At a conservative estimate, there are 8 million books published about Roman women every month. I know this because I own most of them. Most talk about the same four issues on repeat, or are wrong. But I’m not here to tell you what historians think about the fannyhavers of the capital (you can find that out yourself, or I’ll do it another day); I’m here to tell you about what the Romans thought of the females. Which means, of course, what Roman men thought of Roman women.Today we’re going to talk about the five women Roman men loved the best, the women who epitomised femininity and vaginal virtue and womanly excellence to the minds of Roman dudes, and who were presented as ideals and models of behaviour and attitude. One thing we’re quickly going to notice about the very best Roman women is that they all look suspiciously fictional. Another is that none of them have any personality at all. And naturally, because this is the Romans, their excellence is all super disturbing.
Turia is the star of the Laudatio Turiae, a first century BC epitaph found in Rome. At least we assume her name is Turia; her name is missing. Only the optimistic hope that both the epitaph and the Valerius Maximus are totally telling the truth have led to the identification of this – the most perfect woman to ever die – as Turia, wife of Quitus Lucretius Vespillo (which is a bloody great name).
Her husband was exiled for many years as a result of Augustus’ rise to power, and so Turia spent much of her adult life alone in Rome. Here is an incomplete list of Turia’s good deeds according to her husband: not staying at home alone (bad for the reputation); a good dress sense; religiosity of the correct and non superstitious kind; wool-working; being good at advice; being good with money. She also physically defended her husband’s home when his enemies tried to burn it down and argued in front of Augustus twice, to save her husband’s life and end his exile respectively.
This is the best bit though: Turia and her husband were infertile (it was, naturally, assumed that this was the woman’s fault) so she offered to divorce him so he could marry someone else, then have children with this other woman, then divorce her, and then remarry Turia so they could raise the kids together as her own. You see in Roman law, children belong to their fathers and the mother has no legal claim. Entire paragraphs of her epitaph are dedicated to this offer. How generous of her! To steal another woman’s children! That angel! The kindness! The horror.
4. Sabine Women
This is a collection of ladies rather than just the one, but together they epitomise the main use and virtue of a vagina in Roman culture: helping men be friends. Here’s the deal: at the founding of Rome there was a desperate shortage of women, and the neighbouring Sabines wouldn’t let their women marry Romans. So the Romans did the only reasonable thing: they decided to kidnap a collection of Sabine ladies and forcibly marry them. We’d all totally do the same, I’m sure. According to Livy there was definitely, definitely no raping, and the Sabine ladies were all delighted to be abducted because the Romans were so great. Just so that’s clear. Definitely no rape. Ok? Good.
The Sabine dudes, however, were super pissed off and tried to get their women back through the manly, manly means of war. Grrrr. Led by Titus Tatius, which is another brilliant name. So the Sabine men and the Roman men are being manly and bleeding everywhere, until the Sabine women intervene by standing between the warring dudes and declared that they themselves should be murdered for causing all the deaths of their husbands and fathers. This is – as I’m sure you’ll agree, especially if you identify as male – the kind of infallible logic no man can reject. And indeed the Romans and Sabines couldn’t., and so that was the end of the war, and the Roman and Sabine men ruled Rome together in peace for a whole five years. And what do we learn from this tale of kidnap, war and victim blaming? Women are well good at bringing men together, let’s do political marriages.
3. Octavia Minor
This of course brings us to Octavia, who was one half of a very famous political marriage. This Octavia is known as Octavia Minor (the Younger) in order to differentiate her in scholarship from her sister Octavia. She had four daughters. They were called Claudia, Claudia, Antonia and Antonia. Sometimes the Roman lack of imagination with regards to naming is overwhelming.
Anyway, little Octavia is Augustus’s sister (not his real name, of course. His real name was Octavian. Of course) and is a central part of Augustus’s attempts to conquer the world by any means necessary. First, as a 29 year old widowed mother of three(!!!) she was married off to Mark Antony by her brother in order to provide a familial link between the two men, just like the Sabines. She was a good lady, so she spent the next few years following Antony around to the various miserable provinces he visited. As Romans viewed leaving Rome in much the same way that Londoners view the idea of moving to Bradford, but even worse, this was a big deal. Antony, however, was terribly ungrateful and disappeared off to Egypt to drink melted pearls, wear eyeliner and knob Cleopatra.
