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Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons

Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons
Women in Roman Religion

A sweeping overview of Roman women’s roles and functions in religion and, by extension, in Rome’s history and culture from the republic through the empire.

January 2008
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220 pages | 6 x 9 | 9 b&w illus., 4 maps |

Roman women were the procreators and nurturers of life, both in the domestic world of the family and in the larger sphere of the state. Although deterred from participating in most aspects of public life, women played an essential role in public religious ceremonies, taking part in rituals designed to ensure the fecundity and success of the agricultural cycle on which Roman society depended. Thus religion is a key area for understanding the contributions of women to Roman society and their importance beyond their homes and families.

In this book, Sarolta A. Takács offers a sweeping overview of Roman women's roles and functions in religion and, by extension, in Rome's history and culture from the republic through the empire. She begins with the religious calendar and the various festivals in which women played a significant role. She then examines major female deities and cults, including the Sibyl, Mater Magna, Isis, and the Vestal Virgins, to show how conservative Roman society adopted and integrated Greek culture into its mythic history, artistic expressions, and religion. Takács's discussion of the Bona Dea Festival of 62 BCE and of the Bacchantes, female worshippers of the god Bacchus or Dionysus, reveals how women could also jeopardize Rome's existence by stepping out of their assigned roles. Takács's examination of the provincial female flaminate and the Matres/Matronae demonstrates how women served to bind imperial Rome and its provinces into a cohesive society.

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Silent Ones Speak
  • Chapter 2: Life Cycles and Time Structures
  • Chapter 3: The Making of Rome
  • Chapter 4: Rome Eternal
  • Chapter 5: Rome Besieged
  • Chapter 6: Rome and Its Provinces
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A: Ancient Authors
  • Appendix B: Timeline
  • Appendix C: Maps
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • General Index

Sarolta A. Takács is Professor of History and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program at Rutgers University.


The purpose of this book is to elucidate Roman women's role and function in Roman religion and, by extension, its history and culture through literary and epigraphic sources. The Roman state was an agricultural, patriarchal, militaristic, and imperialistic society. While men acquired territory and controlled Rome's Empire, women functioned as the guarantors of the continuance of the state. Social spheres were strictly defined: a man's world was the public sphere; a woman's, her home. In other words, politics of the state were pursuits of men; child rearing and caring for family members were duties of a Roman matron. Roman writers, ever ready to point out moral or immoral behavior of their protagonists, have lots to say about women who moved outside their assigned sphere. Most of these women were troublemakers, disruptors of the social order, and thus examples of immoral or un-Roman behavior.


Only women who entered the political sphere to act on behalf of the state so that it could maintain or return to its customary sociopolitical status quo were rewarded with approval and thought to be examples of proper behavior. Although religious ceremonies did bring Roman women into the public sphere, these rites were carried out on behalf of Rome and, by extension, its Empire. In these sanctioned roles, women strengthened the established order. The underlying elements of a woman's sphere, the domestic, were procreation and nurture. Projected onto the public sphere through religious ceremonies carried out by women, the same fundamentals come to the foreground. Placed within an agricultural cycle, these rituals stressed fecundity and continuation of life.


Roman women, heroines or villains, drive historical narratives. In this epistemological formation, what writers adopted as their rhetoric or discourse, the quiet and silent women were the morally upright ones, whereas the unprincipled ones acted loudly and noisily. A good example of this discourse can be found in the historian Livy's work, From the Foundation of the City (Ab urbe condita), which serves, despite its prejudice toward women, as an invaluable source for early Roman history. In his narrative, a man's heroic action surpasses that of a woman every time, and the narrative space given to any of his heroines to speak is very limited. Direct speech is reserved for Rome's heroes. Livy tells us wonderful, even fantastic, stories of Rome's early period. Although fictitious accounts (the Greeks called them myths), these stories became essential parts of Rome's history. They contained an underlying discourse to explain and perpetuate Rome and Romanness within a moralistic framework.


In contrast to Livy, the poet Ovid's lens in his Fasti, the poem presenting us with information about religious festivals for the first six months of the year, is altogether different, as he suspends the opposing structure of morally good and bad behavior and moves the focus from men to women's actions as primary agents of Rome's formation. Roman literature then gives us insights into the workings of Roman society and its culture. We need, however, to be attentive to each author's focus, as, for example, we can see with Livy and Ovid. We also have to bear in mind the overarching discourse that shaped the way Rome's history was understood.


In addition to literature, inscriptions will be included in the discussion dealing with religious activities in the provinces. While epigraphic evidence affords us insights in to workings of Roman society and its culture away from the political center, inscriptions convey this information, albeit in a formulaic way, without the constraints of a literary genre and an author's particular perspective embedded in the perpetuated discourse. But, whatever way literary narratives may have subdued women's actions, the reality was that women were involved in the making and upkeeping of Rome.


