Social Life During the Roman Republic


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She was, as M. Boissier has well said,[234] the exact counterpart of her still more famous brother: "Elle apportait dans sa conduite privée, dans ses engagements d'affection, les mêmes emportements et les mêmes ardeurs que son frère dans la vie publique. Prompte à tous les excès et ne rougissant pas de les avouer, aimant et haïssant avec fureur, incapable de se gouverner et détestant toute contrainte, elle ne démentait pas cette grande et fière famille dont elle descendait." All this is true; we need not go beyond it and believe the worst that has been said of her.

We have just a glimpse of another lady of cultus, but only a glimpse. This was Sempronia, the wife of an honest man and the mother of another;[235] but according to Sallust, who introduces her to us as a principal in the conspiracy of Catiline, she was one of those who found steady married life incompatible with literary and artistic tastes. "She could play and dance more elegantly than an honest woman should ... she played fast and loose with her money, and equally so with her good fame."[236] She had no scruples, he says, in denying a debt, or in helping in a murder: yet she had plenty of esprit, could write verses and talk brilliantly, and she knew too how to assume an air of modesty on occasion. Sallust loved to colour his portraits highly, and in painting this woman he saw no doubt a chance of literary effect; but that she was really in the conspiracy we cannot doubt, and that she had private ends to gain by it is also probable. She seems to be the first of a series of ladies who during the next century and later were to be a power in politics, and most of whom were at least capable of crime, public and private. There is indeed one instance a few years earlier of a woman exercising an almost supreme influence in the State, and a woman too of the worst kind. Plutarch tells us in the most explicit way that when Lucullus in 75 B.C. was trying to secure for himself the command against Mithridates, he found himself compelled to apply to a woman named Praecia, whose social gifts and good nature gave her immense influence, which she used with the pertinacity peculiar to such ladies. Her reputation, however, was very bad, and among other lovers she had enslaved Cethegus (afterwards the conspirator), whose power at the time was immense at Rome. Thus, says Plutarch, the whole power of the State fell into the hands of Praecia, for no public measure was passed if Cethegus was not for it, in other words, if Praecia did not recommend it to him. If the story be true, as it seems to be, Lucullus gained her over by gifts and flattery, and thus Cethegus took up his cause and got him the command.[237]

Even if we put aside as untrustworthy a great deal of what is told us of the relations of men and women in this period, it must be confessed that there is quite sufficient evidence to show that they were loose in the extreme, and show an altogether unhealthy condition of family and social life. The famous tigress of the story of Cluentius, Sassia, as she appears in Cicero's defence of him, was beyond doubt a criminal of the worst kind, however much we may discount the orator's rhetoric; and her case proves that the evil did not exist only at Rome, but was to be found even in a provincial town of no great importance. Divorce was so common as to be almost inevitable. Husbands divorced their wives on the smallest pretexts, and wives divorced their husbands.[238] Even the virtuous Cato seems to have divorced his wife Marcia in order that Hortensius should marry her, and after some years to have married her again as the widow of Hortensius, with a large fortune.[239] Cicero himself writes sometimes in the lightest-hearted way of conjugal relations which we should think most serious;[240] and we find him telling Atticus how he had met at dinner the actress Cytheris, a woman of notoriously bad character. "I did not know she was going to be there," he says, "but even the Socratic Aristippus himself did not blush when he was taunted about Lais."[241] Caesar's reputation in such matters was at all times bad, and though many of the stories about him are manifestly false, his conquest by Cleopatra was a fact, and we learn with regret that the Egyptian queen was living in a villa of his in gardens beyond the Tiber during the year 46, when he was himself in Rome.

It will be a relief to the reader, after spending so much time in this unwholesome atmosphere, to turn for a moment in the last place to a record, unique and entirely credible, of a truly good and wholesome woman, and of a long period of uninterrupted conjugal devotion. About the year 8 B.C., not long before Ovid wrote those poems in which married life was assumed to be hardly worth living, a husband in high life at Rome lost the wife who had for forty-one years been his faithful companion in prosperity, his wise and courageous counsellor in adversity. He recorded her praises and the story of her devotion to him in a long inscription, placed, as we may suppose, on the wall of the tomb in which he laid her to rest, and a most fortunate chance has preserved for us a great part of the marble on which this inscription was engraved. It is in the form of a laudatio, or funeral encomium; yet we cannot feel sure that he actually delivered it as a speech, for throughout it he addresses, not an audience, but the lost wife herself, in a manner unique among such documents of the kind as have come down to us. He speaks to her as though she were still living, though passed from his sight; and it is just this that makes it more real and more touching than any memorial of the dead that has come down to us from either Italy or Greece.[242]

