A Compilation of Important Women From Roman History

Top Left: Agrippina the Younger, Top Right: Boudica, Bottom Left: Zenobia, Bottom Right: Cartimandua

A Compilation of Important Women From Roman History

By Matthew Breier 


Ancient Roman society clearly demarcated male and female roles. Women were expected to act as dutiful daughters, wives, and mothers full of virtue, honor, and chastity. With unquestioned constantia (steadfastness), fides(loyalty), and pudicitia (sexual virtue), women spent their time in the home contributing to economic production and were not welcome in the political world. Flying in the face of many of these expectations, Agrippina the Younger maneuvered for political power, and the historian Tacitus subsequently disparaged her rule as a “masculine despotism.”1 Agrippina essentially had to steal her power, in stark contrast to select other female leaders such as Cartimandua, Boudica, and Zenobia—Roman allies whose societies had different mores and whose people supported and respected them. Whereas patriarchal Roman society, with its tightly circumscribed female gender roles, shaped Agrippina the Younger’s approach to becoming Empress and Tacitus colored her legacy with a male-oriented characterization, contemporaneous British tribes and other non-contemporaneous Roman allies were tolerant of female leadership and power.



 Familia and its durability were the cornerstones of Roman society.2 The senior male, the paterfamilias, was at the helm of the family, exerting “virtually monarchical powers.”3 The materfamilias’ main responsibility was to run the domus, or household, as the domina, or mistress of the household.4 Although the domina was responsible for the family’s “spiritual and everyday welfare,” she was prohibited from political roles, being ineligible to vote or hold offices.5 Though women appeared in public at gladiatorial shows, acted as highly regarded Vestal Virgins, worshiped at shrines and public rituals, owned property (sometimes controlling it), and could choose to divorce (though children stayed with the father), Roman society regarded them primarily as reproductive commodities; their names, which were only the feminine form of the nomen, reflected their property-like status.6

Working via influence (within the family unit) rather than palpable power, Roman women had to function within the parameters of three valued attributes: constantia, fides, and pudicitia.7 Treading outside the lines of well-demarcated roles had disastrous results for Roman women, including condemnation, banishment, violence, and death.8 A salient example of this is the penalty for Vestal Virgins who failed to obey the code of chastity—they were buried alive in a small chamber with a loaf of bread and a small lamp.9 This particularly harsh punishment was characteristic of Domitian’s rule. The overall negative view of Roman women who breached constantia, fides, and pudicitia resonated in the language applied to them and highlighted their susceptibility to temptation/self-indulgence, degeneracy, and mental weakness (imbecillitas mentis).10 In sum, if unfettered by accepted mores and left to their own devices, Roman women were considered “unreliable, unpredictable, and destabilizing” forces.11


Agrippina the Younger

Roman gender norms shaped and colored the behavior of all women, including the elite; however, these norms were not entirely insurmountable, as Agrippina the Younger demonstrated. The great-granddaughter of Augustus, daughter of Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus, and sister of Caligula, Agrippina the Younger used her forceful personality and Julio-Claudian pedigree to bend, though not break, the Roman feminine mold.12 In brief (and in part based on Tacitus’ gender-biased accounts), Agrippina’s ascent to power began when she made pointed advances to win the favor of her uncle, the Emperor Claudius.13 After influencing the Senators to change the Roman laws regarding incest, he married Agrippina in 49 CE.14 Exercising the most visible power to date as an empress, Agrippina accumulated wealth, exerted influence, and, most importantly, positioned her son Nero as Claudius’ successor by convincing Claudius to adopt him, displacing Britannicus, Claudius’ son by Messalina.15

Unable to make direct power plays due to her tightly circumscribed gender role, Agrippina used her “masterful temperament,” manipulation, keen intelligence, creativity, and “unscrupulous” methods to achieve her goals.16 In stepping out of the traditional female role to achieve her goal of success for her son and power for herself, Agrippina employed a multitude of techniques, including marrying advantageously, trading on her “royal” lineage, and committing adultery with Pallas (a freedman and favorite of the emperor Claudius). In addition, she accumulated wealth through nefarious techniques, manipulated fellow Romans to carry out her plans (e.g., Pallas and Priscus), made false accusations to eliminate her opponents, emerged on the political stage as a public empress, and resorted to murder when required to achieve her goals (e.g., likely poisoning Claudius).17 The following two incidents demonstrate Agrippina’s unprecedented reach for “equality of power” and establishment of a “joint monarchy.”18 First, in 50 CE, Agrippina sat enthroned on a separate podium from Claudius while receiving the captured British chieftain Caratacus, who paid her equal homage as he did Claudius.19 Similarly, she declared her equality in 52 CE during a naval battle display. Wearing an aureo textili (golden military cloak), she sat beside her husband who, in contrast, wore conventional military clothes.20 By this time, her power was palpable and she is prominently displayed in the Gemma Claudia, a cameo from 49 CE.21 She also appeared on coins produced starting in 51 CE in Lugdunum, which featured Claudius’ bust on one side and Agrippina’s labeled as Augusta on the other, and in coins from Ephesus depicting Claudius and Agrippina side by side as joint rulers.22 These artifacts inform our knowledge about Agrippina and her political standing more objectively than Tacitus’ accounts. Agrippina, as a result of her lineage and innate abilities, was uniquely able to overcome the constraints of her gender and became Claudius’ co-ruler, seizing power and standing nearly equal to her husband’s.

