The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus/Chapter VIII
the wives of the emperor
This Antonine has been accused of building the Cloaca Maxima, into which, a century later, all Rome rolled, largely on the grounds that he divorced at least three wives, and was himself wife of the Chariot Driver Hierocles, amongst others of his unusually numerous acquaintance.
The imputation of excavating in Rome cannot be attributed to Elagabalus alone. Augustus had done a little digging there, but hypocritically, as he did everything else, devising ethical laws as a cloak for turpitudes of his own; Caligula had done the same, so had Nero, Hadrian, and Caracalla. Maecenas divorced himself and remarried twenty times, as both ceremonies were less expensive than they are to-day. Suetonius said of Caligula that it was uncertain which was the vilest, the unions he contracted, their brevity, or their cause. With such examples, it was inevitable that ordinary people should unite but to part, and that insensibly the law should annul as a caprice, a clause that defined marriage as the inseparable life.
Under the Caesars, marriage became a temporary arrangement abandoned and re-established at will. Seneca said that women of rank counted their years by their husbands; Juvenal, that it was in such fashion they counted their days. Paul, in a letter whose verbosity apes philosophical phraseology, regarded the privileges of divorce as inherent in the patriarchal theories of family life. Tertullian added, somewhat sapiently, that divorce was the result of matrimony.
Divorce, however, was never obligatory, matrimony was. According to the Lex Papia Poppoea, whoso at twenty-five was unmarried; whoso, divorced or widowed, did not remarry; whoso, though married, was childless became ipso facto a public enemy.
To this law, as was obviously necessary, only a technical attention was paid. Men married just enough to gain a position or inherit a legacy; the next day they got a divorce. At the moment of need a child was adopted; the moment passed, the child was disowned. As with men, so with women. The Univira became the many-husbanded wife, occasionally a matron with no husband at all; one who, to escape the consequences of the Lex Papia Poppoea, hired a man to lend her his name, and who, with an establishment of her own, was free to do as she liked; to imitate men at their worst; to fight like them and with them for power; to dabble in the bloody drama of state; to climb on the throne and kill there or be killed. The Empire had liberated women from domestic tyranny, just as it had liberated men from that of the state.
Such was the position of matrimony when, early in July 219, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus took to wife the Lady Julia Cornelia Paula, of the well-known though by no means patrician family of Cornelia. Her father was Julius Paulus, probably one of the most famous jurisconsults and lawyers Rome has ever known. As father-in-law to an Emperor, his position was doubtless, like that of Sylla, the father-in-law of Caesar, somewhat heady. Unfortunately it impaired his usefulness to a considerable degree. We learn from the editors of the Prosopographia that there are only five decrees on subjects of jurisprudence which can be definitely assigned to this reign, and from Lampridius that Paulus was appointed to the presumably lucrative, though certainly uninspiring office of usher to the young Alexander, on whose bovine intelligence he could unfortunately make no impression. It is doubtless wrong to promote relations to Court sinecures when they can be better and more usefully employed in arduous work for the state, but it is a position to which even the best of us aspire when fatigued with either a misspent or a full-spent life.
According to Barrachinus, the family of Cornelia came from Padua; Bertrand says they were from Tyro; and in Pignorius' estimation they may even have seen light in Rome. Julius and his daughter are the only two of the family who have come into prominence. Unfortunately, we do not know the date of the birth or death of either, nor the year in which Julius began to climb; suffice it to say, that he had published many volumes before the death of Septimius Severus, in whose council, according to Digest xxix., he had a place. His first office seems to have been that of Praetor, and thence by regular stages he climbed to that of Praefect of Rome, finishing with the height of all ambition, the Praefecture of the Praetorium, and as such he was a Senator of the Empire. Tristran—who knew about as much of the lady personally as you or I can—has remarked that Julia was beautiful. His taste is certainly not a modern one, as her effigy represents her with a sharp beaky face, and a long scraggy neck. This author, with some show of fairness, attempts to justify his statement by a truism, namely, that the Emperor was such a connoisseur of beauty that he would never have chosen a lady who had not this necessary qualification. Precisely, but did Antonine choose the lady at all? The probabilities are that she was well over thirty at the time of the marriage, and that the Emperor had neither seen nor heard of her before she was presented to him by his relations, on his arrival in Rome; in fact, that this marriage was a political move by means of which the official classes were closely allied with the imperial house.
