W. Warde Fowler.

Social life at Rome in the Age of Cicero online

. (page 9 of 24)
Online LibraryW. Warde FowlerSocial life at Rome in the Age of Cicero → online text (page 9 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of ritual. In two other forms, besides confarreatio, the bride could
be brought under the hand of her husband, viz., _coemptio_ and _usus_,
with which we are not here specially concerned; for long before the
last century of the Republic all three methods had become practically
obsolete, or were only occasionally used for particular purposes. In
the course of time it had been found more convenient for a woman to
remain after her marriage in the hand of her father, or if he were
dead, in the "tutela" of a guardian (tutor), than to pass into that
of her husband; for in the latter case her property became absolutely
his. The natural tendency to escape from the restrictions of marital
_manus_ may be illustrated by a case such as the following: a woman
under the _tutela_ of a guardian wishes to marry; if she does so, and
passes under the _manus_ of her husband, her _tutor_ loses all control
over her property, which may probably be of great importance for
the family she is leaving; he therefore naturally objects to such a
marriage, and urges that she should be married without _manus_.[211]
In fact the interests of her own family would often clash with those
of the one she was about to enter, and a compromise could be effected
by the abandonment of marriage _cum manu_.

Now this, the abandonment of marriage _cum manu_, means simply that
certain legal consequences of the marriage ceremony were dropped,
and with them just those parts of the ceremony which produced these
consequences. Otherwise the marriage was absolutely as valid for all
purposes private and public as it could be made even by confarreatio
itself. The sacramental part was absent, and the survival of the
features of marriage by purchase, which we may see in the form of
coemptio, was also absent; but in all other respects the marriage
ceremony was the same as in marriage _cum manu_. It retained all
essential religious features, losing only a part of its legal
character. It will be as well briefly to describe a Roman wedding of
the type common in the last two centuries of the Republic.

To begin with, the boy and girl - for such they were, as we should look
on them, even at the time of marriage - have been betrothed, in all
probability, long before. Cicero tells us that he betrothed his
daughter Tullia to Calpurnius Piso Frugi early in 66 B.C.; the
marriage took place in 63. Tullia seems to have been born in 76, so
that she was ten years old at the time of betrothal and thirteen at
that of marriage. This is probably typical of what usually happened;
and it shows that the matter was really entirely in the hands of the
parents. It was a family arrangement, a _mariage de convenance_,
as has been and is the practice among many peoples, ancient and
modern.[212] The betrothal was indeed a promise rather than a definite
contract, and might be broken off without illegality; and thus if
there were a strong dislike on the part of either girl or boy a way of
escape could be found.[213] However this may be, we may be sure that
the idea of the marriage was not that of a union for love, though it
was distinguished from concubinage by an "affectio maritalis" as well
as by legal forms, and though a true attachment might, and often did,
as in modern times in like circumstances, arise out of it. It was the
idea of the service of the family and the State that lay at the root
of the union. This is well illustrated, like so many other Roman
ideas, in the _Aeneid_ of Virgil. Those who persist in looking on
Aeneas with modern eyes, and convict him of perfidy towards Dido,
forget that his passion for Dido was a sudden one, not sanctioned by
the gods or by favourable auspices, and that the ultimate union with
Lavinia, for whom he forms no such attachment, was one which would
recommend itself to every Roman as justified by the advantage to the
State. The poet, it is true, betrays his own intense humanity in
his treatment of the fate of Dido, but he does so in spite of his
theme, - the duty of every Roman to his family and the State. A Roman
would no doubt fall in love, like a youth of any other nation, but his
passion had nothing to do with his life of duty as a Roman. This idea
of marriage had serious consequences, to which we shall return later
on.