However, Agrippina paid a price for her ambitious leap out of the bounds of acceptable female behavior, especially because he became the first living female member of the dynasty to accept the title Augusta.23 That price was the criticism of Tacitus and other male Roman elites. Judith Ginsburg elucidates that Tacitus’ approach had an important goal—to dissuade aristocratic and imperial women from engaging in politics or reaching for power while serving the “male monopoly of the Roman political system.”24 Tacitus’ pervasive negative portrayal of Agrippina includes incest, intrigue, murder, and adultery and culminates in her seizure of illegitimate political power. Ginsburg describes the power of rhetorical stereotypes in characterizing Agrippina the Younger as Tacitus penned them. She places Tacitus’ descriptions of Agrippina into three categories: the saeva noverca (the wicked stepmother), the dux femina (the “commander woman”), and the sexual transgressor. As Tacitus described, Agrippina, in her role as the saeva noverca, married Claudius and marginalized Britannicus while securing Nero’s future as Emperor. In Ginsburg’s second category of dux femina, she reviews Agrippina’s moves to acquire military and political power, to essentially exercise imperium.25 With great approbation about Agrippina appearing on the throne to receive Caratacus, Tacitus described: “It was indeed a novelty, quite alien to ancient manners, for a woman to sit in front of Roman standards. In fact, Agrippina boasted that she was herself a partner in the empire which her ancestors had won.”26 Tacitus’ emphasis on Agrippina’s boldness and show of strength reflects the rigid expectations for women in Roman society. Analyzing the distress that Tacitus and his male contemporaries felt, Peter Keegan states, “That a woman should dare to transcend the boundaries of customary law in these ways is for him (and, by implication, for his audience) unprecedented, and not a little disturbing.”27 In her third category, sexual transgressor, Ginsburg explores Agrippina’s use of incest as a means to her end of the acquisition of power.28 Tacitus emphasized shame in political invective concerning Agrippina’s marriage to Claudius: “It was positively incest, and if disregarded, it would, people feared, issue in calamity to the State.”29

In his writings, Tacitus drew the line between standard, accepted political mores and how Agrippina ran against the grain of traditional Roman society: “Then came a revolution in the State, and everything was under the control of a woman … It was a stringent, and, so to say, masculine despotism; there was sternness and generally arrogance in public, no sort of immodesty at home, unless it culminated in power.”30 As Ginsburg points out, per Tacitus, Agrippina’s ultimate goal was political power and dominatio of the order of quasi virile servitium, or the absolute power that male slave owners exerted over their slaves.31 Tacitus even likened Agrippina’s behavior to that of the ‘“barbarian queens”’ who “lead armies or exercise political power in their own right.”32 This negative characterization of Agrippina not only prevents us from knowing the whole truth of her life but also evinces the importance of maintaining traditional gender roles in ancient Roman society.


Queen Cartimandua

In the glare of entrenched, rigid gender norms at the Roman Empire’s epicenter, it took extraordinary effort, talent, and standing, as it did with Agrippina the Younger, for women to wield political power. Queens Cartimandua and Boudica (both from Britain, of the Brigantes and Iceni, respectively) and Zenobia (from Syria) all lived in Roman-allied territories, but were born in different societies where gender roles were blurred enough that women could lead.33 Lindsay Allason-Jones notes that Queen Cartimandua controlled a large tribe or confederation of tribes in Northern England beginning in 43 CE.34 Cartimandua may have inherited her throne by native law or been installed as a client queen by Roman authorities due to, as Tacitus explained, “the influence…[of] high birth.” She also readily consolidated her power and wealth with the Romans when she betrayed Caratacus (the Silurian leader who sought refuge with her after being defeated by the Romans), handing him over to Claudius as a prisoner. When she ruled, “among the Brigantes a woman could be a ruler, hold property, divorce her husband, lead armies and be accepted as a force to be reckoned with.”35 Tacitus’ description of Caratacus and his family’s treatment of Agrippina the Younger further confirms the Brigantes’ comfort with female rulers, since they gave her the same respect and praise as Claudius. Although Tacitus focused on the shock of Agrippina exerting political power, historians have gleaned from this episode that in British tradition, not only could a woman rule a tribe and lead it in war, but the female consort of a ruler was of equal importance to her male counterpart.36

