For all the glory and glamour of its art and literature, classical antiquity produces household statistics that make the heart sink. Greek and Roman girls were normally married in their mid-teens to men twice their age. Until menopause, if they were lucky enough to survive that long, they could expect to give birth at least six times, probably more. As for their babies, one-third of those born alive died before completing their first year; half perished before turning ten. Birth control was rudimentary, and lactation’s fertility-diminishing effect did not apply to well-off women accustomed, or pressured, to hand infants over to wet-nurses.
Uncountable by any statistic was the abuse that might be dealt out by a violent husband. As in modern times until very recently, wife-beating was not much talked of by classical writers beyond the odd aside, as when Augustine in his Confessions recollects the bruises he saw as a child marking the faces of his mother’s friends, or when Herodotus and Suetonius report that the Corinthian tyrant Periander and the Emperor Nero beat their pregnant wives to death. Plutarch hints at the frequency of abuse in his Roman Questions, a quirky study of Roman religion and customs, when he wonders why Romans avoid marrying close relatives. He suggests three reasons: Roman men may seek to expand their influence by marrying into different families; they may fear that domestic over-familiarity breeds contempt; or they might prefer an exogamic system where sisters and daughters, should they suffer abuse, could seek help from male kin unrelated (thus under no obligation) to the abuser. The Greek preference for endogamy, Plutarch implies, caught women in a familial trap from which there was no easy escape.
Appia Annia Regilla Atilia Caucidia Tertulla was a Roman woman born into a powerful family closely linked to the Antonine dynasty, imperial rulers of Rome during what Gibbon called its “most happy and prosperous” era. She married far outside her family, to the celebrated Greek politician and orator Herodes Atticus, whose lovely Odeon still commands the southern slope of the Acropolis. A priestess and philanthropist whose work won her public recognition in the form of honorific statues in Corinth and Olympia, Regilla died in her mid-thirties, eight months pregnant with her sixth child. According to the biographer Philostratus, she was punched or kicked in the belly by a freedman acting on orders from her husband, who was angry with her over a petty concern. Her brother Braduas, as Plutarch would have predicted, prosecuted Herodes on a murder charge. But the absence of witnesses, Herodes’s insistence that he had not intended his freedman to administer such a violent beating, and his extraordinary public expressions of grief (including the dedication of the Acropolis Odeon to his dead wife) got him off.
The gruesome tragedy of Regilla’s death makes uncomfortable reading in a scholarly era largely preoccupied with gender and sexuality as a strategy of cultural transformation or a literary trope. Transgression, performance, subversion and play are key terms in this discourse; the gaze has displaced the blow as the primary object of concern. Sarah B. Pomeroy’s passionate account in The Murder of Regilla, following her from birth to death, is a sharp reminder of the brutally blunt edges of gender inequality. So forceful is Pomeroy’s righteous anger over her subject’s fate that it quenches nuance and largely ignores postmodern gender studies’ crucially useful insights into psychology and politics.
The path-breaking scholar who in 1975 wrote Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, the first general feminist treatment of women in the ancient world, has not changed much with the times. Pomeroy’s reconstruction of Regilla’s life, especially her education and her relationship with her husband, seizes most of many opportunities to cast the Roman matron as a victim. Her conviction that Regilla’s life in Greece was one of cultural isolation and marital neglect closes off reasonable alternative explanations for her experience – say, that her family selected Regilla to marry a prominent Greek because she loved and was expert in Greek language and culture, that she viewed her civic works as her special contribution to the current renaissance of Greek culture in which her husband played a leading role, or that she found her husband’s affection for his distractingly attractive foster sons amusing or simply irrelevant in her busy life. For Pomeroy, the remarkable intensity of Herodes’s grief for Regilla is hypocritical at best, an elaborate cover story at worst. The truth about Regilla’s death remains unsolved.
But was Regilla murdered in the first place? If Pomeroy stands for an earlier feminist mode of doing history, then Caroline Vout represents the latest iteration of 1980s-style gender studies which started in classical scholarship with Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Reading eclectically across imperial historiography, epigram, satire and sculpture, Vout seeks to explain the role played by the erotic imagination in the maintenance of imperial rule. Her lively account shows how residents of the empire gained a sense of collective identity not only through oohing and aahing at massive inscriptions or dignified marbles and by passing on the latest news about war and taxes, but by sharing in jokes, gossip and fantasy about the emperor’s sex life. As our own culture of celebrity shows, speculation about the erotic experience of the rich and famous easily cuts across lines of gender, class and nation.
From this perspective, Regilla’s murder may be pure rhetorical invention. Consider Vout’s persuasive argument that Herodes Atticus is an excellent example of an ambitious member of the non-Roman elite who seeks to assume a local portion of the emperor’s global authority by imitating the imperial style. Herodes decorated his large estates with numerous images of his foster sons (Philostratus wryly reports Herodes’s fondness for statues that, snapshot-like, showed the youths “hunting, just having hunted, and about to hunt”). One Polydeuces stands out, both because of the sheer number of extant images and in their resemblance to Antinous, the moodily handsome favourite of the Emperor Hadrian. Where Pomeroy interprets the ubiquitous Polydeuces as evidence of Regilla’s marital distress, to Vout, this is proof of how the emperor’s erotic desires – or at least the visual hints he chose to drop about it – opened up avenues of assimilation for citizens across the empire. By commissioning statues of his own beautiful youth, Herodes Atticus intentionally confused himself with Hadrian and advertised his own investment in the erotic as well as the political economy of the Roman Empire. As consumers of images like these, less well-off subjects, too, were caught up in the imperial identification game.
While Vout is not concerned with exonerating Herodes, her analysis transforms the case from murder to slander. Contemporary Athenians, Philostratus tells us, worried by Herodes’s increasing power and influence, spread tales of his tyrannical leanings. Since beating pregnant wives to death was a habit associated with tyrants, could the Athenians have invented the story of Regilla’s death? Might Herodes himself have encouraged the story precisely to call attention to the resemblance between himself and an earlier Roman emperor who had murdered his wife?
Interpreting the erotic effects of images 2,000 years old is an inexact science. We may well wonder, along with Vout, whether we will ever be able to understand the degree to which sexuality is a “locally constructed” or a transcendent, “trans-historical experience of Eros”. Perhaps our best response is to hope for closer dialogue across the current scholarly divide, which would bring theoretical ballast and subtlety to Pomeroy’s pessimistic historicism; and bring to Vout’s imaginative “erotics of imperium” a deeper critical analysis of psychological guesswork and its limits, along with closer attention to the different modes of circulation and commodification that shaped the reception of sculpture, ode and satire.
It is rewarding, though, to learn from Vout how Statius’s poem in honour of Domitian’s castrated favourite Earinus, which meditates on the relationship between intimacy with the emperor and loss of masculinity, joins with Juvenal, Martial, Suetonius, Tacitus and numerous anonymous artists in charging the ruler’s body with a new erotic jolt. While Vout reflects on the political significance of stories about emperors sleeping with senators’ wives and marrying men, Pomeroy compels us to ask what Regilla would have made of all this.