Fulvia: female tyrant amid collapsing Roman Republic

Bitter political struggles, gang violence, and then civil war transformed the Roman Republic into an autocratic empire. Within that representative collapse, Fulvia rose to power by marrying a charismatic politician. She subsequently continued to cultivate political power through her personal relationships. Fulvia was corrupt, greedy, cruel, and bloodthirsty.[1] If Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus, hadn’t rejected her sexual tyranny, Fulvia may well have become effectively the supreme ruler of the Roman Empire.

Fulvia abusing decapitated head of Cicero

Fulvia’s marriage to Publius Clodius Pulcher positioned her among elite Roman rulers. A strong proponent of ordinary men’s interests, Clodius in 62 BGC had dared to violate the privilege of women meeting in the women-only sacred society known as Bona Dea. Not surprisingly, Clodius was then elected Roman Tribune of the Plebs in 58 BGC. That was an office that guarded plebeian interests. Fulvia, however, seems not to have shared Clodius’s concern for ordinary men and his political commitment to challenging exclusion of men from important groups. As has been common throughout history, Fulvia used men in wars and contributed to violence against men.

Fulvia’s husband Clodius came into conflict with gynocentric conservatives known in medieval and modern times as “white knights.” One such white knight, Titus Annius Milo, vociferously opposed Clodius’s actions on behalf of ordinary men.[2] On 18 January 52 BGC, Clodius accompanied by about thirty men with swords encountered his enemy Milo, who had with him an entourage that included gladiators and many other men. Men-on-men violence broke out between the two groups. Milo’s group prevailed, and Milo had Clodius killed.[3]

Fulvia first achieved broad political notice when she incited mob violence that burned down the Roman Senate. When Clodius’s dead body was brought to her, Fulvia didn’t properly dress it for a dignified burial. Instead, she kept her husband’s wounded body “nude and barefoot” and put it on public display in the atrium of their home. There, wailing and pointing out the wounds on her husband’s corpse, she attracted a crowd to that gruesome display. Ordinary men became furious at what Milo had done to their champion Clodius:

{Clodius’s supporters} carried the corpse of Publius Clodius into the Senate House. There they cremated it, using the Senate benches and risers and tables and books of the stenographers. Thanks to this fire the Roman Curia itself also burned down. The Basilica Porcia, which was attached to it, was burned. That same Clodian multitude attacked the residence of Marcus {Aemilius} Lepidus, the Interrex {a temporary Roman official}. He had been named the Curule Magistrate. Clodius’s supporters also attacked the absent Milo’s residence, but they were driven off from there by arrows. [4]

At the subsequent trial of Milo for killing Clodius, Fulvia with her tears greatly moved the audience. Her testimony, reserved for the final position of the trial, help to secure the conviction and exiling of Milo.

While Fulvia grieved extremely, publicly, and influentially over the death of her husband Clodius, she remarried less than two years after his death. Fulvia’s second husband was Gaius Scribonius Curio. Curio had been a close friend of Cicero, who was in turn a staunch enemy of Fulvia’s first husband Clodius. Fulvia’s marriages seem to have been a matter of political and sexual instrumentality, rather than love. Shortly after Fulvia married him, Curio became the Roman Tribune of the Plebs. The next year Curio held another high Roman office, that of Praetor. Through her quick second marriage, Fulvia retained her position among the ruling Roman elite. Curio died fighting for Rome in Africa in 49 BGC.[5] Fulvia as a woman among the Roman elite faced much less risk of violent death, just as all women do relative to all men today.