When the day for the wedding arrives, our bride assumes her bridal
dress, laying aside the toga praetexta of her childhood and dedicating
her dolls to the Lar of her family; and wearing the reddish veil
(_flammeum_) and the woollen girdle fastened with a knot called the
knot of Hercules,[214] she awaits the arrival of the bridegroom in
her father's house. Meanwhile the auspices are being taken;[215] in
earlier times this was done by observing the flight of birds, but now
by examination of the entrails of a victim, apparently a sheep. If
this is satisfactory the youthful pair declare their consent to the
union and join their right hands as directed by a pronuba, i.e. a
married woman, who acts as a kind of priestess. Then after another
sacrifice and a wedding feast, the bride is conducted from her old
home to that of her husband, accompanied by three boys, sons of living
parents, one carrying a torch while the other two lead her by either
hand; flute-players go before, and nuts are thrown to the boys. This
_deductio_, charmingly described in the beautiful sixty-fifth poem of
Catullus, is full of interesting detail which must be omitted here.
When the bridegroom's house is reached, the bride smears the doorposts
with fat and oil and ties a woollen fillet round each: she is
then lifted over the threshold, is taken by her husband into the
partnership of fire and water - the essentials of domestic life - and
passes into the atrium. The morrow will find her a materfamilias,
sitting among her maids in that atrium, or in the more private
apartments behind it:

Claudite ostia, virgines
Lusimus satis. At boni
Coniuges, bene vivite, et
Munere assiduo valentem
Exercete iuventam.

Even the dissipated Catullus could not but treat the subject of
marriage with dignity and tenderness, and in this last stanza of his
poem he alludes to the duties of a married pair in language which
would have satisfied the strictest Roman. He has also touched another
chord which would echo in the heart of every good citizen, in the
delicious lines which just precede those quoted, and anticipate the
child - a son of course - that is to be born, and that will lie in
his mother's arms holding out his little hands, and smiling on his
father.[216] Nothing can better illustrate the contrast in the mind
of the Roman between passionate love and serious marriage than a
comparison of this lovely poem with those which tell the sordid
tale of the poet's intrigues with Lesbia (Clodia). The beauty and
_gravitas_ of married life as it used to be are still felt and still
found, but the depths of human feeling are not stirred by them. Love
lies beyond, is a fact outside the pale of the ordered life of the
family or the State.

No one who studies this ceremonial of Roman marriage, in the light of
the ideas which it indicates and reflects, can avoid the conclusion
that the position of the married woman must have been one of
substantial dignity, calling for and calling out a corresponding type
of character. Beyond doubt the position of the Roman materfamilias was
a much more dignified one than that of the Greek wife. She was far
indeed from being a mere drudge or squaw; she shared with her husband
in all the duties of the household, including those of religion, and
within the house itself she was practically supreme.[217] She lived in
the atrium, and was not shut away in a women's chamber; she nursed her
own children and brought them up; she had entire control of the female
slaves who were her maids; she took her meals with her husband, but
sitting, not reclining, and abstaining from wine; in all practical
matters she was consulted, and only on questions political or
intellectual was she expected to be silent. When she went out arrayed
in the graceful _stola matronalis_, she was treated with respect,
and the passers-by made way for her; but it is characteristic of
her position that she did not as a rule leave the house without the
knowledge of her husband, or without an escort.[218]

In keeping with this dignified position was the ideal character of the
materfamilias. Ideal we must call it, for it does not in all respects
coincide with the tradition of Roman women even in early times; but
we must remember that at all periods of Roman history the woman whose
memory survives is apt to be the woman who is not the ideal matron,
but one who forces herself into notice by violating the traditions of
womanhood. The typical matron would assuredly never dream of playing
a part in history; her influence was behind the scenes, and therefore
proportionally powerful. The legendary mother of Coriolanus (the
Volumnia of Shakespeare), Cornelia the mother of the Gracchi, Aurelia,
Caesar's mother, and Julia his daughter, did indirectly play a far
greater part in public life than the loud and vicious ladies who have
left behind them names famous or infamous; but they never claimed the
recognition of their power.

