Monday 9 July 2012

My hero(ine) by Caroline Lawrence

One of the historical figures I most admire is Octavia.

Octavia (left) and her mother Atia (right) in HBO's Rome

Also known as Octavia the Younger or Octavia Minor, she was the sister of Octavian, who became the first Roman Emperor, Augustus.

Her mother was Atia, Julius Caesar's niece. Atia has been naughtily portrayed as a lascivious and vengeful plotter on HBO's Rome, but in fact she was known for her piety. Tacitus wrote this about Atia: 'No base word could be uttered in her presence and no wrong deed done without giving her offence.'

In HBO's Rome, Octavia is also portrayed as spoilt and decadent when she too was a woman of great moral character and compassion.

Octavia married twice. She was probably only about 15 when she was given in an arranged marriage to her first husband, a man named Marcellus. She had one son and two daughters by him and was still pregnant with the youngest girl when he died in 40 BC. While still pregnant, she was hastily married to Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), the notorious soldier and womaniser who had been married three times before. Although the marriage was one of political expediency, she came to love Antonius and was devastated when he later abandoned her for Cleopatra.

In my fourteenth Roman Mystery, The Beggar of Volubilis, my detectrix Flavia and her friends travel to Volubilis in Morocco, where the daughter of Cleopatra ruled with King Juba. One of my fictional characters sings Octavia's praises. Here is a shortened version of that passage:

Flavia learns about Octavia in Volubilis
Glycera sighed. ‘I do so admire Octavia... she was a loving mother. She nurtured life. She raised Antonius’s children by his first wives, and she loved them as if they were her own. Even when she herself bore Antonius two daughters, she never showed preference. And she also took in other orphans, like young Juba, after Julius Caesar murdered his father... Can you imagine how Octavia felt when Antonius left Rome to be with Cleopatra? How hurt and humiliated she must have been?’

‘It must have been awful for her,’ said Flavia.

‘It was. He left Octavia and her children – his children – so he could be with that enchantress. And yet Octavia remained in his house in Rome, raising his children, receiving his clients, entertaining his friends. She sent him aid and armies in his fight against the Parthians. She continued to call herself his wife, and to act accordingly.’

Glycera rose from the bench. Her long fingers twisted each other in obvious consternation. ‘Later, Antonius wrote Octavia a letter, demanding that she leave his house – her home. She obeyed him. But instead of leaving his children behind in anger, she took them with her to her brother’s house. She never stopped behaving as a loving mother and dignified wife.

Octavia's legacy 
‘Finally, Antonius was defeated in battle. He killed himself. Soon after, Cleopatra killed herself, too. Some say she had a snake – an asp – brought to her in a basket of figs.’ 

Glycera turned to look at Flavia. ‘Cleopatra chose to die. Chose to abandon her four children: one by Julius Caesar, three by Antonius. And do you know who raised Cleopatra’s children? Loved them? Protected them?’

Flavia shook her head.

‘Octavia,’ said Glycera. ‘The humiliated wife of Antonius. She took the children of Cleopatra – her enemy – into her own home. And she loved them. She loved them as if they were her own. Oh, Flavia! That is courage. That is virtue.’ 
(The Beggar of Volubilis pp182-3)

Octavia could not protect Antonius's two sons by Cleopatra from illness, but she raised their daughter, Cleopatra Selene, who later married her foster brother Juba and moved to the province of Mauretania (Morocco) where one of their residences was in a town called Volubilis.

Octavia's own son by her first husband, Marcellus, was expected by some to succeed Augustus as emperor. But he died aged only 19. His death is lamented in Virgil's Aeneid book 6, when Aeneas travels to the underworld and sees not only the shades of those who have died but the images of illustrious Romans to come. 'Who is that youth of wondrous beauty and brilliant in arms?' asks Aeneas about one young man. The ghost of Aeneas' father replies, 'Alas, the fates will not allow that one to stay long on earth... That will be poor Marcellus...'

Octavia swoons as Virgil reads a passage about her dead son Marcellus

There is a tradition that when Virgil was reading this part of his work-in-progress at the court of Augustus, Octavia swooned at this mention of her recently deceased, much lamented son. 

(Although she was never the mother of an emperor, she did have the dubious honour of being the great-grandmother of Nero.)

Octavia was not a great warrior, politician, writer, artist or saint. She was simply a loving mother and step-mother, with a generous and forgiving heart. That is why she is one of my favourite characters from history. She is the kind of hero(ine) any woman can be. 

Caroline Lawrence is author of The Roman MysteriesThe Roman Mystery Scrolls, and the P. K. Pinkerton Mysteries, all history-mystery series for children.


Sue Bursztynski said...

You know, we don't hear much about Octavia except as Antonius's ex. It's all "Cleopatra! Major romance!" I guess a woman whose only thing was being a terrific wife and mother just doesn't cut it in the history books. Glad you have given her a well-deserved promo in your writing and must seek out your book. I love history-mysteries! :-)

Juliette said...

I love Octavia too. I've always been fascinated by the fact she brought up Anotny and Cleopatra's children. And she and Livia had more power than any other women had before them, while staying largely within women's roles, and Livia gets remembered as a monster while Octavia is forgotten. (I've always felt sorry for Livia too, wondering whether she actually wanted to be married off to Octavian). Typical.

Of course, I plan to do something about that ;)

Deborah Watley said...

Caroline, I agree. Octavia is quite the inspiration! Thanks for enlightening me; now I want to read more about her!

Deborah Watley
South Dakota, US

Arianne said...

I didn't know about her. Why is the
HBO proiduction distorting things, I wonder. Best news, which I somehow didn't know, is that there is a 13 and 14th Roman Mystery. I'm just finishing #12 and was about to go into mourning. THANK YOU

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Oh, my! I took an entirely different approach to Octavia in my novel, didn't I? It's not that I don't "like" Octavia, it's more that I think she's a blank slate. There's a sense that her "image" was just as managed as Octavian's. In truth, Livia fascinates me way more. Now there was a woman who wielded power! I hate that she's been painted as a monster throughout history. There's more to the story about these two women, which we will sadly never know!

Can't wait to dive into your new series!

Caroline Lawrence said...

You're right, Vicky. We don't know much about Octavia, only her (Roman) reputation at the time. I guess she's what we make of her! Thanks for playing! :-)

griselda heppel said...

Thank you for rescuing Octavia both from the travesty of her portrayal in 'Rome' and from the utterly insipid character Shakespeare gives her in 'Antony and Cleopatra'. I'd no idea she looked after all Antony's children, including his ones by Cleopatra. True, humane heroism, espcially as I bet not many people of her time would have done the same.

Anonymous said...

This is a nice blog. I think Octavia is very inspirational. She was an idol for Roman woman.