Famous Ancient Mothers

Penelope and Telemachus

Penelope and Ulysses
Penelope|Medea| Cybele|Veturia|Cornelia|Helena|Galla Placidia|Pulcheria|Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

A figure in Greek mythology, Penelope is known best as a model of marital fidelity, but she was also a courageous mother whose story is told in the Odyssey.

Wife and presumed widow of King Odysseus of Ithaca, Penelope appeals to obnoxious, greedy area men. Fighting them off was proving to be a full-time occupation, but Penelope managed to keep the suitors at bay until her son, Telemachus, was fully grown. When Odysseus left for the Trojan War, his son was a baby.

The Trojan war lasted a decade and Odysseus' return lasted another decade. That's 20 years Penelope spent faithful to her husband and keeping her son's property safe.

Penelope didn't want to marry any of the suitors, so when she was pressed to choose among them, she said she would do so after she had finished weaving the shroud of her father-in-law. That seemed reasonable enough, respectful and pious, but each day she wove and each night she undid her day's work. In this way, she would have kept the suitors at bay (albeit eating her out of house and home), had it not been for one of her serving women who told one of the suitors about Penelope's ruse.

Picture: Woodcut illustration of Odysseus's return to Penelope, hand-colored in red, green, and yellow, from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474.

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Medea and Her Children

Medea and Her Children, by Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880) 1870.
Penelope| Medea|Cybele|Veturia|Cornelia|Agrippina|Helena|Galla Placidia|Pulcheria|Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

Medea, known best from the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, represents the worst in mothers and daughters, as well as, perhaps, obsessive love.

Medea may have killed her brother after she betrayed her father. She fixed it so that the daughters of one king standing in her lover's way killed their father. She tried to get another kingly father to kill his son. It therefore should not be too surprising that Medea, as the woman scorned, did not exhibit what we think of as motherly instincts. When the Argonauts arrived at Medea's homeland of Colchis, Medea helped Jason steal her father's golden fleece. She then fled with Jason and may have killed her brother in her escape. Medea and Jason lived together like a married couple long enough to have two children. Then, when Jason wanted to officially marry a more suitable woman, Medea committed the unthinkable: she murdered their two children.

Picture: Medea and Her Children, by Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880) 1870.

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Cybele - Great Mother

Cybele in lion-drawn chariot, a votive sacrifice and the sun God. Bactria, 2nd century B.C.
Penelope|Medea| Cybele|Veturia|Cornelia|Agrippina|Helena|Galla Placidia|Pulcheria|Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

The picture shows Cybele in a lion-drawn chariot, a votive sacrifice, and the sun God. It is from Bactria, in the 2nd century B.C.

A Phrygian goddess like the Greek Rhea, Cybele is Mother Earth. Hyginus calls King Midas a son of Cybele. Cybele is called the mother of Sabazios (the Phrygian Dionysus). Here is a passage on Dionysus' consulting with the goddess that comes from Apollodorus Bibliotheca 3. 33 (trans. Aldrich):

" He [Dionysos in his madness driven wanderings] went to Kybela (Cybele) in Phrygia. There he was purified by Rhea and taught the mystic rites of initiation, after which he received from her his gear [presumably the thyrsos and panther-drawn chariot] and set out eagerly through Thrake [to instruct men in his orgiastic cult]."

Strabo attributes to Pindar:

"'To perform the prelude in thy honor, Megale Meter (Great Mother), the whirling of cymbals is at hand, and among them, also, the clanging of castanets, and the torch that blazeth beneath the tawny pine-trees,' he bears witness to the common relationship between the rites exhibited in the worship of Dionysos among the Greeks and those in the worship of the Meter Theon (Mother of the Gods) among the Phrygians, for he makes these rites closely akin to one another...."

Picture: Cybele

Veturia with Coriolanus

Veturia pleads with Coriolanus, by Gaspare Landi (1756 - 1830)
Penelope|Medea|Cybele| Veturia|Cornelia|Agrippina|Helena|Galla Placidia|Pulcheria|Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

Veturia was an early Roman mother known for her patriotic act in pleading with her son Coriolanus not to attack the Romans.

When Gnaeus Marcius (Coriolanus) was about to lead the Volsci against Rome, his mother -- risking her own freedom and safety as well as those of his wife (Volumnia) and children -- led a successful delegation to beg him to spare Rome.

Picture: Veturia pleads with Coriolanus, by Gaspare Landi (1756 - 1830)
VROMA's Barbara McManus for Wikipedia


Cornelia Pushes Away Ptolemy's crown, by Laurent de La Hyre 1646
Penelope|Medea|Cybele|Veturia| Cornelia|Agrippina|Helena|Galla Placidia|Pulcheria|Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

After her husband died, the historical Cornelia (2nd century B.C.), known as the "mother of the Gracchi," devoted her life to the upbringing of her children (Tiberius and Gaius) to serve Rome. Cornelia was counted an exemplary mother and Roman woman. She remained a univira, one man woman, for life. Her sons, the Gracchi, were great reformers who started a period of turmoil in Republican Rome.

