Book Review: The Daughters of the Palatine by Phyllis T Smith

I loved I Claudius, but I would have to say that I found Phyllis T. Smith’s The Daughters of the Palatine a more plausible version of that happened to the Julio-Claudian dynasty during the reign of Augustus than Robert Graves’ version.
The Daughters of Palatine Hill is narrated by three women, Livia, the Wife of Augustus, Julia, the daughter of Augustus, and Cleopatra Selene, the only surviving child of Marc Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.
The lives of the three women are inextricably intertwined. In the first chapter we see Julia, the pampered nine year old daughter of Rome’s first citizen Augustus as she watches her father’s triumphal parade. He had defeated his rival Marc Anthony and his wife Cleopatra at the battle of Actium and the vanquished rulers had both committed suicide. Prisoners from the war marched behind the triumphal chariot. They would in all likelihood be strangled to death after the triumph, as was the custom. Among them was a cart bearing three young children in chains made of gold, Cleopatra and Antony’s children, the twin Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and their younger brother Ptolemy. Julia feels sorry for them and hopes that they will not be put to death.
The children are not put to death but are taken in by the household of Octavia, the sister of Augustus. The two boys are carried off by childhood illnesses and only Selene remains. She is a lonely and frightened little girl, cowed and compliant. Her only friend is the orphaned Jullus Antony, her half-brother who had also been taken in by Octavia who had been married to Marc Antony.
Smith’s portrayal of Livia is a far cry from the monstrous I Claudius version. She is shrewd, matronly and utterly devoted to her husband. She does her best to influence her husband in the direction of moderation and mercy. Indeed, students of Roman history have often remarked on the contrast of the bloodthirsty young Octavian and the wise and moderate ruler he eventually became, and perhaps the change was engendered by his relationship with Livia.
It is Julia who is the central and tragic character in this book. She is portrayed as loving her first husband, Marcellus, the son of her Aunt Octavia and heir apparent to Augustus. But when Augustus become ill with plague and believes he is going to die, he passes his signet ring to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, his best friend from boyhood and his right-hand man. It is clear that he believes that young Marcellus is not yet ready to rule Rome, and that Agrippa is far more capable. Marcellus is stunned by the decision and soon afterwards dies of plague. Augustus remarkably recovers.
Julia is then betrothed to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. She is a woman of a poetic and passionate bent and the staid, sober Agrippa is not to her liking. She endures the marriage and eventually bears him five children, one posthumously. When he is away on campaign she consorts with libertine friends, people who might be considered hippies and beatniks in our times. Among her lovers is a descendant of the Scipios and a Gracchus, both of whom are discontented with the rule of Augustus and would like to see the Republic restored.
After Agrippa dies, Julia is pressured into marrying Livia’s son Tiberius, an even more unsuitable match for her than Agrippa. They have a child but the boy dies and Tiberius blames Julia, who had been out at a gallery exhibition when the boy became ill. They become irrevocably estranged and Tiberius goes into self-imposed exile in Rhodes.
Julia resumes her libertine lifestyle and becomes enamored of Jullus Antony whom Augustus has promoted to political office but has carefully denied any military command. Julia is terrified that when her father dies, Tiberius will return, take power as a tyrant and destroy her. This fear leads her to plot with Jullus Antony to remove Augustus and take power into their own hands.
Jullus decides to bring his half-sister Cleopatra Selene and her husband Juba, King of Mauritania into the plot, promising her a much more extensive kingdom to rule should they succeed. Selene is faced with a most difficult choice, her devotion to her brother, or her devotion to Augustus, Livia, and Rome. She knows that Julia and Jullus’s actions will bring about a return of civil war and that many will die. Failing to dissuade them, she makes her gut-wrenching decision.
Phyllis T. Smith has done a superb job of getting into the heads of three of the most intriguing women in history.

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