Roman Empress Lucilla grew up surrounded by royalty and privilege. But even with all her fortune, tragedy would follow her throughout her life. Lucilla’s time as Empress was fleeting; it is what happened after her reign that was truly shocking—and it would leave her life in ruins.
Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla was born in Rome during the year 150 AD. As one of the eldest daughters of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Empress Faustina the Younger, her family was as prestigious as it gets. Not only were her parents the rulers of Rome, but Lucilla’s maternal grandparents also ruled as the previous Roman Emperor and Empress.
But Lucilla was far from alone in her prestigious upbringing.
Lucilla was living a life of privilege and luxury, but she wasn’t the only one. While she was one of the eldest daughters of the Emperor and Empress, throughout their 30 years of marriage, Lucilla’s parents actually had about 14 children in total—including two or possibly even three sets of twins! Her parents clearly had hopes of having a large family, but fate would not be so kind.
Sadly, many of Lucilla’s siblings didn’t make it past birth or their first year. Those that did often succumbed to illness or perished through other unfortunate circumstances before reaching their teens. Even surviving her first year made Lucilla one of the fortunate ones. But her birth wasn’t all prestige and luck; she was part of an awful family trauma.
Although Lucilla was born safely into a comfortable life of prestige and status, she had a twin that wasn’t so lucky. Just a baby, Lucilla was too young to realize yet that the life of her twin brother tragically ended not long after birth. He would never know the joys of love and life—but he would also never know the sorrow and danger that Lucilla would soon face.
Lucilla spent her childhood in the company of her powerful family—that is, until her carefree youth was cut brutally short. At the unbelievably young age of 11 years old, not even a teenager yet, Lucilla was thrust into her first marital engagement by her father. Thankfully, she had a longer than normal engagement, but even that small gift would only delay her inevitable destiny.
Three years after becoming engaged, and still only 14 years old, Lucilla finally got married. Her wedding was quite the event and Lucilla’s wedding dress featured an intricate knot called the “Knot of Hercules.” An important part of the wedding night for newlyweds was when the groom untied this special knot. This may even be where the phrase “tying the knot” came from.
Now married, Lucilla’s life was changing drastically. But with a noble background such as hers, Lucilla’s marriage couldn’t be to just any Roman man. It wasn’t even simply to a wealthy aristocrat—it was to someone much more important.
At 14, Lucilla had no real choice about who she would marry. She was a girl caught up in her societal obligations and ruled by her family’s wishes—and her father clearly intended for her to maintain the family’s reputation and influence. To consolidate his authority as Emperor and ensure Lucilla’s place in Roman society, he married his daughter to the most powerful person he knew.
Lucilla married Lucius Verus, another Emperor of Rome.
Lucilla’s father was the Emperor of Rome, but there was something particularly remarkable about his reign—he wasn’t the only Emperor. For the first time in Roman history, there were actually two co-Emperors of Rome, ruling together at the same time. This added a disturbing twist to his daughter’s marriage.
The second Emperor, Lucius Verus, was the adopted brother of Lucilla’s father…and he was now also Lucilla’s husband. But that wasn’t the only uncomfortable aspect of their relationship…
Lucilla wasn’t completely unlucky when it came to her forced marriage. Her new husband was a dashing man and not at all undesirable. But there was one big difference between the two of them. Her husband was way older than she was! He wasn’t just a few years older; he was about 18 years older. At 14, Lucilla was becoming a teenager and her new husband was old enough to be her father.
As ridiculous as their age gap was, Lucilla’s new life and status as Empress came with some impressive benefits.
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Lucilla grew up knowing what life in the spotlight was like, immersed in the prestige of her family. However, her new position as the wife of one of the Emperors of Rome catapulted her status to new heights. Not only did she gain more power and influence, the title of Augusta was also bestowed on her. This made her one of the most powerful and influential women in Rome—and Lucilla’s new role suited her perfectly.
