Abelard’s advice to his son Astralabe & Trimalchio’s Fortunata

Adam, Samson, yes, David and Solomon —
a woman deceived them all. Who now would be safe?

{ Adam, Samsonem, si David, si Salomonem
femina decepit, quis modo tutus erit? }[1]

Fortunata dancing the cordax

With loving concern, fathers bravely counsel their sons about women. Peter Abelard, the husband of the great twelfth-century woman philosopher and religious leader Heloise of the Paraclete, wrote a long and frank poem of advice to their son Astralabe. Yet the life of the wealthy, first-century Roman merchant and estate owner Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio Maecenatianus shows difficulties in implementing Abelard’s advice to his son Astralabe.

Abelard warned Astralabe about marrying a wealthy woman. Marrying a wealthy woman is typically advantageous to a man. A husband’s oppressive gender burden of working to earn money for his wife and children typically becomes less weighty if the husband has a wealthy wife. If his wife is wealthy enough, or enough of a career woman, a husband might even get the opportunity to withdraw from the workforce and enjoy being at home full-time. Nonetheless, Abelard declared to his son Astralabe:

If anyone seeks wealth rather than good character in a wife,
if she commits adultery, he has no cause to complain,
especially if she continues to possess those things he seeks in her
and which were the reason for his marriage.
A noble and rich woman trusts in these things
and so, always puffed up, sets in motion frequent disputes.

{ Siquis opes plusquam mores in coniuge querat,
si mecabitur hec, non habet ille queri,
precipue si possidet has quas querit in illa
et que coniugii causa fuere sui.
Nobilis et diues mulier confidit in istis
unde tumens semper iurgia crebra mouet. }[2]

Having a wife prone to arguing makes for an unpleasant marriage. Being cuckolded makes the situation much worse. Abelard had no doubt about that fact. He told Astralabe:

An adulterous wife is a greater tormentor than all others;
death itself is less of a suffering for any good man.

{ Tormentum cunctis est uxor adultera maius;
mors ista minor est passio cuique bono. }

Men might aspire to marry a woman who’s both wealthy and has good character. Alas, usually men cannot have it all.

No gyno-idolator, Abelard understood that women are fully human beings and that women thus cannot have a perfect character. Men must make trade-offs even with respect to women’s character. Abelard bluntly advised his son Astralabe:

A humble prostitute is more pleasing than a proud chaste woman,
and the latter more often throws her own home into confusion.
The former defiles the house which the latter more often sets alight:
flame can harm a house more than filth.
A serpent is milder than the wrath of a gossiping wife;
he who retains such a one harbors a serpent at his breast.
A gossiping woman is far worse than a whore:
the latter can please some people, the former pleases no one.
A gossiping wife is the greatest firebrand to a house:
any fire will be less damaging than a flame of this kind.

{ Gracior est meretrix humilis quam casta superba
perturbatque domum sepius ista suam;
polluit illa domum quam incendit sepius ista:
sorde magis domui flamma nocere potest.
Mitior est anguis linguose coniugis ira;
qui tenet hanc, eius non caret angue sinus.
Deterior longe lingosa est femina scorto:
hec aliquis, nullis illa placere potest;
est linguosa domus incendia maxima coniunx;
hac leuior flamma quilibet ignis erit.
Cum modicum membrum sit lingua est maximus ignis,
nec tot per gladium quot periere per hanc. }

Men typically enjoy having sex with their wives. Taking a humble prostitute as a wife would probable ensure a husband devoted attention to his sexual fulfillment. With respect to a proud, chaste wife, Christians have long recognized pride as a more deadly sin than lust. Incessant talking, particularly about sensitive personal matters, is associated with pride in seeking continual attention to self. Moreover, a wife who divulges her husband’s secrets can destroy his life and their home. While it might seem strange to some, Abelard’s preference for a humble prostitute over a proud, chaste woman for a wife has good reason.

Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio Maecenatianus, or Trimalchio for short, married a girl with a bad sexual reputation. His wife Fortunata was a former “chorus-girl {ambubaia}” of slave status. Trimalchio declared: “Believe me, nobody dances a lewd Greek dance better than she can {Credite mihi, cordacem nemo melius ducit}.” Trimalchio’s talkative friend Hermeros characterized Fortunata as a “whore-wolf {lupatria}.” At a dinner party at Fortunata and Trimalchio’s luxurious home, Hermeros exclaimed:

And what was she only a short time ago? You will pardon my saying this, good sir, but you wouldn’t have been willing to receive bread from her hand.

{ Et modo, modo quid fuit? Ignoscet mihi genius tuus, noluisses de manu illius panem accipere. }[3]

Fortunata wasn’t a proud, chaste woman. She wasn’t noble and rich. She wasn’t the sort of woman that most father’s would want for a son’s wife. But as Abelard reasonably advised Astralabe, a man could make a far worse choice for a wife.