Proper religious performance was crucial in maintaining the state; and, as we will see, women were executors of important religious cults in and outside Rome. Although Roman religion tended to preserve traditional cultic actions, adjustments that reflected new social and political realities could be, and others were, made. The emergence of Rome as an imperialistic Republic and then as an Empire changed women's roles, in particular, those of imperial and elite women. This evolution introduced changes to the existing cultic form, that is, the way a ritual was enacted, as well as new cults that accommodated these changes. The imperial cult, a cult that emerged with the Principate, is a good example of such an alteration. Elite provincial women, the flaminicae, and their male counterpart, the provincial flamen, performed religious rites on behalf of the state and the imperial household, the domus Augusta. Powerful women were involved, and, especially, women of highest social standing, such as the empress Livia, the wife of Augustus, were instrumental in stimulating interest and advancing deities as well as cults.


Although Roman religion was conservative, it had a flexibility that allowed for modifications of old and the integration of new cults. Thus, the priesthood of the Vestals, believed to go back to Rome's beginnings, was altered, with the most decisive modifications possibly occurring during Augustus' Principate. In terms of Roman culture and religion, decisive changes occurred at the time of Rome's contact with the Greeks of southern Italy; Rome's struggle with Carthage in the third century BCE; Augustus' Principate, and, lastly, the emergence of Christianity as the Empire's defining religion. Existing cultic actions could be changed, if these alterations were necessitated by circumstances that were understood as divinely ordained. The single most important necessity was the preservation of the pax deorum—pax hominum (the peace among gods—peace among humans), the reciprocal relationship between the divine and human sphere. The Roman success in acquiring and maintaining Empire was linked to appropriate religious behavior; Empire was the proof that the gods were favorably disposed toward the Romans because they carried out religious rituals properly and in a timely fashion, thus keeping this very relationship intact.


The political sphere was off limits for women, but women were instrumental in the maintenance of social stability. It is Roman religion that provides us a unique opportunity to understand better women's societal importance. Whenever Rome encountered political or social problems, there were also portents that expressed the gods' displeasure. The highest-ranking pontiffs (pontifices maximi) recorded these unusual occurrences, and the Pontifical Books (libri pontificales), which documented them, became the basis for annalistic history writing. Romans sought the cause for any social discord or political failing that had the potential to destabilize Rome by looking in the religious sphere; the same was true of the remedy. In short, cause and corrective were always a religious act. At its most extreme, a human life was required to restore order and a healthy state of affairs. The human scapegoat, in the most dramatic circumstances a Vestal, carried the guilt and failings of all others and in death expiated the whole society.


The book's first chapter will explore the way Roman authors fashioned Roman women and their roles in Roman society. Literary sources are still the privileged means of creating explanatory models because they are perceived to be the least fragmented and treated as the most insightful of all surviving material from Rome's past. Augustus' Rome, its history, culture, and religion that were fashioned by, with, and through the first emperor, will serve as the books central and final point of reference.


The second chapter focuses on the Roman calendar and festivals carried out by and for women. The aim here is to explain through the lens of religion why women continued to hold crucial religious positions in this highly militaristic and patriarchal society, how, in effect, they helped perpetuate the system.


This chapter begins with a cursory analysis of how time was reckoned and how a calendar anchored time in a tangible structure of reference points. The discussion of women's cultic activities throughout the calendar year will reveal that most rites took place in the first half of the year, closely following the agricultural cycle. In addition, women's actions never occurred in isolation, for every important ritual carried out by women there followed one by men. The Roman ritual calendar was in this way holistic. Roman women were "the second sex" and legally, without question, subordinate to men; it was a select group of women, the Vestals, however, whose religious activities functioned as guarantors of Rome's continued well-being. Their actions on behalf of the Roman people occurred at crucial moments in the agricultural year.


The subsequent chapters focus on some of Rome's female deities and entities that helped forge Rome, and also, in contrast, on women that were accused of putting the state at risk. The Sibylline Books, utterances of inspired women, the Sibyls, served as the basis for determining what was needed to reconstitute the relationship between the Roman people and its gods. The Sibylline utterances were also instrumental in the formation of Rome, since they had ordered the Romans to bring Mater Magna (the Great Mother) to the capital. Female deities, like the Mater Magna from the Troad and Egyptian Isis, were conduits through which Rome adopted and integrated Greek culture into its mythic history, its artistic expressions, and its religion. In contrast to these constructive forces, the Bacchantes, female worshipers of the god Bacchus or Dionysus, jeopardized Rome's existence in 186 BCE, and a Vestal, disregarding her vow of chastity during the Bona Dea festival of 62 BCE, did the same. Through such examples we will see that political issues, that is to say problems that had arisen in the male sphere, were translated into religious problems. Since women had the potential to destroy the very world men had built, men had to control women and curtail their movements and actions to use this female potency for their own means.


