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Urgulania – when “connections” and “good backs” put you above the law

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Bust of an older woman, probably showing Urgulania
Bust of an older woman, probably showing Urgulania

Many of us have come to the conclusion many times that if you had the right “acquaintances”, certain things would be sorted out right away… or if I had a good back, otherwise everything would turn out… Such “acquaintances” and such ” her back “had dear reader Urgulania – a Roman aristocrat from the reign of the emperors of August and Tiberius.

As reported by Tacitus thanks to a close acquaintance with Livia (former Empress, but still a very influential person in the Roman Empire) Urgulania was above the law. And she saw nothing wrong with openly and without any embarrassment to use the protection of her friend Livia. In 16, Lucius Calpurnius Piso (an open corruption critic) sued Urgulania in court for delaying too long in returning a large sum to him. Urgulania refused to appear in court and rushed to Palatine Hill to Livia to settle the case for her. Livia listened to her friend, told Piso to appear in person at her house and settled the debt from her own cash.

Tacitus also cites another trial in which our Urgulania was to testify as a witness. But of course, Urgulania is not some ordinary Roman citizen, she will not appear in court in person. What is it? She ordered the praetorians to come to her house and gave her testimony to them. Of course, no one objected. After all, she is a close friend of Livia. It should be noted that even the Vestal Virgins did not have such a privilege, which, as one of the few women, could boast a truly privileged position in Rome.

In 24, Urgulania sponsored a feast with a gladiatorial show for decurions related to Livia’s birthday. It should be noted that this year, the grandson of our Urgulania – Marcus Plautius Silvanus tried to cover up the murder of his wife Apronia, whom he pushed out of the window. Apparently, Emperor Tiberius himself went to the scene of the crime and decided that there were traces of “struggle” and that Apronia was unlikely to commit suicide, as Plautius tried to convince everyone of it. So maybe this feast was to win favour and defend a good name? The case of Marcus Plautius did not go to court, because before the trial of Urgulania began, she sent her grandson a sword (perhaps at the whisper of her friend Livia) to wash away the shame from the family name before the public trial for murder began. And in this somewhat macabre way the scandal was avoided.

But then there was a new scandal, this time involving my granddaughter. A scandal that could not be so easily covered up… Plaucja Urgulania (bearing the same name as grandmother) – the first wife of Emperor Claudius got into an affair with the liberator, as if that was not enough, Claudius additionally accused her of complicity in the murder of her brother Marcus Plautius on Apronia. This resulted in a quick divorce. What happened to our Urgulania? Did the deeds of her grandchildren spell the magic and affect further friendship with Livia? It is not known. The accounts are silent about this… we can only make more optimistic or pessimistic assumptions.

Author: Roger Rytter (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • A. Freisenbruch, Pierwsze damy antycznego Rzymu
  • Tacitus, Annales, IV.22

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