Roman Culture Mores

Women in Rome

Private Lives and Public Personae
Dr. Susan Martin
University of Tennessee


I. From the Introduction

In the late first century B.C., around the year 5, a Roman man, mourning the death of his wife, had inscribed on stone a lengthy, detailed, and extremely touching, funerary epitaph commemorating her outstanding life, character, and deeds. This woman's tombstone is the longest surviving Latin inscription erected by a private individual, consisting of two slabs, measuring 8 ft. 6 in height by 2 feet 9 in width and 3 1/2 inches thick. Each slab would have weighed 1 1/2 tons, making it likely that the inscription was erected as part of the tomb structure. This stone is impressive in content as well as sheer size, with about 180 lines of text. The stone survives in a fragmentary state and was broken up for reuse. Pieces of it have been found all over Rome, and only about half survives. The story of this inscription has changed as new fragments have been discovered, fit together, and deciphered, doling out bits of new information. Also, perhaps eerily, symbolic of our knowledge of Roman women in general is the fact that we do not know this woman's name (or her husband's, for that matter). We call her Turia, because we know of such a woman from about this period who was credited with saving her husband's life as was this one. But this identification has been refuted persuasively.

Our tombstone inscriptions are often concise - even terse: here lies so and so. But the Romans differed from us here, and felt it well worth the cost to splurge on a tombstone with a nice, wordy inscription, detailing one's career highlights or other important items. This practice extended throughout society and some of very impressive examples come from the tombs of freed slaves who had prospered financially to the extent that it was possible to afford such an expensive item. This lengthy inscription was probably delivered as her funeral oration. He addresses it directly to her.

Despite the challenges posed by gaps, authorial affection, and genre, this epitaph paints a clear picture of a woman who faced many challenges in public and in private, who managed to handle them effectively, and who presents a fascinating figure against a backdrop of social change in Rome.


II. Her Life and how it conforms to Roman realities as we know them

Let me tell you a bit about what we can reconstruct about her life from her epitaph. Turia left as her chief mourner her husband of 40 years. We know from other facts in the story that they were married between 49 and 42 B.C. - she died in the years 8-2. The couple's courtship and marriage took place during a period of extreme political instability that we - and the Romans - refer to as the civil wars. This young woman came of age in a time when civil strife in the Roman world was comparable to that in Bosnia or Palestine, except that instead of different religious groups fighting each other, we have factions of the Roman upper class engaged in armed conflict over who would control the Roman Republic. In brief, these struggles pitted the Optimates - the most noble families and members of the senatorial order led by Pompey the great (and Cicero) against the Populares - led by Julius Caesar. By the time of her death, Rome had been ruled for almost 30 years by the Emperor Augustus and had traded the tumultuous Republican form of government for imperial calm.

Both spouses clearly came from wealthy families - whether they belonged to the very highest rank in society, is unclear. The good news about this is that they had lots of money and property. The bad news is that they were enmeshed in the thick of the civil wars. Their connections at birth and as they grew would meant that they had powerful friends and powerful enemies as well. Unfortunately for them, both Turia's parents and her husband's family were on the losing side, the side of Pompey who fled Italy in advance of Julius Caesar's army after he crossed the Rubicon river in 49, and was finally killed at the end of this series of civil wars in 48 B.C.

It is realistic to suppose that Turia married at a young age. Studies of Roman evidence have shown that young women in the upper classes married young, even as early as 12. But variation was possible: Cicero's daughter Tullia was betrothed at 12, married at 16 and widow at 22. If Turia married this young, she died in her mid 50's, not a bad age for a Roman whether male or female. Life expectancy was abysmal in this era. From her behavior, we may wish to suppose that this woman married at a slightly older age, perhaps at 18 or so. It seems equally clear that she was educated, probably by tutors at home.

Bridegrooms were typically older, sometimes as old as thirty, which created a considerable age difference and has several interesting implications. First of all, women, if they survived childbirth, would frequently have been widows and therefore suitable for a second marriage. It also ensured that a considerable gap in life experience characterized these marriages. From the inscription we know that Turia was younger, but not by how much. Her husband bemoans her early passing - he should have been the first to go.

Their marriage was probably arranged by their parents. While consent was desirable, it was not necessary for the girl to give hers, and silence was interpreted as consent, a meaningless concept for 12-year-olds in any case. It is likely that the partners would have known each other; we know that in some cases, they may have even maneuvered to encourage the marriage. Usually, however, political alliance or financial interest dictated marriage partners.