The book's final chapter explores the provincial female flaminate and the original Celtic triad of the Matres/Matronae. The flaminate of the emperor, initiated by Augustus, was implemented in the provinces as a means to single out, and thus honor, exceptional provincial leaders. In areas where women could, unlike in Rome and Italy, be in the public eye and recognized for their benefactions, or simply for their privileged position among the provincials, the female flaminate served as a way of publicly acknowledging and honoring a woman who, or more generally whose family, had done something outstanding for the community. Essentially, the provincial flaminate presented Rome with the provinces' best, including women. While this flaminate originated in Rome and was adopted in the provinces, the Matres/Matronae were ancestral tribal gods who were carried by individuals, in their case soldiers, beyond their original location. This dissemination resulted in a broadening of the worshiper pool. The female flaminate and the Matres/Matronae exemplify religious dynamics that shaped societal cohesiveness and reciprocally bound the center, Rome, to its periphery, the provinces.


The coming together of communities in ritual celebration not only created a bond among the participants but much more importantly brought them into line and enabled them to work toward one and the same goal: the survival of their communities, Rome at large, and the perpetuation of a ritualistic belief structure that was the key to success. Men made all decisions that had an impact on the political sphere, but women had important roles in maintaining what Roman men had reaped in success: Empire. The adopted discourse or rhetoric of the ancients most often obscures women's importance by reducing their actions to moral examples, but the lens of religion provides us with the opportunity to explore beyond a narrative's paradigmatic character and come to a better understanding of women's importance in Rome's cultural formation. In this book, I hope to provide information and insights to assist those interested in exploring women's role in Roman religion and thus come to gain knowledge of an ancient culture that, in turn, shaped our own.




NOTE: The translations are mine, unless otherwise noted.

Chapter One: The Silent Ones Speak

Women have their uses for historians. They offer relief from warfare, legislation, and the history of ideas; and they enrich the central theme of social history.... Ladies of rank ... are a seductive topic.

—Ronald Syme, The Augustan Aristocracy


Literature, a cross-section of genres, provides us with paragons and opposites of Roman womanhood. It is here that we encounter makers and destroyers of Rome, where we see women move outside the private, domestic sphere and enter the public arena. Some were harshly judged for their abandonment of family; others were not. All the judges were men, for it is their records we have, employ, and analyze. Literary examples make clear the distinctions between a respectable and disreputable Roman woman. The emphasis is on moral behavior, understood as the single most important factor for the proper functioning of society. Roman historical writing, in particular, demanded moralization and much hinges on the private/public category.


The most revealing literary evidence in regard to women and their actions taken for the benefit or detriment of Roman society often surfaces in accounts linked to transitional periods of Roman history. While Rome's political structure remained that of a city, which was simply projected onto an expanding empire, the social and economic fabric changed rapidly. Romans and their gods formed a single community. Politics and religion were intertwined. Ancient societies were culturally more integrated than modern ones. Thus, unlike their modern counterparts, who try to step outside societal boundaries, ancient writers and artists were involved in representing and perpetuating their society and its norms. It is no surprise then that Latin writers relate a person's or group's moral failing or a religious ritual not properly executed as the single most important cause for social or political problems, regardless of how complex they might actually have been. One can make a case that this type of reductionism to simple sequences of cause and effect remained intact until the Enlightenment.


Moreover, Latin literature was very much a product of Rome's self-definition vis-à-vis the much cherished Greek intellectual accomplishments. Decisive in the emergence of Latin literature was Rome's success over Carthage, in particular, the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), which resulted in Rome's hegemony over the Mediterranean World. Another such watershed moment for Latin literature was the Age of Augustus (31 BCE), part of the so-called Golden Age of Latin literature (ca. 75 BCE-14 CE) of Latin literature (ca. 75 BCE-14 CE). Scholars have established and accepted it as the highpoint of literary achievement and the ultimate measure for anything literary before and after. But even more, Augustus' reforms touched every aspect of Roman life. His marriage laws and religious innovations, for example, are at times interpreted as a reactionary attempt to return to true Republican values, which had been lost through the continued civil war period. Looking at the evidence, however, one can argue that Augustus' attempt was a turning back to a fictitious past, a fiction that ultimately became a defining reality. Texts, which form the core of the study of Roman history, provide the potential of remembrance and temporal continuity. But the coherent whole, construed from various literary sources, is in fact inconsistent. It is the task of the modern historian to analyze these reporting and reflective, diverse, creative sources, as well as the material evidence, to discover a more complete picture and generate a better understanding of Rome.




Rome's beginnings are shrouded in myths. It is only with the fourth and third centuries BCE that historical information can be confirmed. The late Republican antiquarian Varro (116-127 BCE), writing the Antiquities Human and Divine, established the city's founding date as April 21, 753 BCE. The most detailed account of the founding, however, we find in the first book of Livy's historical narrative From the Foundation of the City. It so happened that for a time without any tangible literary data, writers produced highly detailed narratives. Artistic creativity found in myths, for example, material that was refashioned to form a cohesive historical narrative. Mythic and historical times that were fused together shaped, and still shape, our understanding of regal and early Republican Rome.