For 8 years, Octavia raised her three children by her first husband, her two children by Antony, and Antony’s two kids by one of his other wives, while trying to persuade her brother that her husband wasn’t that bad and advocating on his behalf. In gratitude for her efforts, Antony divorced her. Then killed himself. However, Octavia was the most patient woman who ever lived, and so she took in his children by Cleopatra and raised them.Then she died. And was given an enormous public funeral, and got a gate and a portico built in her name and a collection of coins with her face on them. And coins are the highest honour a lady can get, especially if she’s the perfect, obedient and loyal sister, wife and mother of famous men.
By now you should be noticing a trend: women who are good according to the Romans are only good when they’re useful to men in some way. Cornelia Africana adds a new dimension to that trend as she manages to be useful to both the men in her life – her sons – and the state of Rome. She was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, aka the man who destroyed Carthage and salted the earth, which was already a good way to be famous; a bit like being a royal baby. By the time she died, she was near deified in Rome for her many virtues, and a big statue of her was put up in the Forum.
It’s claimed by Plutarch that she had 12 children, which honestly is a bit suspect – not least because Plutarch was writing several hundred years after her death. But she definitely had three and two of them – the sons of course – decided that they’d like to cause a bit of a political crisis by attempting to reform agrarian law (no one said it was a sexy political crisis) and were both brutally murdered by mobs who opposed them. Cornelia played a very prominent role in their lives, acting as an advisor, a confident and an ally. She was renowned for her education, her beauty, and her choice to not remarry but to dedicate herself to her sons after her widowhood, even though a king definitely tried to marry her because she was so brilliant and beautiful and brilliant.
Most importantly she is remembered for the fact that when a friend asked her why she didn’t wear jewellery, she gestured to her sons and replied “these are my jewels.” Which, if we’re honest about it, is a total dick move. How is her friend supposed to respond to that? It feels like Cornelia would have been right at home at a middle class mums groups in North London, shaming women who work or don’t breastfeed or let their children eat sweets or whatever for not being as good as she is. She’s basically Gwyneth Paltrow, but worse. For all her perfect virtue and excellent motherliness, you definitely wouldn’t want to hang out with her.
Talking of women you wouldn’t want to be friends with, we come to poor old Lucretia: star of many a tragic play, worryingly important in European art and, unbearably depressingly, the epitome of Roman female goodness.
Here’s what happened to Lucretia: her husband Brutus was out with his mates – including the prince of Rome (it was a monarchy), Sextus Tarquinius – having a laugh and a bit of bants and that, which culminated in an argument about whose wife was the most virtuous. As men do. So they decided to check up on their wives to settle the argument, and rode around town peeping on their ladies, who were all being unwomanly in some way. All except Lucretia who, in her husband’s absence, was weaving him some clothes. Awww. So Lucretia won!
Unfortunately, her virtue is irresistibly arousing to the prince, who returns, breaks into her bedroom and rapes her. Because a virtuous lady is like catnip to depraved tyrants, as we all know from all fiction ever.
Rapes have consequences though, and the next day Lucretia summoned her husband and father, told them what happened and then – in quite a surprising twist – stabbed herself to death in front of them while declaring that she must die, because she has committed adultery. Yes dear Reader, the height of excellence for a Roman lady was to kill yourself instead of bringing shame on the honour of your husband and father by getting yourself raped. And the Romans were the civilised ones, apparently. Her hubby and dad took this quite badly, dragging her poor body out into the streets and using her as an excuse to start a revolution that overthrew the king (named Tarquin Superbus – I saved the best name for the end) and instituted the republic. Lucretia’s poor body was displayed in the forum the whole time, as apparently she hadn’t suffered enough indignity. Thus, Lucretia is Rome’s martyr because she restored her own honour by dying bloodily all over her dad.
And with that, I think we can all be very grateful that we’re not Roman.