According to Suetonius, Scribonia was married three times; her first two husbands were consuls. In 40 BC Scribonia was forced to divorce her second husband and marry Octavian who in turn had divorced his wife Clodia Pulchra. Octavian’s motive in marrying Scribonia was to cement a political alliance with Sextus Pompey, husband to Scribonia’s niece (or sister). The marriage was brief and unhappy; he divorced her on the very same day as the birth of their daughter, Julia the Elder, his only natural child. He allegedly wrote that he was “unable to put up with her shrewish disposition.”
Soon after divorcing Scribonia, Octavian took Julia from her. Octavian, in accordance with Roman custom, claimed complete parental control over her. She was sent to live with her stepmother Livia when she was old enough to learn how to be an aristocrat. Her education appears to have been strict and somewhat old-fashioned. Thus, in addition to her studies, Suetonius informs us, she was taught spinning and weaving. Macrobius mentions “her love of literature and considerable culture, a thing easy to come by in that household”.
Julia’s social life was severely controlled, and she was allowed to talk only to people whom her father had vetted. However, Octavian had a great affection for his daughter and made sure she had the best teachers available.
Macrobius preserves a remark of Augustus: “There are two wayward daughters that I have to put up with: the Roman commonwealth and Julia.”
In 37 BC, during Julia’s early childhood, Octavian’s friends Gaius Maecenas and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa concluded an agreement with Octavian’s great rival Marc Antony. It was sealed with an engagement: Antony’s ten-year-old son Marcus Antonius Antyllus was to marry Julia, then two years old.
The engagement never led to a marriage because civil war broke out. In 31 BC, at the Battle of Actium, Octavian and Agrippa defeated Antony and his wife, Cleopatra. In Alexandria, they both committed suicide, and Octavian became sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
As with most aristocratic Roman women of the period, expectations of Julia focused on marriage and on the resulting family alliances. Moreover, Augustus desired a male issue; as his only living child Julia’s duty would be to provide her father with grandsons whom he could adopt as his heirs.
In 25 BC, at the age of fourteen, Julia married her first cousin Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the son of her father’s sister Octavia, who was some three years older than her. Augustus himself was not present for the wedding as he was fighting a war in Spain and had fallen ill. Instead, he commissioned Agrippa to preside over the ceremony and hold the festival in his absence.
The decision to marry Marcellus to Julia, and then Augustus’s choice to raise Marcellus to the pontificate and curule aedileship, was perceived to be an indication that he would be Augustus’ successor in power, despite his youth. This put him at odds with Agrippa, whom people believed would oppose Marcellus’ accession to power; the apparent preference for Marcellus is allegedly the catalyst that led to Agrippa to withdraw to Mytilene, Greece. However, Marcellus died in September 23 BC when Julia was sixteen, and the union produced no children.
In 21 BC, having now reached the age of 18, Julia married Agrippa, a man from a modest family who had risen to become Augustus’ most trusted general and friend. This step is said to have been taken partly on the advice of Maecenas, who in counseling him remarked: “You have made him so great that he must either become your son-in-law or be slain.” Since Agrippa was nearly 25 years older than her, it was a typical arranged marriage, with Julia functioning as a pawn in her father’s dynastic plans. There is from this period the report of an infidelity with one Sempronius Gracchus, with whom Julia allegedly had a lasting liaison. This was the first of a series of alleged adulteries. According to Suetonius, Julia’s marital status did not prevent her from conceiving a passion for Augustus’ stepson, and thus her stepbrother, Tiberius.
The newlyweds lived in a villa in Rome that has since been excavated near the modern Farnesina in Trastevere. Agrippa and Julia’s marriage resulted in five children: Gaius Caesar, Julia the Younger, Lucius Caesar, Agrippina the Elder (mother of Caligula), and Agrippa Postumus (a posthumous son).
After the death of Agrippa, Augustus sought to promote his step-son Tiberius, believing that this would best serve his own dynastic interests. Tiberius married Julia (11 BC), but first had to divorce Vipsania Agrippina (daughter from a previous marriage of Agrippa), the woman he dearly loved. Suetonius alleges that Tiberius had a low opinion of Julia’s character, while Tacitus claims that she disdained Tiberius as an unequal match and even sent his father a letter, written by Sempronius Gracchus, denouncing him. The marriage was thus blighted almost from the start, and the son that Julia bore him died in infancy. By 6 BC, when Tiberius departed for Rhodes, if not earlier, the couple had separated.