Two or three years after her second husband’s death, Fulvia again married an elite Roman politician. Fulvia’s third husband was Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony). Antony had been Tribune of the Plebs in 49 BGC. Two years later he had been Magister Equitum (Master of the Horse). The Magister Equitum was the Roman official second in command to Caesar. Fulvia married Antony shortly after he became Magister Equitum.[6] A commonplace today is that a man can achieve nothing without a woman, and that the credit for a husband’s success is owed to his wife.[7] Apart from such current banalities, an ancient Roman source testified to Fulvia’s political power:

She {Fulvia} took no thought for spinning or housekeeping, nor did she deem it worthy to have power over an ordinary man, but she wished to rule a ruler and command a commander, so that Cleopatra {Antony’s mistress} was indebted to Fulvia for teaching Antony to obey a woman’s nature, since she took him over accustomed and trained to listen to the rule of women. [8]

While married to Fulvia, Antony had a variety of mistresses. Men suffering from dominant and abusive wives commonly seek warm, receptive, loving embraces in bed with mistresses.

Fulvia was cruel, greedy, and bloodthirsty. The historical record doesn’t specifically mention Fulvia engaging in domestic violence against Antony. Women’s domestic violence against men is also scarcely acknowledge today. The evidence of Fulvia’s cruelty, however, is clear. She apparently enjoyed seeing men kill other men. Cicero noted that her face was “notoriously besprinkled with the blood of men dying at her feet.”[9] Fulvia corrupted the law for her own material interests:

In the inner chambers of his {Antony’s} home, markets of the whole Republic thrived. His wife, more solicitous for herself than for her husbands, was holding an auction of provinces and kingdoms. Exiles were restored without any law, as if by law. Unless all these acts are rescinded by the authority of the Senate, now that we have again arrived at a hope of recovering the Republic, there will be no likeness of a free city left to us. [10]

She even had a man murdered so that she could acquire his house:

As for Rufus, he possessed a handsome mansion near that of Fulvia, the wife of Antony. She wanted to buy, but he would not sell it. Although he then offered it to her as a free gift, he was proscribed {sentenced to death}. His head was brought to Antony. He said it did not concern him and sent it to his wife Fulvia. She ordered that it be fastened to the front of Rufus’s own house instead of the rostra. [11]

Cicero described Fulvia as “not only most avaricious but also most cruel.”[12] Cicero’s dead head subsequently experienced her cruelty:

Fulvia also caused the death of many, both to satisfy her enmity and to gain their wealth. In some cases, the men killed were persons with whom her husband was not even acquainted … the head of Cicero was brought to them one day (he had been overtaken and slain in flight). Antony uttered many bitter reproaches against it. He then ordered it to be exposed on the rostra more prominently than the rest. … Fulvia took the head into her hands before it was removed. After abusing it spitefully and spitting upon it, she set it on her knees, opened the mouth, and pulled out the tongue. Then she pierced the tongue with the pins that she used for her hair and uttered many brutal jests. [13]

Anthony was cruel. But most of the credit for his cruelty should be declared to belong to his wife Fulvia.

Fulvia’s sexual ultimatum to the competing Roman leader Octavian plunged the Roman Republic into civil war. Fulvia’s husband Antony was enjoying sexual consolation with his mistress Glaphyra. He probably didn’t find Fulvia sexually attractive. For her, sex seems to have been as much a matter of politics as pleasure. Depraved of Antony’s marital soldiering, Fulvia issued her sexual ultimatum to Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus. Octavian refused to perform according to demand. He explained his position in a memorable epigram:

Because Antony fucks Glaphyra, Fulvia has passed sentence of punishment
on me: I in turn have to fuck her.
Me, fuck Fulvia? What if Manius begged me
to bugger him? Would I? I don’t think so, not in my right mind.
“Fuck me, or it’s war between us,” she says. But how could life itself
be dearer to me than than my cock? Let the trumpets sound!

{Quod futuit Glaphyran Antonius, hanc mihi poenam
Fulvia constituit, se quoque uti futuam.
Fulviam ego ut futuam? quid si me Manius oret
Pedicem, faciam? non puto, si sapiam.
“Aut futue, aut pugnemus” ait. Quid, quod mihi vita
Carior est ipsa mentula? Signa canant!} [14]

So much for today’s “social scientific” theories of sexual selection. Octavian’s respect for his penis signaled the start of the Perusine War in 41 BGC. That war pitted the forces of Octavian against those of Fulvia. She had at her immediate command Lucius Antonius, the brother of Mark Antony. Since Fulvia had Mark Antony in her non-sexual command, both she and Lucius expected his forces to help them.