This peculiar character of the Roman matron, a combination of dignity,
industry, and practical wisdom, was exactly suited to attract the
attention of a gentle philosopher like Plutarch, who loved, with
genuine moral fervour, all that was noble and honest in human nature.
Not only does he constantly refer to the Roman ladies and their
character in his _Lives_ and his _Morals_, but in his series of more
than a hundred "Roman questions" the first nine, as well as many
others, are concerned with marriage and the household life; and in
his treatise called _Coniugalia praecepta_ he reflects many of
the features of the Roman matron. From him, in Sir Thomas North's
translation, Shakespeare drew the inspiration which enabled him to
produce on the Elizabethan stage at least one such typical matron. In
Coriolanus he has followed Plutarch so closely that the reader may
almost be referred to him as an authority; and in the contrast between
the austere and dignified Volumnia and the passionate and voluptuous
Cleopatra of the later play, the poet's imagination seems to have been
guided by a true historical instinct.

We need not doubt that the austere matron of the old type survived
into the age we are specially concerned with; but we hardly come
across her in the literature of the time, just because she was living
her own useful life, and did not seek publicity. Chance has indeed
preserved for us on stone the story of a wonderful lady, whose early
years of married life were spent in the trying time of the civil wars
of 49-43 B.C., and who, if a devoted husband's praises are to be
trusted, as indeed they may be, was a woman of the finest Roman cast,
and endowed with such a combination of practical virtues as we should
hardly have expected even in a Roman matron. But we shall return to
this inscription later on.

The ladies whom we meet with in Cicero's letters and in the other
literature of the last age of the Republic are not of this type. Since
the second Punic war the Roman lady has changed, like everything else
Roman. It is not possible here to trace the history of the change
in detail, but we may note that it seems to have begun within the
household, in matters of dress and expense, and later on affected the
life and bearing of women in society and politics. Marriages cum manu
became unusual: the wife remained in the potestas of her father, who
in most cases, doubtless, ceased to trouble himself about her, and as
her property did not pass to her husband, she could not but obtain a
new position of independence. Women began to be rich, and in the
year 169 B.C. a law was passed (lex Voconia) forbidding women of the
highest census[219] (who alone would probably be concerned) to inherit
legacies. Even before the end of the great war, and when private
luxury would seem out of place, it had been proposed to abolish the
Oppian law, which placed restrictions on the ornaments and apparel of
women; and in spite of the vehement opposition of Cato, then a young
man, the proposal was successful.[220] At the same time divorce, which
had probably never been impossible though it must have been rare,[221]
began to be a common practice. We find to our surprise that the
virtuous Aemilius Paullus, in other respects a model paterfamilias,
put away his wife, and when asked why he did so, replied that a woman
might be excellent in the eyes of her neighbours, but that only a
husband could tell where the shoe pinched.[222] And in estimating the
changed position of women within the family we must not forget the
fact that in the course of the long and unceasing wars of the second
century B.C., husbands were away from home for years together, and in
innumerable cases must have perished by the sword or pestilence, or
fallen into the hands of an enemy and been enslaved. It was inevitable
that as the male population diminished, as it undoubtedly did in
that century, the importance of woman should proportionately have
increased. Unfortunately too, even when the husbands were at home,
their wives sometimes seem to have wished to be rid of them. In 180
B.C. the consul Piso was believed to have been murdered by his wife,
and whether the story be true or not, the suspicion is at least
significant.[223] In 154 two noble ladies, wives of consulares, were
accused of poisoning their husbands and put to death by a council of
their own relations.[224] Though the evidence in these cases is not
by any means satisfactory, yet we can hardly doubt that there was a
tendency among women of the highest rank to give way to passion and
excitement; the evidence for the Bacchanalian conspiracy of 186 B.C.,
in which women played a very prominent part, is explicit, and shows
that there was a "new woman" even then, who had ceased to be satisfied
with the austere life of the family and with the mental comfort
supplied by the old religion, and was ready to break out into
recklessness even in matters which were the concern of the State.[225]
That they had already begun to exercise an undue influence over their
husbands in public affairs seems suggested by old Cato's famous dictum
that "all men rule over women, we Romans rule over all men, and our
wives rule over us."[226]

