Augustus’ Draconian Marriage Laws And The Banishment Of Julia Augusti

Let her be banished for life,” Augustus (63 BC-14 AD) is recorded as saying about the harsh exile of his only biological child, Julia, to the barren and windswept penal island of Pandateria (present-day Ventotene). Banishment from Rome, however, was not enough for the wayward princess. The emperor further decreed that aside from the guards who kept watch, no men were allowed on the island. The implication being that for a woman of loose virtue, being deprived of male companionship would make for a more exacting punishment. To that end, wine was forbidden on that stygian enclave and food provisions were at a mere minimum. In other words, Julia was in prison.

Bust of Julia the Elder (Miguel Hermoso CuestaCC BY-SA 4.0)

The Merry Widow Banished

Adored within the palace and outside of it, Julia (later Julia the Elder) was charismatic, sophisticated, and renowned for her joie de vivre. When word of her banishment got out all of Rome was in an uproar. No one had foreseen that even a wet blanket like Augustus was capable of exiling his only biological child. In an attempt to restore their adored princess, whom they lovingly referred to as “the merry widow,” the people came out in droves for her. They packed the streets with noise and rancor holding effigies and calling for her release. An indifferent Augustus decried: “Fire will sooner mix with water than that she shall be allowed to return.” In a playful retort the people threw fiery torches on the Tiber. The emperor was not amused. He charged: “If you ever bring up this matter again, may the gods afflict you with similar daughters or wives.” Not soon forgotten, the protests continued even five years after her exile.

Over these long millennia, Julia’s reputation has been maligned by ancient writers and contemporary historians alike, but was it something more than loose morals that set her father against her? Make no mistake, being labeled a woman of ill-repute was reason enough to land Julia on the prison island during the authoritarian Augustan era. All the same, according to Suetonius, Augustus debated putting his daughter to death. “I had rather be the father of Phoebe than of Julia,” Augustus bewailed after Julia’s freedwoman, Phoebe, committed suicide over her mistress’s scandal. Considering the severity of her father’s reaction, some believe that Julia’s fall was due to her involvement in a political intrigue to overthrow him.  But why act against her better interests when her two eldest sons were adopted by Augustus and primed for the throne?  One can explore the possible reasons behind Julia’s harsh exile by delving into the politics of the era and the climate of paranoia and suspicion within the Julio-Claudian clan itself.

Bust of Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire.  Louvre Museum  (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Julio-Claudian Power Play

One big happy family, Julia has the unfortunate distinction of being the first in a long line of Julio-Claudian women forced into exile – with no trial or due process – by the ruling males of their family.  In order to understand the power play between the Julio-Claudians, some background is useful. On the day Julia Augusti was born, her father—merely Octavian back then—saw fit to divorce his second wife, her mother, Scribonia. Some ancients claim that Octavian might have thought twice about deserting his wife, if she had had the good sense to produce a son for him.  But if the would-be primogenitor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty had high hopes for a long line of male offspring with his next wife, the gods had other plans. Although their 51-year marriage could be charged with many things, being fruitful was not among them— Augustus and Livia would produce no issue. Perhaps it was their shocking courtship that the gods frowned upon. Indeed, the emperor who would become known for his draconian marriage laws had a tarnished record in that regard. With a pregnant wife at home, a married Octavian took up with the virtuous Livia while she was married to her first husband–Tiberius Claudius Nero–and carrying their second child. Behavior scandalous even by the looser moral standards of the Roman Republic. Three days after giving birth to what would be her second and last child, Livia became Octavian’s third, final and most indelible wife. An ignominious start by the first imperial couple who would define themselves by their strict morality.

Scribonia was the second wife of Roman Emperor Augustus and the mother of his only natural child, Julia Caesaris. (Public Domain)

Because the mere hint of sovereignty had dispatched his Uncle Julius into the hereafter, he never called himself emperor preferring to use the term princeps or first citizen instead. Regardless of his title, a de facto monarchy is what his regime – the principate – would become. But like all successful monarchies, the princeps needed heirs. And in ancient Rome only males would do. With two sons already borne to the 21-year old Livia, the newlyweds must have had high hopes for a long line of offspring of their own. But with the passing of each year it would become all too obvious that Scribonia had succeeded where the ever-imposing Livia would most acutely fail. As a consequence of the first couple’s sterility, the fate of the Julio-Claudian dynasty rested solely on the fertility of its female kin, three of whom played key roles in early dynasty-building.

