Exemplary Women of the Ancient World The purpose of this section is to remind the reader, in view of the previous sections, that there were some normal good women. We say “normal

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Exemplary Women of the Ancient World


The purpose of this section is to remind the reader, in view of the previous sections, that there were some normal good women. We say “normal,” because probably most women of earlier centuries were good women. If their stories were not so extraordinary as those which follow, we hope these will in some way represent all those who have been forgotten in the writing of history.


Cornelia, 2nd Century BC
Cornelia was the daughter of Scipio Africanus and the wife of Tiberius Gracchus and is considered one of the best women of antiquity. As a tribute to her goodness, Plutarch tells the following story about her husband.

He once caught a pair of serpents on his bed, and the soothsayers, after considering the prodigy, forbade him to kill both serpents or to let both go, but to decide the fate of one or the other, declaring that if the male serpent were killed, it would bring death to himself, while if the female were killed, it would bring death to Cornelia. Tiberius, since he loved his wife, thought that since she was still young and he was older it was more fitting that he should die. So he killed the male serpent and let the female go. A short time after, he died leaving Cornelia with twelve children by him.
Cornelia was well educated, as was testified to by Cicero, and she provided the best education obtainable for her children. When King Ptolemy offered his crown and hand in marriage, Cornelia elected to remain a widow.

Plutarch provides a portrait of Cornelia in her old age.

She had many friends, and kept a good table that she might show hospitality, for she always had Greeks and other literary men about her, and all the reigning kings interchanged gifts with her. She was indeed very agreeable to her visitors and associates when she discoursed to them about the life and habits of her father Africanus, but most admirable when she spoke of her sons without grief or tears, and narrated their achievements and their fate to all inquirers as if she were speaking of men of the early days of Rome.

Plutarch adds that because she could speak so calmly of the past, some thought that either her age or the sorrows of her family’s fate had affected her mind.

Livia, Wife to Caesar Augustus, 1st Century BC
Augustus first saw Livia when she was 18 years of age and the wife of Tiberius Claudius Nero, a man who was always choosing the wrong side in plots against Augustus. After a period of fleeing from place to place with her husband they finally returned to Rome. Augustus gave the husband a pardon, but took away his wife, forcing them to divorce. As Livia was six months pregnant, perhaps her evidence of fertility led Augustus to make her his third wife in the hope that she would provide him an heir, although this was not to be the case.

Livia was a woman of beauty, indeed, Ovid said she had the features of Venus and the manners of Juno. She was the first woman to have her likeness displayed on a coin and there are several surviving statues, the most important of which is one in the Louvre which shows Livia as the goddess Ceres.

This new marriage appears to have quickly turned into a love match, for Augustus and Livia lived together for more than 50 years until his death. He wore clothes she made and he sought her advice on all important decisions. Dio Cassius quotes an example of such advice in a lengthy dialogue between Livia and her husband, relative to what to do with a group of men, including Gnaeus Cornelius, who had plotted against him. Observing that her husband was agitated by this problem, she reminded him that it was normal for one in his position to be the object of plots, for a ruler cannot please everyone. Don’t worry about other men’s faults, she advised, but be on your guard.


But it was this which was worrying Augustus, that being human nature, nothing could be done about it. It is bad enough that one must worry about one’s enemies but also his friends. Livia now makes an extended plea for generosity. She reminds him that he is governing men, and not beasts, and that he must win them over by persuasion. The sword, she says, will not accomplish everything. You can destroy the body of one, but you alienate the minds of the rest. Augustus took her advice, merely admonished the accused and even appointed Cornelius a consul. The result was that none of these men ever again plotted against him.

When asked how she achieved such influence over August, she answered, “by being scrupulously chaste...never meddling with his affairs, and pretending neither to hear of nor to notice the favorites with whom he had love affairs.” She gave gifts as dowries for poor brides and otherwise engaged in charity, not the least of which was rearing the offspring of several relatives, including the six children of Mark Antony.

When Livia’s son by an earlier marriage, Tiberius, succeeded Augustus, she resumed her role as a mother and began to dominate his decisions, even though he was nearly 60 years of age. When she died in 29 AD, at age 85, Tiberius had her deified and a statue placed in the temple of Augustus.

History gives Livia mixed reviews because she was relentless and even cruel in her determination to see Tiberius succeed, but the Roman people themselves judged her kindly.

Calpurnia, Wife of Pliny the Younger, 1st Century AD

Our knowledge of this woman comes only from the letters of her famous husband, Pliny the Younger. We learn that her education was of a “pious and moral” nature, but it also appears to have prepared her to understand literature, sing and play the lyre.

She is incomparably discerning, incomparably thrifty; while her love for her husband betokens a chaste nature. Her affection to me has given her a turn to books; and my compositions, which she takes a pleasure in reading, and even learning by heart, are continually in her hands. How full of solicitude is she when I am entering upon any [law case]! How kindly does she rejoice with me when it is over! When I am pleading, she stations messengers to inform her from time to time how I am heard, what applause I receive, and what success attends the cause. When at any time I recite my works, she sits close at hand, concealed behind a curtain, and greedily overhears my praises. She sings my verses and sets them to her lyre, with no other master but Love, the best instructor.
Pliny’s letters give every evidence that he returned her love and attention and he once confided his hope to “become all that my wife now thinks I am.”

As a young woman she seems to have been very active in some physical endeavor, for, although she did not know she was pregnant, she suffered a miscarriage due to “managing herself in a way extremely unsuitable to a person in her condition.” Later in her life she is pictured enjoying a more sedate evening at home.

At supper, if I have only my wife, or a few friends with me, some author is read to us; and after supper we are entertained either with music, or an interlude.



Julia Domna, Consort to Septimius Serverus, died in 217 A D

Julia Domna was the wife of the Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus. She was the daughter of a wealthy Syrian priest of the god Elagabal whose childhood horoscope had determined she would be a queen. Severus, a believer in astrology, offered his hand upon the death of his first wife.

She was regarded as beautiful, even as an older woman, and was esteemed for her intelligence and judgment -- some early writers noting that she had “a strength of mind that is uncommon in her sex.” The regard for her advice by Severus was such that he had her accompany him on his expeditions. While she is described as having great boldness of purpose in putting her plans into effect, she had little success in influencing the dark and jealous character of her husband. During the following reign of her son she served as a kind of chief of staff, handling his correspondence and meeting distinguished visitors.

Julia established a salon of great reputation, through which she became very active in encouraging the arts and literature. She was apparently so versed in philosophy that she was known as “Julia the Philosopher.” Julia befriended such distinguished men as Galen, the great medical scholar, and Diogenes Laertius, who dedicated his History of the Greek Philosophers to her.

After her husband’s death, her two sons, Caracalla and Geta, came to the point of civil war over the succession. The Senate finally devised a plan to divide the empire in half, assigning each son a portion. They were taken aback when Julia interrupted the negotiations, in tears over the thought of the breaking up of the empire. The stalemate was broken when Caracalla murdered his brother, although after a relatively brief period of time, Caracalla himself was murdered by his own soldiers.

Julia, having seen her entire family die, now had all her power taken away and was reduced to the status of an ordinary citizen. Life had now become too much to bear and so she ended it by her own hand.





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