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Women in Republican Rome

After centuries of masculine predominance, as the Republic neared its end, a host of notable women crossed the stage of Roman history—the devoted Porcia, the beautiful Julia, the Amazonian Fulvia, described here by J.P.V.D. Balsdon as “a Lady Macbeth of the Roman world”.

In the early history of republican Rome there are the heroic women of legend, and in the history of the Empire there are women of startling notoriety—among them, Claudius’ wives, Messalina and Agrippina, the mother of Nero. The women of the late Republic stand betwixt and between, neither legendary nor, for the most part, notorious.

The women of legend were good virgins, good wives or good mothers. Lucretia was a devoted wife, Verginia an incorruptible virgin. Each by her integrity caused the downfall of a tyrannical regime: the monarchy of the Tarquins in one case, and the rule of the Decemvirs in the other.

At roughly half a century’s distance, in 510 and 449, they played their celebrated and tragic parts in the launching of “liberty” and republicanism at Rome. There were also the noble mothers: Volumnia during the fifth century, whose appeals succeeded, where all previous entreaties had failed, in turning Coriolanus back from his attack on Rome; and, during the second century, Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi.

When a rich, vulgar Campanian woman called upon her, smothered in jewels and able, it seemed, to talk of nothing else, Cornelia detained her until her sons came in from school. “These,” she said, “are my jewels.” It was Cornelia who lashed her sons with the question: how long was she to be known as the daughter of Scipio, not as the mother of the Gracchi?

Pride, not culture, set the standards of social life in Volumnia’s time; and Shakespeare’s picture is as likely as not sound history, besides being great poetic art:

“The breasts of Hecuba,

When she did suckle Hector lookt not lovelier

Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood

At Grecian sword, contemning.”

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