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Fire Vestal Fire Pot
Fire Vestal Fire Pot

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An Important note for our female readers:

Women in the Roman Republic



I think that many see the story I wrote about Caesar as only a story for men. But “Caius, the making of the Hero” is very much a story for, and about women. Although the principal character is a man, the other four main characters are women. Historians have not only misinterpreted the life of Julius Caesar, but have also greatly underestimated the value and impact of women on Roman society at that time. In the book I have tried to emphasize this important aspect of Roman culture.

The Greeks held a very different view of women in society than the Romans did. The Greeks more or less shut their women away in the home and threw away the key. Yet many of the principal chroniclers of Caesar and his time were Greek. They ignored or distorted many things to fit in with their own particular way of seeing things.

Much emphasis has been placed on the ‘Pater familias’, or father and husband as the absolute ruler of the Roman household. He in fact, did have “the power of life and death” over his immediate family, in what was known as the ’Patria Potestas’. But the ‘Mater familias’ the wife and mother also held great influence in the family. This influence, if not held directly, was even more important because of its subtle and indirect nature. We see its results increasing, consistently over the years, in the form of more and more rights granted to women in the marriage contract, and the increasing rights granted in the divorce laws.

Also many tend to forget that the principal deity of the state, and also of the Roman household, was a goddess, Vesta, attended to by six high priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, who kept the eternal fire of Vesta always burning. Her Temple in the Roman forum, represented the hearth of the state, and every Roman household had an altar for Her at their own hearth.

Vesta was a Goddess supposedly brought from Troy by Aeneas, so her origins even predate Rome herself. More than likely Vesta was a Goddess based on some Etruscan Goddess, since much of the Roman religion was inherited from them, and they composed one of the three divisions of the early Roman tribes, the ‘Luceres’. These people, a highly religious people, who ruled through a religious caste system (their ‘nobles’ were a religious order known as ‘Lucomon’), later became the early Kings of Rome. They showed great respect and honor toward their women, and the family, as is demonstrated in the funerary statues depicting women in family situations.

The Roman matron was truly revered in ancient Rome, as she was the mother who raised the children who would become the great soldiers of the state. It was with her that they first learned their duties and responsibilities to the state. She was the principal link in the familial networks, which spanned the Republic in the intricate tentacles of the complex Roman family structure. Here is where she made her influence and power felt.

The Roman family consisted of many parts with ‘agnates’, blood relatives through the father, and ‘cognates’, relatives through marriage, not to mention the clients and finally the slaves. All these different parts were connected to a higher layer in the clan or ‘gens’, the associations of related families that made up any particular clan. The women were the communication points in these, who spread the news and gossip along family lines. Family problems were usually first handled by the Father; but if not resolved by him could be sent up further to a clan council; and if finally not resolved there, sent to the censors for final resolution. These censors were elected magistrates who had the final say in family matters in the state. In all of this, the indirect power of the woman or matron could be felt not through direct say, but through innuendo. Abuse by a Father was not seen much, just because of this fact. Although he could do pretty much what he wanted to do, by the ’letter’ of the law, he was pretty well hampered in what he could do by what we might term the ‘spirit’ of the law. This ‘spirit’ was laid out in the ‘mos maiorm’ the unwritten customs of the Roman people. This was pretty much the standard operating procedure for the Roman family. The Husband, for instance, might practice abuses, such as beating his wife and children, but in time the extended family and the clan would hear about it, and he would no doubt be shunned, or hauled in before the censors for some other ‘moral’ charges.

The great power of the innuendo, held by the Roman matrons might well be illustrated in the story of the Roman Goddess ‘Bona Dea’, the ‘Good Goddess’. She would play a part in Caesar’s later life, when he was married to his second wife, Pompeia, the daughter of Pompeius Rufus.

A man by the name of Faunus was supposedly married to a woman, Fauna, who was a classic, model Roman wife -- modest, retiring and extremely virtuous in every way. One day he went to work and left her at home as usual (he usually kept her shut up in the house, since he was jealous of anyone even gazing on her). He had previously purchased some wine. Fauna ventured on this, and thought she might try some, since she had never tasted wine before. She drank some and liked it, she kept drinking it, and before she realized it she was dead drunk. Faunus came home that night and found nothing done, and found Fauna totally incapacitated. He flew into a rage, and finding a switch of holly branches, proceeded to beat Fauna to death. When his rage had spent itself, it dawned on him what he had done. Since he could not bring her back, he prayed to the Gods to make her a Goddess, which they in fact did. Her feast was celebrated once a year in a celebration at which all men were barred from the house, the reigning matron, or High Priestess of the celebration, being the Praetor’s wife for that year (no doubt women could become as drunk as they liked at the feast, and God help any man who interfered!).

We see here how women had used the power of innuendo to more or less bar spousal abuse from occurring in the Roman family. The husband might have absolute power in the family, but it wasn’t quite as absolute as he thought. This same influence was felt all the way to the highest levels in the state.

As I mentioned above, Caesar himself, in later life, was affected by an incident that occurred on the feast of Bona Dea. His wife Pompea was the officiate, as she was the wife of the current Praetor, Caesar. The night of the festival, the women were alone in the house performing their ritual; Caesar’s mother also seems to have been present. She never quite reconciled her son’s choice in Pompea as a wife, so she tended to watch her. As it turned out she was right, for Pompea had seemed to think this feast would give her just the right opportunity to make a cuckold of her husband, Caesar. As it turned out her lover was a wild and crazy, patrician named Clodius. That night he disguised himself as a woman, and came to the house after most of the celebrants were already present. He was let in by a servant girl, in prearrangement with Pompea. However he got lost in the house, and was observed by one of Aurelia’s servant girls. She immediately, informed Aurelia, who in turn proceeded to hunt him down with a large group of angry(it was considered a sacrilege for a man to profane the ceremony with his presence) women with torches. He barely escaped by making an accelerated exit through a window with great embarrassment (one can only speculate as to what these women would have done to Clodius with those torches)! He later denied the incident, but Caesar proceeded to divorce Pompeia anyway, saying that he could not even condone a hint of scandal in a wife of his (From my own experience with Italian mothers, I’d venture to guess that his mother had more than a little say in that matter!).

One can only think that old Fauna, looking down from her perch on Mt. Olympus, must have taken great pleasure in finally having achieved a measure of rightful satisfaction at such a vain man’s (Clodius’) discomfort, on the very day she was herself martyred.

So I would ask any of our female readers to take a further look at the novel and read the essays on the web site, which are all written not only for men, but also for women.



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Rostra
Rostra

Originally Published:

November 8, 2007

Revised:

January 2, 2014