The couple was childless - unusual in a society in which marriage functioned as a vehicle for preserving and further family name and fortune. They did not attempt to adopt a son into the family, a fairly common tactic to preserve families. The husband only mentions that Turia devoted herself and her money to raising and marrying off female relatives otherwise unspecified - and that this offered them advantages they would otherwise not have had.


III. Deeds

Much of the epitaph deals with a recitation of Turia's deeds. We expect language of praise, much of it extremely conventional. These conventions are observed here although you can tell that this isn't the part of the story he is interested in:

"Why should I mention your domestic virtues, your loyalty, obedience, affability, reasonableness, industry in working wool, religion without superstition, sobriety of attire, modesty of appearance?"

To these qualities he adds one other, of special importance: She is unparalleledin her devotion to and defense of the family. Few women, he remarks, have been as challenged in this regard as she. Here we come to the truly exceptional part of this epitaph.

He relates a series of episodes in which Turia was called upon to take extraordinary action to defend her own or family interests. These actions required her to cross the boundary of her threshold, so to speak, and to act in ways which may have been unprecedented for women before this age of uncertainty. As you will have gathered by now, this was not women's appropriate sphere of activity: they had no political rights. But the women of Turia's generation were challenged differently, and she, at least was prepared to meet the challenge.

The first situation happened when she was betrothed but not yet a bride. As he puts it, "You became an orphan suddenly before the day of our wedding, when both your parents were murdered together in the solitude of the countryside. It was mainly due to your efforts that the death of your parents was not left unavenged. For I had left for Macedonia and your sister's husband Cluvius had gone to the Province of Africa. So strenuously did you perform your filial duty by your insistent demands and your pursuit of justice that we could not have done more if we had been present. But these merits you have in common with that most virtuous lady your sister. While you were engaged in these things, having secured the punishment of the guilty, you immediately left you own house in order to guard your modesty and you came to my mother's house, where you awaited my return."

The murder of her parents, certainly the most shocking event of this woman's young life, may have been linked to the political climate. The fact that the murderers appear to have been easily identified enhances this interpretation as does the surrounding context of violence. The were probably killed by political enemies who hoped to profit in some way. This event must have directly coincided with the flight from Italy of those allied with Pompey after Caesar's invasion. Both the sister's husband Cluvius and the fiance take off for the east - as did many of Pompey's supporters. With the deaths of their parents, the two sisters are left on their own. Whatever fight they engaged in, it is vaguely worded - we hear only of the "punishment of the guilty." Notice that Turia immediately enters the house of her future inlaws, an act he commends as proper. Her behavior is characterized by pietas and devoted to the custodia pudicitiae.

An insight into the murder of her parents might also come from the next part of the text where he alludes to a legal fight which ensued in the aftermath of the death of both parents. This is a complicated business: On the death of her parents, Turia was named, along with her fiance, as heir to her father's will. This is not insignificant since wills were the primary means of transferring wealth in this society. She stood to become a very wealth woman and her fiance also would benefit, perhaps in an equal share. The sister was presumably mentioned in the will as a legatee. The reason for this may be that she had married with manus and became technically part of her husband's family.

The will was attacked on extremely technical legal grounds. The attackers claimed that the father's will had become invalid. Under the rules of intestate succession, only Turia would have been an heir. But she would have required a guardian. The attackers claimed to be distant family relations - gentiles - and as such, were petitioning to be named her guardians according to the rules on intestate succession. These people had one purpose: to claim guardianship of Turia and control her fortune.(2)

Once again, she fights and wins. Her husband describes her steadfastness and resolution in the face of this challenge and in asserting the truth of the situation: The will had not been broken and even if it had, the attackers had no standing as members of any clan or extended family of hers. Again, the details are left murky. Whatever means she took to achieve these ends are suppressed.

Let me pause for a moment to discuss important institutions revealed by this episode. First of all, this family is explicitly old-fashioned in its ways. Marriage with manus was falling out of favor as far as we know: it created a marriage in which the wife entered a legal state of dependence on her husband who had legal control of her property. The preferred form of marriage in Turia's day was the so-called "free marriage" in which the woman remained part of her own family and, on her father's death, achieved control over her property. (This type of marriage favored keeping family fortunes with the family. Gifts between husbands and wives were not valid.) (It is possible that Turia's family had intended for her to marry with manus, therefore the provision of her fiance as co-heir. He was being readied for the marriage that would give him control over her affairs. But this may not have been the case.)

