(Alyssa Finfer ’19 wrote this paper for CLA/HIS 218: The Roman Republic.)

According to Rome’s historians, Roman women[1] have been participating in political life since the city’s legendary origin. Livy, for instance, recounts how the Sabine women intervened to end the conflict between their fathers and husbands in the earliest days of the city (1.13) and later relates how Roman matrons advocated for the appeal of the Lex Oppia in the years after the Second Punic War (34.1-8). However, unlike the groups of activist women Livy describes, the late Republic[2] increasingly saw individual women participating in the political sphere, including Hortensia, who addressed the triumvirs on behalf of her fellow women (Appian 4.32-34) and Fulvia, the wife of Antony who became so politically active that, according to Dio Cassius, “neither the senate nor the people transacted any business contrary to her pleasure” (48.4). Even in the funeral inscription known as the Laudatio Turiae, we hear how an individual woman, in this case “Turia,” the nameless subject of the eulogy, addressed a triumvir to advocate for her proscribed husband (11).

Although the appearance of a number of politically enterprising women in our sources for the period may seem to indicate that Roman matrons were acquiring real political power and making significant gains in social standing during the last years of the Republic, a closer examination of the sources reveals otherwise. In fact, whether these women were advocating for their own privileges, trying to save their husbands from execution, or conducting government business themselves, the sources consistently portray them in terms of whether they were fulfilling or defying the expectations for a proper Roman matron. Furthermore, by judging a woman in terms of whether she embodied proper feminine virtues, including “pudicitia” (chastity), “opseqium” (obedience), and “pietas” (loyalty, devotion) (Hemelrijk 188), instead of assessing her as an individual, the sources evaluate her in terms of whether she behaved properly toward her husband. In fact, it was only by opposing or associating themselves with powerful men, including the triumvirs who dominated the political scene as the Republican constitutional system unraveled, that Roman woman managed to find new opportunities to insert themselves into the political discourse. Therefore, even though prominent, powerful, and outspoken women appear in our sources for the late Republic, because Roman notions of proper female behavior remained strong, individual female political actors of this period gained political influence by opposing or attaching themselves to powerful men, but not in their own right.

In his account of the civil wars following Julius Caesar’s assassination, Appian describes how a group of elite women entered the Forum in 42 BC to conduct a political protest against the extra tax burden the triumvirs had imposed on them (4.32-34). Even though, as Mary Boatwright describes, the presence of women in the Forum was “extraordinary and often disturbing” since only men could participate in the political activity that took place there (116), this was not the first time a group of women entered it to pursue a political goal. As we learn from Livy’s history, in 195 BC a group of women surrounded the entrances to the Forum to advocate for the appeal of the Lex Oppia, a Punic War-era law that limited the luxury of women (34.1-8). However, while only male voices were heard in the debate over whether to repeal the Lex Oppia as reconstructed by Livy, in Appian’s account, the Roman matron Hortensia delivered a compelling oration on behalf of the women that ultimately convinced the triumvirs to reduce the taxation. The fact that Hortensia got to speak in the Forum directly to the triumvirs seems to indicate that Roman women had made gains in political sphere since 195, but this presumption overlooks how Hortensia achieved her political goals by employing the same sort of assumptions about the political inferiority of women the speakers in the Lex Oppia debate used. In Livy’s rendition of the Lex Oppia debate, Lucius Valerius the tribune asserts that women should be able to wear luxurious jewelry and clothing since they do not partake in politics or war and therefore have “no offices, no priesthoods, no triumphs, no decorations, no gifts, no spoils of war” (34.7). Likewise, according to Appian, Hortensia argues that women are not obligated to finance the civil wars since they “have no part in the honours, the commands, the state-craft” (4.33). In fact, even though she is taking part in political life by delivering an oration in a political space, it is by emphasizing that women have no part in political life that Hortensia successfully convinces the triumvirs to reduce the taxation (Appian 4.34). Thus, Katherine Fredlund fittingly characterizes Hortensia’s speech as a “dual gender performance” (27), for she achieves her political goals by taking on the masculine role of a political actor while simultaneously highlighting the political inferiority of her own gender and their exclusion from any real political power.

Despite Hortensia’s rhetorical use of female political inferiority, we should still acknowledge the significance of the appearance of a female orator directly opposing the men who held supreme power to advance her political goals. In fact, Hortensia isn’t the only individual woman in Appian’s Civil Wars to boldly resist the triumvirs’ decrees, for Appian’s history also contains accounts of “good” women notable for their “fidelity and courage” in saving their husbands who had been proscribed, or condemned to death, by the triumvirs (4.15). For instance, Appian tells of Antius’s wife, who helped her husband escape to Sicily by hiding him in a bag of clothes, and Rheginus’s wife, who hid her husband in a sewer and disguised him as a charcoal dealer so he could flee the city (4.39). However, Appian primarily remembers them not for their defiance of the triumvirs, but for their exemplary devotion to their husbands in contrast to the “bad” women who “betrayed their husbands infamously” (4.23). For example, Appian tells of a woman who had Antony proscribe her husband so she could marry her lover (4.23) and a woman who led her husband’s assassins to him (4.24). Both the “good” and the “bad” women of the proscriptions were entering in the male political sphere in various ways, whether advocating for and protecting their husbands or betraying them to the triumvirs. Yet, even though the “bad” women tended to align themselves with the triumvirs while the “good” women disobeyed them, it was the “good” women who were celebrated because, as Emily A. Hemelrijk puts it, they had “approved ‘feminine’ motives: loyalty and devotion to their husbands” (190).

