These days, everyone’s remembering the riveting beauty and power of Lauren Bacall, who created some of Hollywood’s most ruthlessly desirable women (remember Young Man with a Horn?) In my list last week, I commemorated Rome’s studliest heroes — a who’s who of men of valor from the ancient world. But now it’s ladies’ night: the women of Greek and Roman myth and history knew better than anyone how to seduce, deceive, and sometimes outright slaughter their way to unassailable wealth and power. To pay tribute to some of Bacall’s more insidious roles, here are 10 of classical history’s deadliest femmes fatales, listed — in descending order this time — along with the emasculated puddles of broken manhood they left behind.
1. Agrippina the Younger
It’s a good thing Agrippina gets the top spot in this competition, because she would have ripped the hair right off the scalp of any hussy who stood in her way. A ruthless political genius, Agrippina was heartlessly calculating. From sleeping with and plotting to kill her brother, Emperor Caligula, to poisoning her husband, Emperor Claudius, at his own table, Agrippina stopped at nothing to put her son on the throne. She kept secrets so expertly that to this day no one’s sure what really happened, but her husbands sure didn’t have a very good track record for staying alive.
(Tacitus, Annals 12.7-66; Cassius Dio, Roman Histories 61.34. Image via)
Tullia’s ravenous political ambition puts Lady Macbeth to shame. Tullia started out as a princess in the early days when Rome was a turbulently unstable monarchy — her father, Servius, was the king. But it wasn’t enough. She had to have the crown. So as her father got old and weak she whispered to her husband that if he didn’t man up and seize power he was a sniveling coward. Once she had convinced her husband to murder her father in cold blood, Tullia publicly drove a chariot over daddy’s mangled remains in the street. She stopped at nothing.
(Livy 1.46-8. Image via Wikimedia Commons)
3. Livia Drusilla
Livia didn’t quite have the grasping, wild-eyed recklessness that Agrippina had, but she gave her a run for her money when it came to cloak-and-dagger scheming. Wherever Livia went, heirs to the Roman Imperial throne just seemed to drop dead, and according to word on the street it was no coincidence. No one suspects a killer in a lavish evening gown, so Lady Livia assassinated half the royal family with sinister grace and untouchable impunity, finally wrestling her way to the top by (rumor has it) poisoning her husband, Rome’s first emperor. No one was safe.
(Tacitus, Annals 1.3-6; Cassius Dio, Roman History 53.33. Image via)
Every husband’s worst nightmare: you fight overseas for ten grueling years, you grapple your way doggedly back home, you slump into your wife’s arms — and she slits your throat. Fed up with waiting out the war, Clytemnestra deserted her husband, Agamemnon, and plotted with her new lover to ambush and murder the returning hero. Choking on his own blood, Agamemnon called his wife a word that, literally translated, means “bitch-face.” You can hardly blame Clytemnestra, though: Agamemnon had slaughtered their daughter as a human sacrifice before leaving, and Clytemnestra was exacting a kind of twisted justice. Bloody, unforgiving justice.
(Homer, Odyssey 11.385-464; Aeschylus, Agamemnon. Image via )
5. Artemisia I of Caria
Queen Artemesia gets points taken off for being on the wrong side of history, but even the freedom fighters she sailed against had to respect her. When the Persian tyrant Xerxes set out to crush a tiny rebel coalition from Greece, Artemisia ranked among his closest naval advisors. The Greek sailors routed the Persians at Salamis, but Artemisia (even though she had advised against the attack) refused to back down. When Xerxes saw her tearing fearlessly through Greek ships while other admirals dissolved into hysteria, he announced, “My men have become women, and my women are men!”
(Herodotus, Histories 8.88. Image via)
Most of Penthesilea’s story is lost to time, but her battle-fury was so legendary that it still comes down to us in fragmentary echoes. She was a radiant Amazon queen driven suicidally mad with grief when she killed her sister in a hunting accident, and she shipped off to fight in the Trojan war as an honorable excuse to satisfy her death wish. She got what she wanted, but not before hacking through legions of Greek heroes and even holding her own against the man-mountain, Telamonian Ajax. It took Achilles, the Greeks’ demigod champion, to finally beat her.
(Smyrnaeus, After-Homer 1.22ff; Apollodorus, Library Epitome 5.1)
Nobody crossed Medea and got away with it. That’s what Jason found out when he married her, started sleeping around (par for the course among Ancient Greek husbands), then decided to marry his mistress (a step too far, apparently). With tears in her eyes but iron in her resolve, Medea exacted revenge by butchering the children she and Jason had together before riding out on a chariot pulled by a giant dragon (the ancient equivalent of a mic drop). She really had loved Jason once, a fact she demonstrated by slicing his archenemy up for stew. Hell hath no fury . . .
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.297-349; Euripides, Medea)
It’s hard to top the witch-goddess Circe for pure animal magnetism. She gets docked points for lack of subtlety, but she’s probably the most famous seductress on this entire list. Her otherworldly beauty used to make men slaver with desire, and when they grabbed at her she caught them off guard with a spell to turn them into hogs, trapping them forever at the height of their animal lust. And that was what she did for fun. Only Odysseus resisted her ineluctable power, and that was with advance warning and an assist from Hermes (so, no fair).
(Homer, Odyssey 10.133-502. Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Sempronia’s hips did, in fact, lie. She was one of the groupies of Catiline, the embittered evil genius who fomented a secret rebellion against the Republic. Catiline enlisted a crack team of highly placed female operatives, the subtlest and sexiest of whom was Sempronia. She didn’t cause enough damage to make it high on the list, but she could connive and seduce with the best of them: she danced “more elegantly than a lady should” (what I would give to know what that looked like), and she enticed quite a few loyalists into the conspiracy with her… “charming conversation.” Right.
(Sallust, Catiline’s War 25)
Clodia was, quite literally, the original ball-buster. She lead a raucously high-profile life of unapologetic adultery among the scandal-hungry upper classes of Imperial Rome, openly seducing high-society power players and leaving behind a trail of heartsick exes. She and her brother Publius had a Jaime and Cersei Lannister thing going on, and Cicero got big laughs when he mentioned “her husband — I mean, her brother. I always make that mistake!” Her most famous boy toy, the rockstar poet Catullus, accused her of routinely “busting the balls” of “three thousand lovers.” Poetic license, but the reputation stuck.
(Cicero, In Defense of Caelius 32.13; Catullus, Songs 11)
In my view, these are the hands-down, undisputed queens of sexy subterfuge. But we’ve only scratched the surface. What do you think — whom did I snub? Cleopatra’s a big name, but she’s not quite Roman enough. Queen Tomyris rocked pretty hard, but again — Iranian, not Greek. There’s Queen Boudicca, Epicharis, Electra, Penthesilea’s sister Hippolyta, Scylla, Cornelia Africana — no end of dastardly divas. Who deserves a spot? Who should be higher on the list? Have it out in the comments.