We have already described the pomp and circumstance with which this wedding was celebrated, the games, with their lavish waste of animal life, amongst the rarest of known beasts, the congiary and donative. As this is the sole mention of such splendour on the occasion of Antonine's committing matrimony, which holy estate he is said to have attempted six times in two and a half years, it inclines us to the opinion that this was his first experiment in that direction, especially as the evidence of coins and medals is perfectly conclusive on this point. Tristran and Serviez, however, place Annia Faustina as first wife, on Dion's faulty arrangement of the events at Nicomedia.
Cornelia Paula was, as we have said, a lady of some renown and position. Serviez tells us that it was generally believed she had been married before; was already, in fact, a mother of children; and Tristran adds, enceinte by some one else at the time of the marriage. The Emperor's pretext for marrying her seems to lend support to this contention. It was that he wished the sooner to provide an heir for the Empire, though, as Dion says, he was not as yet a man himself. Since Cornelia had no children by Antonine, and the reason of her divorce, as given publicly, was a secret blemish in her body, which was only discovered after about eighteen months of married concord, the presumptive evidence is against Serviez' theory; in fact, it presupposes sterility rather than some corporal deformity, or even over-fruitfulness; and it, of course, gives the lie to the gratuitous assumption of Tristran that the lady was enceinte when Antonine married her. What amount of genuine feeling existed between Julia Paula and her husband we cannot even surmise. From a psychological point of view, one would be inclined to predicate very little. The Emperor was too much wedded to his friends, was too feminine in character to appreciate a wife, other than, as Lampridius says, "a strumpet who could increase his knowledge of her art." The family of Julius Paulus rose to the height of power as soon as a daughter of his house became Empress. Lampridius is not by any means definite as to the date of Julius Paulus' domination in the state; though it seems natural to suppose that, when Eutychianus Comazon vacated the Praefectship of the Praetorium in order to become Praefect of Rome (July 219), the Emperor's father-in-law was appointed in his room, and vacated this office either at the time of his daughter's divorce, or more probably at an earlier date, i.e. when his official year expired in July 220.
The precise date of the divorce is unknown. As we have said, there are coins struck at Alexandria with Julia's effigy and inscription, after 29th August 220, and others at Tripolis in Phoenicia, after October in that year. The most likely supposition is that Antonine divorced her somewhere in the beginning of 221, after he had made up his mind to take to wife the Vestal, Aquilia Severa, in accordance with his religious scheme or ideal.
Julia Cornelia Paula is the only wife of Antonine mentioned in inscriptions, and, as we hear nothing of her in any other way, it is improbable that she had much importance at Court. Possibly she was found to be of no use either to Antonine, Maesa, Soaemias, or Mamaea, each in their separate ways, and as such was relegated to unimportant obscurity, neglected as a cypher. Her coin types are equally unimportant. They make reference to the Concordia which was supposed to exist between the pair, and introduce the deities protective of matrimony. Her portraits vary from those of a woman of sixty odd years to the representation of a woman about thirty years old, which latter age is almost confirmed by her so-called bust in the Borghese collection at the Louvre; but no known author can really do more than guess at what this lady was as careful to conceal as her less fortunate sisters.
Lampridius tries to leave one with the impression, that on the divorce of this Augusta (the Senate had accorded the title at the time of the marriage) Julius Paulus was banished. Unfortunately, he mentions him a little later on as being tutor to Alexander (in the beginning of the year 222). The inference is, of course, that Lampridius took the two impressions from conflicting sources. In all probability the great jurisconsult, having exchanged his position as Praefect of the Praetorium for a Court sinecure as Alexander's tutor, did not re-emerge into public life until his thick-headed pupil was safely seated on the throne. Quite what office he then occupied Pauly has not determined. It may have been once again the Praefecture of the Praetorium, a position second only to that of the Emperor himself, and one which carried with it practical sovereignty, in the Tudor sense, only excepting the one element which went to solidify Elizabethan greatness, the assumption of the powers, dignities, and privileges of the ecclesiastical headship.