In Roman history, not everyone who rose to power actually wanted or enjoyed it. But Lucilla relished her power and authority. She became accustomed to status and indulgence, and she was more than happy with her newfound influence. She had the best seats in the theater, wealth, power, and a handsome and charming husband—what could go wrong?
It seemed like life was turning out beautifully for her. But even her status and power couldn’t protect her from the harsh nature of life in ancient Rome.
Lucilla was flourishing in her new role as Empress, but at just 14, she could never truly prepare herself for the dangers of being a woman in ancient Rome. There were typical hazards like disease, accidents, and conflict. But one of the most dangerous parts of a woman’s life was pregnancy and childbirth. Survival rates for childbirth were often low and young mothers were in even more danger than the average mother in ancient Rome.
Being so young, Lucilla was at particularly high risk of complications that could threaten her own life as well as that of a child. Unfortunately, Lucilla was about to come face to face with those perils—and what she experienced would change her forever.
Lucilla was thrust into more than a relationship before she was truly ready. Although her body wasn’t really prepared for the stresses and risks of motherhood, she didn’t have a choice. The year after she wed her husband, she quickly became pregnant with her first child. But the joy and excitement of her first pregnancy was eclipsed by terrible misfortune.
Despite how scary and dangerous pregnancy would have been for such a young girl, Lucilla and her husband happily welcomed a baby girl to the world in 165 AD. But just as it seemed like their fairy tale was coming true, tragedy ripped their lives apart. Lucilla’s new infant girl tragically didn’t make it past infancy, leaving her heartbroken young mother behind.
Lucilla and her husband grieved deeply for the loss of their first child. But as awful as the experience was for Lucilla, she wouldn’t have to wait long for a second chance to start her own family.
After the anguish of losing her daughter so quickly, Lucilla became pregnant with her second child that same year. Lucilla was still only about 15-16 years old at this point and would face the same risks trying to give birth again so young. Thankfully, her second child, another girl named Lucilla Plautia, was born healthy in about 165 AD.
Lucilla’s family was growing and it was a blissful time of celebration for the young Empress and her husband. But just as Lucilla seemed to be finding her happy ending again, another tragedy was about to strike.
Lucilla spared no time in getting pregnant for the third time. Still unbelievably young to be pregnant, let alone on her third, Lucilla was still at extreme risk of life-threatening complications. Sadly, this time fate was not on her side. Lucilla and her new baby did manage to survive childbirth. But her sweet little boy’s health went downhill and he didn’t make it past his first year.
Lucilla, still not even 20 years old, had now endured the heartbreaking loss of two infants. But even that pain couldn’t prepare her for what happened next.
The loss of two young children would have been more than enough anguish for one person, but destiny had even more pain in store for Lucilla. Only a few years later, her husband was returning from somewhere in the Danube region and died unexpectedly along the way. Lucilla never even had the chance to say goodbye and had now lost her beloved husband, partner, and friend.
After the shock wore off, Lucilla had to find a way to come to terms with her new reality.
Lucilla was completely devastated at the unexpected loss of her husband only five years after their wedding. Even though she married extremely young and the age gap was huge, she loved her husband dearly. But now her relationship and hopes of a growing family with her husband were a shattered dream torn from her grasp far too soon.
But as much as Lucilla adored her husband, that wasn’t the only reason for her devastation.
As tormented as Lucilla was at the loss of her beloved husband, there was a much more disturbing reason for her outpouring of grief. As soon as Lucilla lost her husband, she also lost her cherished status as Empress. For someone so used to enjoying luxury and power, this was a huge step down and Lucilla was absolutely miserable.
Lucilla loved her status and all its perks as much—if not more—than she loved her late husband. But she didn’t have much time to dwell on that issue because something much more disruptive was on the horizon.
