Mothers and Whores: Women in Ancient Rome

This piece was written for the 6th issue of the UQ Women’s Collective Zine, titled “Herstory.”

Women in the Roman Republic and Empire are one of the most elusive parts of history. They are spoken for, but never speak; represented, but rarely for themselves. Where women feature in historical literature, the patriarchal tradition of moral history casts them into established literary archetypes: the virtuous maiden, the regal mother, the evil stepmother, the avaricious whore. And often, mentions of women in ancient Roman literary sources can be seen as reflecting opinions of the men they were associated with more than their own personalities.

At the intersection of archaeological and literary evidence, women’s historiography becomes especially interesting. Accusations of debauchery, greed, promiscuity and even treason abound – and yet, coinage, portraiture and honorific titles tell a different story. Such is the case for the four women in this piece: Fulvia, the woman who rallied armies; Livia, the virtuous matron turned evil stepmother;  Agrippina, ambitious mother and poisoning mistress; and Faustina, the depraved adulteress accused of treason.

Fulvia – the antithesis of respectability

Fulvia Flacca Bambula (80 – 40 BC) lived during the late Republic in a time of civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian (later Augustus). She was the first Roman woman to be honoured with her image on a coin; but her association with Athena (the goddess of war) on one side shows that she was not the virtuous matron she should have been. Literary sources represent her as the antithesis of respectability: wealthy and high born, but cruel and vicious, always lusting to possess more wealth and power. She incited riots on her first husband’s death, and apparently took great joy in mutilating Cicero’s severed head with her golden hair pins.

Coin from 31 BC depicting Fulvia as Nike, goddess of victory, and Athena, goddess of war.

Her third marriage to Mark Antony brought her the most notoriety, and while he was away on campaign she managed his supporters in Rome. Some sources even claim that she took up a sword herself, and together with magistrate Lucius Antonius mobilised eight legions for Mark Antony’s side in the war. In 41 BC she is said to be the most powerful figure in Rome. But her power was short-lived: Antonius lost a major siege to Octavian and Fulvia was forced to flee and died from illness soon after, allowing Antony to denounce her and reconcile with Octavian. Both men then used her as a scapegoat for the entire civil war, though how much of her portrayal is propaganda is unclear.
Continue reading this piece at Wom*news.

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