In such a record names are of no great importance; it is no great misfortune that we do not know quite for certain who this man and his wife were. But there is a very strong probability that her name was Turia, and that he was a certain Q. Lucretius Vespillo, who served under Pompeius in Epirus in 48 B.C., whose romantic adventures in the proscriptions of 43 are recorded by Appian,[243] and who eventually became consul under Augustus in 19 B.C. We may venture to use these names in telling the remarkable story. For telling it here no apology is needed, for it has never been told in English as a whole, so far as I am aware.

It begins when the pair were about to be married, probably in 49 B.C., and with a horrible family calamity, not unnatural at the moment of the outbreak of a dangerous civil war. Both Turia's parents were murdered suddenly and together at their country residence--perhaps, as Mommsen suggested, by their own slaves. Immediately afterwards Lucretius had to leave with Pompeius' army for Epirus, and Turia was left alone, bereft of both her parents, to do what she could to secure the punishment of the murderers. Alone as she was, or aided only by a married sister, she at once showed the courage and energy which are obvious in all we hear of her. She seems to have succeeded in tracking the assassins and bringing them to justice: "even if I had been there myself," says her husband, "I could have done no more."

But this was by no means the only dangerous task she had to undertake in those years of civil war and insecurity. When Lucretius left her they seem to have been staying at the villa where her parents had been murdered; she had given him all her gold and pearls, and kept him supplied in his absence with money, provisions, and even slaves, which she contrived to smuggle over sea to Epirus.[244] And during the march of Caesar's army through Italy she seems to have been threatened, either in that villa or another, by some detachment of his troops, and to have escaped only through her own courage and the clemency of one whose name is not mentioned, but who can hardly be other than the great Julius himself, a true gentleman, whose instinct and policy alike it was throughout this civil war to be merciful to opponents.

A year later, while Lucretius was still away, yet another peril came upon her. While Caesar was operating round Dyrrhachium, there was a dangerous rising in Campania and Southern Italy, for which our giddy friend Caelius Rufus was chiefly responsible; gladiators and ruffianly shepherd slaves were enlisted, and by some of these the villa where she was staying was attacked, and successfully defended by her--so much at least it seems possible to infer from the fragment recently discovered.

One might think that Turia had already had her full share of trouble and danger, but there is much more to come. About this time she had to defend herself against another attack, not indeed on her person, but on her rights as an heiress. An attempt was made by her relations to upset her father's will, under which she and Lucretius were appointed equal inheritors of his property. The result of this would have been to make her the sole heiress, leaving out her husband and her married sister; but she would have been under the legal tutela or guardianship of persons whose motive in attacking the will was to obtain administration of the property.[245] No doubt they meant to administer it for their own advantage; and it was absolutely necessary that she should resist them. How she did it her husband does not tell us, but he says that the enemy retreated from his position, yielding to her firmness and perseverance (constantia). The patrimonium came, as her father had intended, to herself and her husband; and he dwells on the care with which they dealt with it, he exercising a tutela over her share, while she exercised a custodia over his. Very touchingly he adds, "but of this I leave much unsaid, lest I should seem to be claiming a share in the praise that is due to you alone."

When Lucretius returned to Italy, apparently pardoned by Caesar for the part he had taken against him, the marriage must have been consummated. Then came the murder of the Dictator, which plunged Italy once more into civil war, until in 43 Antony Octavian and Lepidus made their famous compact, and at once proceeded to that abominable work of proscription which made a reign of terror at Rome, and spilt much of the best Roman blood. The happiness of the pair was suddenly destroyed, for Lucretius found himself named in the fatal lists.[246] He seems to have been in the country, not far from Rome, when he received a message from his wife, telling him of impending peril that he might have to face at any moment, and warning him strongly against a certain rash course--perhaps an attempt to escape to Sextus Pompeius in Sicily, a course which cost the lives of many deluded victims. She implored him to return to their own house in Rome, where she had devised a secure hiding-place for him. She meant no doubt to die with him there if he were discovered.