Her prestigious position in society as the daughter and wife of the co-Emperors of Rome meant that when Lucilla went back on the marriage market, she didn’t stay there very long. Yet, even as the former Empress of Rome, Lucilla still had no freedom to select her next husband. Her father would once again make the choice for her.
Apparently, there were some things that even power couldn’t buy you as a woman in ancient Rome. And Lucilla’s next husband was anything but a random choice.
Once again subjected to the whims of her father, Lucilla was set up with Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus for her second marriage. He happened to be an ally of her father’s, as well as an accomplished Syrian-Roman general. Pompeianus and Lucilla married in 170 AD, leaving Lucilla barely enough time to mourn the loss of her first husband.
Lucilla’s father even offered to adopt Pompeianus as his heir after the marriage, but he turned down the offer. Despite how much Lucilla’s father approved of the match, not everyone in the family was pleased—and the marriage was headed for trouble.
Lucilla seemed blissful in her first marriage before the loss of her husband. Their personalities and ambitions meshed well, and she found him handsome and charming despite their age difference. But Lucilla gave her second marriage a much colder reception. Her new husband may have been considered a hero amongst his own men and impressed her father, but Lucilla was not enchanted in the least.
She and her mother both protested the marriage fiercely, believing that her new husband left something to be desired—well, a few things actually!
Considering how much had already happened in Lucilla’s life, it may seem like she was much older. But at the time of her second marriage, she was still only about 20 years old. Lucilla was a young, respected, powerful, and vibrant woman at the prime of her life. She wanted someone who could be her equal and partner; she didn’t think that was her new husband. Unfortunately, Pompeianus was not just a few years older than Lucilla—he was at least twice her age!
She didn’t seem to mind the age gap with her first husband, but this time she was beyond disgusted. As much as she disliked their age difference, Lucilla found something else even more offensive about her husband.
Although Lucilla and her mother were horribly displeased about the age difference between Lucilla and her new husband, they might have overlooked it. But there was something that Lucilla hated even more—her new husband came from a more humble background, not noble Roman ancestry. Instead, his ancestors were from the East, part of his Syrian background.
As much as she despised the match, Lucilla had no choice but to unhappily accept it. But thankfully, there was at least one bright spot for Lucilla in her dismal new marriage.
Lucilla may not have been happy with Pompeianus, but her little family continued to grow regardless. In 170 AD, not long after marrying her husband, Lucilla gave birth to a son. While she may have disliked her husband, a healthy child was still a joyous occasion—especially after so many ill-fated pregnancies. While her son’s birth was a small ray of sunshine in her life, she would soon lose something precious to her.
In 175 AD, Lucilla suffered another unbearable loss. This time it wasn’t a husband, or a child, but the loss of her beloved mother, Empress Faustina. Lucilla lost her closest confidant and the only mother she had ever known, left behind in a world of men. Yet, even in this dark moment, there was still a glimmer of light for Lucilla.
Although Lucilla was distraught at the loss of her mother, it was a small consolation that her father chose to honor her with the title of Empress as long as he was still alive and unmarried. Lucilla may have lost her mother, but she had at least gained back some of her status. However, what happened next made it clear that fate took no pity on her.
Life continued for Lucilla, her husband, and her young son after the loss of her mother. But just a few years later, Lucilla received terrible news. In 180 AD, Lucilla’s father was on a military campaign in the area of Vindobona when an unexpected tragedy struck. While in his quarters, her father died from unknown causes at the age of 58.
Despite her disagreements with her father, Lucilla was in shock. She had now lost both parents, and Rome was without an Emperor. But someone else in the family was about to rise to power, and he was no stranger to Lucilla.
With Lucilla’s father gone, the position of Emperor now passed to her only surviving brother —the young Commodus. This could have meant a drastic loss of status for Lucilla, since her father was the one who had given her the continued rank of Empress. But, to Lucilla’s relief, her brother followed their father’s lead and allowed Lucilla to continue to hold the title of Empress.