But it would be a great mistake to suppose that the men themselves
were not equally to blame. Wives do not poison their husbands without
some reason for hating them, and the reason is not difficult to guess.
It is a fact beyond doubt that in spite of the charm of family life as
it has been described above, neither law nor custom exacted conjugal
faithfulness from a husband.[227] Old Cato represents fairly well the
old idea of Roman virtue, yet it is clear enough, both from Plutarch's
_Life_ of him (e.g. ch. xxiv.) and from fragments of his own writings,
that his view of the conjugal relation was a coarse one, - that he
looked on the wife rather as a necessary agent for providing the State
with children than as a helpmeet to be tended and revered. And this
being so, we are not surprised to find that men are already beginning
to dislike and avoid marriage; a most dangerous symptom, with which a
century later Augustus found it impossible to cope. In the year 131,
just after Tiberius Gracchus had been trying to revive the population
of Italy by his agrarian law, Metellus Macedonicus the censor did what
he could to induce men to marry "liberorum creandorum causa"; and a
fragment of a speech of his on this subject became famous afterwards,
as quoted by Augustus with the same object. It is equally
characteristic of Roman humour and Roman hardness. "If we could do
without wives," he said to the people, "we should be rid of that
nuisance: but since nature has decreed that we can neither live
comfortably with them nor live at all without them, we must e'en look
rather to our permanent interests than to a passing pleasure."[228]

Now if we take into account these tendencies, on the part both of men
and women in the married state, and further consider the stormy
and revolutionary character of the half century that succeeded the
Gracchi, - the Social and Civil Wars, the proscriptions of Marius and
Sulla, - we shall be prepared to find the ladies of Cicero's time by no
means simply feminine in charm or homely in disposition. Most of them
are indeed mere names to us, and we have to be careful in weighing
what is said of them by later writers. But of two or three of them we
do in fact know a good deal.

The one of whom we really know most is the wife of Cicero, Terentia:
an ordinary lady, of no particular ability or interest, who may stand
as representative of the quieter type of married woman. She lived with
her husband about thirty years, and until towards the end of that
period, a long one for the age, we find nothing substantial against
her. If we had nothing but Cicero's letters to her, more than twenty
in number, and his allusions to her in other letters, we should
conclude that she was a faithful and on the whole a sensible wife. But
more than once he writes of her delicate health,[229] and as the poor
lady had at various times a great deal of trouble to go through, it is
quite possible that as she grew older she became short in her temper,
or trying in other ways to a husband so excitable and vacillating. We
find stories of her in Plutarch and elsewhere which represent her as
shrewish, too careful of her own money, and so on;[230] but facts are
of more account than the gossip of the day, and there is not a sign in
the letters that Cicero disliked or mistrusted her until the year 47.
Had there really been cause for mistrust it would have slipped out in
some letter to Atticus. Then, after his absence during the war,
he seems to have believed that she had neglected himself and his
interests: his letters to her grow colder and colder, and the last is
one which, as has been truly said, a gentleman would not write to
his housekeeper. The pity of it is that Cicero, after divorcing her,
married a young and rich wife, and does not seem to have behaved very
well to her. In a letter to Atticus (xii. 32) he writes that Publilia
wanted to come to him with her mother, when he was at Astura devoting
himself to grief for his daughter, and that he had answered that he
wished to be let alone. The letter shows Cicero at his worst, for once
heartless and discourteous; and if he could be so to a young lady who
wished to do her duty by him, what may he not have been to Terentia? I
suspect that Terentia was quite as much sinned against as sinning;
and may we not believe that of the innumerable married women who
were divorced at this time some at least were the victims of their
husbands' callousness rather than of their own shortcomings?