As detailed by Keegan, Tacitus also focused directly on Cartimandua, describing her in hostile terms and painting her as treacherous, self-indulgent, and cruel in her treatment of Caratacus. In his typical male-centric Roman style, he devalued her, stripping away any acceptable justification for rule by a Queen. He employed language that the Romans generally associated with “depredations of corrupting authority,” including per dolum (act with guile and trickery), luxus(susceptible to excessive display), libido (inordinate desire), and saevitia (savageness).37 Further, when describing Cartimandua’s fight with Ventius, Tacitus projected his own disquiet with female leadership onto the Brigantes, stating they “were stung with shame at the prospect of falling under the dominion of a woman.”38 Though Cartimandua’s own society seemingly supported her, Roman elites could not see past their own gender bias.


Queen Boudica

Queen Boudica’s rise to power in 60 CE, as Allason-Jones details, followed a different trajectory from Cartimadua’s. When her husband Prasutagus, client king of Rome and leader of the Iceni tribe, died, half of his estate went to Emperor Nero and half to their two daughters. Despite her royal blood, Boudica did not claim the throne for herself—she acted for her daughters instead.39 Though we must rely on Tacitus’ and Dio’ writings, it seems the procurator, Decianus Catus, not only kept all the estate but flogged Boudica and raped her daughters.40 This led to Boudica’s rebellion with the support of the Iceni and Trinovantes tribes; they sacked the Roman towns of Camulodunum, Londinium, and Verulamium.41 Tacitus and Dio give accounts of Boudica and Suetonius’ (the Roman commander’s) speeches to their troops that, while not completely factual, shed light on Roman and British attitudes towards women and support the conclusion that the British tribes were used to female leadership.42 Tacitus wrote: “Boudica … made it known that it was customary for the Britons to engage in warfare under the leadership of women.”43 Dio stated, “[T]he person … instrumental in rousing the natives … persuading them to fight … thought worthy to be leader … was Buduica … possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to a woman.”44 Regarding differing attitudes, Allason-Jones states:

There is an inference that the Roman army was prepared to behave with forbearance… towards women as long as the women … did not meddle in affairs of state. It was native woman’s lack of womanly virtues which was … the trouble; not only were the tribes willing to be led by a woman but the female population joined in the fighting. Suetonius tried to rally his men by saying that the majority … against them were mere women. Boudica took the same line with her troops, describing the heavy armor and weaponry of the legionaries as the defense of feeble men who were as weak as their womenfolk. British women were not only equal to their men but “possessed the same valor.”45

Though he was kinder to Boudica than to Agrippina and Cartimandua because of the injustices she endured at the Romans’ hands, Tacitus denigrated her position as leader of her tribe in war. He simply called her a mother to them, albeit one who had “suffered personally.”46 He belittled her authority, stating: “she was one woman … avenging the freedom she had lost.”47 Dio described Boudica as ‘“very tall … terrifying … [with] fierce [eyes] … harsh [voice],’” and he also incidentally omitted the rapes and demonstrated his discomfort at a “female-led resistance” because it departed from “civilised male order.”48 Once again, Tacitus’ (and Dio’s) gendered rhetoric shows the Romans took issue with any woman in power—of native Roman birth or from a British tribe, regardless of the support of their own people.


Queen Zenobia

Two centuries later, Queen Zenobia faced similar gender-based issues at the Romans’ hands. Nathanael Andrade states that after the murder of her husband, Odaenathus, client king of Palmyra, Zenobia made a political decision as a queen and mother to assume de facto authority over the realm with the support of her late husband’s army and staff. At first, she carefully created her own dynasty with the intention of maintaining stability, trying not to enrage the Romans. This understated approach failed, and she was “cast as a foreign despot,” causing her to take the offensive and capture Arabia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Declaring herself Augusta, Zenobia faced civil war with Aurelian. Although she was eventually defeated, she and her son were permitted to live. The motivation for these political decisions was preservation of herself and her son.49

Unlike with Cartimandua and Boudica, there is material evidence of Zenobia’s growing political strength and independence from Roman control. Prudence Jones notes that coins minted in 269-270 had Aurelian on the obverse and Zenobia’s son on the reverse. By 272, she minted coins with herself on the obverse and Juno on the reverse, eliminating Aurelian completely.50