Livia Drusilla, standing marble sculpture as Ops, with wheat sheaf and cornucopia. First century AD (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Representing the Claudian contingency was Livia, with her two sons — Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD) and Drusus— in tow. Dating back to the foundation of the Roman Republic, the Claudians might have been royalty if monarchy were possible in the Republic. But if the Claudians were near to sovereignty in Rome, the Julians were near to it in the heavens. Besides the deified Julius Caesar, the Julians claimed descent from none other than Venus, their ancestress and patron goddess, whose son Aeneas was the legendary founder of Rome–vividly portrayed in Virgil’s The Aeneid.

Virgil reads the Aeneid before Augustus and minor Octavia himself by Jean-Joseph Taillasson , (1787) National Gallery in London.(Public Domain)

Hailing from the Julian clan was Augustus’s elder sister, Octavia Minor. A paragon of Roman womanhood whom the historians consistently lauded as having all the positive traits for a noble Roman woman: obedience, modesty and devotion. Moreover, she was fertile, reproducing five children in total; three with her first husband, Gaius Marcellus, and two with second husband, Marc Antony (83 BC- 30 BC). Ever-dutiful, she was married to Antony at her brother’s request in order to stabilize the troubled relationship between the two triumvirates.

Although linked to the princeps by blood, Octavia’s children took second seat to the progeny of Julia– the principal player in Julio-Claudian family-planning. Even as a fresh-faced two-year-old, Julia was not too young to be used as a political pawn for her father. As part of the treaty of Tarentum (present-day Taormina) between Octavian and Antony in 37 BC, Julia was betrothed to Antony’s son, Antyllus. Alas, not unlike the relationship between Octavian and Antony, Antyllus was to die prematurely. Shortly thereafter, Octavian betrothed her to Cotiso, King of Getae (present-day Bulgaria). Once again, plans fell through, it would take 12 years for another marriage scheme for Julia to hatch.

First husband Marcus Claudius Marcellus (Siren-ComCC BY-SA 3.0) and Second Husband Marcus Vipsaniuns Agrippa (Public Domain)

Pairing Off Julia

By then Julia was the ripe old age of 14. Although Augustus (the term was coined for him in 27 BC) may have preferred to think of himself as the emperor who transformed Rome from a city of clay to one of marble, the truth is his real talent lay in arranging marriages. The princeps betrothed Julia to his beloved nephew Marcellus–the next best thing to a son. Long the emperor’s favorite, the double-Julian marriage of the 17-year-old eldest son of Octavia’s to his first-cousin Julia, put him in line as heir and chief successor to the princeps. In setting up the match, Augustus acted against the fierce protestations of Livia who had garnered hopes for her eldest son to be in the line of succession.  Although the same age as Marcellus, the somber Tiberius– never a favorite of the princeps–paled in comparison to the charismatic Marcellus. Yet, as it turns out, Livia was not unhappy for long.  Poor Marcellus would not live to see his 21st birthday. After just two years of marriage an epidemic swept through the Roman Empire that would infect Augustus almost to death but after he improved, it went after his young scion.

A widow at 16, the ancients do not mention Julia’s feelings for her husband with whom she had been raised. But imagine how crushed Augustus must have been that the double Julian union produced no issue. Yet was Marcellus’s death natural?  Marcellus would be the first in a long line of successors who found it difficult to succeed Augustus. In fact, history bears out that each time a dynastic successor for Augustus emerged, he was met with an untimely end. Because she had the most to gain, rumor held Livia responsible. But if so, it was all for naught. Within a short year, Augustus betrothed his freshly widowed daughter to his close friend and war hero, the mighty general and consul–Marcus Vispanius Agrippa (63 BC-12 BC). Everything was set, except that Agrippa was already married. Yet something as trite as Agrippa’s marriage – a marriage Augustus had arranged years ago to Marcellus’s sister – did not stop the princeps from fashioning Agrippa as his next son-in-law and heir-apparent. Livia must have been seething. A patrician through and through, not only was she unhappy that Tiberius was once again passed over, but that he was eclipsed by someone of humble and plebian origins, several rungs below the exalted Claudian line.

