Pompeia and Fulvia in Roman de Merlin & Roman de Silence

Pompeia and Fulvia, treacherous elite women in the Roman Republic, were foremothers of evil women in medieval romance. Pompeia became the deceitful empress in the Grisandole episode of the thirteenth-century Roman de Merlin. Fulvia provided a template for the murderous English queen Eufeme in the thirteenth-century Roman de Silence. The authors of these medieval romances distinguished evil women from good women. They also provided an excuse for women to act wickedly. Medieval romance didn’t realistically acknowledge evil acts like those attributed to Pompeia and Fulvia in Roman history.

In 62 BGC, Pompeia attempted to cuckold her husband Julius Caesar. He was then serving as Supreme Pontiff {Pontifex Maximus}, the most powerful position in ancient Roman religion, and City Magistrate {Praetor Urbanus}, the leading government administrator of Rome. Pompeia and Clodius Pulcher, a wealthy patrician married to Fulvia, arranged to have a tryst during the “Good Goddess {Bona Dea}” festival that the Vestal Virgins led. Not in practice associated only with goodness and virginity, the Bona Dea was a wine-soaked ritual revelry from which all men were excluded. It thus provided suitable cover for a sexual liaison. Pompeia was hosting the Bona Dea in December of 62 BGC. Clodius came to the Bona Dea in disguise: “a man in a woman’s clothes {muliebri vestitu vir}.”[1]

Like Euripides’s aged in-law Mnesilochus in Aristophanes’s Women at the Thesmophoria {Θεσμοφοριάζουσαι}, Clodius was caught penetrating the women-only festival. It was like a woman caught playing golf in disguise at a male-only club, but more horrifying:

Pompeia was celebrating this Bona Dea festival. Clodius, who was still beardless, thought he could pass unnoticed dressed and equipped as a woman lute-player. Thus looking like a young woman, he went to Pompeia’s house. He found the door open, and a maid-servant there brought him in safely. She was privy to the secret. But after she had run ahead to tell Pompeia and some time had elapsed, Clodius didn’t have the patience to wait where he had been left. Instead, he went wandering around the large house while trying to avoid the lights. One of the attendants of Julius Caesar’s mother Aurelia came upon him. The attendant asked him to play with her, as women would with each another at the Bona Dea. When he refused, she dragged him forward and asked who he was and from where he came. Clodius answered that he was waiting for Pompeia’s Chambermaid, the very name by which that maid was called. His voice betrayed him. Aurelia’s attendant at once sprang away with a scream to the lights and the crowd. She cried out that she had caught a man. The women were panic-stricken. Aurelia put a stop to the mystic rites of the goddess and covered up the emblems. Then she ordered the doors to be closed, and they went about the house with torches, searching for Clodius. He was found taking refuge in the bedroom of the young woman who had let him into the house. When they saw who he was, the women drove him out of the house.

