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Private Life

266. Julia's wit. Rome, 1st cent. B.C. (Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.1-10. ca. A.D. 400. Tr. H. Lloyd-Jones. L)

Avienus, the narrator of this section, has just told a number of Augustus' jokes.

'Should you like us to recall also some of the sayings of his daughter Julia? If you will not think I talk too much, I shall first say a few words about her character, unless any of you has anything serious and worth learning to bring forward'. Everyone urged him to go ahead with what he had begun, so he began talking about Julia, saying something like this: (2) 'She was in her thirty-eighth year, a time of life when if she had behaved reasonably she would have been almost elderly; but she abused the indulgence of fortune no less than that of her father. Of course her love of literature and considerable culture, a thing easy to come by in that household, and also her kindness and gentleness and utter freedom from vindictiveness had won her immense popularity, and people who knew about her faults were amazed that she combined them with qualities so much their opposite.

(3) Her father had more than once, speaking in a manner indulgent but serious, advised her to moderate her luxurious mode of life and her choice of conspicuous associates. But when he considered the number of his grandchildren and their likeness to Agrippa, he was ashamed to entertain doubts about his daughter's chastity. (4) So Augustus persuaded himself that his daughter was light-hearted almost to the point of indiscretion, but above reproach, and was encouraged to believe that his ancestress Claudia had also been such a person. He used to tell his friends that he had two somewhat wayward daughters whom he had to put up with, the Roman republic and Julia.[1]

(5) One day she came into his presence in a somewhat risque costume, and though he said nothing, he was offended. The next day she changed her style and embraced her father, who was delighted by the respectability which she was affecting. Augustus, who the day before had concealed his distress, was now unable to conceal his pleasure. "How much more suitable", he remarked, "for a daughter of Augustus is this costume!" Julia did not fail to stand up for herself. "Today", she said, "I dressed to be looked at by my father, yesterday to be looked at by my husband."

(6) Here is another well-known story. At a gladiatorial show Livia[2] and Julia drew the attention of the people by the dissimilarity of their companions; Livia was surrounded by respectable men, Julia by men who were not only youthful but extravagant. Her father wrote that she ought to notice the difference between the two princesses, but Julia wittily wrote back, "These men will be old when I am old".

(7) Julia's hair began early to go grey, and she used to pluck out hairs in private; one day her father came in suddenly and surprised her beauty specialists at their work. Augustus noticed the grey hairs on their clothing. In another conversation some time later he raised the question of age, and asked his daughter whether as time went on she would rather be grey-haired, he contradicted her by saying, "So why are those women in such a hurry to make you bald?"

(8) After listening to a serious friend who tried to persuade her that she would do better if she copied her father's frugal habits, Julia said, 'He forgets that he is Caesar, but I remember that I am Caesar's daughter".

(9) When people who knew about her shocking behaviour said they were surprised that she who distributed her favours so wildly gave birth to sons who were so like Agrippa, she said, "I never take on a passenger unless the ship is full."


1. Compare the remark of Theodore Roosevelt that he could preside over the United States or control his daughter (Alice Roosevelt Longworth)-but not both.

2. The formidable empress Livia, second wife of Augustus, was Julia's stepmother. When Julia's first husband, Agrippa, died and Julia was obliged to marry the future emperor Tiberius, Livia became her mother-in-law as well.