Julia Cornelia Paula, shorn of her title and position some time during the winter of 220-221, retired into opulent privacy. No sane person would, at that time, have pitied Julia's lot, unless it were because she was no longer enjoying the position of Empress. Even in mediaeval times, when divorce was an ecclesiastical privilege, and in consequence most costly, it was not regarded as an unmixed evil. Of course, it was rare, and, being ecclesiastical, carried a certain stigma with it. Furthermore, as we have said, it was a privilege for which there was not the same need as in times of women's greater freedom. No one who, like the mediaeval husband, had canonical permission to beat his wife when she annoyed him, stood in vital need of dissolving the bond, (vide Beaumanoir, lvii.: "Tout mari peut battre sa femme pourvu que ce soit modérément, et sans que mort s'ensuive"). During the epoch in question, it was the most usual and ordinary circumstance of daily life. It was continued interest in, not satiety with, the charms of your spouse that created wonder in old Rome; suffice it to say, that Julia retired, a woman with a past, and the knowledge, that if she had her wits about her, there was considerable future to look forward to. No one expressed regret at her going, so in all probability Maesa was agreeable, though we can scarcely think that the old lady knew of the scheme which her grandson was concocting when she allowed the mistake to be made without an effort to stop his headlong swoop to ruin; a flight which would certainly involve the whole family on its way, unless they could dissociate themselves from the new religious policy which dictated it.
Probably along with predilection Antonine had seen and admired a lady, whom Dion describes, or makes Antonine describe, as Chief Priestess of Vesta. With this designation Preuner emphatically disagrees, accounting for the αρχιέρεια on the grounds that she officiated in the chief worship of Rome, not that she herself was the chief priestess. It was in the early months of the year 221 that Antonine, having seconded Julia Paula, took from her nunnery the Vestal Aquilia Severa, thereby thoroughly shocking the susceptible. We have already discussed the reasons for this act of folly. From a religious point of view there was much to be said by the Emperor, and undoubtedly he said it. From an aesthetic standpoint it was a mistake. There are still in existence a certain number of coins and medals which bear her effigy; these give her the appearance of a sinister and rather evil-looking woman, utterly unlike the helpless Neophyte, young and beautiful, whom various writers have depicted in their efforts to excite our pity for the poor nun forcibly ravished by an unattractive and debauched Emperor.
The whole modern opinion of the community of Vesta is founded on a mistaken view of their position and usefulness. Our ideas of Vestals are largely derived from the conceptions which Egyptian anchorites bequeathed to the esoteric religious communities which flourished during the middle ages. The truth lies in the fact that the Roman Vestals have but one point of contact with the successors of the anchorites, namely, their reputation for chastity, which was, however, grafted on to an entirely different religious foundation. The Vestals were a community of high-born Roman ladies, whose duty it was to tend and preserve the sacred fire which symbolised Rome's existence, and, while they worshipped the Phallus, to keep themselves unspotted from the world, not otherwise from its contact. In the performance of their public functions they were admirable and most punctilious, but they were not cloistered virgins, as we know the race to-day. They were women of the world, with a value enhanced by an often (according to Suetonius) supposititious virginity; women who, clad in the white linen garments of a blameless life, their hair arranged in the six braids which symbolised chastity, were the chief figures at all public functions, the leaders of feeling at the games and gladiatorial shows, and the arbiters of public opinion in all that touched religion and morals, at a time when religion and morals meant courage, bravery, patriotism, and hardihood.
It would be as absurd to impute to these women Christian ideas of religion and morals as it would be to transfer the same neuroticism to the Spartan communities of a still earlier age. The ideal was not then suffering for suffering's sake, not even suffering to appease an offended deity, but suffering for the sake of virility, patriotism, and strength.