{ ταύτην τότε τὴν ἑορτὴν τῆς Πομπηΐας ἐπιτελούσης, ὁ Κλώδιος οὔπω γενειῶν καὶ διὰ τοῦτο λήσειν οἰόμενος ἐσθῆτα καὶ σκευὴν ψαλτρίας ἀναλαβὼν ἐχώρει, νέᾳ γυναικὶ τὴν ὄψιν ἐοικώς. καὶ ταῖς θύραις ἐπιτυχὼν ἀνεῳγμέναις εἰσήχθη μὲν ἀδεῶς ὑπὸ τῆς συνειδυίας θεραπαινίδος, ἐκείνης δὲ προδραμούσης ὡς τῇ Πομπηΐᾳ φράσειε, καὶ γενομένης διατριβῆς, περιμένειν μὲν ὅπου κατελείφθη τῷ Κλωδίῳ μὴ καρτεροῦντι, πλανωμένῳ δ᾽ ἐν οἰκίᾳ μεγάλῃ καὶ περιφεύγοντι τὰ φῶτα προσπεσοῦσα τῆς Αὐρηλίας ἀκόλουθος ὡς δὴ γυνὴ γυναῖκα παίζειν προὐκαλεῖτο, καὶ μὴ βουλόμενον εἰς τὸ μέσον εἷλκε, καὶ τίς ἐστι καὶ πόθεν ἐπυνθάνετο. τοῦ δὲ Κλωδίου φήσαντος Ἅβραν περιμένειν Πομπηΐας, αὐτὸ τοῦτο καλουμένην, καὶ τῇ φωνῇ γενομένου καταφανοῦς, ἡ μὲν ἀκόλουθος εὐθὺς ἀπεπήδησε κραυγῇ πρὸς τὰ φῶτα καὶ τὸν ὄχλον, ἄνδρα πεφωρακέναι βοῶσα, τῶν δὲ γυναικῶν διαπτοηθεισῶν ἡ Αὐρηλία τὰ μὲν ὄργια τῆς θεοῦ κατέπαυσε καὶ συνεκάλυψεν, αὐτὴ δὲ τὰς θύρας ἀποκλεῖσαι κελεύσασα περιῄει τὴν οἰκίαν ὑπὸ λαμπάδων, ζητοῦσα τὸν Κλώδιον. εὑρίσκεται δ᾽ εἰς οἴκημα παιδίσκης ᾗ συνεισῆλθε καταπεφευγώς καὶ γενόμενος φανερὸς ὑπὸ τῶν γυναικῶν ἐξελαύνεται διὰ τῶν θυρῶν, τὸ δὲ πρᾶγμα καὶ νυκτὸς εὐθὺς αἱ γυναῖκες ἀπιοῦσαι τοῖς αὑτῶν ἔφραζον [p. 466] ἀνδράσι, καὶ μεθ᾽ ἡμέραν ἐχώρει διὰ τῆς πόλεως λόγος ὡς ἀθέσμοις ἐπικεχειρηκότος τοῦ Κλώδιον καὶ δίκην οὐ τοῖς ὑβρισμένοις μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῇ πόλει καὶ τοῖς θεοῖς ὀφείλοντος. }[2]

Clodius was charged with the capital crime of desecrating a woman-only religious ritual. He was acquitted with the support of popular outrage at such penal punishment. Pompeia wasn’t charged with any crime. Julius Caesar, however, divorced her. He declared, “I thought my wife should not be even under suspicion {τὴν ἐμὴν ἠξίουν μηδὲ ὑπονοηθῆναι}.”

In the Grisandole episode of the thirteenth-century Roman de Merlin, a puzzling dream troubled the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. In one legend of the founding of Rome, a she-wolf nursed the twin boys Romulus and Remus. In Julius Caesar’s troubling dream, twelve wolf cubs suckled at a sow with a golden crown. Caesar’s troubling dream seems like a transformation and amplification of the Romulus and Remus myth of Rome’s founding.[3]

Lupa capitolina: she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus

In the form of a stag, the wizard Merlin entered Rome and declared that only the wild man of the woods could truthfully interpret Caesar’s dream. The emperor promised marriage to his daughter, and thus future rule of Rome, to any man who would capture the wild man and bring him back to the court. The knight Grisandole, who was the woman Avenable in disguise, accomplished that feat. The wild man revealed that the twelve wolf cubs represent the empress’s twelve servant-women. Those servant-women were actually young men in disguise with whom the empress had been cuckolding her husband. The emperor had the twelve men executed. With highly unusual gender symmetry in punishment for adultery, he also had the empress killed. Just as for the story of Romulus and Remus, this instance of the story of Julius Caesar and his wife Pompeia is amplified. Pompeia didn’t merely conspire to cuckold her husband with one man. She actually cuckolded him with twelve men.

In the Grisandole episode, the wild man was Merlin under another disguise. Merlin, reportedly born of a virgin conception, offered the emperor insistently hedged and qualified wisdom about women:

Through women, many a man has been dishonored and deceived, and many a city torched and destroyed, and many a country devastated. But I am not telling you this because of any malice that’s in it. You yourself can see very well that many a man has been dishonored by a woman. But now don’t be upset about your wife whom you have had executed. She well deserved it. And don’t be angry with other women and don’t think them vile. There are many women whose behavior towards their lords is irreproachable. Never in a hundred years would they dishonor their name. All this comes upon women because of the sin of lust that is in them and to which they are susceptible, for woman is of such nature that when she has the best lord in the world, she thinks she has the worst. This happens because of the great weakness that is in them. But for that don’t grieve, because there are plenty of good ones in the world. And if yours has proved a disappointment, you will have one who will be a worthy empress of the high riches of an empire such as this. And you should believe that you will gain more than you have lost.

