Thursday, December 2, 2010

Guest Author Post: Sex, Lies & Togas: The Secret Life of Augustus from Stephanie Dray

My debut novel, Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra’s Daughter, is set in Late Republican Rome, one of my favorite time periods to write about. It was a unique era in which sex, politics, and family feuds came together to create the splashiest historical dramas of Western civilization. Much like the Tudor period, when King Henry VIII’s desire for a son turned an entire kingdom upside down, the Augustan Age revolved around a ruthless ruler whose family scandals rocked the empire.

In the aftermath of Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s suicides, Rome was led by Augustus, who preached a “return to traditional family values” but practiced anything but. The public face that Augustus showed to Rome was a strict but magnanimous paterfamilias who lived in simple virtue, enjoyed a marriage of more than forty years in duration, and passed morality laws to regulate sexual behavior and punish adultery.

Augustus reserved a special distaste for foreign cults and their mysterious fertility rites. He ordered a favorite freedman to commit suicide when it was revealed he’d been having sexual relations with Roman matrons[1]. He closely regulated the company his daughter kept, chastising her for wearing clothing that revealed too much skin. And after humbly submitting to marry three men of her father’s choosing in succession, when Julia was accused of having taken lovers outside of marriage, Augustus banished her to live out her days on a tiny island.

When it came to his own sexual behavior, however, Augustus was decidedly less strict. To begin with, his own marital history was not unblemished. Livia wasn’t his first wife, but his third, and the circumstances under which they wed were scandalous. When Augustus met Livia, he was already married and so was she. As the story goes, Rome’s first emperor was a dinner guest when he developed an attraction for his host’s wife. With uncharacteristic recklessness, Augustus allegedly carried the wife off to the bedroom before her husband’s eyes, then returned her to the dining room with her hair disheveled and her ears red.

Thereafter, it would be rumored that this scarlet-eared woman was Livia because Augustus soon asked Livia’s husband to give her up. Perhaps Livia’s husband was through with her or perhaps he was too afraid to refuse. Either way, Augustus divorced his wife on the very day that she gave birth to his daughter Julia. With their previous marriages dissolved, Augustus married a heavily pregnant Livia with such haste that they would be plagued ever after by the rumor that her unborn child was actually their bastard son.

That their marriage was long-lasting is remarkable insofar as Livia was unable to give Augustus a son to secure his dynastic plans. That their marriage was also apparently happy was probably due to Livia’s ability to be at peace with her husband’s sexual affairs. She wasn’t the only one who had to turn a blind eye; among the women Augustus took to bed was the beautiful Terentilla, wife of Maecenas, the emperor’s closest political advisor.

Antony once had charged that Augustus’ friends played pimp for him, but according to Suetonius, other sources claimed that it was Livia who procured innocent young girls for the emperor to debauch. Indeed, one of the emperor’s friends was so concerned about his womanizing that he disguised himself as a young woman in a carriage and leaped out with a knife in hand to show Augustus how vulnerable these liaisons made him.

In light of this kind of hypocrisy, it may not be surprising that, while Augustus gloried in having defeated that Egyptian whore who dared to think herself equal to men, he also promoted Cleopatra’s image with a zeal akin to obsession. This fixation would not have been lost on the dead queen’s young daughter, Cleopatra Selene, who came to Rome as a chained prisoner and was taken into the emperor’s household as his ward.

Yes, caught up in this milieu of depravity and deceit were all the children of Augustus’ household including his daughter, his grandchildren, his nieces and their children--many of whom would fall victim to conspiracy and scandal. Augustus would go on to arrange and re-arrange the marriages of his family members, meddling in their personal lives and banishing three of them.

The heroine of my novel, Cleopatra Selene, is one of the few children to have successfully and safely escaped the taint of these imperial intrigues, but her character was no doubt shaped by them, which is why Augustus made for such a delicious villain.

Stephanie Dray is the author of a forthcoming trilogy of historical fiction novels set in the Augustan Age, starting with Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra's Daughter. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.

She is currently sponsoring the Cleopatra Literary Contest for Young Women, the deadline for which is March 1, 2011, but join her newsletter now for updates and a chance to win a free copy of Lily of the Nile and additional prizes.


Kwana said...

Wonderful and interesting post. What a wild time full of great characters.

Blodeuedd said...

I liked the post :)
Such a shame that I had never heard about Selene before last year. I only knew Cleopatra had a son that ws killed

Monica Burns said...

LOVED your post. Of course, I'm a fan of all things Roman. Augustus was truly a bastard from all my research. I've always felt sorry for Julia and oftened wondered if her sexual behavior wasn't a rebellion against her father's tight control on her. Curious, didn't Augustus like boys too? Maybe I'm thinking of the wrong Emperor.

Now I'm off to put your book my next order.

Stephanie Dray said...

Thanks for having me here at Babbling About Books & More!

@Kwana, I love the characters of this time period. I wish I could write books about all of them.

@Blodeuedd Most people don't know anything about Cleopatra's other children--probably because the famous Hollywood movie about her, Cleopatra, never even mentions them! On the other hand, I doubt it's discussed much in history classes either. Selene was a successful queen who never had to be chastened by Rome, so the ancient historians probably didn't think she was worth mentioning. Just a girl and all...

@Monica Thank you! As far as I know, Augustus was a womanizer, though charges that he had sex with Julius Caesar would plague him. He does seem to have surrounded himself with a number of talented men of the time period who may have liked boys, though.

Victoria Janssen said...

Cool post!