The twins Romulus and Remus were descendants of the kings of Alba Longa (Figures 1.1a, 1.1b). Ascanius Iulus is thought to have founded this city south of Rome. The connection between Troy, Alba Longa, and Rome became popular in the third century BCE. The myth of Aeneas was already known in Etruria in the sixth century BCE. In terms of historiography, it was the explanation recorded by the late fourth- and early third-century BCE historian Timaeus of Taoromena that placed the ever expanding central Italian power, Rome, into a Greek frame of reference; Rome's foundation was connected to the most mythological and recognizable war of all history—up to that point—the Trojan War. Rome was linked to the world of Greek gods and heroes. Thus, the Greeks of Southern Italy and Sicily, versed in mythologies and stories of old, were able to explain away the unsettling fact that another group exerted control over them. In one swoop, with one good story, the Greeks eliminated the basic cultural differences between the conquerors and the conquered. Even better, the Roman elite integrated a Trojan hero into their earliest history, where, in fact, there had been no history at all. With this mythological connection, Rome's cultural heritage was simultaneously Greek and not Greek in origin.


Aeneas, who was a minor figure in the Homeric epic cycle, escaped the burning Troy with his father Anchises perched on his shoulder. Aeneas also had with him his small son, Ascanius Iulus, and Troy's household gods, the penates. Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus, displayed, under the trying circumstances of flight, profound pietas (piety) and virtus (virtue) toward his family and the state. Composing the epic around Aeneas and the foundation of Rome during the time of the first emperor, Augustus, Vergil focused on these and other ancestral customs, which are called the mos maiorum. These ancestral customs form an ethical framework, which Aeneas embodied. Crucial to Rome's foundation myth is that Aeneas had to give up his personal wishes and desires for Rome to come about. Sometimes, the consequences of living or having to live in accordance with these mos maiorum strike us as heartless, yet setting aside the personal for the good of the state is a theme that will be encountered many times over in Roman history. It was a core principle that could, however, also be abused. Generals of the late Republic, Pompey or Caesar, for example, jockeying for power illustrate such breaches. Personal ambitions were cloaked as needs or remedies for a failing political system.


In Rome's foundation women played an important, albeit tragic, role. While the family fled burning Troy, Creusa, Aeneas' Trojan wife, fell behind. She eventually disappeared in the commotion that followed the fall of the citadel. Aeneas touchingly spoke of his wife when he related his story to his host, the queen of Carthage, Dido. Aeneas also told the queen of his encounter with the shade of Creusa, who foretold long travels and the establishment of a new home on the Tiber.


What use is it to indulge so much in frenzied sorrow, o sweet husband? Without the gods' influence (numen) these things do not come about; nor is it divine law (fas) that you carry Creusa as your companion (comes) from here, since the ruler of high Olympus himself lets it be so. There is a long exile for you and plowing (arandum) through the vast expanse of the sea, and you will come to a western land, where Lydian Tiber flows in a gentile stream through rich fields of men. There will be apportioned for you things full of joy, kingship, and a royal spouse; stop crying for beloved Creusa. I will not gaze upon the proud home of the Myrmidones or of the Dolopians, nor will I enter into servitude to Grecian mothers, I a Dardan and daughter-in-law of divine Venus; but the great mother of the gods (magna deum genetrix) holds me back on these shores, but now farewell and protect the love of our common son.


Vergil's word choice here is significant. As comes (companion) connotes a superior (Aeneas) over an inferior-ranked person (Creusa) and infers a male-gendered context, coniunx (spouse, from con-iungere to join, yoke together) points to a more equal partnership. It is the partnership with Lavinia, the regia coniunx, through which Aeneas will receive regnum (kingship). Whatever has been, is, and will happen is ordained by divine law (fas). Aeneas will make it to Italy from the shores of Troy (Troiae ... ab oris Italium ... venit, Aen. 1.1-1.2), while the magna deum genetrix (the Great Mother of the Gods = Mater Magna of the Troad) kept Creusa from leaving the shores of Troy (his detinet oris). In addition to this internal connection, there is an external one that recalls Lucretius' Venus genetrix in On the Nature of Things (De rerum Natura) and Catullus' mater creatrix and genetrix of poem 63. Aeneas, the founder of the Roman people, is to plow (arandum from arare) through the sea; his descendants, the Romans, will be proud to be, first and foremost, farmers.