{ Car par feme sont maint preudomme houni & decheu & mainte ville arsse & destruite & mainte terre essilie. Mais iou nel di mie por malice que en li soit. & tu meismes pues bien apercheuoir que par feme sont maint homme houni. Mais ore ne te caille de ta feme que tu as destrute car ele lauoit bien deseruie & nen aies vers les autres femes corous ne si ne les tien pas por chou uiel. Car moult sont cleres semees ki en aucune maniere naient meserre enuers lor signors. Ne iamais tant comme li siecles durera ne feront senpierir non & tout che lor auendra par pechie de luxure ki est en els & dont eles sont esprises. Car feme est de tel nature ke quant ele a le millor segnor de tout le monde si quide ele auoir le pior. & ce lor ulent de la grant fragilite ki est en aus. Mais por chou ne soies mie courechies car il en ia asses de uraies el monde. Et se tu as este deceus de la toie tu auras encore tele qui bien sera digne destre empereis & de recheuoir si haut empire comme cestui. Et se tu le veus croire tui gaaigneras plus que tu ni perdras. }[4]

Merlin insisted that his characterization of women isn’t a matter of malice. He declared that many women act honorably. He also stated that women are lustful and weak. Just as women’s tears advantage them in criminal trials, claims of women’s natural weakness excuse women’s wrongful behavior. Men too are lustful and weak in their own ways. Men deserve to be similarly excused, but they generally aren’t. Merlin’s wisdom about women is reflected in his advice to the emperor. Merlin revealed that the knight Grisandole was actually the woman Avenable. Merlin urged the emperor to marry her. Merlin also instructed the emperor never to do anything contrary to Avenable’s wishes.[5]

Fulvia, who lived from about 83 to 40 BGC, manipulated men to advance her own interests in political power and wealth. She married Clodius Pulcher to gain political power in the Roman Republic. Their marriage evidently wasn’t one of mutual ardor. She apparently was unconcerned that Clodius sought to have an affair with Caesar’s wife Pompeia. But when Clodius was killed in violence against men in 52 BGC, Fulvia sensationally and ostentatiously mourned. She thus incited further violence against men and ensured that her husband’s killer was exiled. Less than two years after Clodius died, Fulvia married another leading Roman politician, Gaius Scribonius Curio. When Curio died, Fulvia married yet another leading Roman politician, Mark Antony. He enjoyed spending time with his mistresses. She enjoyed seeing men killed. Given the head of Cicero, she spit on it, pulled out its tongue, and pierced it with a hairpin. Her greed, cruelty, and viciousness as a powerful Roman woman became well-known historically.[6]

Fulvia sticking her hairpins into the tongue of Cicero's severed head

Queen Eufeme in the thirteenth-century Roman de Silence acted as evilly as did Fulvia. Queen Eufeme solicited sex from the knight Malduit, who was actually the woman Silence in disguise. When Malduit refused his queen’s amorous advances, she accused him of preferring to have sex with men. After that, she falsely accused him of raping her. She subsequently contrived a plot to have Malduit killed, and then another plot to have him exiled. When the wizard Merlin was about to expose her deceptions, she threatened him with death. Merlin nonetheless revealed that she was currently cuckolding the king with a man disguised as a nun. Queen Eufeme’s wickedness was well-recognized in the royal court:

The lady was very wicked
and full of extreme malice,
and arrogant and perfidious.
She had always been very cruel
and filled with dishonesty.
She had promised little and given less,
and had abandoned herself to much depravity.

{ Car la dame ert de grant desroi,
Et plaine de grant vilonie
Et d’orguel et de felonie.
Moult ot cruels tols jors esté
Et soufraitolse d’onesté.
Poi prometoit et mains donoit
Et moult vilment s’abandonoit. }[7]

Queen Eufeme dominated and controlled her husband the king until he finally had her executed for her crimes.