Ordinary men’s rallied to Octavian’s courageous sexual rejection of Fulvia. The ensuing battle at Perusia was both verbal and physical. Octavian’s forces fired lead sling bullets (glandes) that asserted men’s sexual freedom and initiative. The bullets were shaped like a penis’s head (glans). They featured, in addition to sketches of a penis, inscriptions that referred to stimulating Fulvia’s clitoris and anally penetrating her.

Fulvia’s forces fired back bullets describing Octavian engaging in homosexual acts.[15] Accusing a man of homosexuality is a common response to men rejecting and protesting gynocentrism. Octavian’s forces probably laughed off those taunts rather than reporting them as hate crimes.

In any case, Octavian’s forces besieged Lucius and other men fighting for Fulvia. Lucius was forced to surrender by starvation in about two months. Octavian’s forces killed many men in Perusia and confiscated many families’ lands. Lucius was sent far away to a Spanish province. Fulvia avoided suffering the siege. After her men surrendered, she fled with her and Antony’s children to Greece. Political and sexual tyranny under the Roman rule of Fulvia had been averted, but at a large cost in men’s lives.

While Fulvia soon died, men could only celebrate events not turning out worse. Of course, Antony was blamed for his wife Fulvia’s death:

It was said that she was dispirited by Antony’s reproaches and fell sick. It was thought that she had become a willing victim of disease on account of the anger of Antony. He had left her while she was sick and had not visited her even when he was going away. The death of this turbulent woman, who had stirred up so disastrous a war on account of her jealousy of Cleopatra {another of Antony’s mistresses}, seemed extremely fortunate to both of the parties who were rid of her. [16]

After failing in his efforts to fight for his mistress Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt. There, mistakenly thinking that Cleopatra had committed suicide, Antony committed suicide. At least his wife Fulvia’s death didn’t prompt Antony to commit suicide.

As for Roman men generally, the Roman Republic effectively ceased to exist.  Octavian became Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor. Fulvia hadn’t become supreme tyrant of the Roman Empire. But the Roman culture that accepted the demands of the Sabine women and believed unquestioningly Lucretia’s claim of rape permitted Fulvia’s rise to power. That same culture implied the death of the Roman Republic.

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Notes:

[1] Providing a vitally important woman’s perspective on Roman history, an early twentieth-century classical scholar observed of Fulvia:

she was the quintessence of almost all the passions that were swaying women of that day — greed, selfishness, thirst for power.

Wieand (1917) p. 430. About ninety years later, another woman classicist who wrote a thorough study of ancient texts concerning Fulvia summarized:

Fulvia played a significant role in events, particularly from Antony’s consulship onwards, and that her actions were deliberate and politically motivated. Moreover, while these actions were done on her husbands’ behalf, she nevertheless exhibited a remarkable degree of independence. … she was a remarkable woman who played no small part in the history of her time.

Weir (2007) pp.  iii., 143. The difference between these two women’s perspectives reflects at least in part the intensification of gynocentrism and greater hostility toward independent, critical thought.

[2] The white knight Titus Annius Milo is in no way a forefather of leading journalist Milo Yiannopoulos. The latter is a courageous, fearless, and loving muckraker on behalf of men.

[3] The most detailed account of the fatal encounter between Milo and Clodius is that of Asconius, On Cicero’s Pro Milone 27-8 KS, from Latin trans. Adams (1996). Cicero’s speech at Milo’s trial for Clodius includes almost nothing about Fulvia.

[4] Asconius, On Cicero’s Pro Milone 29KS, trans. Adams (1996), adapted for ease of reading. The description of Fulvia testifying at the trial is from id. For a detailed timeline of the trial, Ruebel (1979).