Aeneas was both anchored in the past (his duty: pietas) and bound to the future (his son and the kingdom to come). His personal wishes and desires were inconsequential. He was fated to become the founder of the Roman people. Although Aeneas loved the queen of Carthage, Dido, he had to leave her on the gods' behest. Dido, abandoned by her lover and thus vulnerable to a world filled with former suitors, committed suicide. Shortly before dying, Vergil's Dido uttered a curse and foreshadowed the turbulent relationship between Carthage and Rome, which, historically, were the three Carthaginian (or Punic) Wars. Once in Italy, the Trojan newcomers fought until Aeneas killed Turnus, a leader of an indigenous tribe, the Rutulians. Aeneas then founded a new city, Lavinium, named after his Latin wife, Lavinia. There the Trojan penates found a new home. Turnus' killing, which forms the ending of Vergil's epic, is disturbing but also signals to the reader that Rome was born in blood and that it came about and was defined by aggression and war.


Three women played crucial roles in Aeneas' journey from Troy to Lavinium: Creusa, Dido, and Lavinia. Of the three, Dido was the most developed literary character and was portrayed as the most active. As a founder of a city, she not only was the equal of Aeneas but was also shown to be capable of negotiating politics and power, which were traditionally the sphere of men. While Dido outlined the area of a refuge for her and her followers, locals and envoys from surrounding cities urged the foundation of what was to become Carthage. In the Roman world of understanding, the act of founding a new city and delineating boundaries was a man's business, and founders throughout Greco-Roman history were men of heroic stature. Leading magistrates were in charge of the religious ritual that marked the area where the new city was to stand. The furrow cut by a plow along the lines delineated by the augures (interpreters of auspices) was a religious line, the pomerium, within which the city had to be built. Only in this manner could a place be considered legally and religiously a Roman city. There is no record that Alba Longa, and subsequently Lavinium, was founded in this way, nor, in fact, Rome. Tradition, however, which came to determine Roman understanding of its history, emphasized that Rome was founded by augury and auspices. Rome's success depended on its obligation to keep reciprocity between the world of humankind and that of the gods intact. The peace or harmony between these two worlds (the pax hominum and the pax deorum) was nourished by proper execution of religious rituals. Thus, Romans, whom the orator and statesman Cicero called the most religious of all people, would understand its political success in this context. As long as Romans worshiped their gods properly, Rome would be successful.


Romulus' Foundation


Rome's beginnings were humble. Its legendary founders were twin boys, Romulus and Remus, born to a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia, also known as Ilia. Her uncle Amulius usurped his brother Numitor and forced Ilia to become a priestess of Vesta. Ilia was fetching water from a spring in the sacred grove of Mars, where she was raped. Afterwards the rapist, a divine-looking man, revealed himself as Mars and prophesied that the twin boys she would bear would surpass all men. When Amulius discovered the reason the pregnant Ilia was unable to perform her official duties, he decreed that the unchaste Vestal Virgin and that her sons be put to death. An old law advised that a Vestal who had transgressed was to be buried alive or thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, located at the southeastern part of the Capitoline hill. Ilia's cousin, Antho, made a plea on her behalf, and the sentence was changed to solitary imprisonment. The twins were put in a wicker basket that was placed in the floodwaters of the Tiber River, which flowed down toward what was to become Rome.


As the floodwaters receded, the basket became wedged near to a fig tree. A she-wolf found the two babes and nourished them until a shepherd discovered them. Romulus and Remus grew up, became shepherds, and founded settlements on the Palatine and Aventine hills. The location, about fifteen miles up the Tiber from the sea in a volcanic area, provided many natural advantages, among them an excellent defensive position and access to fertile land and trade routes. Romulus, who slew his brother for scoffing at his city wall by jumping over it, became Rome's first king.


To increase the population of his foundation, Romulus allowed outlaws to settle and, because there were no women, kidnapped Sabine women during the harvest festival of the Consualia. Titus Tatius led the Sabines in retaliation against Rome. He captured the Capitol thanks to the treachery of a certain Tarpeia, who was more interested in material goods than in the well-being of her country. When the Sabines asked her what she wanted as a reward for her information (the location of a secret passage way to the Capitoline), she answered: "What you wear on your left arms." Tarpeia had her eye on the golden bracelets the Sabine wore, but the Sabines heaped their shields, which they held with their left hands, upon her. According to tradition, the location where Tarpeia was crushed by the enemies' shields received her name, the Tarpeian rock.


Sources claim that Tarpeia was either the daughter of the garrison commander (Livy) or a Vestal Virgin (Prop. 4.4). The story is a patchwork myth, for Rome did not have any women until the "rape of the Sabine women." Moreover, the idea that Tarpeia was a Vestal introduces an explanatory circularity. The place named after Tarpeia, supposedly by the first deviant Vestal Virgin, was where traditionally Vestals and criminals were put to death by being thrown off the rock. This action seems closely related to the ritual of the scapegoat, which was the purification rite a polluted city or country performed to regain lost fertility or success. The expulsion or sacrifice of a person who took on the pollution of the whole community cleansed that community of its guilt.


