Atia of the Julii

Atia of the Julii is a character from the HBO/BBC/RAI original television series Rome, played by Polly Walker from 2005 to 2007. The niece of Julius Caesar and mother of Octavian/Augustus and Octavia, she is depicted as a cheerfully amoral and opportunistic manipulator whose family connections and sexual liaisons have made her a highly influential figure in Roman society. Atia is loosely based on the historical figure Atia Balba Caesonia. Rome Historical Consultant Jonathan Stamp has said that the character was based on more well-known Roman women of the period, like Clodia.[1]

Atia of the Julii
Rome character
Walker as Atia (2005)
First appearance"The Stolen Eagle"
Last appearance"De Patre Vostro (About Your Father)"
Portrayed byPolly Walker
Significant otherMark Antony
ChildrenOctavian (Augustus)
Octavia of the Julii
RelativesJulius Caesar (uncle)

Walker's performance as Atia earned her a 2005 Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress In A Television Series – Drama.[2][3] Michael Ventre of Variety called Atia the "most complex character" in the series, noting that "She can be loyal and loving, yet she is capable of doing the most villainous things."[4]

You are swearing now that some day you will destroy me. Remember: far better women than you have sworn to do the same. Go look for them now.


The HBO website provides the following character description:

Niece of Caesar, Atia of the Julii is snobbish, willful, cunning, and sexually voracious. In a culture in which women lack formal power and men leave for years on military campaigns, the wives, daughters, and mothers have built powerful networks and alliances completely independent of the men's worlds. Atia is among the women who serve as the shadow rulers of Rome.[5]

Portrayed as the anti-heroine and femme fatale of the series, Atia is greedy and ambitious, and will do virtually anything to get what she wants. Seduction, humiliation and violence (including murder) are all tools acceptable to her; Atia's occasional hypocrisy is overshadowed by her general acceptance of her own extremely corrupt and unethical nature. Fiercely protective of her family and their social status, Atia's motives usually involve advancement or self-preservation for the Julii. Her manipulations often extend to her own relatives; feeling that she knows best, Atia will not let even her children thwart her plans. Seeing a more advantageous match, Atia forcibly divorces her daughter Octavia from her first husband (and later has him eliminated).

Atia has a vicious rivalry with the mother of Brutus, Servilia of the Junii, who is having an affair with Atia's uncle, Julius Caesar. Atia's machinations end the affair but incite Servilia to scheme against both Caesar and Atia for vengeance.

Atia occasionally shows moments of weakness and more sympathetic traits. Her romantic feelings for Mark Antony sometimes cloud her judgment and make her vulnerable to his whims, and as much as she seeks to control her children, she will humble herself if necessary to assure their love for her. When Atia's schemes or attempts at seduction fail, she is often unable to maintain her composure and shows genuine distress.

Atia is clever, but not as clever as she thinks. Throughout the series her plans often misfire or meet with mixed success. The full measure of her hubris and condescension can be seen in the series finale when, prior to Octavian's parade, she denies Livia her rightful place as the First Woman of Rome, calling her a "vicious little trollop" and vitriolically belittling her and attacking her character, intimidating her into submission, despite the fact that Atia and Livia are both very similar to one another.

Character history

Season one

Atia's first scene in the series sees her using her sexuality to bribe Timon, her hired hand, into selling her a white horse he intended to auction at the market. Successful, she informs her twelve-year-old son Octavian that she intends him to take the horse to Gaul as a gift to their uncle Julius Caesar. Atia partakes in a special ritual in which a bull is sacrificed on a platform above her, drenching her in its sacred blood; she asks the gods to protect Octavian and see him safely to Caesar, though despite her prayers Octavian goes missing after being kidnapped by Gauls. (He is rescued by Vorenus and Pullo on their quest to find Caesar's standard, and ultimately does end up exactly as his mother had planned: riding the white stallion into Caesar's Camp.)

Taking her rivalry with Servilia to a new level in "The Ram has Touched the Wall", Atia pays to have graphic sexual depictions of Servilia and Caesar drawn on every street corner, humiliating Caesar's wife Calpurnia. This spurs Caesar to end the affair, but causes Servilia to curse both Caesar and Atia.

In the episode "Egeria", Atia is concerned about her son Octavian and his apparent lack of virility and masculinity; she hires Titus Pullo to train him as a fighter and to take him to a brothel to lose his virginity. Upon observing Octavian in his toga virilis and seeing how his fighting skills have improved, Atia suggests that he join a military academy.

Though a widow, Atia is by no means resigned to celibacy and spinsterhood. She suggests to her lover Mark Antony that if they married, his social status would be elevated enough to seize control over Rome in Caesar's absence; however, Antony is repelled by her calculating willingness to plot against her own uncle and rejects her with a vicious insult. Nonetheless, he later confides in Octavia (knowing Atia is listening) that he finds himself wretched without Atia and they quickly and passionately reconcile.

