Octavia Minor

Octavia (69 - 11/10 BCE): elder sister of the emperor Augustus, once married to Mark Antony.

Octavia as Tyche
Octavia as Tyche

Octavia was the daughter of Gaius Octavius, a Roman official who had occupied the quaestorship in c.70. He had been married before, to a lady named Ancharia, and had another daughter, Octavia Maior. After Ancharia's death or a divorce, Octavius had remarried to Atia, who was the mother of Octavia Minor (born in 69) and a son, who had the same name as his father, Gaius Octavius, but is usually called Octavian and was to become Rome's first emperor under the name of Augustus.

When Octavius Senior married Atia, he must have known that she was to connect him to another politician with great plans: Gaius Julius Caesar, a relative of the once famous politician Marius, an uncle of Atia. Marius' followers had been persecuted, but in 70, the consuls, Crassus and Pompey, had changed the law, and Julius Caesar -a war hero- was ready to become the leader of the Marian faction.

Octavius' marriage to a relative of Caesar was therefore a political act, and it may have been due to patronage that Octavius' career progressed. In 64 he was aedile, succeeding Caesar; in 61 he was praetor, again succeeding his relative. In 60, both men were propraetor; Caesar in Andalusia, and Octavius in Macedonia. When he returned home in 59, he died, leaving his estates to his only son, Octavian, who was four years old. Atia remarried to Lucius Marcius Philippus, a friend of Caesar's ally and son-in-law Pompey. Marcius was responsible for the education of Octavian and the two Octavias.

In 54, Julia died, the wife of Pompey and daughter of Julius Caesar. This broke the tie between the two powerful politicians. Caesar, who was in Gaul, wanted to continue the alliance and proposed to marry Octavia Minor to his political friend, but Marcius had already married his stepdaughter to Gaius Claudius Marcellus, a friend of Pompey. The couple did not want a divorce.

In 50, when civil war between Pompey and Caesar was about to break out, Claudius was consul. He was one of those who tried to obstruct Caesar's policy in these months, but when the conqueror of Gaul invaded Italy in January 49, Claudius switched sides. No doubt his twenty-year old wife made the volte-face possible: after all, the dictator was her great-uncle.

After the assassination of Caesar in 44, the political situation became very complex. Octavia's brother Octavian suddenly became commander of an army and fought against the leader of Caesar's faction, Mark Antony (43); when the young man had defeated the old war horse, they unexpectedly concluded an alliance (with Lepidus: the Second Triumvirate), and announced a campaign against the murderers. Many people were proscribed (42), and order was restored only after Mark Antony and Octavian had defeated Brutus and Cassius, two of the assassins, in the battle of Philippi.

By now, Claudius had retired to his estate, and Octavia gave birth to three children: a son named Marcus Claudius Marcellus (born 42), and two daughters named Claudia Marcella. The first of the Marcellas was born in 41, and the second in 40, immediately after the death of Claudius. Although Octavia must have had other cares, she was able to help several people who had been proscribed by her brother.

Octavia - widow, mother of three children, and twenty-nine years old - was not allowed a quiet life. Her brother and Mark Antony quarreled, but decided to improve their relations. As a consequence, Octavia was ordered to marry Mark Antony. She had been alone for only a couple of months, and was officially still in mourning for her first husband.

They newly-weds spent the winter of 40/39 in Athens, and Octavia found herself pregnant again. Many people were hoping that the child would be a son, which would tie Octavian and Mark Antony even closer. (Probably, the peace-bringing child mentioned in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue is a reference to these hopes.) The child, however, was a girl: Antonia Maior, born in the late summer of 39. Antonia Minor was born on 31 January 36.

Marc Antony was not there when this girl was born, because he was involved in a serious war against the Parthian Empire. In the east, he fell in love with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII Philopator, but this did not damage his marriage beyond repair. She tried to mediate between her husband and her brother. In 35, she was still trying to get troops for her husband's campaign, when her brother ordered her to return to Rome. In 32, Mark Antony divorced her; one year later, Octavian and his admiral Agrippa defeated him in the naval battle of Actium.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony committed suicide, and Octavia was made responsible for their children. She was almost forty years old, did not remarry, and appears to have remained in the background, educating Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the two Claudias, the two Antonias, and the children Mark Antony had from his wifes Fulvia and Cleopatra: Iullus Antonius, Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Seven of the nine children were to marry important people, and we can see how Octavia's brother, who was now sole ruler of the Roman world and called himself Augustus, tried to found a dynasty.

In 11 or 10, Octavia died, almost sixty years old. She had been one of Augustus' most important assets in his road to power: she had in fact prevented the family of Mark Antony from continuing its independence and remaining a focus of opposition. Octavia was buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus, and shared a cenotaph with her son Marcellus. To commemorate his sister, the emperor founded the Porticus of Octavia (which is very close to the Theater of Marcellus).

This page was created in 2007; last modified on 1 October 2020.