In antithesis to the treacherous Tarpeia stood the Sabine women, who had become loyal Roman wives and mothers. They ended the battle between their original Sabine and their new Roman families by holding up their children and appealing both to their fathers and husbands.18 Thus, Romans and Sabines became one people. The poet Ovid, however, offers a different story of the consequence of the rape.


Newly wed bride, what do you expect? Neither powerful herbs, nor prayer, nor a magic formula will make you a mother.


for there was that day, when by a harsh lot the wives
gave their husbands hardly any children.
Romulus exclaimed: "What advantage was there to me to have snatched the Sabine women,
if my injustice brought not strength but war?"


and the goddess (Juno) spoke wondrous words in her own grove,
she said: "Let the sacred he-goat go into Italian mothers."


The Romans were shocked. The Romans were shocked at the suggestion of sexual intercourse between a goat and a woman. An Etruscan augur, however, solved the puzzle. He killed a he-goat and cut straps from its hide. The women's backs were beaten with these hide straps. Nine months later, Roman men became fathers. Once more, women held the key to Rome's success and future; they became prominent either as facilitators between warring parties or as rejectors of wifely duties, only to become or be forced to be dutiful wives.


Examples from Rome's Early History


Livy's history is filled with moral lessons from which the Roman reader learned about behavior that should be either imitated or avoided. There are four examples that demonstrate proper and improper female behavior that deserve a closer look. They involve the Roman women Horatia and Lucretia, and the Etruscan women Tanaquil and Tullia. When the Romans fought the Albans, two pairs of brothers, the Roman Horatii and the Alban Curatii, were pitched against each other. They encapsulated a war between two cities that were mythologically linked. The only survivor from this encounter was a Horatius who brought home the spoils of the three Curatii. As he entered Rome, he encountered his sister, Horatia, who had been engaged to one of the Curatii. Horatia recognized the military cloak she had woven for her fiancé and began to mourn him. Horatius, enraged that his victory and Rome's triumph over its neighbor was marred by lamentation, ran his sword through Horatia, exclaiming: "Begone to your fiancé with your untimely love, you forgot your brothers dead and alive, you forgot your country. Thus shall perish every Roman woman who will mourn an enemy!" Horatius was tried for her murder but acquitted. His father pleaded successfully that if the death penalty were invoked, he would be childless and Rome would be without its liberator and bringer of imperial power. The community, however, had to be cleansed of the blood guilt incurred by Horatius' killing of his sister. He was ordered to cover his head and pass under a beam, which was to signify a yoke. Thus, Horatius was symbolically subjugated. Horatia's murder was expiated, and a civic lesson was reinforced: Roman warriors do not kill kinfolk in anger, and Roman women only support their men and their country.


The Etruscan aristocrat Tanaquil, who had married a Greek immigrant's son, Lucumo, could not endure that her husband, because of his origins, was unable to advance politically. Tanaquil did not feel any obligations toward her native country because it did not recognize her husband's abilities. Hence, the two set out for Rome, a city that promised rewards for able bodied, energetic men. Tanaquil, also a master in the art of augury, supported her husband wholeheartedly, and after years of hard work, including diligent networking, Lucius Tarquinius, the former immigrant Lucumo from Tarquinia, was chosen king.


Tanaquil also chose her husband's successor, Servius Tullius, whom divine signs had marked worthy of kingship. Livy pinpoints Tullius' daughter, Tullia, as the source of Rome's crisis. In Livy's narrative, Tullia, emulating her grandmother, had her father and her husband murdered. She even "usurped the rights of men by literally invading their territory, in a brutally open fashion" when she drove a chariot over Servius Tullius' corpse, which lay abandoned in the street. Tullia's second husband, Tarquin the Proud, subsequently became king, but with such beginnings, no good would come of this. Immoral actions triggered punishment, and, for Tarquin the Proud, this meant loss of kingship.


Tarquinia's downfall began very innocently. A war Rome was fighting reached a stalemate. Rome's leading men, who had nothing to do, decided to ride home. Everywhere they went, they found wives being merry and enjoying themselves. The exception was Lucretia, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus' wife, who was spinning industriously together with slaves by lamplight. Livy expertly juxtaposes the merry-making wives' behavior with what is projected as the perfect behavior of a Roman matron: working the spindle and the loom in the dead of night. When he saw Lucretia, Sextus, the Etruscan king's son, fell madly in love with this paragon of a matron. He returned the following evening and, having been greeted as a guest-friend, violated every aspect of it; he raped Lucretia. The victim, whose innocence and helplessness was recognized, nevertheless was polluted, and when she decided to kill herself, neither her husband nor anyone of her family held her back. Lucretia, the victim of the crime, turned herself voluntarily into the scapegoat necessary for the communal cleansing; she even became her own executioner. Her dead body then served as the visible pledge that the Etruscan ruler, Tarquin, had to be expelled.