An Audience at Agrippa’s by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1876) Dick Institute, Kilmarnock (Public Domain)

The political truth, however, was more complicated. With the support of his loyal legionnaires, if anyone could launch a successful armed insurrection against Augustus, it would be the beloved general. A central player in Rome’s governance, Agrippa had been disappointed in Augustus’s selection of Marcellus two years before. Once again marching to her father’s orders, the 18-year-old Julia married Agrippa.  The ancients are mute when it comes to Julia’s sentiments about a husband 25 years her senior. In the nine years they were married she produced four children; two sons (Gaius and Lucius) and two daughters (Agrippina and Julia) and she was pregnant with her fifth child (Agrippa Posthumous) when Agrippa died. Following the birth of her second son Lucius, the overbearing princeps– needing more fodder for his dynastic mill—formally adopted her two eldest sons, taking full possession of them lock, stock, and barrel. Adoption in ancient Rome was an irrevocable affair in which the child officially became the adopted fathers with no formal ties to his biological parents. But assuming possession of Gaius and Lucius in 17 BC was not the only autocratic item on the princeps’ domestic agenda at the time.

Statue depiction of Ancient Roman Matrimonium (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Draconian Marriage Laws

Attempting to revive the virtues and morality of the Old Republic, Augustus set forth a series of contentious marriage laws ostensibly designed to boost marriage and procreation amongst the patrician class. In an ironic foreshadowing of her unhappy fate, Julia was used as the exemplar to promote the long arm of the Julian Laws, which were particularly constricting for women. Although adultery was criminalized for both sexes, a married woman was guilty of adultery if she had sex with anyone but her husband while a married man was guilty of adultery only if he had sex with a married woman. In other words, for married men single women, slave girls, prostitutes and concubines were up for grabs.

Roman fresco with a banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti, Pompeii (Public Domain)

Patriarchal to its core, a prime concern in the authoritarian laws was assurance of paternity. Punishment for the offenders was harsh; a father could kill his married daughter if she was caught in flagrante with her lover. A cuckolded husband was obligated to divorce his wife immediately; those who did not were charged with pimping. As well as undergoing harsh financial penalties, if found guilty in a special court of law, the newly divorced woman and her lover were exiled. The only favorable element for married women was an exemption from male guardianship if she produced three or more children.

All in all, the autocratic laws were deeply unpopular; public demonstrations called for their appeal to the deaf ear of the princeps. Make no mistake, it was not lost on anyone that the strict marriage laws were prescribed by a man whose marital record was deeply tainted.   Moreover, the standard bearer for the new morality laws was getting a reputation as someone who was loose with her favors. While married to Agrippa, stories begin to emerge about Julia’s infidelities. One hears Julia’s strident voice through anecdotes compiled in Macrobius’s fifth century AD work Saturnalia. Believed to have had lovers, when asked how her children all resembled Agrippa she quipped: “Passengers are never allowed on board until the hold is full.” The ancients tell us that the princeps was familiar with the rumors about his daughter, but because the children favored Agrippa, he chose to ignore them. Nevertheless, if Julia’s morals were loose, she learned from the great moral leader himself.

Roman couple joining hands; the bride’s belt may show the knot symbolizing that the husband was “belted and bound” to her, which he was to untie in their bed (Ad Meskens / CC BY-SA 3.0)

While his besmirched beginnings with Livia were common knowledge, even after they married, Augustus’ indiscretions were legendary. “That he was an adulterer upon many occasions even his friends did not deny,” Suetonius asserts, then boldly adds that by seducing the wives of his adversaries Augustus’ seductions were for the good of the Roman state. Yet Suetonius has no such excuse for the orgy Augustus hosted on at least one occasion. Doubtless, if the marriage laws were in place when they hooked up, Augustus and Livia would each have been exiled to separate islands.