Unfortunately for Lucilla, there was only one thing that could take her power and title—and it was about to happen.
Commodus’ decision to allow Lucilla to keep the title and status of Empress had one very important condition that could spell disaster for Lucilla. If her brother were to get married, the title of Empress would be taken from Lucilla and immediately given to her brother’s wife. Lucilla’s hold on the title of Empress was hanging by a thread—and that thread was about to snap.
Lucilla was desperate to hang on to her status and power for as long as possible—but her nightmare was about to become a painful reality. Not long after becoming Emperor, Commodus found someone he wished to marry. It was the day Lucilla had been dreading, and she was powerless to stop it. Commodus got married and his new wife, Bruttia Crispina, became the Empress of Rome.
Lucilla’s life was about to change drastically—and she blamed one person.
Lucilla may not have been Empress anymore, but she wasn’t about to let it go easily. She felt robbed and she lay the blame for her loss squarely on her new sister-in-law. Lucilla’s relationship with her brother’s wife overflowed with tension and resentment. But her loss of title would lead to much more than simply an uncomfortable situation.
As much as Lucilla missed being an Empress, she was longing for much more than her title. Over the years she had become accustomed to front row theatre seats, lavish living quarters, and other perks of her influence and rank. But after her brother’s marriage, Lucilla had to live as a regular citizen of Rome with her husband and son—with none of the benefits she felt she deserved.
As it turned out, Lucilla wasn’t cut out for a quiet life in the city at all. Lucilla resented everything from having to surrender her prime theatre seats to her brother’s new wife, to the downgrading of her home. She no longer had influence or the wealth she once did and no one to indulge her every whim. Little did Lucilla know—her new living circumstances would soon be the least of her problems.
Lucilla’s brother, Commodus, was still a young 19 years old when their father died. Although Lucilla’s mother and father had about 14 children total, Commodus was one of the youngest and the only surviving male. With blond hair and blue eyes, he was quite handsome. But, he was different from his father in one big way.
Unlike his father, Commodus was naïve, impressionable, and cowardly. As he settled into his new role, he began to unravel in dangerous ways.
As Lucilla tried to get used to her new life out of the spotlight, her brother’s first few years as Emperor weren’t going smoothly. Commodus’ behavior started to become increasingly erratic and dangerous. Since he was so easily influenced, he was susceptible to corruption and often disregarded useful advice. He ignored many of the official duties he had as Emperor, leaving them for others to deal with.
Over time, he became more paranoid and cold-hearted, eliminating anyone he thought had betrayed him. But this was just the start, and his behavior would spiral even further out of control.
Commodus had clearly lost his grasp on reality. Shirking his duties and eliminating opposition had only been the start of a downward spiral. Lucilla’s brother made increasingly questionable decisions, such as renaming Rome as Commodiana, after himself, renaming himself Hercules, and even going as far as to give new labels to all the months based on his own names.
But Lucilla’s brother was becoming known for some much more dangerous and concerning behavior.
It became apparent that Lucilla wasn’t the only one concerned about the unstable behavior of the Emperor. It had obviously caught the attention of other members of Roman society and plots to eliminate or dethrone the Emperor began to surface. But instead of practicing clemency, Commodus killed many men and women he believed to be plotting against him. Some he killed outright; for others, poison was his weapon of choice.
Over time, he disposed of almost everyone who had become prominent while his father was Emperor. Despite the dangers of speaking against her brother, Lucilla could only ignore his disturbing behavior for so long.
Lucilla feared the worst for Rome. Commodus’ unpredictable behavior was still going strong and Lucilla worried that her brother could lead not only himself to ruin—but all of Rome. What was once a prosperous and powerful society could crumble into dust. Lucilla may not have been the Empress any longer, but she also wasn’t about to stand by and let Rome deteriorate under her brother’s watch.