The wife of Cicero's brother Quintus does, however, seem to have been
a difficult person to get on with. She was a sister of Atticus, but
she did not share her brother's tact and universal good-will. Marcus
Cicero has recorded (_ad Att._ v. I) a scene in which her ill-temper
was so ludicrous that the divorce which took place afterwards needs no
explanation. The two brothers were travelling together, and Pomponia
was with them; something had irritated her. When they stopped to lunch
at a place belonging to Quintus at Arcanum, he asked his wife to
invite the ladies of the party in. "Nothing, as I thought, could be
more courteous, and that too not only in the actual words, but in his
intention and the expression of his face. But she, in the hearing of
us all, exclaimed, 'I am only a stranger here!'" Apparently she had
not been asked by her husband to see after the luncheon; this had been
done by a freedman, and she was annoyed. "There," said Quintus, "that
is what I have to put up with every day!" When he sent her dishes from
the triclinium, where the gentlemen were having their meal, she would
not taste them. This little domestic contretemps is too good to be
neglected, but we must turn to women of greater note and character.

Terentia and Pomponia and their kind seem to have had nothing in the
way of "higher education," nor do their husbands seem to have expected
from them any desire to share in their own intellectual interests. Not
once does Cicero allude to any pleasant social intercourse in which
his wife took part; and, to say the truth, he would probably have
avoided marriage with a woman of taste and knowledge. There were such
women, as we shall see, probably many of them; ever since the incoming
of wealth and of Greek education, of theatres and amusements and all
the pleasant out-of-door life of the city, what was now coming to be
called _cultus_ had occupied the minds and affected the habits of
Roman ladies as well as men. Unfortunately it was seldom that it was
found compatible with the old Roman ideal of the materfamilias and
her duties. The invasion of new manners was too sudden, as was the
corresponding invasion of wealth; such a lady as Cornelia, the famous
mother of the Gracchi, "who knew what education really meant, who had
learned men about her and could write well herself, and yet could
combine with these qualities the careful discharge of the duties
of wife and mother,"[231] - such ladies must have been rare, and in
Cicero's time hardly to be found. More and more the notion gained
ground that a clever woman who wished to make a figure in society, to
be the centre of her own _monde_, could not well realise her ambition
simply as a married woman. She would probably marry, play fast and
loose with the married state, neglect her children if she had any, and
after one or two divorces, die or disappear. So powerfully did this
idea of the incompatibility of culture and wifehood gain possession
of the Roman mind in the last century B.C., that Augustus found his
struggle with it the most difficult task he had to face; in vain he
exiled Ovid for publishing a work in which married women are most
frankly and explicitly left out of account, while all that is
attractive in the other sex to a man of taste and education is assumed
to be found only among those who have, so far at least, eschewed the
duties and burdens of married life. The culta puella and the cultus
puer of Ovid's fascinating yet repulsive poem[232] are the products of
a society which looks on pleasure, not reason or duty, as the main
end of life, - not indeed pleasure simply of the grosser type, but the
gratification of one's own wish for enjoyment and excitement, without
a thought of the misery all around, or any sense of the self-respect
that comes of active well-doing.

The most notable example of a woman of _cultus_ in Cicero's day was
the famous Clodia, the Lesbia (as we may now almost assume) who
fascinated Catullus and then threw him over. She had been married to a
man of family and high station, Metellus Celer, who had died, strange
to say, without divorcing her. She must have been a woman of great
beauty and charm, for she seems to have attracted round her a little
côterie of clever young men and poets, to whom she could lend money or
accord praise as suited the moment. Whether Cicero himself had once
come within reach of her attractions, and perhaps suffered by them, is
an open question, and depends chiefly on statements of Plutarch which
may (as has been said above) have no better foundation than the gossip
of society. But we know how two typical young men of the time, Caelius
and Catullus, flew into the candle and were singed; we know how
fiercely she turned on Caelius, exposing herself and him without a
moment's hesitation in a public court; and we know how cruelly she
treated the poet, who hated her for it even while he still loved
her:[233]

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris;
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

CATULL. 85.

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



Online LibraryW. Warde FowlerSocial life at Rome in the Age of Cicero → online text (page 9 of 24)