The Laudatio Turiae, a first century funeral inscription in which a husband praises his deceased wife, “Turia,”[3] tells of a woman who, like the wives in Appian’s history, defied the triumvirs to save her proscribed husband (2a) and, like Hortensia, directly addressed a triumvir, Lepidus, to ensure he would restore her husband’s citizenship (11). As Emily A. Hemelrijk notes when examining masculinity and femininity in the Laudatio, the husband describes his wife’s political activity during the proscriptions with masculine and even military-related words, including “virtus” (courage, manliness), “firmitas animi” (firmness of mind), and “propugnatrix” (female protector) (189), even though this reversal of gender norms could have threatened his own masculinity (185). Although “Turia” was participating in the political world traditionally reserved for men, her husband still characterizes her as an ideal Roman matron by remembering her exemplary feminine qualities, including “sexual morality,” “obedience,” “attentive weaving,” and “love and devotion to [her] family [familiae pietate]” (30). Hemelrijk explains the husband’s attribution of both masculine and feminine qualities to “Turia” by concluding that “Turia’s” political acts could in fact be considered “an acceptable extension of her domestic tasks and, therefore, as part of her private life” (197). Since her husband identifies “Turia’s” “familiae pietate” as her motivation for entering public life, just like the other women of the proscriptions whose faithfulness to their husbands constituted their “approved ‘feminine’ motives” (190), what would normally be a transgression of gender norms became a commendable demonstration of womanly pietas.

However, unlike “Turia” and other “good” women of the proscriptions, many of the politically active women in the last years of the Republic, including Appian’s “bad” women, stood on the side of the triumvirs. In fact, Fulvia, the wife of the triumvir Antony, played an active role in the proscriptions, even proscribing a man named Rufus herself because she allegedly wanted to buy his house (Appian 4.29). Fulvia in fact is remembered as one of the most powerful female political actors of the late Republic: Dio Cassius states that while Antony was absent from Italy in 41 she was a consul in all but name (48.4) while Plutarch names Fulvia, not Antony’s brother Lucius, as the one who took charge of the war in Italy against Octavian on Antony’s behalf (Life of Antony 28). Although there are modern scholars such as Richard A. Bauman who try to evaluate her as one of the most extraordinary leaders of the period (86), our ancient sources characterize her in an overwhelmingly negative light, whether they attribute masculine or feminine qualities to her. Plutarch, for instance, describes her as anti-feminine and unnaturally masculine and militaristic:

She was a woman who took no thought for spinning or housekeeping, nor would she deign to bear sway over a man of private station, but she wished to rule a ruler and command a commander (Life of Antony 10).

As Diana Delia explains it, because she undeniably participated in the masculine sphere of war and politics, not the feminine sphere of domesticity, Fulvia represented the “antithesis of the ideal Roman matron” known for purity, obedience, and attention to household duties (206), the opposite of a faithful, devoted woman like “Turia.”

To explain why our sources tend to condemn Fulvia as a “moral exemplum” of everything a Roman woman should not be while praising other women who also entered the male-dominated political world, Diana Delia proposes that Fulvia was so hated because she was perceived to have entered the public sphere “in pursuit of self-interest,” in contrast to the women who participated in political life for “unselfish reasons,” such as to save their husbands’ lives (206). However, a desire to further her husband’s interests does seem like a reasonable explanation for Fulvia’s actions, especially when she fought Octavian in Italy while her husband was occupied in the east. For instance, Richard A. Bauman, in an effort to highlight Fulvia’s “positive attributes” (89), singles out “her unswerving loyalty to Antony” and asserts that she acted in his interests “with unshakeable courage and determination” (85). Even Plutarch, although he had emphasized Fulvia’s unwomanly inattention to household activities, claims that she “was carrying on the war at Rome with Caesar [Augustus] in defense of her husband’s interests” (Life of Antony 28). However, a number of our sources portray Fulvia as pursuing her own interests, even to her husband’s disadvantage. Appian, for instance, asserts that Fulvia caused the war with Octavian not because she was acting on Antony’s behalf, but because “a woman’s jealousy” prompted her to start a war in Italy in order to draw Antony away from his lover Cleopatra (5.19). In a similar vein, Dio Cassius claims that she as well as Antony’s brother Lucius were seeking supreme power for themselves “in all respects contrary to Antony’s desire” (48.5). Because they perceived Fulvia’s motives as self-serving and therefore concluded that she lacked the essential womanly virtue of pietas toward her husband, these historians read her involvement in politics as a serious violation of the traditional standards of female propriety.