Transgression was answered with aggression unleashed on an internal foe, which had earlier been directed at an external enemy but had produced a stalemate, boredom, and, ultimately, rape instead of victory. Lucretia's body was also a warning that aggression within a group led to societal disintegration and, in the end, to Rome's downfall. The violated female body featured prominently in Rome's early history, maybe because the fear of disintegration, even obliteration, was so real.


Archaeological data confirm written source material that violent changes occurred in the late sixth century and early fifth century BCE, a time linked to Rome's last king, the Etruscan Tarquin the Proud. His ascension to power came after his wife murdered her father, and his reign extended into the initial period of the early Republic. Literary tradition turned a domestic dispute among the Tarquin family into a struggle between a tyrannical Etruscan overlord and Romans, who were ready to govern themselves. More likely, though, the Etruscan warlord Lars Porsenna of Clusium ousted Tarquin. The Romans, in turn, defeated Porsenna at Aricia in 504 BCE, and subsequently, Rome came in conflict with its Latin neighbors.


Early Republican Rome


Embedded within the narratives of early Republican Rome, which deal primarily with aggression and war, are stories of women. The first account features a heroine, Cloelia, whose act of courage saved young Roman men. The second is about Coriolanus' mother and wife who pled against internal division and civil war for Rome's unity. The final story features the killing of a young woman, Verginia, which in turn spawned political reform.


Mucius and Cloelia


Livy highlights two heroic deeds in connection with Lars Porsenna's occupation. One is Gaius Mucius Scaevola's demonstration of manliness (virtus), and the other is a woman's, Cloelia's, leadership in rescuing a band of female Roman hostages. Although Cloelia was far more successful in her endeavor than Mucius, Livy recounts her action in much less detail than that of the heroic Mucius. In fact, Livy makes Cloelia's action dependent on Mucius' deed. His undercover action had to fascinate the historian much more, mainly because men's military exploits not women's fashioned Roman history. Yet Cloelia's heroism was so extraordinary that even Livy's narrative structure cannot obscure it. Since Cloelia's endeavor is set against Mucius', a quick sketch of the latter's feat is warranted.


Mucius crossed the river Tiber and entered the enemy's camp in an attempt to kill Porsenna. Unfortunately, Mucius mistook Porsenna's scribe for the warlord and killed him. Porsenna's bodyguard seized Mucius and brought him before the man he intended to kill. In turn, Porsenna ordered Mucius killed (thrown into a fire) unless he divulged the Roman plot to kill him. Mucius put his right hand into the fire. As it burned, he explained how little Roman men thought their bodies were worth compared to the glory (gloria) that comes with killing an enemy. An impressed Porsenna freed Mucius. Upon his release, Mucius told Porsenna that there were three hundred other young Romans who were willing to risk their lives as he had done. Livy's Porsenna is disturbed by Mucius' blunder (error) in not recognizing that his life had been spared. Nevertheless, Porsenna and Rome reached, at least in this traditional story, a peace agreement. The Etruscans then left the area with Roman hostages as peace guarantors, among them the future heroine Cloelia.


In the Mucius narrative, Livy's use of the words fortuna (fate), ignoro (to be ignorant of), error, gloria, and virtus deserves a closer look. The concept of fortuna, or in Greek, tuchē, is one that features predominantly in Polybius' work as the dynamic force that drives human action; that is historical events, which when recorded, become history. Tuchē also connotes a degree of randomness—fate is blind—as well as the linear, that is, the sequential ordering of cause and effect. Cause and effect can be interrupted, and the true hero or heroine is the one who adapts most adroitly to a new, unforeseen situation. Livy's Mucius refrained from asking Porsenna's identity "lest his ignorance of the king would reveal who he was (ne ignorando regem semet ipse aperiret quis esset)." Hence, Mucius, without crucial information, had no choice but to follow (blind) fate after he was captured; he assumed the king's scribe to be Porsenna. We might wonder about such a haphazard undertaking and ask how the Roman elders (the patres) could have supported such an ill-planned action as sending Mucius alone into the enemy camp. Under such conditions, the chance of success was small, and error, the most likely consequence. On the other hand, such extreme risk taking makes Mucius a warrior par excellence. He demonstrated physical courage, endurance, strength, and skill and displayed honor. These are the values that make a warrior. The Latin word virtus (manliness) embodied these qualities of courage, endurance, strength, and skill; honor is the reward the individual could enjoy. Gloria (glory) is honor memorialized from which not only the individual but also his family could reap future benefits.