With the new laws in place, Julia was playing a dangerous game of chance which would soon become even more so.  Regardless of her relationship with the much older Agrippa, her life was rocked by his sudden death in 12 BC while pregnant with their fifth child. Yet, if she were any other woman living in Rome, a life of independence would await as the marriage laws would have protected the mother of the requisite three children from surrendering to patriarchal pressure to remarry or not. But such was not the case for the princeps’ daughter. Preoccupied as ever with ceding authority, Augustus was concerned that any ambitious nobleman could cajole the princess into marriage as an attempt to overthrow the dynasty. Besides, at 27, Julia was still of child-bearing age. So, the princeps was compelled, yet again, to hand-pick her next husband.

Livia and her son Tiberius, AD 14–19, from Paestum, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta /CC BY-SA 4.0)

Husband Tiberius

Thus, hard on the heels of the birth of her fifth child and still in mourning for her husband, the princeps had his newly widowed daughter betrothed, this time to her stepbrother, Tiberius. Imagine Livia’s delight. Finally, another Julio-Claudian union – the hope must have been that it would be more fruitful than the last.  Like Agrippa before him, everything was set except for one small detail, Tiberius was married. In fact, Tiberius had been down this road with his stepfather eight years before when–for purely political reasons yet again—Augustus married him to Vispania Agrippina (Agrippa’s eldest daughter). In 11 BC, Tiberius reluctantly divorced Vispania non sine magno angore animi (with great mental anguish), according to Suetonius. Even so, initially they tried making a go of it resulting in Julia’s pregnancy. But theirs was not destined to be a happy union and the baby boy died in infancy. Shortly thereafter, injured fatally in a riding accident, Tiberius’s beloved younger brother Drusus died. A grief-stricken Tiberius would not easily recover from the loss.

By this time, relations had broken down between the couple who found it difficult to live under the same roof much less in the same bed. When Augustus offered him the tribunician power in the East, Tiberius flatly turned it down announcing he intended to “retire” from politics and move to the island of Rhodes. With a husband over 1,400 miles away, Julia was not content to stitch away the hours spinning and weaving like her conservative kin Livia and Octavia had done. Making her vulnerable to the draconian marriage laws, she ran with a sophisticated crowd who viewed extramarital activities with nonchalance. Knowing the risks, she appealed to her father for a divorce from her absent husband.  But the princeps would have none of it. An eligible princess – particularly one as popular as she – was a danger to the house of Augustus. Yet with an absent husband Julia was essentially an unmarried woman with no formal position in society. Even a cloistered Vestal Virgin would have been expected to have a more active public and social life than an unmarried woman. Required to live the life of a hermit, while being the life of the party, the extroverted 30-something Roman darling was incapable of living in relative isolation, a simple fact a more attentive father would have known.

Romantic scene from a mosaic. Villa at Centocelle, Rome. (20 BC–20 AD)(CC BY-SA 2.5)

In August of 2 BC the princeps inaugurated the Forum of Augustus which housed the temple of Mars Ultor, an avenging military god founded by Augustus. Romans, always game for a party, were ostensibly celebrating 25 years of relative peace and uneven prosperity; a supposed golden era ushered in by the princeps, who hailed as their father, Pater Patriaie. Yet, because of subsequent events that night, Augustus is less remembered as the father of Romans than he is as the father of Julia. After the revels had ended the princeps sent a letter of denunciation against his own daughter to the servile Senate.

First century Roman women: Wall painting from the Vila San Marco, Stabiae, and a woman fixing her hair in the mirror, fresco from the Villa of Arianna at Stabiae (Luiclemens / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Accusing Julia And Antonius

Of how she was rounded up, the details are unknown. It would have had to occur in the dead of night. Since she was beloved, her banishment by light of day might have led to political unrest. Because she was the house of Augustus’s first exile, though mournfully not its last, a system of removal was not yet in place. Some believe that it may have been Livia who summoned Julia in the middle of the night. Long an adversary of her headstrong stepdaughter, the omniscient and omnipresent Livia played no small role in Julia’s abrupt downfall.

