The roles played by upper-class women in roman life in the late republic and early principate Essay
There was no man on the earth, who could fully grasp the mentality of women and understand the course of their thoughts. The ocean of their souls is so deep that inexperienced man can sink in these waters; the profundity of their minds is bottomless, so its labyrinths may turn dangerous for those, who are trying to pass them boldly. In every society and country, state and empire women’s invisible hands are writing the history. It is they, who mainly shape man’s character, who use their inner power to turn words into events.
But when the woman’s power grows into authority on state’s level, as it was during the republican and principate periods of Roman Empire, this hidden flame may either warm or burn those around them.
Our research will be based on the great ancient sources, where we can find the way women were treated, behaved and acted in social life of ancient Rome. The first one is rather untraditional appeal to woman – the funerary inscription to unknown woman (identified with Turia) written by her husband, Q.
Lucretius Vespillo, the consul of 19 BC – and is known as “Laudatio Turiae”. It is a classic address to women’s virtues and good deeds, wisdom and unbroken spirit. A man, who had been living with her for 40 years, is able to say that “along with you I have lost the tranquility of my existence” (Laudatio Turiae, 58).
Reading this piece of literature, it is obvious that she belonged to the upper-class of Roman society. All of a sudden, with the deaths of her parents, she has lost everything her father gained; yet, her ‘firm resolution’ that was based on the fact that “there was no such right against you in law”, gave her the assertion to act for her and her sister’s benefit. And so it was. The text does not give us a clear explanation of either it was a court case, or any other judicial inquiry, but she finally gained success by her own, while her husband was absent (10), because of her devotion to sister and duty to father. Therefore, Lucretius states “we”, when he mentions about her demised property he managed, while his wife was taking care of him.
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As we can see from the following facts, women had a certain sphere of social influence at that time of Roman Empire. Lucretius’ wife could: withstand the guards to cover his needs, while he took flight; defend property from troop of men; appeal for saving his life, while he was abroad (since Lucretius was a consul, it is obvious that she had been addressing to Caesar’s surroundings); beg Caesar Augustus for safe return of her husband, “thus I owe my life no less to your devotion than to Caesar” (0). Marcus Lepidus, the Caesar’s colleague, who stood against Lucretius’ recall, and who had insulted and wounded his wife, while she begged like a slave for preserving Lucretius’ life, for this very matter was stigmatized by Caesar himself.
When this couple found out that they are not able to have children, this honorable lady was ready to give up her position of wife (which would affect her social status), offer her property to another woman, who could bear children, and stay as “a sister or a mother-in-law” (31). But the seeds of her virtues (obedience, loyalty, modesty, etc.), love, care for others, devotion, faithfulness and other merits, had brought the fruits in lives of surroundings. And the final words of her husband’s speech prove that she had used her feminine fascination for the good of others, for positive social affect: “your last wishes I have regarded as law; whatever it will be in my power to do in addition, I shall do” (67).
Another classic work gives us the opposite picture of women, who had managed their ways to gain power and authority, yet they had not managed their evil ambitions and deprived mentality. The Annals by Tacitus, written 109 A.C.E., depict the ‘upperest’-class women – Messalina and Agrippina – the Roman Empresses, gaining the most power and influence in their hands. Messalina – the third wife of Emperor Claudius – had always been considering Agrippina as her enemy and her cruelty was supported by accusations and wicked plans. All Emperor’s surroundings were aware of her “insane passion” (Tacitus, book XI) of Caius Silius, who was unable to avoid affair because of Messalina’s power to destroy him.
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On the other hand, if they would legalize their relations, Silius and Messalina would have two ways out: “Messalina would have the same power as before, with the additional advantage of a quiet mind” or “they would have to face the wrath of Claudius” (Ibid). Her shameless and traitorous reputation and masculine despotism were also blooded by “the many murders perpetrated at Messalina’s bidding” (Ibid). But, what is done by night appears by day.
While Messalina had been celebrating her new home with Silius, Narcissus had weaved a plot to overthrown and crush the empress, who had tainted the whole nobility, rather than her name. And again, he used a woman, Calpurnia, to bring charges of Messalina’s adultery and blame Cleopatra in concealing this affair, only for the purpose to take his possessions back. As a result, both were put to death; and, besides, those, who were involved in this case by hiding the truth from Claudius, were either exiled or put to death. Therefore, the destruction, Messalina had started during her lifetime, was not ended with her death.
The new Emperor’s wife, Agrippina, was “a lady conspicuous for noble rank and purity … moral qualities [and] kindness” (book XII). Agrippina was regarded with reverence as a daughter, sister, wife and mother of a sovereign. Yet, just like Messalina, she had been planning accusation against rival Lollia, whom she “hatred and detested”; finally, her possession was confiscated, she was banished from Italy and even was forced to commit suicide. Calpurnia, who was praised by the Emperor, was destroyed; others were either prosecuted or condemned. On the other hand, Argippina in order “to show her power even to the allied nations procured the dispatch of a colony of veterans to … Ubii, where she was born” (Ibid). In her boundless ambitions, she had achieved the rank of Augusta, had practiced entering the Capitol in chariot that was allowed only “to the priests and sacred images” (Ibid). So, Agrippina was ruling in Rome as a monarch, and being seized at a caprice of the Caesar
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once, she had been satisfying her greed for throne so that even the Emperor had to pursue her whims.
Letters of Pliny the Younger is the last classic work in this essay that will show the social status and role of women in Roman life. Two of his letters are devoted to upper-class women, Pompeia Celerina and Calvina, who owned the possessions “which even a man might find burdensome” (Pliny, book 2, IV). Pliny wonders of the treasures Pompeia Celerina had in her villas, which were built in four places. She even had “a bathing place at Narnia” (Pliny, book 1, IV) – that is indeed an emperor’s luxury. We know nothing of her family, or ancestors, but looking at the immense belongings, it is obvious that she had servants, masters in her villas and, certainly, duties to manage all this wealth. On the other hand, Calvina, having huge inheritance, also inherited her father’s credits and, therefore, hesitated to enter it without defending the credit. Yet, Pliny, as one of the creditors, gave her authority to enter her possessions “as paid whatever sum was owing by your father to me” (Pliny, book 2, IV), so that, either married or unmarried, she could manage it.
The other two women, Pliny addressed, were known for their virtues, rather than family inheritance. Both Corellia Hispulla and Calpurnia Hispulla had a duty to raise children in good reputation and morals, modesty, and love to studies. They were obliged to find tutors “of a real character” (Pliny, book 3, III) and reputation. The recommendations of these women were significant for their successors; for Pliny depicts the atmosphere they were raised as the one where children were “trained by your precepts, who had seen … nothing that was not pure and honourable, and had been taught to love me at your recommendation” (Pliny, book 4, XIX). So, the responsibility to raise honorable and worthy members of public life was placed upon the shoulders of women. And their own reputation and dignity (if there was such, looking at several individuals) have found reflection in their heirs.
“Laudatio Turiae”. Translation by E. Wistrand. The University of Arizona. March 22, 2008.
“Letters of Pliny the Younger with an introduction essay by John B.Firth”. First Series. The
Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd., March 22, 2008
Tacitus. “The Annals”. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.
March 22, 2008 < http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.7.xii.html>