When Trimalchio became rich, Fortunata unfortunately became a domineering wife with a nasty tongue. Hermeros explained:

She has gone sky-high, and Trimalchio thinks the world of her. In short, at noon, mid-day, if she tells him that it’s dark, he’ll believe it. He’s so enormously rich that he doesn’t know himself what he’s got, but this whore-wolf has a plan for everything, even where you wouldn’t think so. Yup, she’s temperate, sober, and prudent, but she has a nasty tongue and she’s a real extorter in their bed. Who she likes, he likes. Who she dislikes, he dislikes.

{ in caelum abiit et Trimalchionis topanta est. Ad summam, mero meridie si dixerit illi tenebras esse, credet. Ipse nescit quid habeat, adeo saplutus est; sed haec lupatria providet omnia, et ubi non putes. Est sicca, sobria, bonorum consiliorum: tantum auri vides. Est tamen malae linguae, pica pulvinaris. Quem amat, amat; quem non amat, non amat. }

Not surprisingly, Trimalchio intended to make Fortunata his heir. Abelard had warned his son Astralabe:

Whichever species of bird is trained to seize prey,
however capable it is in this, a woman is stronger,
nor does anyone seize human souls like a woman.
She is strong in this, more so than any enemy.

{ Quecumque est auium species consueta rapinis,
quo plus possit in hoc, femina forcior est,
nec rapit humanas animas ut femina quisquam:
fortis in hoc est hec quolibet hoste magis. } [4]

Perhaps Trimalchio never had the benefit of a father’s advice. In any case, he became another subordinate husband within men’s structural subordination under gynocentrism.

Fortunata’s power and control made Trimalcio fearful. At the dinner party Trimalchio began a lewd dance:

He would have come out into the middle of the room if Fortunata had not whispered in his ear. I suppose she told him that such low fooling was beneath his dignity. But never was anyone so variable: at one moment he was afraid of Fortunata, and then he would return to his natural self.

{ prodisset in medium, nisi Fortunata ad aurem accessisset; credo, dixerit non decere gravitatem eius tam humiles ineptias. Nihil autem tam inaequale erat; nam modo Fortunatam verebatur, modo ad naturam suam revertebatur. }[5]

Fortunata insisted on her ownership of Trimalchio’s affections. She responded with verbal abuse to Trimalchio’s mildly independent sexuality:

A young man, not bad looking, came in among the fresh waiters. Trimalchio took him and began to kiss him warmly. So Fortunata, to assert firmly her conjugal rights under law, began to abuse Trimalchio. She called him a dirty disgrace for not curbing his lust. At last she even hurled out, “Dog!

{ nam cum puer non inspeciosus inter novos intrasset ministros, invasit eum Trimalchio et osculari diutius coepit. Itaque Fortunata, ut ex aequo ius firmum approbaret, male dicere Trimalchioni coepit et purgamentum dedecusque praedicare, qui non contineret libidinem suam. Ultimo etiam adiecit: “canis.” }[6]

Abelard warned his son Astralabe:

Lest the Delilah who sleeps with you is able to seduce you
with her blandishments, take care to be vigilant:
it is not safe to sleep next to a serpent;
a woman surpasses a snake in wickedness.

{ Ne te blandiciis seducere Dalida possit
que tecum dormit, sit tibi cura uigil:
non est uicino tutum dormire colubro;
anguem transcendit femina nequicia. }[7]

Like a battered wife engaging in self-defense, Trimalchio threw a cup at Fortunata’s face. He also vigorously defended himself with words and other symbolic acts:

What’s this? This chorus-girl remembers nothing. I rescued her from the slave auction and made her a free person among free persons. Yet she puffs herself up like a frog and is too proud to spit for luck. She’s a tree stump, not a woman. But if you were born in a slum you can’t sleep in a palace. As I hope to keep my guardian spirit’s favor, I’ll bring that brutal, rebellious woman under home governance. And I, a foolish man, could have married into ten million bucks. You known that I’m not lying. Agatho, the perfumer-seller next door, took me aside and said, ‘I urge you not to let your family line die out.’ But I, being good, didn’t wish to seem fickle, and so with her I’ve stuck an axe into my own leg. All right, I’ll make you want to dig me up with your fingernails. But so you understand right now Fortunata what you have done to yourself: Habinnas, don’t put any statue of her on my tomb, or she’ll be nagging me even when I am dead. And to show that I can do her a bad turn, I’ll not even allow her to kiss me when I’m lying dead on my funeral bier. … That boy’s surely worthy of my eyes. But Fortunata will not have it. Is that how you see it, my high-stepping chorus-girl? I advise you to chew what you have bitten off, you she-hawk, and not make me show teeth, my little dear. Otherwise, your skull will experience my temper. You know me: once I’ve set my course, it’s fixed with a six-inch nail.

