Grace Mugabe is part of a long tradition of over-powerful wives

President Robert Mugabe kisses his wife and first lady Grace Mugabe (Getty Images)

Powerful wives have never had a good press. If you go back to Tacitus, you may remember the career and spectacular death of Agrippina Minor, the wife of Claudius and the mother of Nero, the archetypal scheming and power-hungry female. Ghastly as Nero undoubtedly was, you can sort of excuse him having his mother bumped off, or at least that is what the author leads you to feel. Agrippina goes too far, trespasses onto forbidden territory, and gets what she deserves.

Robert Graves had great fun with the over-powerful female in his I, Claudius, elevating Livia, the wife of Augustus, to the role of arch-villain, though there is not much real evidence to suggest that she was anything but the model of a Roman matron.

Very real, though, was the scorn the Romans of the Augustan Age reserved for Cleopatra, who had supposedly corrupted Antony, a man who hardly needed leading astray. Later generations took against the Jewish Princess Berenice, who was the mistress of the Emperor Titus, and that other eastern beauty, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra.

If the classical world affords us several examples of over-mighty and threatening females, who are all too ready to seek power through marriage, and who clearly need to be kept in their places, Tudor England, that other fertile ground for the historical novelist, provides us with the most famous of them all, Anne Boleyn, who did wield some political influence, and who may have been taken down by the minister Thomas Cromwell, as Alison Weir seems to think, in a cunning pre-emptive strike. Apart from her, though, there are few Queens Consort who made a difference. Poor Katherine Howard was a mere flighty girl, used by her powerful relatives. In the eighteenth century, we have the admirable figure of Caroline of Anspach, but on the whole British Queens Consort have kept their noses out of politics. Lady Macbeth has had few counterparts in real life.

Over at the Guardian, Tania Branigan is quite right to point out the parallels between Grace Mugabe and Madame Mao, and the way that these women have acted as lightning rods for their husbands. One is reminded too of Marie Antoinette, who had little political influence on her husband, but who was blamed when everything went wrong. It is unfair, but it is a constant in human nature: blame the woman. Moreover, while it is unquestionably true that Mao was the one responsible for the millions of deaths and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, Madame Mao was the one to hate. This demonisation of women dates back to the French Revolution, as Simon Schama points out. Some of the things written about Marie Antoinette, even today, make one blench.

One person that Tania Branigan does not mention is Hillary Clinton, but there is a clear parallel. She was blamed for certain things over which she surely had no control, such as her husband’s attitude to women, and her connection to her husband, while unquestionably an advantage to her, was also a huge handicap.

Meanwhile, what will happen to Mrs Mugabe? My guess is not very much. Given that Emmerson Mnangagwa has been the close collaborator of her husband for the last 37 years, he is unlikely to do anything that might enable people to point the finger at him. After all, if Grace is guilty, and she is, then so is he. Grace and her children are likely to be allowed to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. After all, if one went after all the kelptocrats of modern Africa, goodness knows where it would end. Unlike Agrippina, Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn, Grace can expect a relatively happy ending. She is still only in her fifties, so lots of shopping lies ahead – it is just a pity that the poor of Zimbabwe are the ones financing it.