Annelise Freisenbruch Discovers Rome’s Women of Intrigue

February 26, 2011
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Caesars’ Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire cover
Caesars’ Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire
by Annelise Freisenbruch

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Annelise Freisenbruch,
Author of Caesars’ Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire.

 

 

 

 

By Diane Slocum
March 2011

Today’s desperate housewives have nothing on the women who supported or plotted against the Caesars of the Roman Empire. Freisenbruch follows the winding branches, more like a tangled grapevine than a family tree, which brought successive generations of wives, mothers and sisters to the exalted title of Augusta during 500 years of Roman rule.

“I had never heard of Galla Placidia, until a few years ago while working on a BBC docu-drama . . .”
—FREISENBRUCH

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: How did your background prepare you to write this book?

FREISENBRUCH: I am a Classicist by training and did my doctorate at Cambridge University. My specialty was Latin literature – I wrote my PhD thesis on the letters between the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his tutor Fronto – but I had a reasonable grasp of the general outline of Roman imperial history and some prior knowledge of the lives of women like Augustus’ wife Livia and Nero’s mother Agrippina. I knew very little about several of the other empresses until I started work on this book. I had never heard of Galla Placidia, until a few years ago while working on a BBC docu-drama about the sack of Rome by the Goths. So it was very much a mixture of something old, something new.

AUTHORLINK: How did you manage to piecetogether and make sense out of the fragmented and contradictory information on Roman women that has survived the centuries?

FREISENBRUCH: Fortunately for me, I didn’t need to do any particularly intrepid sleuthing work to find it! – just access to brilliant libraries. I started off by trawling through the major accounts of Roman imperial history by the likes of Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, looking for references to the women, and then expanded the search into lesser-known literary works, inscriptions and so on (often following pointers laid down by other scholars). My PhD thesis also came in handy here because I found some of the most intriguing snippets about life for a woman in the imperial palace in the letters of Marcus Aurelius and Fronto. So, for example, there’s a letter in which Marcus Aurelius talks about his evening chats with his mother while she sits at the end of his bed – and hints that his sister was laid up that day with menstrual cramps. I also made some trips to Italy to see for myself some of the non-literary evidence relating to these women’s lives, such as portraits of them, or the remains of homes where they had lived.

“I tried to keep the picture as multi-faceted as possible, as I think that’s the key to understanding these women . . .”
—FREISENBRUCH

 

 

 

When it came to piecing all the bits of evidence together, I tried to keep the picture as multi-faceted as possible, as I think that’s the key to understanding these women and the role they played in Roman public life. There are indeed many and often contradictory verdicts on them, which reflects the fact that they represented different things to different people at different times.

AUTHORLINK: What is it about the Roman Empire that intrigues you?

FREISENBRUCH: The literature and the politics – a combination of the two. It’s one of the things I prefer about Roman history to Greek history – the cast of characters – Augustus, Livia, Julia, Caligula, Claudius, Messalina, Nero, Agrippina. Then you’ve got this extraordinary line-up of poets, historians and satirists – the likes of Ovid (my favorite Roman author) Tacitus and Juvenal – who comment on their progress with often devastating acerbity and wit. It’s great political drama, played out on a big stage.

“You can learn just as much about a society by how it treats its more marginalized and disenfranchised figures . . .”
—FREISENBRUCH

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: Why is it important for us to learn about the Roman empresses?

FREISENBRUCH: You can learn just as much about a society by how it treats its more marginalized and disenfranchised figures as by how it talks about those in power. The study of Roman women was quite neglected until relatively recently, but as my book tries to show, the wives and women of the Caesars have an extremely important part to play in Roman political culture, as symbols for the triumphs and iniquities of their husbands’, fathers’ and brothers’ regimes. Moreover they do so in ways that often reminds us of our own relationship with modern political spouses – our anxieties about how much influence they should wield over partners, the role they should play in public life and so on.

AUTHORLINK: Researching and writing the book must have been a huge challenge. Did you run into challenges in getting it published as well?

FREISENBRUCH: I was extremely lucky in that I was working as a research assistant to a TV historian who very generously gave me an introduction to her literary agency, and they agreed to take me on on the strength of something else I’d written. I then spent about a year researching and writing a proposal for this book – not easy when I was working full-time as well, but living so close to great libraries in Cambridge was a big help. I remember I was standing in the quadrangle of King’s College when my agent called me to tell me a publisher had made an offer – needless to say, I was ecstatic.

“No matter how grateful one is for the opportunity to be a published author, writing can be a real slog at times, . .”
—FREISENBRUCH

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: Were there times when everything seemed to be coming together perfectly and other times when things seemed to be falling apart?

FREISENBRUCH: No matter how grateful one is for the opportunity to be a published author, writing can be a real slog at times, and of course there are good days and bad days. I was being pretty ambitious in terms of the scope of history I was covering (about 500 years in total) and there were times when I wondered if I was a lunatic to attempt it. Then there were others when I just couldn’t see how to make the disparate threads of a particular chapter come together, and would go and sit outside and stare at bugs in the grass. But you find your way through in the end and I had amazing support from my editors.

AUTHORLINK: Are you working on another book?

FREISENBRUCH: Yes – though I’m going to be incredibly pretentious and not tell you what it’s about (it’s still early days on the research and I don’t want to jinx it). However, Rome is once more the setting, and the subject is another area of Roman history that I think deserves a new treatment– though sadly there won’t be too many female characters in the picture this time.

About
Annelise Freisenbruch:

She was born in Bermuda and raised in the United Kingdom. She teaches middle school Latin in Dorset.

Diane Slocum
About
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.

 

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This post was written by Diane Slocum