Monday, November 11, 2019


Anne Bielman Sánchez (ed.), Power Couples in Antiquity: Transversal Perspectives. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 214. ISBN 9781138575264. $140.00.

Reviewed by Gregory H. Gilles, King's College London (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

As the latest addition to the Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies, Power Couples in Antiquity: Transversal Perspectives presents current research on ancient 'power couples'. The contributions were first presented at a workshop at the University of Lausanne in November 2017 attended by specialists in gender studies. The aim of the workshop was to identify the significant attributes of ancient 'power couples' and their nature and duration over the centuries as well as in culturally distinct societies. This resultant volume comprises ten chapters organised chronologically, with the first four chapters pertaining to Hellenistic kingdoms and the next five to Republican and Imperial Rome, while a concluding chapter summarises the central themes of each chapter and the book as a whole.

In the introduction, Bielman Sánchez contextualises the volume by presenting various definitions for 'power couples', using examples of such couples in our modern world in order to provide possible comparisons with ones in antiquity. Her definitions are all analogous and make sense in terms of modern power couples but appear to fall short when applied to ancient ones. While in modern examples both partners in the couple have powerful careers, both either being highly educated or equally influential or successful in their own right, these definitions can very rarely be applied to 'power couples' who predominantly existed in patriarchal ancient cultures. Moreover, the author's use of Wikipedia, newspaper articles and popular sources to illustrate modern power couples makes the reader wonder about the intended audience of the volume. This type of evidence would indicate a general audience, but the hefty price and stated academic ambitions would suggest otherwise. That being said, although the premise of identifying 'power couples' in antiquity by defining them according to modern, popular, standards appears flawed, this does not detract from the high quality of the individual chapters.

In the first chapter, on Hellenistic kingdoms, Carney discusses the union between Philip II and Olympias. Or, more to the point, the power triad between Philip II, Olympias and their son Alexander. There is also a detailed examination of the relationship between Alexander's half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus (III) and Adea Eurydice. The discussion of each couple, including father/son and mother/son relationships, is well researched but the use of a single main ancient source, Plutarch, and the fact that most of the examples of Philip II and Olympias as a 'power couple' derive from the period from after their divorce, makes one query whether they fit the definitions of a 'power couple' set out in the introduction.

Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme throughout the book. It is difficult to reconcile the majority of the couples discussed with the definitions of a 'power couple' given by Bielman Sánchez. Each contributor, rightly, discusses the limitations of finding 'power couples' within their time period. This issue is mainly due to a general lack of sources, the often-intentional bias of ancient male authors towards women, especially powerful ones, and the seemingly impossible task of distinguishing fact from fiction in relation to anecdotes about a couple's private life. For example, in chapter two, Widmer has to redefine what a couple is, by using Aristotle's term of philia (mutual affection), from the Nichomachean Ethics , to determine if any royal couples from the Seleucid period could be termed a 'power couple'. The short answer is no. After a careful investigation, using the term philia to examine royal unions, Widmer identifies the creation of an "immutable and eternal bond [between Seleucid royal couples that] ensured the permanence of their power" (p. 37).

The next two contributions are beset with the same issues. In chapter three, D'Agostini delivers a very interesting argument about Cleopatra Thea's three marriages and how they shaped the political and social landscape of the Seleucid Empire between 150 and 129 BCE. D'Agostini provides multiple examples of female agency and uses the numismatic evidence efficiently to highlight Cleopatra Thea's central role within her three marriages, but the existence, or the identification, of a 'power couple' from any of these royal unions still appears elusive. Likewise, Bielman Sánchez and Joliton, in chapter four, provide exemplary evidence for the existence of a powerful Ptolemaic couple, Ptolemy IV and Arsinoe III. However, the reader again finds a lack of testimony in the literary sources, or the various selected inscriptions, that alludes to their actions as a couple with a unified political or social identity, to warrant their being labelled as a 'power couple' according to Bielman Sánchez's own introductory definitions.

The second half of the book deals with Republican and Imperial Rome. In chapter five, Ferriès discusses the complicated relationship between Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra. As this period is abundantly documented, one might have hoped that finally there would be concrete evidence for 'power couples' in antiquity. Alas, the focus seems to be on how each partner demonstrated, or tried to demonstrate, control over the other. Ferriès offers some very interesting insights into the reasons for this union, and the various political, social and dynastic ploys utilised by both Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra, but there is little evidence of their acting as a 'power couple'. There is no question of their individual influence and authority, but if they did not meet "between 41 and 37 BCE, in spite of the birth of their twins" (p. 107), it is difficult to see how they can be considered a 'power couple'.