Unlike the deeds of the Scaevolae, who furnished the Roman state with prominent politicians during the late Republican period, Cloelia's heroic deed did not produce gloria. Livy introduces her action as inspired (exitatae) by Mucius' virtue. She showed physical courage and endurance, and under Cloelia's leadership, the Roman women who were held hostage (she was one of them) eluded armed Etruscan guards by swimming across the Tiber. From beginning to end, Cloelia exhibited strength and skill. Livy marks Cloelia as a warrior type when he labels her dux agminis virginum (a military leader of a military column composed of girls of marriageable age). Lars Porsenna declared Cloelia's action greater than that of Mucius because she succeeded and also praised Cloelia's virtue (virtus). Here Livy's voice comes through in the guise of the Etruscan leader's voice. As such it is safe and does not take away from Mucius' heroism. Lars Porsenna was the other, the Etruscan enemy, who was free to say anything, in this case, that a woman was virtuous and more successful than a man. Whatever Livy made Porsenna say in no way diminished what Roman tradition had established; virtue was a manly trait.


Cloelia's successful flight, however, infuriated Porsenna, who demanded her return and promised that he would give her back. Porsenna and the Romans agreed; after all, war and negotiations were men's business. Once in control again over actions, the Etruscan king and the Romans were able to work out an agreement. Porsenna, who was allowed to save face, in turn, gave Cloelia the choice of taking half of the Roman hostages, which were in the Etruscan camp, home with her. The Roman heroine chose boys below the age of puberty (impubes), the group most vulnerable to (personal) injury (eam aetatem potissimum liberari ab hoste quae maxime opportuna iniuriae esset), thereby demonstrating a strong sense of civic responsibility. Livy's Cloelia understood that a loss of future warriors was harmful to the state and that these young men, if not freed, would be exposed to an Etruscan rather than a Roman life during their most formative years.


The Romans commemorated Cloelia's virtue with a new kind of honor (novo genere honoris), an equestrian statue with a virgo (unmarried woman). Traditionally, equestrian statues were reserved solely for men. This unusual statue was placed at the top of the Sacra via. Servius stated in his commentary on Vergil's Aeneid (8.646) that the statue was still standing in his time, the fourth/fifth century CE. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing during the last decades of the Republic, however, mentioned that the statue no longer existed (5.35.2). Pliny the Elder, in his writing about bronze statues, mentions the equestrian statue of Cloelia as something "over the top" (HN 34.13), as it were. Was it not enough that she wore a toga (ceu parum esset toga eam cingi); why should Cloelia be portrayed in a statue when Lucretia and Brutus had not been, he asks.


Coriolanus, Veturia, and Volumnia


The period following the Etruscan ousting from Roman territory was marked by internal and external instability. There were tribal migrations and different ethnic groups continuously forced each other out of their acquired territories. All the while, leading Romans jostled for political power within Rome. This was the beginning of the struggle of the orders, the assertion of the plebs (the common people) that they too ought to have political rights vis-á-vis the patricians, the descendants of the elders, the patres, who had been present at Romulus' founding of Rome. Tradition, part of mythic history, puts in this time the story of the patrician Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus. This successful warrior was so distraught by the advancement of the plebs that he left Rome, only to return to Rome at the head of a Volscian army. The Volsci, an Umbrian-speaking people, controlled the southern part of Latium.


With Rome now internally divided, the Senate saw no alternative to war. The plebs, however, abhorred war (the fickle mass lacked virtus), sent Coriolanus' mother, Veturia, and his wife, Volumnia, as well as his children to plead with him. Veturia's speech convinced Coriolanus to halt his advancing troops. The key, in Livy's rendering (2.40.7), is a series of questions that moved from Rome as a country to Coriolanus' family and his household gods, still located in Rome. "Are you capable of devastating this land, which gave you birth and nourished you? (potuisti populari hanc terram, quae te genuit atque aluit?)" and "are not within these walls my house, my household gods, my mother, my wife, my children? (intra illa moenia domus ac penates mei sunt, mater coniunx liberique?)" As a result of this intercession, Coriolanus chose exile over the potential destruction of his native home. A mother, a wife, and children had stopped a fight of "brothers." In Livy's recounting and reshaping of early Roman history, we find that men tend toward aggression to resolve conflict, while women find resolution through compromise and discussion.




Another episode from the early Republic that plays on this theme of male aggression in contrast to female resolution through compromise was the appropriation of a person who legally belonged to someone else. Appius Claudius, one of ten men appointed to codify the law around 450 BCE, desired Verginia after seeing her walking on the street. Verginia's father was away on campaign at this time, and her fiancé was unable to stop Appius, thereby leaving her unprotected. Appius found a man who claimed that Verginia was a slave and, thus, Appius could simply take legal possession of Verginia. Since Verginia's father was powerless against a magistrate who socially and politically outranked him, the only option left to him to reclaim his daughter was to kill her. This he did, exclaiming: "There is only one way, my child, to make you free." As in the Lucretia story, the injustice resulted in an uprising and a readjustment of political power. The monarchy gave way to the Republic. Again, we see a private affair projected into, and resolved in, the public sphere. One man's aggression against another's asset resulted in Verginia's vindication, which provoked political reform, in this case, the reestablishment of the Republic.



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