Zenobia, as Andrade details, was very much a product of the “enduring tradition of women rulers in the Near East,” as there were women in power through previous centuries that she could emulate. Her society afforded women more power than they had in Rome. For example, by managing properties and cash, Palmyrene women could fund civic and religious buildings, earning themselves honor and status. Zenobia exhibited competence with these skills, as even the gender-biased Historia Augusta and historian Zosimus acknowledge. The Historia Augusta stated, “Conferring benefactions with discretion, [Zenobia] preserved her treasury beyond the tendency for women” and Zosimus stated: “‘[Zenobia] … exercised the judgment of a man.”’51

Overall, the Historia Augusta, Andrade contends, presents a gender-based characterization of Zenobia expressed through Roman eyes. The Historia Augusta and propaganda from Aurelian labeled Zenobia as an ambitious “manly woman” who “flouted proper gender roles.” Although the Historia Augusta is riddled with opinion and fictional stories, it still conveys insight into Roman values regarding women. The text portrayed Zenobia in contradictory terms as a “brave and formidable leader” full of “womanly weakness.”52 A salient portion of the Historia Augusta states, “She fears like a woman, and fights as [a man] who fears punishment.”53 Andrade notes Aurelian’s propaganda emphasized the wrongness of a woman leader to help justify his campaign against her. Ironically, Zenobia capitalized on Aurelian’s gender bias when he blamed her male courtiers for her resistance by agreeing that she was a manipulated, weak-minded woman. This saved her from execution and demonstrated the same strength that allowed her to lead her people.54



In examining the lives of Agrippina, Cartimandua, Boudica, and Zenobia, it becomes clear that powerful women could rise above the gender bias ingrained in Roman society. Other contemporaneous societies imposed fewer constraints on and were more accepting of women in power. It seems the further women were from the heart of the Roman Empire, the greater their ability to rise and temporarily overwhelm the force of traditional Roman gender values. Nevertheless, the ever-strong male-dominated Roman elite were triumphant, toppling these “destabilizing” women and reinterpreting their histories with slant meant to intimidate. Although the full truth of these dynamic women is lost in the biased, stained annals, their accomplishments and the power inferred from their actions have made them icons for future generations.


Matthew Breier (’26) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies. 



