It’s hard to arrive at a list of important ancient figures everyone or every English speaker should know. Some people, like Agrippa, currently have a following — people who think he should be recognized as a co-ruler with Augustus and an incomparable military leader; therefore, top tier in importance. To me, there is a decided difference between those who arrived and those in the second tier. Agrippa is definitely in the latter category. Although he may have been necessary to Augustus’ defeat of Antony and shaping of Rome in the quasi-republican model of the early Empire, he didn’t make it to the imperial purple. For people not intensely interested in the ancient world, who barely know about Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar and who think they remember the name Augustus Caesar, Agrippa is trivial. However, for people studying Latin or Classics, some of the second tier figures achieve almost greater prominence than the emperors.
Here is a quick identification of a handful of second-tier figures from the Julio-Claudian period.
c. 63 B.C. – 12 B.C.
Agrippa is credited with defeating Mark Antony at Actium making him something of a king-maker — if only the Romans didn’t have such an aversion to the idea of rex. In time, Agrippa obtained the position of consul and the power of tribune. He helped Augustus with his purge of the Senate and was for a time assumed to be the next in line. He had five children with Augustus’ daughter Julia, including Agrippina the Elder, mother of Caligula.
- Gaius Maecenas
c. 70 B.C. – 8 B.C.
Maecenas was a wealthy Etruscan patron of the arts under Augustus. Vergil and Horace enjoyed his support. He served with Agrippa as a support to Augustus when he was away from Rome.
- Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus
c. 64 B.C. – A.D. 13
Messalla was a literary patron second to Maecenas in importance. His poets include Ovid, Tibullus, and the renowned woman poet, Sulpicia, his niece. He also wrote. At the beginning of Augustus’ rise to power Messalla was proscribed. He survived to stand with Antony and then Augustus against Antony at Actium. He restored aqueducts, roads, and buildings, and nominated Augustus for the title father of the fatherland (pater patriae).
- Messalina Valeria
by 20 A.D. – A.D. 48
Messalina (Messallina) was Emperor Claudius’ notorious third wife who is thought to have been involved with some of the emperor’s freedmen. Spurned, she caused her husband to execute a senator, Appius Silanus, beginning a reign of terror. She was the mother of Octavia and Britannicus. Octavia would later become Nero’s wife. Claudius had her put to death when his freedmen convinced him Messalina had married someone else and was plotting to take power.
- Lucius Aelius Sejanus
20 B.C. – A.D. 31
Sejanus was a praetorian prefect to whom the second Roman emperor Tiberius, left the running Rome when in A.D. 26 Tiberius departed for his self-imposed exile to Capri. Sejanus worked the praetorian guard into an important arm of Roman government. He failed in his attempt to marry into the imperial family. He then purged and confiscated the property of many wealthy Romans on treason charges brought forward by informers. Eventually, Tiberius was led to do something about Sejanus and he was executed for treason. Following his death, anyone associated with him was hunted down and killed.