really connects with a person it is a wonderful voyage of discovery.
For me, though, it was always about the women and their stories. As ever when looking for the real source of power and intrigue: Chercher la Femme. When I stripped the outward facing narratives, the soldiers, the emperors, the senators, then orators – it all came back to the women of Rome.
Relegated to the footnotes of history, it was in fact the women who shaped so much. Having no actual power or equal rights, it was the Imperial women who worked behind the scenes to manipulate and control the odds in their favour and the favour of their husbands and sons and sometimes lovers.
Now Sky has a series, Domina, that will finally honour these women. I cannot wait to devour each episode as I once devoured I Claudius.
If Augustus became a God, then his second wife Livia became a Goddess around the Empire. The first woman allowed to ride in a carriage in Rome, her image on coins and statues across the globe. An honorary Vestal Virgin with unheard of front row seats at the theatre and Games. She ran the Empire through the control she had over her husband and then her son Tiberius.
Livia had patience and cunning and charm and ruthlessness. She knew how to play the long game to get what she wanted. She could steer Augustus to legislation she preferred and honour people she recommended and punish those who crossed her.
Then there is Julia Augusta, Augustus’s beloved daughter and only child. Her father gave her a brilliant education not normally give to female members of the household. She was an anomaly in Roman society. Augustus would wheel her out to impress visiting dignitaries. He cherished her like a male heir yet put her in a gilded cage.
Augustus wanted Julia to be like Livia. The ultimate modest Roman wife. The first woman of Rome. Yet he married her time and again to any man with whom a marriage to his daughter could form an allegiance to protect his position! Julia finally took the only revenge she could, using her own body by taking as many lovers as she knew would offend and upset her father, who had put morality and fidelity at the top of the Roman Family Agenda.
Julia had an affair with her son’s best friend which finally sealed her fate; she was banished to a tiny inhospitable island for the rest of her life and never seeing her father again.
I cannot wait to see how Domina portrays Octavia, Augustus’s sister and betrayed wife of Mark Anthony who left her for Cleopatra. I have always been fascinated by Agrippina the warrior wife of beloved Germanicus and the mother of the mad Emperor Caligula. Also, Antonia the Noble. Mother of Claudius and the terribly behaved Livilla who plotted to kill her own husband to put her lover on the throne. Finally the women of Imperial Rome are out front and centre – and I for one could not be happier.