Over the years, the most heinous and debauched acts have been attributed to Julia, with historians today believing them to be examples of misogynist hyperbole common in the ancient world. Although on the face of it, adultery was the crime for which she paid the steep price, many argue that because of the intensity of Augustus’s wrath, it may have been more personal than adultery. In fact, accusing women of sexual license was code for conspiratorial activity in ancient Rome. The five men with whom Julia was linked all came from notable patrician families not least of which was Iullus Antonius, Antony’s son with Fulvia raised by the benevolent Octavia. Some ancients believed that he may have long harbored ambitions to avenge his father. Perhaps the fullness of Augustus’ anger could only be explained by the discovery of a plot to depose him; the real offense not being adultery but conspiring against the regime. If true, the son of his greatest enemy linked to his daughter romantically would have been enough to send the paranoid princeps raging.  About the liaison between Antonius and Julia, Seneca muses: “Once again a woman to be feared with an Antony.” Julia’s popularity with the people coupled with the ceaselessly favorable impression of Antony could have made them a fearsome duo. But did they, in fact, have designs on the throne? While it is easy to see why Antonius would, with both of her sons prepped for the throne what would Julia have to gain by the maneuver?  Another assessment suggests that for eminent women in ancient Rome, adultery and conspiracy were one and the same thing. Marriage, or short of that, sexual commerce, was a means of creating vital alliances which Julia (essentially, an unmarried woman) would need in order to navigate the treacherous waters surrounding her. In the wake of the denunciation, while bleak exile awaited Julia and four of the men listed in the accusation, Antonius was condemned to death.

Grotto in Salermo with Julia by Joseph Wright of Derby (1774) (Public Domain)

Starving To Death

But at least Julia had one parent with her better interests at heart. In a show of support and undying love, Scribonia accompanied her daughter into exile where she, like Julia, would ultimately die. After five years at Pandateria, due to persistent public outcry to return their (still) popular princess, the intractable princeps blinked. When the boat came for her, if Julia thought she was finally returning home, she must have been greatly disappointed. With conditions slightly improved, the somber destination where she would spend the remaining 11 years of her life was Rhegium (present-day Reggio Calabria). Over the years, Julia would live to see her three sons die, questionably, by the age of 25. As to her daughters, in a tragic example of history repeating itself, within ten years of Julia’s exile, her daughter– Julia the Younger–was charged with adultery and exiled to a penal island where she gave birth to a child that Augustus ordered exposed. She would die in exile at age 48. But for Tiberius, her second daughter, Agrippina the Elder, might have been empress. Instead she was sent into exile where she would ultimately die at 46 years of age.

Invited to the party but not allowed to dance, from an early age Julia was commoditized in the interest of regency yet cruelly thwarted when, finally, she tried to forge a life of her own. Though she had reason enough to wish for her father’s ousting, without due process in a court of law, ancient and modern historians alike can only speculate about whether her exile was due to adultery, conspiracy or some combination of both. After Augustus died in 14 AD, at the advanced age of 77, the new emperor, Tiberius, exacted revenge on his former wife and stopped all food provisions to her isolated outpost. Shortly thereafter, Julia died of malnutrition at 52 years of age.

Mary Naples’ master’s thesis: “Demeter’s Daughter’s: How the Myth of the Captured Bride Helped Spur Feminine Consciousness in Ancient Greece,” examines how female participants found empowerment in a feminine fertility festival. Visit

Top Image: Fresco depicting an erotic scene, from the cubiculum of the villa of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, 1st century AD, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Mary Naples


De La Bedoyere, G. 2018. Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome. Yale University Press.

Fantham, E. 2006. Julia Augusti: The Emperor’s Daughter. Routledge.

Freisenbruch, A. 2010. Caesar’s Wives: Sex, Power and Politics in the Roman Empire. Free Press.

Holland, T. 2015. Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar. Anchor Books.

Macrobius. Trans. Kaster, R. 2011. Saturnalia I-II. Loeb Classical Library.

Severy, B. 2003. Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire. Routledge.

Suetonius. Trans. Bird, H. 1997. Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Wordsworth Classics.

Wood, S. 1999. Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images. Brill.

As Published in the July 2020 Ancient Origins Premium Magazine.

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