[5] On Curio’s life, Babcock (1965) pp. 9-19, Weir (2007) pp. 6-7. Clodius was killed on January 18, 52 BGC. Cicero gave his speech at Milo’s trial for that killing on April 7, 52 BGC. The required period of mourning for a Roman widow was 10 months. Fulvia probably married Curio in the spring of 51 BGC. For review of the evidence, Babcock (1965) p. 9, n. 19.

[6] On Antony’s biography in relation to Fulvia, Babcock (1965), esp. p. 15.

[7] Consider this analysis of “the early career of Fulvia”:

{Fulvia} may have played a vital if not publicly recognized part in all three careers {of her husbands}. … Fulvia’s politics were personally oriented, we can see. I wonder, however, if the fairly consistent Caesarian position of the three husbands cannot have been in some part the effort of Fulvia to steer them along the path best calculated to lead them to prominence and power. … Fulvia may well have been as much the agent of her husbands’ success as the instrument of their destruction.

Babcock (1965) pp. 20, 31, 32.

[8] Plutarch, Lives, Antony 10.3, from Greek trans. trans. Bernadotte Perrin (1920) for the Loeb Classical Library, adapted Weir (2007) p. 127. Writing from a gynocentric perspective, Babcock celebrated Fulvia’s achievement:

Fulvia was apparently a woman of some personal charm. … Consider then Fulvia’s achievement: she attached herself legally to the three most promising young populares of their generation at just about the time when that promise was being realized.

Babcock (1965) pp. 12, 25.

[9] Cicero, Philippics 5.22, from Latin trans. Yonge (1903):, adapted slightly. The Latin: quorum ante pedes eius morientium sanguine os uxoris respersum esse constabat. With apparent incredulity, Yonge translated pedes eius as “his and her feet.” A better translation in context is “her feet.”

[10] Cicero, Philippics 5.11, from Latin trans. Yonge (1903), adapted slightly for readability. Subsequent translations are similarly non-substantially adapted for readability.

[11] Appian, Civil Wars 4.4.29, from Greek trans. Horace White (1913) for the Loeb Classical Library.

[12] Cicero, Philippics 13.18, trans. Yonge (1903).

[13] Cassius Dio, Roman History 47.8.4, from Greek trans. by Earnest Cary (1917) for the Loeb Classical Library.

[14] Preserved in Martial, Epigrams 11.20, from Latin trans. adapted from Nisbet (2015) p. 193. Here’s the Latin text and an alternate translation by Nigel Kay.

[15] On the lead sling bullets (glandes), Hallet (2006) pp. 150-1, Weir (2007) pp. 74-6.

[16] Appian, Civil Wars 5.6.59, trans White (1913). Cassius Dio also reports blaming Antony for Fulvia’s death: “Antony was held responsible for her death because of his passion for Cleopatra and her wantonness.” Roman History 48.28.3.

[image] Fulvia abusing the dead head of Cicero. Oil painting. Pavel Svedomsky (1849-1904), Russia. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Adams, John Paul, trans. 1996. Asconius. On Cicero’s Pro Milone. Internet: Worldwide.

Babcock, Charles L. 1965. “The Early Career of Fulvia.” The American Journal of Philology. 86 (1): 1-32.

Hallett, Judith P. 2006. “Fulvia, Mother of Iullus Antonius: New Approaches to the Sources on Julia’s Adultery at Rome.” Helios: Journal of the Classical Association of the Southwest. 33 (2): 149-164.

Nisbet, Gideon, trans. 2015. Martial. Epigrams. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ruebel, James S. 1979. “The Trial of Milo in 52 B.C.: A Chronological Study.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 109: 231-249.

Weir, Allison Jean. 2007. A study of Fulvia. M.A., Classics. Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Wieand, Helen E. 1917. “The Position of Women in the Late Roman Republic.” The Classical Journal. 12 (6): 378-392 (Part I), 2 (7): 423-437 (Part II).

7 thoughts on “Fulvia: female tyrant amid collapsing Roman Republic”

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