In praise of Atia of the Julii

The TV series Rome was likely to bring out the odd matriarchal icon, but then went on to surpass itself in this respect...

Polly Walker as Atia (Rome)

Forget Alexis Colby Carrington. Forget Janine Butcher. Neither could hold a flaming torch to the biggest bitch a television series has ever produced – Atia of the Julii from Rome, as wonderfully played by Polly Walker.

Niece of Julius Caesar and lover of Mark Anthony, Atia spearheaded her family through the ever-shifting allegiances and pacts to maintain their important position in Roman society. If she failed, it might have lead to dishonour, ridicule and death for them all. While the menfolk were off fighting battles across the known globe, it was seemingly up to their conniving wives to second-guess who the victors may be and plot to defend themselves by shifting sides…often with an escape route handy should they get it wrong.

In a way, one can’t blame Atia for this. She was used to prime position in Rome, and she had two children to think of – Octavian (one day to be Emperor Augustus) and daughter Octavia to protect. But if only it were as simple as that. As the series progressed, it was her own survival and pride that took first place – often at the expense of her children.

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Early on, as part of a public display of loyalty, she instructs Octavia to divorce her beloved husband and marry another. The problem is, said beloved husband refuses to just go away and forever proclaims his love for her daughter. To top it all, Octavia is dreadfully upset – something that only makes Atia want to slap her about it. So what’s her solution? She gets her personal thug Timon to kill the boy and make it look as though he has been robbed. Job done.

During this little fracas, we find out Atia will tread on anyone to get what she wants. Even her own children. It adds another dimension, too, that she sleeps with Timon in return. Sex is cheap in Rome, but it can also be a valuable weapon.

Atia’s attitude towards her son Octavian, however, couldn’t be more different. Men are the ones who matter in Roman society, and it is thus that he is the apple of her eye. She chastises the young man for reading too much and gradually brings him out into the real world, employing Pullo to teach him how to fight and learn the art of “penetration” in order to make him a man. When Octavian witnesses Julius Caesar entering a cupboard with her young son, she is delighted at the prospect of them being lovers and urges him to make it a good affair. In actual fact, Caesar was having an epileptic fit, seen in those days as an affliction from the Gods.

Forever scheming and using her offspring as pawns, it is years before the lavish attention on her son pays off…and begins to act against her. In his own way, Octavian learns much from his mother, and as he rises to the very top of Roman society, it is she who must eventually bow to him. At one point, he keeps her under house arrest to separate her from Mark Anthony. The tables turn, but it is largely of her own doing.

No bitch is complete without a nemesis. And Atia’s nemesis is Servilia of the Junii, played by Lindsay Duncan. Whereas Atia may be Caesar’s niece, Servilia is his mistress of many years standing.

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The old adage, “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” could have been made for these two alone. Atia’s method to influence society is to whisper in the ears of powerful men post-coitus, but it is Servilia’s man – the most powerful – who is out of reach to her. As a consequence, the pair share a brittle “friendship” to keep the two houses united. Gifts are passed to one another (the most memorable of which being a “stud slave”) and compliments exchanged through gritted teeth. When times get tough, one houses the other as the plebs attempt to break down the doors. It’s a friendship of convenience.

Then one day, their tit-for-tat games go too far.

Atia has Timon and his men daub graffiti on the walls of the city depicting Servilia and Caesar in various sexual poses, thus humiliating both him and his wife. Barely holding onto his political marriage, Caesar then ends his affair with a devastated Servilia. But she knows who is behind it and vows revenge. Still playing nice, Atia sends her daughter to talk to her, but one step ahead of the game, Servilia then begins a lesbian affair with her and urges Octavia to uncover the truth about Caesar’s affliction – by any means necessary.

With that information, she could destroy both her enemies in one fell swoop. Octavia returns and seduces her own brother in order to extract the information. When Atia discovers their incestuous liaison, she immediately knows who is behind it. The gloves are off. This is war.

Eventually, it all leads to Servilia hiring a young man to pose as a slave and poison Atia. The spiked soup, however, finds its way into the mouth of another slave, and the plot is discovered just in time. She has the boy brutally tortured until he gives the name of her arch rival, then gives the order for his death – a killing too far even for Timon. Instead, she hires more thugs and has Servilia stripped and humiliated in the street.

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The final act, though, comes when Servilia’s son Brutus is killed in a battle with Octavian and Mark Anthony. Wracked with grief and hatred, she camps outside Atia’s door and drives her to distraction with her chants for justice. When Atia finally emerges, Servilia curses her with a long life of hardship before committing suicide. Something in Atia’s face says she is rattled. Servilia has the last laugh – and may well have her curse come true.

The third person to consider in Atia’s life is Mark Anthony, her own rising star lover. For years, she influences his decisions in between bouts of vigorous sex, suggesting sides to pick and plans to form. Her mind is always ticking away, even when the great man himself just wants to sleep. He too is a pawn in her games, but just every now and then, we catch glimpses that she may actually love him.

After all that time in bed and at social functions, she has a deep love for him. Brokering a pact between Mark Anthony and Octavian, though, spells the end for the only true happiness she has ever known. When Octavian pushes Mark Anthony out of Rome for good and places his mother under house arrest, he vows to come back to her. But history has other ideas. He’s off to Rome to see Cleopatra where one of the world’s greatest love stories is about to begin. The next time she sees him will truly break her heart.

So there you have it. Conniving, manipulative, sadistic and nasty, Atia delivers it all with a bouncy, airy smile and superior air. While plotting the deaths of others, she will proclaim it is for the good of her family. When a revelation of her own doing is unearthed, she will act surprised. This is Atia. The greatest, most glorious arch-bitch ever to grace our screens. The original mother-in-law from Hades.