{ Quid enim, inquit, ambubaia non meminit se? de machina illam sustuli, hominem inter homines feci. At inflat se tanquam rana, et in sinum suum non spuit, codex, non mulier. Sed hic, qui in pergula natus est, aedes non somniatur. Ita genium meum propitium habeam, curabo domata sit Cassandra caligaria. Et ego, homo dipundiarius, sestertium centies accipere potui. Scis tu me non mentiri. Agatho unguentarius here proxime seduxit me et: ‘Suadeo, inquit, non patiaris genus tuum interire.’ At ego dum bonatus ago et nolo videri levis, ipse mihi asciam in crus impegi. Recte, curabo me unguibus quaeras. Et, ut depraesentiarum intelligas quid tibi feceris: Habinna, nolo statuam eius in monumento meo ponas, ne mortuus quidem lites habeam. Immo, ut sciat me posse malum dare, nolo me mortuum basiet. … Non est dignus quem in oculis feram? Sed Fortunata vetat. Ita tibi videtur, fulcipedia? Suadeo, bonum tuum concoquas, milva, et me non facias ringentem, amasiuncula: alioquin experieris cerebrum meum. Nosti me: quod semel destinavi, clavo tabulari fixum est. }

In retrospect, Trimalchio seemed to have wished that he had married a wealthy woman who would have tolerated his affairs with young men. She might have produced children for him through her affairs with other men.

Women and men change throughout their lives, including after marriage. A man who marries a humble prostitute isn’t assured of enjoying a humble prostitute as his wife for the rest of his life. She could become a proud, nasty-tongued wealthy woman who insists on a sexless marriage. Abelard’s advice to his son Astralabe, like any father’s advice to his son, cannot remake the world into a safe place.[8]

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] This proverb occurs in many medieval Latin manuscripts in a variety of variants. For a brief review, Dronke (1970) pp. 124-8, which cites the proverb in Walther, Proverbia nos. 519ff, 5026a. The English translation is mine.

Pre-modern literature of men’s sexed protest also commonly points to the biblical figures Uriah, cuckolded by his wife Bathsheba and sent to his death; Naboth, murdered by Jezebel; and Joseph, falsely accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife. Among non-biblical figures of warning to men in this literature are Hippolytus, falsely accused of rape by his step-mother Phaedra; Cinyras, who committed suicide after his daughter tricked him into having sex with her; Scylla and Charybdis, who seek to cause men’s deaths at sea; Nisos, King of Magara, betrayed by his daughter Scylla; and King Minos of Crete, cuckolded by his wife Pasiphaë with a bull.

[2] Peter Abelard, Poem for Astralabe {Carmen ad Astralabium} ll. 1025-30, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Ruys (2014). Here’s an online Latin text (inferior to Ruys’s), with some discussion of the manuscripts. All subsequent quotes from Carmen ad Astralabium are similarly sourced. The subsequent two from Carmen ad Astralabium are: 773-4 (An adulterous wife…), 227-36 (A humble prostitute…).

[3] Petronius, Satyricon 37, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), my English translation adapted from id. and Walsh (1996). All subsequent quotes from the Satyricon are similarly sourced. Allinson (1930), which is nicely linked to a Latin text, is a translation freely available online, as is Heseltine’s text (alternate presentation).

With respect to the earlier short quotations in the paragraph above, Trimalchio described his wife Fortunata as a former “chorus-girl {ambubaia}” of slave status in Satyricon 74. He described her skill in dancing the “cordax” (a lewd Greek dance) in Satyricon 52. On the character of that dance, see the relevant commentary in Schmeling (2014). Hermeros called Fortunatus a “lupatria” in Satyricon 37:

The term lupatria combines the Latin word lupa and the Greek suffix -tria. Lupa is the term for both a she-wolf and a prostitute; the suffix -tria is associated with “female purveyors of sex”. In this way, the suffix becomes redundant since lupa and -tria both hold the same meaning, thus emphasizing Petronius’ characterization of Fortunata as a particularly low class kind of whore.

Nicoulin (n.d.) p. 3, internal footnotes omitted.

The subsequent quote above is similarly from Satyricon 37. The sentence “Quem amat, amat; quem non amat, non amat.” is typically translated similar to “What she likes, she likes; what she doesn’t like, she doesn’t like.” I follow the insightful analysis of Nicoulin (n.d.) pp. 6-7 in suggesting the alternate translation above. I use the non-grammatical accusative “who” to be consistent with the poor quality Latin of the freemen at Trimalchio’s dinner.