When Atia learns her daughter Octavia has seduced her brother Octavian into committing incest (under Servilia's influence) in "Utica", Atia loses control and furiously confronts Octavia with a whip. When Octavian intervenes, snatching the whip from her and declaring, "I am your son, not your child. You will not strike me anymore!", Atia replies, "Will I not?" and strikes him to the floor with a blow to the face. Following this, Octavia runs away and Atia dispatches Octavian to fetch her back home. Atia takes revenge on Servilia by having Timon and his men publicly humiliate her, by attacking Servilia on the street, killing her litter bearers, pulling her onto the cobblestones from her litter, where they proceed to strip and beat her in the forum. As a final blow, they chop off her hair and leave her to make her way home, bloodied, in torn rags.

When Caesar is assassinated by the Senate, Servilia invites Atia to her villa to tell her the news in person. Worried what Servilia may be planning, Atia insists her son accompany her. Atia is devastated by the news, and somewhat shaken by Servilia's vow to make Atia suffer, "Slowly and deeply, as you made me suffer." The pendulum has swung again in Servilia's favour, and Atia rightly fears her enemy's wrath.

Season two

With Octavian's input, Mark Antony manages to broker a peace between Caesar's supporters and the conspirators, ensuring the safety of himself and Atia's family. Antony out-manoeuvres Brutus and Cassius, driving them into exile. Soon he is in charge of the city, administering its functions and welcoming Caesar's former mistress Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, to Rome. He dismisses her request for public acknowledgement of Caesar's son Caesarion with derision. Antony assures a jealous Atia that Cleopatra is unappealing, though she sees that for the lie it is the moment Cleopatra arrives at Atia's party for the Egyptians. Meanwhile, Atia has planned to have Timon and his men kidnap and murder Servilia; Octavian and Antony put an end to the plot, rightly informing Atia it would bring chaos and anarchy to an already troubled Rome. Atia senses trouble from the Egyptian Queen, whom she feels is a rival for Antony's attentions. Cleopatra makes her exit and beckons her hostess to kiss her farewell. As she does so, Atia whispers in the Queen's ear, "Die screaming you pigspawn trollop,” then withdraws to say goodbye with a perfect facade of politeness, her bile obvious only to Cleopatra herself.

When a young assassin in her household fails in his attempt to poison Atia, she tortures him until he confesses that he was sent by Servilia. Atia has her rival kidnapped, raped, and tortured horribly. Finally disgusted by Atia's cruelty and overcome by an attack of conscience, Timon sets Servilia free, throttles Atia and leaves her gasping for breath as he shouts at her, proclaiming that he is not an animal. Atia falls against a wall, as degraded by what she has done as Servilia predicted she would feel.

Since Antony has avoided giving Octavian the money Caesar left him, and eventually admits he has no intention of ever doing so, Octavian takes out a huge loan to distribute the money Caesar pledged to the plebeians in his will. Atia and Antony confront him, furious, and Octavian's intransigence drives Antony to a fury that ends in him beating Octavian bloody. Determined to enter public life and furious at Atia for her support of Antony over him, Octavian leaves Rome to join his former schoolmates and form an army of his own.

The growing rivalry between Mark Antony and Octavian eventually puts them literally at war with each other; when Octavian's forces defeat Antony, driving him and his remaining men into the forests of Cisalpine Gaul. The powerful army of Brutus and Cassius is in a position to defeat Octavian, but Atia goes to Mark Antony in Cisalpine Gaul and secures an alliance between his army (which has been unwittingly enlarged by Lepidus's entire army, sent by the Senate to crush Antony and instead deserting en masse to join him) and Octavian's victorious but relatively small force.

In "Death Mask", both Brutus and Cassius have been killed in the Battle of Philippi, and Atia has one final encounter with Servilia. Broken and alone, Servilia curses her rival before publicly killing herself on Atia's doorstep. Despite their animosity, Atia is clearly unnerved by Servilia's death, as the suicide was meant to bring misfortune to Atia's house. Atia is also oddly bereft, as Servilia's death leaves her without a lifelong, albeit antagonistic, presence in her life.

Atia suggests a show of unity between Antony and Octavian, in the form of a marriage between her and Mark Antony. The men agree that such an arrangement is necessary, but to the surprise and dismay of all three, Octavian insists that Antony marry Atia's daughter Octavia instead of Atia herself. The coldly calculating Octavian's rationale includes that his sister is of a childbearing age, as well as the fact that to outside observers the marriage of Atia and Antony would look like a mere “love match,” whereas if Antony marries Octavia it will obviously have been done for political purpose of declaring the partnership between her brother and her new husband. Unable to argue with her powerful and dominant son, Atia goes along with the marriage – but is furious and despondent.

Atia and Mark Antony have resumed their affair in "A Necessary Fiction", and Octavian's darker side emerges further when he discovers this betrayal (and the fact that Octavia is involved with his friend, Marcus Agrippa). He commands Antony to leave Rome indefinitely, or be publicly shamed with Octavia's adultery, and sentences Atia and Octavia to house arrest (under armed guard). Antony manages a goodbye at Atia's doorstep with guards keeping them from embracing, and promises that when the time is right he will send for her. This never happens, and these are the last words he ever says to her.