As we have said, Roman religion was in the third century what it always had been, purely political. It was the prosperity of the Empire, its peace and immortality, for which sacrifices were made; with the individual, his happiness and prosperity, it concerned itself not at all. The antique virtues were civic, not personal. It was the State which had a soul, not the individual. Man was ephemeral. It was the nation that endured, and to secure that permanence each citizen laboured. As for the citizen, death was near, and so he hastened to live; before the roses could fade, he wreathed himself with them; immortality was, for him, in his descendants, the continuation of his name, the respect for his ashes. Any other form of futurity was a speculation. In anterior epochs, fright had peopled Tartarus, but fright had gone; the Elysian fields were too vague, too wearisome to contemplate. "After death," said Cicero, "there is nothing"; and philosophy agreed with him. Of such and kindred religious theories the Roman statesmanship—realising the danger of independent religions—had constituted her Emperor supreme governor. As Pontifex Maximus he held much the same position as that which our Tudor Sovereigns created for themselves as heads of the Church in England. The Emperor was supreme over religious dogma and practice, whenever occasion necessitated control.
The old faiths were crumbling, but none the less Rome was the abridgment of every superstition. The Gods of the conquered had always formed part of her spoils; to please them was easy—from Jehovah to the unknown Gods beyond the Rhine their worship was gore. That the upper classes had no faith goes without saying, but of the philosophical atheism of the upper classes the people knew nothing; they clung piously to a faith which had a theological justification for every sin; and turned with equal avidity to the Mithraic, Egyptian, and even to the Nazarene religion with which Constantine finally replaced the ancient worship, as long as they were all the same thing under a different name; the religion of the Empire with local or foreign mysteries thrown in; the accustomed traditions, miracles, feasts, and nature worship, unfortunately, as men found after Constantine, grown contentious and continually more expensive to maintain.
The Vestals were still the guardians and types of the older theories they professed; they were the link between philosophy and superstition, and as such they played their part admirably: in private much the same as other women, in public exact. Occasionally there was a public scandal, but very rarely. Domitian had recalled the archaic law and had buried one defaulter alive. Claudius, referring to Messalina, had told them that the fate which made him the husband of impure women had destined him to punish such. The lady whom Caracalla buried alive protested, not against the imputation of a broken vow, but because the vow had not been broken satisfactorily enough for her liking.
Apparently Antonine was quite without Roman prejudice in this, or indeed in any other matter. He liked the lady; whether from a religious or an aesthetic point of view is uncertain. If it were the latter, and her portraits do her justice, Antonine's reputation as a judge of female beauty is irretrievably gone. She was frankly old and ugly. Nevertheless he wanted to marry her, and what he wanted he usually got. Whether or not Aquilia Severa wanted him is unknown, at any rate she was perfectly willing to exchange supposititious virginity for the imperial marriage bed on more than one occasion. Rome, as we have pointed out, was shocked, frankly disgusted. The Emperor had the report, probably through the Senate, and thereupon pointed out to that august body the essential piety of the proceeding: a Vestal and the Chief Priest of the Holy God were bound to produce children entirely divine.
It was a veritably Tudor argument, than which nothing more specious, for the allaying of prejudice, could have been produced by Henry, the Eighth of that name. Unfortunately, Rome in the third century enjoyed considerably more of that Tory virtue, and was less bored with a religion which affected no one personally, than England was in the sixteenth century. Rome continued to object to the Emperor shocking her prejudices. England changed her mind, and with it her prejudices, at the bidding of her sovereigns, and, sacerdotal extermination aiding, she forgot in a generation what it had taken her a thousand years to learn.
Needless to say, this union of the Emperor was productive of nothing either human or divine, concerning which, or as a sort of mild reflection thereupon, Lampridius utters his psychologically illuminating remark concerning the use this Emperor had for wives and women generally.
The history of Severa's family is obscure. Her father was the notable jurist Aquilius Sabinus, who had been Praefect of Rome both in 214 and 216. He was the firm friend of Sillus Messala, the king-maker, and possibly as a Senator, was one of that gentleman's judges when he was condemned for treason against his sovereign. We hear further of a son, one Fabius Sabinus, who, on account of his wisdom and learning, has come down to history as the Cato of his age. The daughter must have partaken of the family ability. Her father's senatorial rank would, in all probability, have opened to her the doors of that most exclusive of corporations to which she belonged, but his position could scarcely have raised her eyes to the imperial purple.
