[Cast of a bust of Octavia Minor from the Ara Pacis, photo 2008, source: Wikimedia Commons]
She was born in southern Italy and spent much of her childhood traveling with her mother and stepfather. She married Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor sometime before or during her 15th year, as it was in this year that her great-uncle offered to have her divorce him and marry Pompey. The offer was declined and Octavia went on to have three children by Marcellus. She was pregnant with the third when he died in 40 BCE.
This same year, Octavian found himself in need of a way to cement his alliance with Mark Antony. The chance to marry his sister to the man must have seemed ideal. And indeed, it was largely through Octavia’s influence that peace was kept between the two men for so many years. For the first four years of their marriage, Octavia traveled with Antony and lived with him in Athens, raising both of their children from their previous marriages as well as the two daughters* they had together.
In 36 BCE, Octavia returned to Rome, bringing the children with her to live in Antony’s house. When Antony took up with Cleopatra VII once more, Octavia refused her brother’s request to come live with him, knowing how powerful her own image was and refusing to be the perceived cause of a civil war. On more than one occasion she worked to provide her husband with troops and supplies. She only conceded to her brother’s wish after Antony divorced her in 32 BCE.
When Antony died in 30 BCE, Octavia took upon herself the guardianships of his children with Cleopatra alongside the others under her care. While there was indubitably sentiment involved in the decision, like her sister-in-law Livia, she knew the power she had to support Octavian’s rule, and in raising these children cemented her image as an ideal Roman matron. Unlike Livia, she was not accused of unseemly ambition, probably in part because so much of her image rested on her status as mother and sister, innate relationships, rather than as wife, an acquired one. We should not, however, discount the influence she must have held over her children. It was she who arranged the marriage of Cleopatra Selene II to Juba II of Numidia. Her daughters and granddaughters were the mothers and grandmothers of emperors and superb politicians in their own right.
*He of the too many goddamn names.
**Husband of Agrippina Major.