Women are all to often left out of the history books. There are some women, however, who are too ruthless to be ignored, while others live so extravagantly that their tales of excess seem like fantasy. And there are others who gain our attention for simply being in love with the wrong man.
Born in 15 AD, Agrippina the Younger was as ruthless as she was beautiful. Her influence was so great that the settlement of Cologne was named in her honor. Sister of Caligula and mother of Nero, she married her own uncle (Emperor Claudius) to ensure that her beloved son would become Emperor. Under Agrippina’s instruction, at least ten people were murdered, including love rivals and one of her husbands.
It is likely that Agrippina, her two sisters and Caligula shared an incestuous relationship, but the rumors of a sexual relationship with Nero are unsubstantiated. Agrippina’s overbearing nature would eventually be her downfall, and after a series of clashes, the newly crowned Nero striped Agrippina of her titles and then had her assassinated.
2. Empress Theodora:
Empress Theodora was arguably the most influential woman of the Byzantine era. Born into a circus family, she spent her formative years as a performer and courtesan known for her risqué performances.
Around the age of 14, she had given birth to her first child. By 20, she had given up her glamorous life and converted to an early form of Christianity. At the age of 21, she became mistress to the future Emperor Justinian who changed the law to allow the two to marry in 525 AD.
In her short reign, Theodora legislated heavily for the rights of women, was at the forefront of religious reforms and was known as Justinian’s most trusted advisor. Theodora was a champion of the poor but was a ferocious adversary, as the Guardian reports, “there are hints that she was involved in poisoning, torture and forced marriage.”
3. Clara Petacci:
Clara Petacci was 20 years old when she met 49-year-old Benito Mussolini. Despite the 28-year age gap, the attraction between them was instantaneous. Petacci was so in love with Mussolini that she would spend her life as the dictator’s live-in concubine.
Mussolini, who was already married with five children, would continue to have numerous affairs with other women but Petacci was the only one of his mistresses with a chauffeur, bodyguards and a room at the Royal Palace.
Petacci was so loyal to Mussolini that when he went on the run in 1945, she went with him and was executed trying to defend him. The bodies of Petacci and Mussolini were strung up next to each other outside a petrol station in Milan.
4. Marchesa Luisa Casati:
Christened by Tom Ford as the “the first European dandy of the early 20th century,” the Marchesa Casati was an heiress, socialite and artist’s muse who continues to inspire the grand fashion houses of today.
A statuesque figure, she was often seen walking her pet leopards through the streets of Venice wearing nothing but heels and a cloak of silk velvet.
The Marchesa spent lavishly on parties and would dress in jewels, flowers and extravagant props; for one party she dressed in light bulbs attached to a generator.
Her lavish spending would catch up with her, and by 1930 she was millions of pounds in debt, she moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Knightsbridge and lived out the rest of her days in relative poverty.
5. Bonnie Parker:
The infamous Barrow Gang robbed and murdered their way across the United States during the first half of the 1930s. At its head was the charismatic Clyde Barrow, and by his side was the beautiful Bonnie Parker.
Their first brush with infamy came when a newspaper published photos of the gang posing with weapons and clowning around; Parker was featured holding a gun and smoking a cigar.
Those close to her say she preferred camel cigarettes and was not known to have fired a gun during a robbery. At first, the public was titillated by the young, carefree bunch but after a series of murders, the Gang became public enemy number one.
Bonnie and Clyde went out in a hail of bullets and have become folklore heroes depicted sympathetically in films and music.
6. Isadora Duncan:
Isadora Duncan was a pioneer of modern dance and a true bohemian.
Bored by the rigid structure of ballet, she taught free movement and emotional connection, taking inspiration from Greek tragedies and folklore.
Duncan was a trailblazer in her private life too. She adopted six children and was known to be an atheist, bisexual and a communist.
In her later years, she gained notoriety for her scandalous affairs, problems with debt and public drunkenness.
Her death was caused by a freak accident when her scarf got tangled in the axle of a convertible she was a passenger in; her last words were “Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”