The next two chapters do a much better job of demonstrating that the couples in question formed a more complete union. In chapter six, Harders again discusses Marcus Antonius, but she does so by discussing all four of his marriages and how each one illuminates the changes, political and social, that occurred at the end of Republic. Harders perfectly summarises the rules for spouses with regard to Roman marriages and provides valuable definitions for various familial and matrimonial terms. Her use of the literary sources and numismatic evidence for highlighting the role of Marcus Antonius' wives in their marriages is persuasive, and a succinct concluding summary clearly demonstrates how these marriages paved the way for Augustus' marriage reforms. Cenerini, in chapter seven, neatly picks up where Harders left off by examining Augustus and Livia as an 'exceptional and eternal couple'. However, Cenerini places greater emphasis on demonstrating the ways in which Livia asserted, or appeared to assert, power over her husband. But while there are copious examples of Livia as the powerful matrona, exerting influence over Augustus and being repaid for her loyalty in his will and by Tiberius after his death, there are unfortunately only few examples of their acting as a couple.

In chapter 8, Hallett analyses a love elegy by Propertius, 4.11, and applies the attributes of modern American political couples, in particular the Clintons and Doles, to the two main characters of the poem: Cornelia, Augustus' stepdaughter, and her husband L. Aemilius Lepidus Paullus. Hallett readily acknowledges that the speech Propertius gives to Cornelia is "totally fictitious" (p. 154) and thus proposes that Cornelia's power is not only derived from her actions as a wife and mother, but also from her ancestors. It is a thought-provoking chapter that highlights the importance the Romans placed on their ancestors, especially in assessing a woman's contribution to the perceived political power and influence that some Roman marriages could exert.

Lastly, in chapter nine, Späth tries to present the emperor Claudius' marriages to Valeria Messalina and Julia Agrippina as unions between 'power couples'. He does this by focussing on their "practices of married life, instead of their institutional positions, [in order to establish] whether an exceptional social and political situation" (p. 166) leads to the formation of a 'power couple'. However, through the analysis of various passages in books twelve and three of Tacitus' Annals, Späth comes to the conclusion that there were no discernible distinctions between the couples of the domus Augusta and other senatorial couples. On the other hand, he does acknowledge that the domus into which Messalina and Agrippina married was no ordinary domus and that if a wife was able to influence her emperor husband, she must have had some political clout.

In the concluding chapter, Bielman Sánchez successfully collates key aspects from each contribution and highlights the common ground between them. She does this by discussing, albeit slightly repetitively, the ancient sources on 'power couples' as well as the public and private aspects to Greco-Roman 'power couples', as identified in the preceding chapters. What is missing from this conclusion, however, is a consideration of the volume's place within current academic trends, especially its place within studies of gender, female agency in the Greco-Roman world and the differences between royal and non-royal couples. The latter would be particularly useful considering Bielman Sánchez's claim that a second volume, also derived from the original conference but focussed on 'ordinary' couples, will be published within the next two years (p. 204). Moreover, since each chapter contains detailed endnotes and extensive bibliographies, more in-depth engagement with wider scholarship relevant to the subject would have been useful.

Overall, each chapter makes interesting contributions to the rich literature resource of academic research within its particular field. The book itself is well produced, with a beautiful typeface and superb detail in the images of the coins, which makes it easy to identify the features discussed in the text. Some contributions could have benefitted from the inclusion of a genealogical stemma, particularly Cenerini's discussion of the complex relationships within the domus Augusta. Moreover, several spelling mistakes were identified 1, but these do not detract from the readability of this volume. The central weakness of the publication is paradoxically the introduction, and in particular its definitions and examples of a 'power couple'. After having read the entire book, the reviewer would have wished not only that the introduction had been more academic in tone, but also that the definitions of ancient 'power couples' had been more attuned to the specific structures and conditions of elite marriages in antiquity and less focussed on modern notions of such couples. This might have enabled the following chapters to cohere more closely to the central theme of the book and, most likely, achieved its aims more effectively. As a result, Power Couples in Antiquity: Transversal Perspectives falls slightly short of delivering on its main objective: to demonstrate that 'power couples' existed in the ancient world, in ways similar to those that exist today.

Authors and titles

'Introduction: power couples: from antiquity to the contemporary world' – Anne Bielman Sánchez
Chapter 1. 'An exceptional Argead couple: Philip II and Olympias' – Elizabeth Carney
Chapter 2. 'Looking for the Seleucid couple' – Marie Widmer
Chapter 3. 'A change of husband: Cleopatra Thea, stability and dynamism of Hellenistic royal couples (150-129 BCE) – Monica D'Agostini
Chapter 4. 'Marital Crises or institutional crises? Two Ptolemaic couples under the spotlight' – Anne Bielman Sánchez and Virginie Joliton
Chapter 5. 'The magistrate and the queen: Antony and Cleopatra' – Marie-Claire Ferriès
Chapter 6. 'Mark Antony and the women at his side' – Ann-Cathrin Harders
Chapter 7. 'An exceptional and eternal couple: Augustus and Livia' – Francesca Cenerini
Chapter 8. 'A lover poet's script for an Augustan power couple: Propertius 4.11' – Judith P. Hallett
Chapter 9. 'Claudius and his wives: the normality of the exceptional?' – Thomas Späth
Chapter 10. 'Power couples in antiquity: an initial survey' – Anne Bielman Sánchez


1.   For a full list, please contact the reviewer.

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