The first half of the first century BC witnessed the birth of political power for women. The influence of women in the public sphere during the late Republic were far from the perceived traditional roles of the early Romans and moved towards creating an atomosphere for “liberated” women like empresses of Rome who would play a prominent role in politics in the late Republic and Roman Empire.
Richard Bauman states that the “first century BC can properly be described as the Age of the Political Matron” (Bauman 60). During this time of the late Republic, women emerged who were active in politics either through their husbands or directly had say in political affairs. These women illustrated the change in their times since they did not reflect the tradition and customs of the Romans laid down by the earliest kings through the leges regiae (royal laws) (Lewis and Reinhold 64-65). These women enjoyed being free of the traditional manus marriage where the husband was the guardian of his wife and they broke with the traditional role of being passive wives, occupied only with familial affairs (Bauman 60). As a result of the changing Roman world, the first half of the first century BC witnessed the birth of political power held by prominent women.
Before analyzing individual cases of influential women during the late Republic, it is important to see views of women in the public sphere during this time. Perhaps the first recognition that women were important to politics was signaled by Catulus’ funeral oration for his mother in 102 B.C. He later extended it to eulogies and solidified a new custom of giving recognition to important women instead of only men. The significance of such an event shows that women affected electoral concerns since men could now gain status through women. Perhaps one of the most important female eulogies was in 68 B.C. when Caesar gained political fame by giving an oration for his aunt Julia (Bauman 64). Besides Julia, Caesar owned his career to other women, namely the Vestals, who helped erase Caesar’s name from Sulla’s proscription lists following his disagreement with Sulla (Bauman 64). According to Valerius Maximus, women played active roles in the forum and courts, often representing themselves, and showing competent skill in public speaking and law (Lefkowitz and Fant 151-152). An example of an excellent female orator was Hortensia, the daughter of the great court orator Q. Hortensius (Lefkowitz and Fant 82). Although her involvement in politics was a singular event in 42 B.C., involving the repeal of the 2nd Triumvirate’s demand for money from the 1,400 richest women to fund the civil war, her speech was unprecedented in furthering women’s rights and the demonstration she participated in was reminiscent of the repeal of the Oppian Law in 195 B.C. (Lewis and Reinhold 494) (Lefkowitz and Fant 143). The speech she gave advocated maintenance of female economic and political status and asserted that they were not to be responsible for the political actions of their husbands nor responsible to taxation because they were not represented in government. This asserting of women’s rights caused a positive response in the people attending the demonstration and also the Triumvirate (Bauman 81-83) (Lefkowitz and Fant 140). Further female influence in the public sphere can be seen in election graffiti. Despite their lack of franchise, women evidently took much interest in politics and demonstrated it by advocating for different candidates during the elections via graffiti (Lefkowitz and Fant 152).
Three female figures that demonstrated diplomatic skill and much involvement and influence over political matters in the late Republic were Sempronia, wife of Decimus Brutus, Mucia Tertia, the daughter of the lawyer and praetor Q. Mucius Scaevola, and Fulvia, wife of three tribunes (including Marcus Antony). As a result of Sallust’s writings, Sempronia’s fame is more due to her representation of an aspect of elite female Roman society than her role in the Catilinarian conspiracy (Bauman 68). According to Sallust, Catiline rallied women of respectable status who had been impoverished by their luxury. Sempronia was one of these women who illustrated the change in Roman values since despite her status, education, and family she was practically a prostitute, selling herself to finance her expensive tastes and supposedly progress in the public sphere (Bauman 68-69) (Lewis and Reinhold 545-546). Sempronia represented a female political force of the elite who had reason to participate in politics as a result of their debts (Lefkowitz and Fant 147) (Lewis and Reinhold 545-546). Being the wife of one of the conspirators Decimus Brutus, she received the envoys of the Allobroges and thus had a hand in the Catiline conspiracy (Bauman 68). If Sempronia was a negative example of women in politics, Mucia was a positive example of involvement of women aiding those in power through diplomacy (Bauman 79). It was as a result of her influence and established fame in diplomacy that she was able to marry Pompey. Her claim to fame was a result of two occasions. In 63, a tribune, Q. Metellus Nepos (a cousin of Mucia) vetoed Cicero’s consular valedictory speech on the grounds of Cicero’s decision to kill the Catiline conspirators without a trial. In addition, Nepos wanted to recall Pompey to deal with the situation. Cicero wrote to Mucia to appeal to Nepos. Although she was unsuccessful, Nepos did honour her by breaking with Pompey after Pompey divorced Mucia. In 39, Octavian sent Mucia to Sicily to negotiate with her son, Sextus Pompeius who was not under Triumvirate rule. Her diplomacy along with Scribonius Libo resulted in the Treaty of Misenum where Sextus was made a fourth partner in the Triumvirate (Bauman 79-80). Mucia’s last notable influence in politics was felt after Antony’s defeat at Actium when Octavian spared one of her half-sons as a result of her pleas. Out of the prominent women of the late Republic, Fulvia demonstrated the highest ability in leadership since she later became independent of Antony in her affairs unlike most other women who exercised political power through men more than by themselves. Fulvia was a woman of wealth, birth, talent, and competence in politics (Pomeroy 197). Wife of Clodius Pulcher, Scribonius Curio, and finally Antony, her political “career” began with her involvement in the trial against Clodius’s murderer (Pomeroy 199). Her participation in politics really took off after she married Antony. By the time she died, she had experienced the many aspects of political power available to the Romans of consular rank. To name a few, she had a hand in the proscriptions of the 2nd Triumvirate (especially regarding Cicero), she campaigned for the positive public image of Antony following his defeat at Mutina, and she rejected the appeals of Hortensia and her demonstrators regarding the Triumvirate’s fiscal policies (Bauman 85-86). Fulvia’s commendable quality was in her loyalty to Antony seen in her management of affairs in Rome while he was away, especially in 41 BC when Dio says she practically played the role of a consul since all business of the people and senate had the go through her. Later, she rallied Antony’s army in Italy and Gaul to support him following Octavian’s efforts to frustrate Antony’s veterans (Bauman 86-87) (Pomeroy 203). Her power culminated in the Perusine War against Octavian when she commanded Antony’s Gaullish legions at Praeneste and Perusia. Shortly after, she was defeated and died abandoned by Antony (Pomeroy 204) (Bauman 88).
The deeds of women in the public sphere during the late Republic were far from the perceived traditional roles of the early Romans. As Valerius Maximus admits, the voice of women in the forums and courts could not be denied (Lefkowitz and Fant 151). Three reasons for this change can be found in historical writings: Sallust felt moral corruption resulted in the bad politics of the late Republic, while Livy would cite the luxury and wealth of families, and Cicero’s essays would point out that men and women had increasingly liberal attitudes. The significance of the achievements of these women in the late Republic was to pave the way for more “liberated” women like Octavia and the empresses of Rome who would play a prominent role in politics. The power of these women, their influence, and their status during the first century B.C. were symbols of Rome’s loss of tradition at the time and the entering into a new era of politics unlike that of the Republic
Bauman, Richard A. Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Maureen B. Fant. eds. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982.
Lewis, Naphtali and Meyer Reinhold, eds. Roman Civilization. 3rd Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. ed. Women’s History and Ancient History. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.