As Sarah B. Pomeroy notes in her study of the Roman matron, because Octavian eventually defeated Antony, Octavian’s “political propaganda” directed against Antony (and, by extension, Fulvia) tends to color the perceptions of her in later historical accounts (185). Delia even acknowledges that it is difficult to get a sense of Fulvia as a real, three-dimensional, historical person because many of the surviving sources portray her as an idea (e.g. the opposite of everything a proper woman should be), not a human being (206-07). Yet, we know more about Fulvia than we do about many other politically active women of the late Republic, for, unlike “Turia” and the women of the proscriptions Appian tells of, she is named and appears in multiple historical sources. In fact, it is difficult for us to understand any of these women as multifaceted political actors because our sources evaluate them primarily in terms of whether or not they fit into traditional Roman gender norms and whether they were perceived to be helping their men or helping themselves. As Kristina Milnor notes in her examination of women in Roman historical accounts, historians of Rome tend to characterize significant women as either “paragons of domestic virtue” or “monstrous examples” of immorality (280), not as complex historical people. As Milnor explains, because the male historians of Rome were writing the history of the male-dominated political sphere, instead of considering these women as full-fledged political actors in their own right, they define women who entered this sphere in terms of how they related to men and use them “primarily as a means of framing the history of Roman men” (280).

Though a Roman woman entering political life would have been defined in terms of gender norms and her relations to men, there still remains the fact in no other period of Roman history do our sources tell us of so many individual women taking significant political action and, in some cases, even gaining political power. Kathryn E. Welch offers the following explanation of Fulvia’s rise to political prominence:

Conditions of civil war and urban unrest particularly favoured Fulvia… the fact that the conditions of war left her in Rome while most of the men who would in the normal course of events have competed for leadership were dying or campaigning gave her a unique advantage (195).

However, “the conditions of war” cannot fully explain the emergence of numerous female political actors in the late Republic. In fact, the Republic also experienced “conditions of war” during the Punic Wars some 200 years earlier when Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and the disastrous Roman defeat at Cannae kept many men occupied with fighting and dying, but we do not hear of individual women entering the political sphere on the same scale during this time. Therefore, it was not the fact that the Romans were continuously fighting in civil wars during the last years of the Republic, but the fact that these wars involved a few prominent men, the triumvirs, competing for supreme power that enabled elite women to make their mark on the political scene. In fact, Hortensia, “Turia,” Fulvia, and both the “good” and “bad” women of the proscriptions gained political leverage by aligning themselves either with or against a triumvir, whether Antony, Lepidus, or Octavian. An ambitious woman living during the middle Republic, when the magistrates and assemblies still had supreme power, would have had to deal with a complex apparatus of constitutional Republican government to advance herself politically. However, a Hortensia, “Turia,” or Fulvia only had to place themselves in opposition to or in favor of a few men, whether by approaching and addressing a triumvir like Hortensia and “Turia” or marrying a triumvir like Fulvia, in order to wield political influence.

If we consider the politically active women of the late Republic superficially, we might come to the conclusion that during the last years of the Republic Roman women gained not just significant political influence, but, in some cases, also substantial political power. However, if we closely examine the historical accounts of these women, we will realize that although they became more visible in Rome’s political scene, the gender norms deeply ingrained in Roman society ultimately limited them to two different roles. The “good” Roman matron, like “Turia,” embodied not only feminine chastity, but also feminine pietas (devotion) while advocating in the interests of her husband. On the other hand, the “bad” matron, like Fulvia, rejected all qualities associated with the feminine domestic sphere and greedily worked toward her own interests, even at the expense of her husband’s. Whichever role our sources assign to a woman though, her political activity was limited to how she could relate to powerful men, whether standing in opposition to them like Hortensia and “Turia” or allying herself with them like Fulvia. Thus, although we can appreciate the appearance of such politically involved women in our sources, as Delia points out for Fulvia, we should not celebrate a politically active matron as “an emancipated woman” who “abandoned the traditional domestic role… to exercise real political power instead” (197) since Roman gender expectations prevented her from gaining power not in relation to a man, but in her own right.

 

This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations.

Alyssa Finfer

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[1] When I discuss “Roman women,” I will be focusing on elite women since it is difficult to draw conclusions about any politically active non-elite women, freewomen, and female slaves since we have little historical information about these groups (Pomeroy 190).

[2] For the purposes of this paper, I am considering the “late Republic” to consist of the decades leading up to the Battle of Actium (31 BC), when Octavian defeated Antony, the last of his major rivals.

[3] Even though the literary evidence does not point to the identification of the wife as the historical Turia (Osgood 5), I will refer to her as “Turia” for the sake of clarity.

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