In "Deus Impeditio Esuritori Nullus (No God Can Stop a Hungry Man)", three years have passed since the previous episode. Antony and Cleopatra are engaged in a love affair for the ages. Rome starves from a lack of grain, its usual shipments denied by Cleopatra and Antony in Egypt, a gambit to provoke Octavian into Civil War. Knowing war is not ideal due to Antony's popularity, Octavian enlists Octavia and Atia to go to Egypt to plead with Antony to restore the grain shipments to Rome. This task has already been tried and failed by diplomatic delegations empowered to offer any amount of money, which have been refused by Antony, gleefully making impossible demands of control over other provinces.

While Atia is ecstatic at finally being reunited with Antony, on her arrival she is heartbroken when Antony refuses even to allow her and Octavia entrance, let alone to see her. Atia returns with Octavia to Rome (along with the stowaways Jocasta and Posca), angry at her son's for having deliberately sent her on a mission he knew would end in her humiliation (and, indeed, was his plan all along, as well as now being able to tell all of Rome that Antony has rejected his Roman wife in favour of his Egyptian lover). Her illusions finally shattered, Atia demands that Octavian destroy Antony and Cleopatra, which he is now free to do, mainly because Posca has brought back with him Antony's last will and testament containing the shocking repudiation of his Roman homeland, bequeathing his country to his “wife” Cleopatra and their Egyptian children. This is the ammunition Octavian needs, since Romans will be outraged and shocked into turning on their once beloved Mark Antony, and Octavian can now declare war on him without fearing the loss of their support.

Having defeated Antony in battle and driven both Cleopatra and Antony to suicide, Octavian returns to Rome in "De Patre Vostro (About Your Father)", and establishes his position as the first Roman Emperor. Atia has retreated into a depression and refuses to attend Octavian's Triumph. But as Livia is slyly assuring Octavia that her husband will forgive his mother's absence, while clearly conveying the truth that he will not, Atia arrives, having determined not to be defeated.

With her daughter watching delightedly, Atia takes her place at the head of the line of patrician women and dismisses Livia's attempt to claim it by right of precedence, telling her daughter in law she has no intention of taking a place behind the likes of her - that “better women” have tried and failed to defeat her, so Livia had best accept that Atia is going to be taking the place of First Woman in Rome and that is that.

Still, as she makes what ought to be her triumphant way to that place, Atia's face reflects the truth. Servilia's curse has come to pass, and all her future triumphs and successes will taste like this one does: like ashes in her mouth. She sits, contemplating a lifetime of feeling dead inside; while all around her a celebration erupts, Atia is reaping what she has sown.

Comparison with the historical Atia Balba Caesonia

Atia Balba Caesonia (born 85 BC) was the second daughter of Julius Caesar's younger sister, Julia Minor and Marcus Atius Balbus, son of a Senator from Aricia. Atia herself had two sisters, not mentioned in the series, and was a cousin to general Pompey through her father. The real Atia would also have been considered plebeian, not patrician; however, like Caesar's mother Aurelia, this was of little importance during the late Republic when patricians were rather thin on the ground. Octavia and Octavian were both plebeian as well, but like Mark Antony, drew their status from their familial and political ties with Caesar. Officially, as an Atia Balba, Atia would have been considered a member of the Atii Balbi rather than a 'woman of the Julii', which is how she identifies during the series. As the niece of Caesar, however, she would have been considered a Caesarian politically, and would have owed much of her status to her position in Caesar's extended family.

Atia's first husband was Gaius Octavius, a Senator of obscure provincial origins. By him she had a daughter, Octavia the Younger (Octavius already had a daughter, Octavia the Elder, from a previous marriage), and a son, Gaius Octavius (Octavian). After Octavius died in 59 BC, Atia married another Senator, Lucius Marcius Philippus, who was a devoted stepfather to her children. He would have been present throughout the period covered by Rome, however the character in the series is known to be unmarried.

Contrary to Rome's representation, Tacitus describes Atia as a pious, devoted mother and an ideal Roman matron; little other detail is known of her. There is no historical evidence to suggest that she was romantically involved with Mark Antony or in a contemptuous rivalry with Servilia (basis for the character Servilia of the Junii), as is dramatized in the series. It is not known what involvement she may have had in the political intrigues of Julius Caesar or Octavian, but she did fear for her son's safety and at some point urged him to renounce his rights as Caesar's heir.

Atia died in the year 43 BC, before the Battle of Philippi in which the legions of Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius. In the series, she outlives these events and even lives to see her son become the first Roman Emperor, which occurred historically in 27 BC.


  1. Cyrino, Monica Silveira (25 March 2009). Rome Season One: History Makes Television. John Wiley & Sons. p. 39. ISBN 9781444301557.
  2. "Rome News: Rome receives Golden Globe® Nominations". Home Box Office, Inc. 13 December 2005. Archived from the original on 17 December 2005. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
  3. "Brokeback Mountain leads Golden Globe nominations". CNN International. Cable News Network. 15 December 2005. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
  4. Ventre, Michael (14 June 2006). "Drama Series: The new breed". Variety. Reed Elsevier Inc. Archived from the original on 22 June 2011. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
  5. "Rome Character Bio: Atia of the Julii". Home Box Office, Inc. Archived from the original on 6 August 2008. Retrieved 14 December 2011.
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