Picture: Cornelia Pushes Away Ptolemy's crown, by Laurent de La Hyre 1646

The Yorck Project

Agrippina the Younger - Mother of Nero

Agrippina the Younger
Penelope|Medea|Cybele|Veturia|Cornelia| Agrippina|Helena|Galla Placidia|Pulcheria|Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

Agrippina the Younger, great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, married her uncle, Emperor Claudius in A.D. 49. She persuaded him to adopt her son Nero in 50. Agrippina was accused by early writers of murdering her husband. After Claudius' death, Emperor Nero found his mother overbearing and plotted to kill her. Eventually, he succeeded.

Picture: Agrippina the Younger
© Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

St. Helena - Mother of Constantine

By Corrado Giaquinto, from 1744, "The Virgin presents St Helena and Constantine to the Trinity".
Penelope|Medea|Cybele|Veturia|Cornelia|Agrippina| Helena|Galla Placidia|Pulcheria|Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

In the picture, the Virgin Mary wears a blue robe; St. Helena and Constantine are on the left.

St. Helena was the mother of the Emperor Constantine and may have influenced his conversion to Christianity.

We don't know if St. Helena was always a Christian, but if not, she did convert, and is credited with finding the cross on which Jesus was crucified, during her lengthy pilgrimage to Palestine in 327-8. During this trip Helena established Christian churches. Whether Helena encouraged Constantine to convert to Christianity or it was the other way round is not known for sure.

Picture: By Corrado Giaquinto, from 1744, "The Virgin presents St Helena and Constantine to the Trinity".

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Galla Placidia - Mother of Emperor Valentinian III

Galla Placidia
Penelope|Medea|Cybele|Veturia|Cornelia|Agrippina|Helena| Galla Placidia|Pulcheria|Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

Galla Placidia was an important figure in the Roman Empire in the first half of the 5th century. She was first taken hostage by the Goths, and then she married a Gothic king. Galla Placidia was made "augusta" or empress, and she served actively as regent for her young son when he was named emperor. Emperor Valentinian III (Placidus Valentinianus) was her son. Galla Placidia was the sister of Emperor Honorius and the aunt of Pulcheria and Emperor Theodosius II.

icture: Galla Placidia


Pulcheria Coin
Penelope|Medea|Cybele|Veturia|Cornelia|Agrippina|Helena|Galla Placidia| Pulcheria|Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

Empress Pulcheria was definitely not a mother, although she was a step-mother to her husband Emperor Marcian's offspring by an earlier marriage. Pulcheria had sworn a vow of chastity probably to protect the interests of her brother, Emperor Theodosius II. Pulcheria married Marcian so he could be Theodosius II's successor, but the marriage was in name only.

Historian Edward Gibbon says Pulcheria was the first woman accepted as ruler by the Eastern Roman Empire.

Picture: Photo of Pulcheria Coin from "The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria, A. D. 399 - A.D. 452" by Ada B. Teetgen. 1911

PD Courtesy Ada B. Teetgen

Julia Domna

Bust of Julia Domna. Her husband Septimius Severus is to the left. Marcus Aurelius is to the right.
Penelope|Medea|Cybele|Veturia|Cornelia|Agrippina|Helena|Galla Placidia|Pulcheria| Julia Domna|Julia Soaemias.

Julia Domna was the wife of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and the mother of Roman emperors Geta and Caracalla.

Syrian-born Julia Domna was a daughter of Julius Bassianus, who was a high priest of the sun god Heliogabalus. Julia Domna was the younger sister of Julia Maesa. She was the wife of Roman emperor Septimius Severus and the mother of Roman emperors Elagabalus (Lucius Septimius Bassianus) and Geta (Publius Septimius Geta). She received the titles Augusta and Mater castrorum et senatus et patriae 'mother of the camp, senate, and country'. After her son Caracalla was assassinated, Julia Domna committed suicide. She was later deified.

Bust of Julia Domna. Her husband Septimius Severus is to the left. Marcus Aurelius is to the right.

CC Flickr User Chris Waits

Julia Soaemias

Julia Soaemias
Penelope|Medea|Cybele|Veturia|Cornelia|Agrippina|Helena|Galla Placidia|Pulcheria|Julia Domna| Julia Soaemias.

Julia Soaemias was the daughter of Julia Maesa and Julius Avitus, wife of Sextus Varius Marcellus, and mother of Roman Emperor Elagabalus.

Julia Soaemias (180 - March 11, 222) was the cousin of the Roman emperor Caracalla. After Caracalla was assassinated, Macrinus claimed the imperial purple, but Julia Soaemias and her mother contrived to make her son Elagabalus (born Varius Avitus Bassianus) emperor by claiming that Caracalla had actually been the father. Julia Soaemias was given the title Augusta, and coins were minted showing her portrait. Elagabalus had her take a place in the Senate, at least according to the Historia Augusta. The Praetorian Guard killed both Julia Soaemias and Elagabalus in 222. Later, Julia Soaemias' public record was erased (damnatio memoriae).


  • "Studies in the Lives of Roman Empresses," by Mary Gilmore Williams. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1902), pp. 259-305
  • The Titulature of Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea: Two Notes, by Herbert W. Benario Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association © 1959

Picture: Julia Soaemias
© Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

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Gill, N.S. "Famous Ancient Mothers." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/famous-ancient-mothers-121477. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Famous Ancient Mothers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-ancient-mothers-121477 Gill, N.S. "Famous Ancient Mothers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-ancient-mothers-121477 (accessed May 31, 2023).