We can form no absolute judgment from the records at our disposal, as to the precise date at which this lady exchanged the practices of open celibacy for those of problematical matrimony. The most likely suggestion is that it was early in the spring of the year 221, at a time contemporaneous with the alliance celebrated between Elagabal and Minerva. The Alexandrian coins bearing her name are dated LΔ, or subsequent to 29th August 220, while the coins "Aequitas Publica"—which also bear her name—were issued early in 221, obviously for the third distribution of money which was held in honour of the double marriage. No games or excitements such as celebrated Antonine's first alliance were at this time attempted; the Emperor had quite enough to do in allaying the trouble caused by the marriage itself, and in considering projects for the furthering of his religious schemes. Of the lady's position and influence we know nothing, though we can quite believe that she
Coin of Julia Cornelia Paula Augusta (British Museum).
Coin of Julia Cornelia Paula Augusta, A.D. 220-21 (British Museum).
Coin of Julia Aquilia Severa Augusta, A.D. 220-21 (British Museum).
Coin of Annia Faustina Augusta, A.D. 221-22 (British Museum).
Coin of Julia Aquilia Severa Augusta, A.D. 221-22 (British Museum).
was no friend of the elderly Maesa, or the cross-grained mother of Alexianus, both of whom wished her so ill. Serviez is by no means complimentary to Severa, on account of the avidity with which she changed her position. He calls her ambition unbounded, though it is very doubtful whether, placed in a similar position, any one of us would have refused the flattery, and undoubted compliment made to our superlative worth.
The title of Augusta, of which Julia Cornelia Paula had been relieved, was conferred on Aquilia, and doubtless the Emperor looked forward to some considerable degree of felicity in the company of a woman of whose marriage every one disapproved.
As we know, Antonine found out quite soon that he had made a vital mistake; that he had attacked the one superstition that Rome would not allow to be touched, and, with extreme reluctance, he sent both the Goddess and her Vestal back to their appropriate dwellings. Antonine has been censured right royally both for his marriage and for the consequent divorce. Now, if the marriage were wrong, as all the authors say, surely the divorce was right; certainly Rome thought so, since his compliance with national wishes seems to have won men over, and appeased their minds, thus restoring the Emperor to his popularity. Why then did he further alienate them by remarrying Severa in the early part of the next year, as Dion and the coins relate? It is a mystery.
Antonine does not seem to have done anything at all for the family of this wife; there is no record of any offices held by them, or official appointments given, taken, or received by men of their name. Of course, they may have got jobs which came under the generic term of "appointment of unfit persons"; if so, we have no record of what they got, while the duration of the marriage was so abbreviated that there was scarcely time for any scandal to develop. The date of the divorce, like all the dates of the reign, can only be fixed approximately. It was not before the early spring and not later than the end of June, by which time Julia Maesa had regained her power (what she had of it) over the mind of Antonine, that she persuaded him to return both Minerva and her personification to their respective homes, to send for Astarte, for Elagabal, to marry Annia Faustina himself, and, above all, to adopt Alexianus; which latter ceremony took place some time before 10th July 221. We can well imagine the boy's disgust at the failure of his plans and at the early loss of a friend in Aquilia, who, as both Dion and Herodian tell us, was Empress for only a little time.
One of the greatest obstacles which the imperial family had met with was their lack of connection with the Roman nobility. No doubt this could easily have been remedied. Maesa might have tried to make her first alliance in this direction; she seems to have imagined, however, that such persons were extinct. They had died twice, we are told, at Pharsalus and Philippi, and those who had not died then had suffered for real or imaginary crimes under succeeding Emperors. The absolutely necessary step, therefore, which Maesa had to take in this policy of alliance was to find the most influential marriageable woman in Rome and put her into the place that Aquilia Severa was holding to the jeopardy of all concerned. The lady appeared as if by a miracle. Amongst other persons who disapproved of Antonine's proceedings were the two Senators Silius Messala and Pomponius Bassus, of whom mention has already been made, as having been concerned in a plot for dethroning the Emperor. Both had been men of importance for years. Pomponius Bassus had been Consul under Septimius Severus and Governor of Mysia under Caracalla. In fact, so important were they in their own estimation, that nothing set bounds to their ambition. Already between them they had contrived the deposition of the Emperor Julianus, and the election of Septimius, and, like the great Earl of Warwick of fifteenth-century fame, they were by no means averse to putting their heads together once again, in order to rid the state of whomsoever they thought incapax imperii.