Secondly, there is the institution of guardianship. A woman whose male ancestors (males in her father's line of his generation or before) had died was required to have a guardian throughout her life if her father wasn't living. The tutor was required to approve the woman's business dealings, women being regarded as not having the seriousness of mind necessary to conduct business. This institution had weakened substantially by this time, and became weaker so that women could name their own tutors or under certain circumstances be allowed not to have one. However, the sort of adverse guardianship that would have been created by Turia's opponents would surely have been neither tolerant nor beneficial to her interests.

Concerning her fiance's - or perhaps husband's - absence on this occasion, more should be said, as this circumstance sets the stage for her further extraordinary acts. As mentioned earlier, it seems likely that his alliance was with Pompey. After Pompey's death in 48, all of his followers were forbidden to return to Italy without special permission. Turia saves the situation: She talks him into hiding himself and he follows her superior judgement. She organized his finances during this exile, and managed to sneak money, servants and provisions to him. This saved his life. As if this weren't enough, during his absence, a gang attempted to break into their house - purchased from T. Annius Milo, a famous politico and peter-do-well, known to us principally because of a speech Cicero composed in defense of Milo on a charge of murder. Her husband describes her as warding them off and defending the house.

In his absence, his troubles increase. Caesar's successors, including his great-nephew, the future emperor Augustus, Marcus Antonius, and the much less accomplished Marcus Lepidus became the new force to reckon with, as partners in the 2nd Triumvirate. They immediately set about solidifying their control and getting rid of their enemies. It seems clear that her husband, as one of these, was "proscribed." This means that his name appeared on a list of enemies of the triumvirs - there were thousands of them, Cicero being the most famous. These individuals were marked for death and their property was Confi scated. Her last, and from his point of view, greatest act of heroism, occurred when he was proscribed. She worked assiduously to persuade the future emperor to recall her husband. He proved persuadable, but another of the triumvirs, Lepidus, disagreed, and he actually had the administration of Italy at this time. She implored him, an act her husband calls, "The bitterest thing that happened to me in my life."

"You lay prostrate at his feet, and you were not only not raised up, but were dragged away and carried off brutally like a slave. But although your body was full of bruises, your spirit was unbroken and you kept reminding him of Caesar's edict... you pronounced the words of the edict in a loud voice, so that it should be known who was the cause of my deadly perils. This matter was soon to prove harmful for him."

Of course, Lepidus was discarded by his two colleagues within a few years, although we can't attribute it to this episode.

In all of these episodes, we can see Turia's extraordinarily resolute and effective behavior in confronting violence, legal trickery, brigandage, political enmity. She must have repeatedly been called upon to act aggressively outside the home. Her main weapons are her courage, tenacity, and conviction; these traits, along with the confidence and education her status gave her, her apparent persuasiveness, and her family connections brought about her success in each case. The vague wording of the epitaph conceals the rest.


IV. The rest of the marriage

The husband's account of the rest of the marriage accords well with that cardinal virtue of Roman marriage: concordia, harmony. He makes a point of mentioning that they share control of finances - he supervising hers and she his. Similarly, they collaborate with the sister and brother in law in raising and endowing female relatives in her family whose prospects would not other wise have been so rosy. These comments are, of course, to a certain extent self-serving. In law, if they were married with manus, he had control over her property in the way a living father would have: total control. However, the tone of the inscription does lead us to credit his account somewhat. There were lots of ways to define concordia, and it seems clear that in his mind his wife's judgment was as good as his. This could easily be accommodated within the Roman view of marriage, particularly since many women at this time managed their own finances with the guardian serving as a rubber stamp.

One notable fact of their marriage was that they had no children. He records each of their reactions to this and each is extraordinary. Acting on the, not surprising, Roman conviction that infertility was the woman's fault, Turia offered to divorce him, help find a suitable bride, then live in the household and help care for the children. There were precedents for infertility as the basis for divorce so she may have simply been offering what was commonplace. He records his anger at her suggestion that he might sacrifice their happiness in this way and devotes a lot of space to refuting this suggestion in what would appear to be a sincere affirmation of the success of the marriage. What is interesting about his reaction is that by 18 B.C., their behavior was considered anti-social. Acting to promote marriage, Augustus had erected a system of rewards and punishments to promote child bearing among the upper classes. This is no where mentioned in the inscription - Augustus is soundly praised as the husband's savior. It is likely that by this time, after 27 years of marriage, Turia would have been regarded as too old to fall under this legislation, another reason to suppose that she married later rather than earlier.


