There is precious little by way of historical records about Caenis, other than the following half sentence in Suetonius’ biography of Vespasian in The Twelve Caesars.
“[Vespasian] then took up again with Caenis, his former mistress and one of Antonia’s Freedwoman and secretaries, who remained his wife in all but name even when he became Emperor.”
[Suetonius The Twelve Caesars (VIII X: Vespasian, 3)]
Suetonius mentions her name again twice, once in reference to Vespasian’s daily habits after her death (X: Vespasian, 21), and once in reference to Domitian’s behaviour and personality (XII: Domitian, 12). She is also mentioned briefly in Cassius Dio’s The Roman History.
Perhaps the most exciting snippet of information comes from Rome, where archaeological evidence has been found for her villa outside the Porta Nomentana (that’s right next to the Praetorian Camp). The items discovered include a piece of lead pipe bearing her name, which came from a nearby bath house named after her (Balneum Caenidianum) and a memorial dedicated to her as “best patron” by her steward Aglaus and his children.
Slave to Freedman
These pieces of information are how we can piece together a very sketchy idea of Caenis’ life. We know that Caenis started life as a slave, and was employed as a secretary (so she was also educated) in the service of Antonia the daughter of Marc Antony and mother of Emperor Claudius. We also know that this must have been sometime during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (AD 14 – 37) because Antonia is known to have committed suicide at the beginning of Caligula’s reign (AD 37 – 41) and also, the historian Dio Cassius says Antonia dictated her letter denouncing Sejanus (for his plot to overthrow Tiberius in AD 31) to her loyal secretary Caenis.
Her [Caenis] mistress Antonia, the mother of Claudius, had once employed her as secretary in writing a secret letter to Tiberius about Sejanus and had immediately ordered the message to be erased, in order that no trace of it might be left. Thereupon she replied: “It is useless, mistress, for you to give this command; for not only this but as whatever else you dictate to me I always carry in my mind and it can never be erased.”
[Dio The Roman History (65)]
This means Caenis was born sometime near the end of Augustus’ reign (31 BC – AD 14) which makes her approximately the same age as Vespasian (who was born in A.D. 9). At some point Antonia freed Caenis (either before Antonia’s death or as a result of her death), which according to Roman manumission law, meant Caenis assumed the name of her former owner before her own, thus Caenis becomes Antonia Caenis.
Wife in All But Name
While in the employ of Antonia, Caenis would have been around or very near the Imperial palace a lot. It is known that Vespasian had connections with Antonia, so this is more than likely how Vespasian met Caenis (the affair must have started here, because he isn’t yet married – he marries during Caligula’s reign – and for next twenty years or so he isn’t in Rome much at all). After Antonia’s death Vespasian remained connected with the family via Narcissus (Emperor Claudius’ Freedman) which is probably how he was granted a legion in Germany and a command in the Claudian expedition to Britannia (A.D. 43) – did Caenis have an influence perhaps? Sometime near the end of Claudius’ reign, Vespasian’s wife dies, and Vespasian gains a consulship. This event is what Suetonius refers to, so we know that Vespasian takes up residence with Caenis and they live as virtual husband and wife, even during Vespasian’s ten-year self-imposed exile and his Emperorship. There are stories, quoted in Dio, that were circulated during and after Vespasian’s Emperorship regarding Caenis receiving enormous sums of money from several sources for the sale of governorships, procuratorships, military commands, priesthoods and so on. It is also rumoured that Vespasian was more than willing to profit from all of this himself (indeed, perhaps Caenis was working on his behalf in this area!).
This gave her [Caenis] the greatest influence and she amassed untold wealth, so that it was even thought that he [Vespasian] made money through Caenis herself as his intermediary. For she received vast sums from many sources, sometimes selling governorships, sometimes procuratorships, generalships and priesthoods, and in some instance even imperial decisions. For although Vespasian killed no one on account of his money, he did spare the lives of many who gave it; and while it was Caenis who received the money, people suspected that Vespasian willingly allowed her to do as she did.
[Dio The Roman History (65)]
Death and Memorial
We know that while Vespasian was off fighting wars and while his wife was still alive, Caenis probably lived alone. The existence of the memorial near her villa supports this, as well as providing proof of the existence of her steward Aglaus and his children. It is known that Caenis died in or around AD 74, five years before Vespasian himself dies – this is why she only has a brief appearance in Two For The Lions, Lindsey can not change history!
As far as I know, there are no contemporary artistic representations of her. In fact the only modern representations of her that I know of are on the book covers for The Course of Honour (author, Lindsey Davis), but I’d LOVE to be proved wrong and shown a statue of her, although it is unlikely because of the fact she was a Freedwoman and never ‘Officially’ married to Vespasian (it was illegal according to the Twelve Tables of law – see references). I think perhaps if there was a picture or statue of Caenis, it would be very ordinary looking – certainly no Roman supermodel – with an inner gravity and dignity, or what the Romans referred to as “gravitas” and “dignitas”, creating a different sort of beauty, which I suspect was more attractive to Vespasian (he is hardly an Adonis himself!).
The air of mystery surrounding Caenis is what probably makes her so appealing and interesting as a character. When you consider what she survived and endured for over sixty years, she must have been a very strong and resourceful woman.
Adams, J. P. The Twelve Tables of Roman Law [at the California State University Northridge, Department of Modern and Classical Languages & Literatures]
Cassius Dio The Roman History: Volume VIII. Books 61-65 (Trans. Herbert B. Foster 1905-06, Revised Trans. by Earnest Cary) Loeb Classical Library (1924)
Donahue, J. Titus Flavius Vespasianus (A.D. 69-79) [Article] De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopaedia of Roman Emperors [http://www.roman-emperors.org/]
Levick, Barbara Vespasian Routledge (1999)
Suetonius The Twelve Caesars (Trans. Robert Graves, 1957. Revised – Michael Grant, 1979) Penguin Classics (1989)