Now, this was just the work that Mamaea wanted. For other reasons, Maesa was not averse to the plot. The gentlemen held a secret court to examine into the Emperor's actions, and presumably they found him incapax, so set to work to corrupt the guards in the usual fashion.
Unfortunately for Antonine, that infamous system of informers which had flourished and been of such vital use under former Emperors (under his father Caracalla, to go no further back for an example) was considered by his own government as harsh and objectionable, an utterly intolerable practice in a good and settled state. Antonine had, therefore, refused to allow delators to assist the government. This being the case, he ought to have apprehended all known traitors himself. Messala and Bassus were known for such; they had always been dangerous persons. Nevertheless, Antonine left them at large. True, as Lampridius tells us, he did send for Silius Messala and probably also Pomponius Bassus to come to him at Nicomedia, because he considered it safer to keep these gentlemen with him in the East than to allow their tongues to wag freely in Rome, before such time as he had dictated his own terms of government to the Senate and people. When they returned to Rome, these men obviously plotted freely in the accustomed way until they approached too many soldiers, after which time they were condemned by the Senate, and sent to other spheres of usefulness, or, as they themselves would have put it, to an endless nothingness, where an absence of all energy could do neither good nor evil. It is quite impossible to fix the exact date of this execution. There is a tendency to assign it to the early part of the reign, i.e., about the beginning of the year 219, whilst the Court resided at Nicomedia; this, on the very frail evidence that their names appear amongst Dion's list of those who were executed during the reign, which list was published amongst the acts of the first winter. No cause has been shown, however, for any plot to dethrone and murder the Emperor at that date; indeed, until the religious mistake in 221, any such plot would have been utterly impossible, though there is plenty of evidence concerning the various attempts of the years 221 and 222, of which almost certainly this conspiracy was one. The execution was obviously connected, in Dion's mind, with Antonine's third marriage. He says that the real reason, as every one knew, was because the Emperor wanted to play David to Bassus' Uriah, with Annia Faustina taking the hackneyed part of Bathsheba.
But it is a stupid story. Antonine was married to a woman of his own choosing, and certainly did not want the friend of his grandmother, even though to please that relation he did take Annia almost as soon as her husband was dead. This is again the only possible explanation of Dion's phrase that "This inhuman monster (i.e. Antonine) would not allow Annia Faustina to spoil her beauty by weeping for her departed husband," a story either adapted from the similar lie related of Caracalla and his mother, or designed to do honour to the work of the unconscionable traitor Pomponius. It is quite true that Maesa found ample means of drying any tears that the usual decencies extracted from the Lady Annia; but, as things turned out, no one seemed more anxious than this scion of the imperial house of Commodus to marry the present Antonine, despite all his relations' epithets, and, through these, what later commentators have found to say against the boy.
Annia Faustina was the only wife of Antonine who did not assume the title of Julia; this, presumably, because she was the only lady who had a name of her own by birth. Her genealogy is obscure, at least on her mother's side. Everybody is agreed that she was great-granddaughter of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius through his fourth daughter Arria Fadilla. This lady married a certain Cn. Claudius Severus, whose son Ti. Claudius Severus was Annia's father. Authorities disagree as to the wife of Titus. Pauly does not mention any marriage, presumably on the grounds that all are conjectural; Ramsay, from an inscription found in Phrygia, postulates that he married a second cousin, one of the Cornificia family. Tristran asserts that it was yet another cousin, Aurelia Sabina. Eckhel's genealogy is too obscure to be of much use, though he also traces the descent of Titus' wife to Lucilla, yet another relation. The main contention is, however, the same in all cases: Annia was descended on both sides from the imperial house of Commodus, unless the amours of the younger wife of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius made it more probable that some lusty soldier or gladiator, rather than her philosophical husband, had been responsible for the accidents of her children's birth. Be that as it may, Arria Fadilla had passed with the rest of the family as an imperial child, and her descendants enjoyed her worship and renown.