V. Sum her up

At this point, it is time to put Turia into context and ask first of all what image we have of her from her husband's epitaph and secondly, how well it accords with what we know about women of this period.

In the rhetoric of her funerary inscription, Turia embodies every attribute of the perfect Roman matron as it was articulated in this culture. She exemplifies the cardinal virtues: pietas, pudicitia, concordia. To top it off, she is a UNIVIRA, the one-man-woman. One critic has described her as a throwback, more appropriate to the mores of Rome of 100 years earlier or more. There is much about this view that is correct, but I am not sure it captures the whole woman or her reactions to the tensions of her age.

There is no question that Turia exemplifies the potential for strength in the conventional model of Roman womanhood She was raised to expect to live an entirely private life, as Roman matrons were expected to do. Indeed, no public role apart from participation in religious festivities was appropriate for a woman of this status group. Yet over and over again that she finds herself in public roles and she accepts and handles them with extraordinary success. According to the logic of the inscription, there is nothing wrong with behaving in a strong decisive manner: Everything depends upon the motivation. Her considerable bravery and deeds are consistently cast in terms of self-sacrifice and devotion to family. No aristocratic man would have been held to the same standard of selflessness - they were expected to be able to list a long series of deeds and honors they had acquired mainly for the glory. The aristocratic creed that governed Roman men's lives is, if you examine it, remarkably self-centered and conspicuously based on a constant need for recognition and honor. Not so for the women.

Turia lived in a time of considerable social ferment when the conventional attitudes towards women were being seriously challenged. I think we have to ask whether between the lines we can see her as a part of this challenge. Obviously she was no radical. Her age saw plenty of examples of extreme behavior: we see women such as the notorious Clodia and Sempronia, depicted as living lives of considerable freedom. Juvenal, the satirist of the first century A.D. gives us some insight into this (see Shelton p. 300-301) from his vantage point of 100 years later:

" Really annoying is the woman who, as soon as she takes her place on the dining couch, praises Vergil, excuses Dido's suicide, compares and ranks in critical order the various poets, and weight vergil and Homer on pair of scales...Don't marry a woman who speaks like an orator or knows every history bookThere should be some things which she doesn't understand...I hate a woman who reads and rereads Palaemon's treatise on grammar, who always obeys all the laws and rules of correct speech...Let her correct the grammar of her stupid girlfriend! A husband should be allowed an occasional 'I ain't'.'.

The "bad girls" were challenging the norms by having love affairs, speaking their minds, and generally breaking away from the confines of ideal Roman womanhood. And there was real substantive change in women's rights: the kind of marriage Turia's sister contracted was out of style, replaced by the 'free marriage' that left women with more control of their business interests. Divorce was frequent as the bonds of the arranged marriage began to chafe a bit. Cultural critics also saw women's attempts to control their fertility as a sign, perhaps dangerous, of autonomy, of putting themselves above society and its needs. We can see in Turia herself as well as other examples that a certain degree of education and perhaps legal sophistication had been achieved. One has to ask whether Turia would have participated in the curious "women's revolt" recorded by several ancient authors. In this episode, Hortensia, the daughter of the famous orator, was praised for the speech she delivered in 42 B.C.. She was one of the 1400 wealthy women whose male relatives had been proscribed and were themselves being taxed to pay the expenses of the triumvirs. The women beseeched Octavian's sister and mother and won them over, but failed to persuade Marc Antony's wife Fulvia. Repulsed by her, the women forced their way into the Forum and Hortensia spoke on their behalf. The speech is praised by Quintilian 100 yrs. later as "still read and not merely as a compliment to her sex." (Quint. 1.1.6) Despite their anger, the trimvirs reduced the number of women to be taxed to 400 and imposed further taxes on men.

We will never know how Turia herself would have characterized her actions - did she subscribe to the more assertive and action-oriented female model prevalent during her youth? Did she take action to protect her own interests as much as her families? Or was she really was the model house-bound wife thrust into difficult circumstances? These interpretations are not mutually exclusive and she may have embodied a bit of each. By the time of her death, however, there was a backlash, aimed not just at women, but against an era in which society's bonds seemed to be fraying. As we have seen, the emperor Augustus intervened with legislation criminalizing adultery and promoting procreation among the upper classes. The traditional vocabulary of praise and blame continued to apply to women as it had since the earliest days of Rome, masking whatever real gains women had actually achieved. The epitaph is consistent with this language and depicts Turia successfully negotiating the treacherous gulf between praise and blame in a way that casts credit on herself and on her husband. So she will remain a bit of a mystery.


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