  1. Cornelius Tacitus, “The Annals,” Perseus Tufts: 12:37:4, Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals, BOOK XII, chapter 37.
  2. Guy De la Bédoyère, Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
  3. Richard P. Saller, “Pater Familias, Mater Familias, and the Gendered Semantics of the Roman Household,” Classical Philology 94, no. 2 (April 1999): 183, accessed August 4, 2021, https://www-jstor-org.proxy.library.upenn.edu/stable/pdf/270558.pdf.
  4. Ibid., 193, De la Bédoyère, Domina: The Women, 24.
  5. Ibid., 25, 17.
  6. Ibid., 33, 29, 34, Margaret Brucia and Gregory Daugherty, To Be a Roman, workbook. ed. (Mundelein: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2007), 125-6, 4,109, Mary T. Boatwright, “Women and Gender in the Forum Romanum,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 141, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 111-2, https://www-jstor-org.proxy.library.upenn.edu/stable/pdf/41289737.pdf.
  7. De la Bédoyère, Domina: The Women, 25, 22.
  8. Ibid., 35-7.
  9. Ibid., 27, Brucia and Daugherty, To Be a Roman, 126.
  10. De la Bédoyère, Domina: The Women, 18-20.
  11. Ibid., 38.
  12. Ibid., 204.
  13. Ibid., 207.
  14. Ibid., 208, Barbara Levick, Claudius, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2015), 80.
  15. Ibid., 81, De la Bédoyère, Domina: The Women, 18-20.
  16. M. Cary and H. H. Scullard, A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine, 3rd ed. (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 1975), 356, De la Bédoyère, Domina: The Women, 206.
  17. Ibid., 211-213, 222, Levick, Claudius, 88-89.
  18. De la Bédoyère, Domina: The Women, 220, 221.
  19. Ibid., 218-9.
  20. Ibid., 219, Levick, Claudius, 88-89.
  21. De la Bédoyère, Domina: The Women, 209.
  22. Ibid., 219-20.
  23. Levick, Claudius, 82. It should be noted Livia only had the title Augusta once she was a widow.
  24. Judith Ginsburg, Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 107.
  25. Ginsburg, Representing Agrippina, 107-112.
  26. Tacitus, “The Annals,” Perseus Tufts, 12:37:4.
  27. Peter Keegan, “Boudica, Cartimandua, Messalina and Agrippina the Younger: Independent Women of Power and the Gendered Rhetoric of Roman History,” Ancient Society 34, no. 2 (2004): 112-3, accessed August 2, 2021, https://v2k3db01.library.upenn.edu/illiad/PDF/1618396.pdf.
  28. Ginsburg, Representing Agrippina, 116.
  29. Tacitus, “The Annals,” Perseus Tufts, 12:5.
  30. Ibid., 12:7.
  31. Ginsburg, Representing Agrippina, 127, 116.
  32. Ibid., 112-113.
  33. These are the barbarian queens whom Tacitus refers to.
  34. Lindsay Allason-Jones, Women in Roman Britain (London: British Museum Publications, 1989), 7.
  35. Allason-Jones, Women in Roman, 7.
  36. Ibid., 16-17.
  37. Keegan, “Boudica, Cartimandua,” 103-104.
  38. Tacitus, “The Annals,” Perseus Tufts, 12:40.
  39. Allason-Jones, Women in Roman, 17.
  40. Ibid., 18, “Boudica (Boudicca),” in Encyclopedia Romana, https://penelope.u chicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/boudica/boudicanrevolt.html.
  41. Allason-Jones, Women in Roman, 18, “Boudica (Boudicca)”.
  42. Allason-Jones, Women in Roman, 18-19.
  43. Keegan, “Boudica, Cartimandua,” 105.
  44. “Boudica (Boudicca)”.
  45. Allason-Jones, Women in Roman, 19.
  46. Keegan, “Boudica, Cartimandua,” 107.
  47. Ibid., 106.
  48. Ibid., 118, “Boudica (Boudicca)”.
  49. Nathanael J. Andrade, Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra (New York (N.Y.): Oxford University Press., 2018), 165-166, 172-176, 210, digital file.
  50. Prudence Jones, “Rewriting Power: Zenobia, Aurelian, and the Historia Augusta,” Classical World 109, no. 2 (Winter 2016): 223-4, accessed August 2, 2021, https://muse-jhu-edu.proxy.library.upenn.edu/article/610058/pdf.
  51. Andrade, Zenobia: Shooting, 170, 59-60.
  52. Ibid., 169, 192.
  53. “Historia Augusta,” Penelope UChicago, accessed August 5, 2021, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/historia_augusta /aurelian/2*.html, 26.2.5.
  54. Andrade, Zenobia: Shooting, 206-7.


Allason-Jones, Lindsay. Women in Roman Britain. London: British Museum Publications, 1989.

Andrade, Nathanael J. Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra. New York (N.Y.): Oxford University Press., 2018. Digital file.

Boatwright, Mary T. “Women and Gender in the Forum Romanum.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 141, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 105-41. Accessed August 4, 2021. https://www-jstor-org.proxy.library.upenn.edu/stable/pdf/41289737.pdf.

“Boudica (Boudicca).” In Encyclopedia Romana. Accessed August 2, 2021. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/boudica/boudicanrevolt.html.

Brucia, Margaret, and Gregory Daugherty. To Be a Roman. Workbook. ed. Mundelein: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2007.

Cary, M., and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 1975.

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

Ginsburg, Judith. Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Digital file. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.library.upenn.edu/lib/upenn-ebooks/reader.action?docID=4702536#.

“Historia Augusta.” Penelope UChicago. Accessed August 5, 2021. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/historia_augusta/aurelian/2*.html.

Jones, Prudence. “Rewriting Power: Zenobia, Aurelian, and the Historia Augusta.” Classical World 109, no. 2 (Winter 2016): 221-33. Accessed August 2, 2021. https://muse-jhu-edu.proxy.library.upenn.edu/article/610058/pdf.

Keegan, Peter. “Boudica, Cartimandua, Messalina and Agrippina the Younger: Independent Women of Power and the Gendered Rhetoric of Roman History.” Ancient Society 34, no. 2 (2004): 99-148. Accessed August 2, 2021. https://v2k3db01.library.upenn.edu/illiad/PDF/1618396.pdf.

Levick, Barbara. Claudius. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2015.

Saller, Richard P. “Pater Familias, Mater Familias, and the Gendered Semantics of the Roman Household.” Classical Philology 94, no. 2 (April 1999): 182-97. Accessed August 4, 2021. https://www-jstor-org.proxy.library.upenn.edu/stable/pdf/270558.pdf.

Tacitus, Cornelius. “The Annals.” Perseus Tufts. Accessed August 4, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D12%3Achapter%3D7.