As usual, we are told that Annia was young and beautiful, neither of which statements is borne out by the coins extant; to judge from these one would postulate that she was between forty and forty-five years of age at the time of her marriage with Antonine. Eckhel states definitely that she was thirty-eight years old at that period. Pauly ventures on neither the date of her birth nor death. It is, therefore, most unwise to assert, as the biographers do, what neither portraits nor authorities will in any way corroborate.
As with her age, so with her life: Annia's words, deeds and political aspirations are quite unknown to us. Obviously, coming at the political juncture of Antonine's mistake, and bringing the alliance with the old nobility that Maesa wanted by way of support, Annia was the friend of the Alexander party in the state. As such, she must have been an extraordinary annoyance to the Emperor and his friends. Certainly, from Lampridius' accounts, the boy-husband was moody, distrustful, and generally miserable during the whole of this period, which does not presuppose connubial felicity.
There is no mention of Annia having taken any special part either for or against her husband in the network of treasonable attempts which his family were continually trying. We do not even know how the marriage was dissolved. The natural presumption is that he divorced Annia, as he had divorced Cornelia and Aquilia, though it is allowable in the absence of the usual gibe at his inconstancy, or any suggestion of foul play, to suppose that she died—allowable, but not very probable. Antonine obviously took her as part of his grandmother's scheme, and got rid of her when he tried to get rid of Alexander, by repudiating the adoption. Dion relates that he then took two nameless women to wife, finally returning to Aquilia Severa. The first part of the statement is obviously a fiction. All Antonine, or any one of his temperament, wanted from a wife was friendship and affection; this he certainly had in Aquilia, whom he only divorced as a precautionary measure, and whom he certainly took back just as soon as he could get rid of Annia.
Of course, to divorce Annia, a really important imperial lady, was a disagreeable step; it would alienate the whole of the upper classes, unless he could show reason for the change. Annia, by the extreme eagerness with which she had jumped at the chance of being Empress, was certainly not going to be party to the divorce—not that her consent was necessary in such times of freedom, when divorce was of daily occurrence, even in the best regulated families. Cicero divorced his wife, we are told, because she did not idolise him; Caesar his, on the pretext that she ought to be above suspicion. Certainly no actual misconduct was necessary, unless the whim of the moment be regarded as such. Antonine exercised this right to act on his whim, or rather on his knowledge that the lady was an unnecessary burden, but it cost him dear, the lady was not born to take such snubs in a chastened spirit, even if her imperial relations liked to adopt that attitude, which is, to say the least of it, an unlikely supposition.
The odd ladies may be ignored. Dion says they were wives, not concubines. But time did not permit of so many weddings and divorces; while the Emperor's inclination, continually veering back to Aquilia, would not have let him try so many others. Dion tells us that Antonine remarried this Vestal before the last and fatal plot was set on foot; a statement which is corroborated by certain Alexandrian coins struck after 29th August 221. It was a proceeding, as far as we can judge, more mad than his first mistake. Admitting that Antonine knew that his first error, in taking the nun to wife, had angered the people, it is impossible for us to imagine why he took her again, thus once more upsetting the city. It was the most unaccountable blunder, and one which would finally alienate those whom he had so lately tried to propitiate. There may have been goodness in the act, kindness towards the woman, who had given up so much for his sake. There is goodness everywhere, often the basis of evil is in that virtue; certainly much madness may be traced to it.
In reading the account of this epoch, one feels as though one were assisting at the spectacle of a gigantic asylum where the inmates were omnipotent. From this disease of madness Rome might have recovered, had not her delirium, which was fine, turned to softening of the brain. Until a century later, there was hope, because the guilt was conscious; it was only when guilt became ignorance, that Rome disappeared.