The phrase “pica pulvinaris,” which I translate above as “she’s a real extorter in their bed” means literally “magpie on the couch”:

Magpies eat most anything which is perhaps why this phrase is often interpreted as “she henpecks him in bed”. This interpretation suggests that Fortunata is the dominant partner and that she constantly criticizes and nags Trimalchio. Not only does Fortunata pester Trimalchio into doing her will, but she also supposedly uses her sexuality to manipulate him into agreeing with whatever she tells him. Pica pulvinaris recalls the same connotations as lupatria. Both phrases suggest that Fortunata is a predator; in this specific example, she is attacking Trimlachio by sitting on his shoulder and picking at his every move.

Nicoulin (n.d.) p. 6, internal footnotes omitted.

[4] Abelard, Carmen ad Astralabium ll. 217-20. Trimalchio declares Fortunata his heir in Satyricon 71.

[5] Petronius, Satyricon 52. Fortunata’s behavior toward Trimalchio is similar to Hera’s behavior toward Zeus: “Both wives aspire to exercise control over their husbands and households.” Ypsilanti (2010) p. 234.

[6] Petronius, Satyricon 74. The subsequent quote from the Satyricon is from section 75.

Older scholarship concerning Fortunata hasn’t unequivocally praised her and hasn’t forcefully condemned Trimalchio for not striving to increase his wife’s power. Consider such anti-feminist analysis:

Fortunata, then, is a woman who tries unsuccessfully to behave like a member of polite society. Jealous and domineering, she certainly is not as likeable as her husband. However, one must give her credit for the efficiency with which she runs her household. Without his shrewd and thrifty wife to help him, Trimalchio would not have become so prosperous.

Brown (1956) p. 41. Responding to such imbalanced analysis, scholars in recent decades have intensified their work in support of dominant gynocentric ideology. Fortunata is thus praised as the now-canonical woman hero — the strong-willed woman:

Fortunata appears to be an intelligent, socially aware, fiscally responsible (only so much as she appears to keep a ledger), and strong-willed woman.

McGlin (2012). The weak-willed Trimalchio lamentably prevents Fortunata from fully expressing her strong will.

Men have good reason to fear women’s power under gynocentrism. Recent scholarship argues that Trimalchio feared Fortunata’s power and control over him:

Trimalchio sabotages her {Fortunata} in order to deliberately downplay her independence. … The text reveals Fortunata exploring her new role as a materfamilias, but also constructs her as a figure of considerable power who ultimately seems to threaten Trimalchio. … Trimalchio offhandedly refers to Fortunata’s jewellery as her compedes or shackles, his casual comment is truer than he realizes. His fear of her power, as symbolized in her jewellery, keeps her trapped in the cage he constructs to restrain her.

Gloyn (2012) pp. 260, 280. The gold jewelry that men force women to wear oppresses women. So too do men’s deaths, which deprive women of persons to work for them and accept their abuse.

[7] Abelard, Carmen ad Astralabium ll. 549-52. Ruys notes:

Dalida: in a usage that may be unique, Abelard appears to use the name “Delilah” as a noun encompassing all sexually active women, with the suggestion that such women are both seductive and treacherous.

Ruys (2014) p. 208.

[8] Carmen ad Astralabium doesn’t pretend to offer a simple recipe for a successful life. Abelard’s advice to Astralabe is far more complex and intricate than instruction in many other didactic texts. Ruys (2014) pp. 30-2. Like the Satyricon, Carmen ad Astralabium offers a critical perspective on teaching and learning.

[image] Fortunata dancing the cordax. From Firebaugh (1922) p. 154.


Allinson, Alfred R, trans. 1930. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. New York: Panurge Press.

Brown, Carl. E. 1956. Character-portrayal in the Cena Trimalchionis of Petronius. M.A. Thesis, McGill University.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages: New departures in poetry 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Firebaugh, W.C., trans. 1922. The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. A Complete and Unexpurgated Translation, in Which are Incorporated the Forgeries of Nodot and Marchena, and the Readings Introduced Into the Text By De Salas, together with explanatory notes, arranged and translated by W.C. Firebaugh. Published for private circulation only by Boni & Liveright, New York.

Gloyn, Liz. 2012. “She’s only a Bird in a Gilded Cage: Freedwomen at Trimalchio’s Dinner Party.” The Classical Quarterly. 62 (1): 260-280.

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGlin, Mike. 2012. “Trimalchio’s wife … omg what a lupatria!” Online post dated Sept. 11 at Roman Novel.

Nicoulin, Morgan. n.d. “Characterization of Fortunata in Chapter 37.” Undergraduate Paper in Classics, Kaufman’s Latin. Transylvania University.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ypsilanti, Maria. 2010. “Trimalchio and Fortunata as Zeus and Hera: Quarrel in the Cena and Iliad 1.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. 105: 221-237.

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