Lucilla believed that her brother had become a threat to Rome—so she came to a chilling conclusion. The only option was to eliminate him. Once removed, she looked to appoint a new Emperor and Empress to replace him. But Lucilla wasn't happy with just anyone becoming the new rulers—she nominated herself and her husband for the role.
And she wasn’t the only one prepared to act on this bold and dangerous plan.
Lucilla may have been the one to plan the coup, but she was definitely not the only person involved in this scheme. She hatched her devious plan with the support of her daughter, Plautia, from her first marriage. She also partnered with a Praetorian prefect, two of her paternal cousins, and her husband’s nephew. Even her husband may have gotten involved.
Well, despite the help from her co-conspirators, Lucilla’s plan was heading for complete disaster.
While Lucilla’s co-conspirators had their own reasons for taking part in her plot, there was one who had a more compelling reason to be there than the others. There were rumors that Lucilla had an affair with her husband’s nephew…even though her own daughter was betrothed to him. On top of that, there was speculation that Lucilla also had an affair with Quadratus, who was also part of the plot against the Emperor.
Their feelings for Lucilla may have encouraged them to volunteer for the scheme, but if so they weren’t the only ones who had ulterior motives.
As much as Lucilla wanted her brother out of the way, for her own sake and for the good of Rome, she also had something else on her mind. Lucilla still despised her second husband immensely. By convincing him to get involved, Lucilla thought that she might finally be rid of her crazy brother. If the plan failed, she figured she could at least be rid of the husband she detested so much.
However, she then decided to switch things up a little…
Lucilla and her cohorts decided that her husband’s nephew Quintianus would be the one to actually carry out the act of assassinating Commodus. Their nephew intended to stab the Emperor as he was leaving the hunting theater, and waited in the darkness for the right moment to do the terrible deed. However, their plan was about to go wrong in the worst way possible.
Wielding a knife, Quintianus attempted to dispatch the Emperor. But he was too slow and gave himself away before he could even get close to the Emperor. The guards grabbed and stopped him, ending his one chance to get to the unhinged Emperor. This was the worst-case scenario for Lucilla and her collaborators, leaving all of them in a very vulnerable and dangerous position.
The Emperor was still alive and his prisoner knew everyone involved in the plot. The situation was about to get so much worse for everyone involved.
Commodus was furious at the attempt to eliminate him. He immediately ordered the execution of Lucilla’s nephew for his role in the plot—but not before finding out the identities of the others involved. Upon discovering the other collaborators, the Emperor showed no mercy. Lucilla and her daughter may have believed they would emerge unscathed, but they were about to pay the price for their actions—and the cost would be much higher than they feared.
Although Lucilla was Commodus’ sister, that wouldn’t be enough to save her from his wrath. When he discovered her involvement in the plot to eliminate him, he didn’t execute them as he did the others; he banished Lucilla, her daughter, and her other cousin to the island of Capri. Lucilla may have considered her exile a merciful punishment—but she was about to discover how cold and unforgiving her brother could be.
Later that same year, once the investigation of the conspiracy was over, the Emperor returned to his vicious ways. Instead of allowing his sister and her relatives to live, the Emperor sent someone to Capri to execute all three of them. In the end, Lucilla did get one of her wishes—she never had to see her husband again. Sadly, it didn’t happen the way she had hoped.
Lucilla paid the ultimate price for her choices, as did her young daughter. Ironically, after everything Lucilla endured, the husband she despised so much was spared, and he retired from public life. But family tragedy continued for Lucilla even after she was gone.
Lucilla’s son Aurelius Pompeianus had no part in Lucilla’s scheme to eliminate the Emperor, and was now the only legacy that Lucilla left behind. He went on to serve politically for many years under both Commodus’ rule as well as another Emperor. But while he did outlive his mother, he did not leave the world peacefully.
Lucilla's only surviving child was eventually murdered in cold blood. Pompeianus may have escaped his mother’s terrible fate temporarily, but the same tragic destiny still snatched his life away in the end.
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