He obeyed his good genius and made for Rome, by night it would seem, with only two faithful slaves. One of these fell lame and had to be left behind; and Lucretius, leaning on the arm of the other, approached the city gate. Suddenly they became aware of a troop of soldiers issuing from it, and Lucretius took refuge in one of the many tombs that lined the great roads outside the walls. They had not been long in this dismal hiding when they were surprised by a party of tomb-wreckers--ghouls who haunted these roads by night and lived by robbing tombs or travellers. Luckily they wanted rather to rob than to murder, and the slave gave himself up to them to be stripped, while his master, who was no doubt disguised, perhaps as a slave, contrived to slip out of their hands and reached the city gate safely. Here he waited, as we might expect him to do, for his brave companion, and then succeeded in making his way into the city and to his house, where his wife concealed him between the roof and the ceiling of one of their bedrooms, until the storm should blow over.

But neither life nor property was safe until some pardon and restitution were obtained from one at least of the triumvirs. When at last these were conceded by Octavian, he was himself absent in the campaign that ended with Philippi, and Lepidus was consul in charge of Rome. To Lepidus Turia had to go, to beg the confirmation of Octavian's grace, and this brutal man received her with insult and injury. She fell at his feet, as her husband describes with bitter indignation, but instead of being raised and congratulated, she was hustled, beaten like a slave, and driven from his presence. But her perseverance had its ultimate reward. The clemency of Octavian prevailed on his return to Italy, and this treatment of a lad; was among the many crimes that called for the eventual degradation of Lepidus.

This was the last of their perilous escapes. A long period of happy married life awaited them, more particularly after the battle of Actium, when "peace and the republic were restored." One thing only was wanting to complete their perfect felicity--they had no children. It was this that caused Turia to make a proposal to her husband which, coming from a truly unselfish woman, and seen in the light of Roman ideas of married life, is far from unnatural; but to us it must seem astonishing, and it filled Lucretius with horror. She urged that he should divorce her, and take another wife in the hope of a son and heir. If there is nothing very surprising in this from a Roman point of view, it is indeed to us both surprising and touching that she should have supported her request by a promise that she would be as much a mother to the expected children as their own mother, and would still be to Lucretius a sister, having nothing apart from him, nothing secret, and taking away with her no part of their inheritance.

To us, reading this proposal in cold blood just nineteen hundred years after it was made, it may seem foolishly impracticable; to her, whose whole life was spent in unselfish devotion to her husband's interests, whose warm love for him was always mingled with discretion, it was simply an act of pietas--of wifely duty. Yet he could not for a moment think so himself: his indignation at the bare idea of it lives for ever on the marble in glowing words. "I must confess," he says, "that the anger so burnt within me that my senses almost deserted me: that you should ever have thought it possible that we could be separated but by death, was most horrible to me. What was the need of children compared with my loyalty to you: why should I exchange certain happiness for an uncertain future? But I say no more of this: you remained with me, for I could not yield without disgrace to myself and unhappiness to both of us. The one sorrow that was in store for me was that I was destined to survive you."

These two, we may feel sure, were wholly worthy of each other. What she would have said of him, if he had been the first to go, we can only guess; but he has left a portrait of her, as she lived and worked in his household, which, mutilated though it is, may be inadequately paraphrased as follows:

"You were a faithful wife to me," he says, "and an obedient one: you were kind and gracious, sociable and friendly: you were assiduous at your spinning (lanificia): you followed the religious rites of your family and your state, and admitted no foreign cults or degraded magic (superstitio): you did not dress conspicuously, nor seek to make a display in your household arrangements. Your duty to our whole household was exemplary: you tended my mother as carefully as if she had been your own. You had innumerable other excellences, in common with all other worthy matrons, but these I have mentioned were peculiarly yours."

No one can study this inscription without becoming convinced that it tells an unvarnished tale of truth--that here was really a rare and precious woman; a Roman matron of the very best type, practical, judicious, courageous, simple in her habits and courteous to all her guests. And we feel that there is one human being, and one only, of whom she is always thinking, to whom she has given her whole heart--the husband whose words and deeds show that he was wholly worthy of her.

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Social Life in Roman Empire