Matrons of Awesome Part III – Republican Vixens

I’m sure you’re good and sick of Roman matronal and maternal virtues by now, so let’s have a bit of scandal and vice for balance.

wall painting from the House of the Mysteries, Pompeii

5. Pompeia

Pompeia was the second of Caesar’s three wives, the first being Cornelia (a child bride, mother of his only legitimate child, Julia) and the last being Calpurnia (the one he cheated on with Cleopatra). Pompeia is memorable because she was married to Caesar during the first years of his career as pontifex maximus, high priest of Rome. It was a political marriage, she being the daughter of Pompey the Great, an ally and rival of Caesar’s

(Pompey also married Caesar’s daughter, which adds a whole layer of ick to the proceedings).

This is a story about the Bona Dea. Bona Dea means ‘good goddess,’ and she was a goddess without name or image. Men and women alike worshipped her, but there was one festival of the year which was restricted to women – or, to be specific, respectable married women (matronae). Every year, the wife of a public official would host the festival. All the men of the house would be turned out for the night (even male slaves were not allowed to remain) and the matronae of the city would come around.

No man knew what went on at this festival, though it was the subject of salacious speculation. Snakes were rumoured to be involved. The women – possibly – drank wine and called it ‘milk’ or ‘honey’. Myrtle (the plant sacred to saucy goddess Venus) was banned from the house. Some years later, the poet Juvenal described the Bona Dea in his Satires as a psychotic orgy of madwomen, who tore around the city afterwards, pissing on statues and raping male slaves. Far too often, this is taken as historical fact rather than the “comedy” it was intended to be.

The point is that men were not allowed to know what went on at this festival, and (most) men respected that because the festival was an integral part of the Roman calendar. Romans were very superstitious about festivals and gods.

But one man – Publius Clodius, political hellraiser & troublemaker – risked the wrath of the goddess because he wanted to get into the knickers of Caesar’s wife Pompeia, and she (as wife of the pontifex maximus) happened to be hosting the Bona Dea festival that year. So he disguised himself as a flute girl and crashed the party.

He never got near Pompeia. Her canny mother-in-law Aurelia (see previous post) spotted Clodius for a fraud a mile off. She and the Vestals covered up the sacred things, and they hauled Clodius out of there before he could say ‘drag act.’

Here’s the twist: the men of the city were furious, and tried to prosecute Clodius for sacrilege. The women of the city, however, refused to speak against him. This is particularly interesting because the Vestals were present, and they were the only women who had the same legal rights to testify as men. But the women were uninterested in the (politically driven) public vilification of Clodius. They simply said, “The Bona Dea will do as she pleases with him.”

A few years later, Clodius was killed in a street riot, within sight of the shrine to the Bona Dea.

Caesar divorced Pompeia, though he stated publicly that she had not committed adultery, or in any way encouraged Clodius’s advances. Why, then, sneered the other senators, was he divorcing her?

Because, said Caesar. Caesar’s wife must be beyond reproach.

This isn’t really a story about Pompeia. To be honest, we don’t know much about her. But it is, very much, a story about Roman women.

6. Clodia

Another Roman woman synonymous with scandal was Clodia, sister of the aforementioned Publius Clodius. Clodia lived for scandal. She was rich, sexy and glamorous, and lived life to the absolute full. She belonged to a group of Bright Young Things who relished their decadent lifestyle. For a long time, she was the mistress of the poet Catullus, who immortalised her as Lesbia in poetry such as the following:

J.R. Vedzhelayn. "Lesbia"

VIVAMVS, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
(let us live, my Lesbia, and love)
rumoresque senum seueriorum
(and value all the rumours of old men)
omnes unius aestimemus assis.
(as worth a single penny)
soles occidere et redire possunt:
(the suns are able to fall and rise)
nobis cum semel occidit breuis lux,
(when that brief light has died for us)
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
(we must sleep a perpetual night)
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
(give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred)
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
(then another thousand, then a second hundred)
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum;
(then another thousand more, then another hundred)
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
(then, when we have so many thousands)
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
(we will mix them all up, so as not to know)
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
(and so no one else will think ill of us because they know)
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.
(how many kisses we have shared).

Lesbia and Her Sparrow, by Sir Edward John Poynter

In Dorothy L Sayers, there is a scene in which the newly married Lord Peter & Harriet Wimsey are basically making out against the side of the car – but this is only evident if you translate the Latin he is quoting (with many elipses to represent the smooching). The poet he is quoting is Catullus, and the poem is about “Lesbia.”

You can’t believe how clever and educated I felt when I figured that one out.

After Clodia dumped Catullus (inspiring some far less romantic and more bitter poetry), Clodia moved on to another, younger lover. When he left her, she wanted her revenge and brought a court case against him for theft and other misdemeanors. The plan backfired, though, when her ex-toyboy hired Cicero, the best (and most moralistic) orator in Rome. Given that the Roman legal system revolved around who was the most persuasive speaker, Clodia was pretty much sunk.

Cicero destroyed Clodia in court, portraying her as an amoral slut in a speech that still exists today, full of quippy zingers that made the courtroom roar with laughter. By far the best insult he came up with was ‘Clytemnestra of the Aventine’ which, among other things, implies that she murdered her late husband. Clodia’s social life may have revolved around scandal of the ‘ooh, isn’t she naughty’ variety, but being exposed in such a public forum was beyond the pale. She found herself friendless and abandoned after the court case, and withdrew quietly from the social scene.

Semis, Asia Fulvia-Eumenea, head Fulvia, wife of Mark Antony, as winged Athena

7. Fulvia

Fulvia was another of the scandal-loving set that included siblings Clodius and Clodia, as well as the rather more famous Mark Antony. Indeed, Fulvia was married to Clodius before his violent death. After dabbling with another husband, she finally settled down with Antony, who was a political hothead and lover of luxury just like Clodius. Antony was a cannier politician than Clodius, however, and he was Julius Caesar’s right hand man.

Fulvia was a loyal wife, and a mother of many children. When Antony went off to war, she went with him. Indeed, we believe that Fulvia is the first real woman whose portrait appeared on the coinage of Rome – all senators of Antony’s military rank released their own coinage, and one of Antony’s coins depicts a woman as the personification of Victory.

Of course, it could simply be the personification of Victory, but in Roman art personifications of virtues tend to have very bland, idealised faces (think the Statue of Liberty) and there’s something about this particular Victory that looks very human. Given that Antony put a later wife on coins (though one more politically significant than Fulvia), it is likely that Fulvia is indeed the first Roman woman to appear on state coins.

When Julius Caesar died, Antony (who had perhaps expected to take over from his mentor as Dictator of Rome) found himself in opposition with Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew and heir. When Octavian and Antony were at odds, Octavian used propaganda to insult and degrade his rival, and Fulvia was one of the cards he used against him, referring to her less than pristine past, and calling her a ‘virago.’

‘Virago’ means a violent or militant woman – in Roman terms, the absolute opposite of what a woman should be. This and other insults brought against Fulvia to discredit or mock her husband comprise most of the information we have about her, so she is generally remembered as a Bad rather than Good Roman woman.

But there’s something very likeable about Fulvia – a feisty, aggressive woman who refused to kowtow to the Roman definition of the good wife who waits at home for her husband to return from war. Given that Antony had already caught the eye of Julius Caesar’s exotic mistress, Cleopatra Queen of Egypt, one can hardly blame Fulvia for refusing to be the docile housefrau.

NEXT: Good and Evil at the end of the Republic


The Matrons of Awesome series was originally posted on Livejournal (LJ user: cassiphone) in March 2006 for Women’s History Month.

I’m reprinting the series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.