The author of the Roman de Silence, Master Heldris of Cornwall, stated wisdom like that of Merlin in the Grisandole episode of the Roman de Merlin. In concluding the Roman de Silence, Master Heldris declared to his audience:

Master Heldris at this place says
that one should praise more a good woman
than one should hate and blame a bad one.
And I will tell you well the reason:
because a woman has less motivation,
provided that she even has the choice,
to be good than to be bad.
Doing good is contrary to her nature.
Well I’ll tell you frankly
that greater account should be taken of it
than of the one who does wrong.
If today I have blamed Eufeme,
a good woman should not take offense.
If I have much blamed Eufeme,
I have praised Silence more.
A good woman should not take offense
nor take for herself someone else’s blame,
but strive more to do good.

{ Maistre Heldris dist chi endroit
Con doit plus bone feme amer
Que haïr malvaise u blasmer.
Si mosterroie bien raison:
Car feme a menor oquoison,
Por que ele ait le liu ne l’aise,
De l’estre bone que malvaise,
S’ele ouevre bien contre nature.
Bien mosterroie par droiture
C’on en doit faire gregnor plait
Que de celi qui le mal fait.
Se j’ai jehi blasmee Eufeme
Ne s’en doit irier bone feme.
Se j’ai Eufeme moult blasmee
Jo ai Silence plus loëe.
Ne s’en doit irier bone fame,
Ne sor li prendre altrui blasme,
Mais efforcier plus de bien faire. }[8]

Heldris excuses women doing wrong by declaring that doing good is contrary to women’s nature. Philosophers have said the same of men, and of humans in general. Heldris, however, turns the long historical argument about human nature to women’s advantage. He urges praising more a good woman than blaming a bad woman. Heldris’s concern is underscored in his repetition of the verse “a good woman should not take offense {ne s’en doit irier bone feme}.” Like Jehan Le Fèvre and Thomas Hoccleve, Heldris recognized women’s power and sought to avoid offending women. In presenting a woman acting as wickedly as Pompeia or Fulvia, a medieval author had to be careful. If he were prudent, he would explicitly declare that not all women are like that.

Criticizing women’s blameworthy behavior is vital important for preserving the common good. Women acting like Pompeia and Fulvia have existed from the time of the Roman Republic right on down to the present. Yet tolerance for vigorous criticism of women has continually waned since the high-water mark of Juvenal’s Satire 6 nearly two millennia ago. Medieval authors developed diverse tactics for lessening risk to themselves in criticizing women. Put under pressure, a medieval poet might declare publicly his repentance for criticizing women. Now authors must be more wary if they are to dare to criticize even women behaving as wickedly as did Pompeia or Fulvia.

* * * * *

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Notes:

[1] Cicero, Letters to Atticus {Epistulae ad Atticum} 1.13 (dated January 27, 61 BGC), Latin text of Purser (1903). Cicero, Epitulae ad Atticum 1.12 (dated January 1, 61 BGC) also describes the Bona Dea scandal. Shuckburgh (1900) provides English translations of the letters.

The Bona Dea festival occurred in early December, 62 BGC. Clodius Pulcher was probably then married to Fulvia, or they married shortly thereafter. The Bona Dea includes the sort of revelry that men used to have at men-only clubs:

the women, including the Vestals, make merry: there are references to festive eating and drinking, music, jests, all summarized in the term ludere used in a number of source.

Versnel (1992) p. 32. Thinking strictly within the gender dogma of patriarchy in accordance with academia ritual in recent decades, Versnel perceived “potential polyvalence of myth and ritual” in the Bona Dea festival and the Thesmophoria. Id. p. 54. The goddess Bona Dea has been regarded as Damia / Demeter, but new argument indicates Latona. Miniailo (2015). For a socio-political account of Pompeia and Clodius’s attempted tryst at the Bona Dea, Tatum (1999) Ch. 3.

[2] Plutarch, Parallel Lives, The Life of Julius Caesar 10.1-5, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from the Loeb Classical Library edition of Perrin (1919). The subsequent short quote is similarly from Plutarch.

Clodius entered disguised as a “woman lute-player {ψάλτρια}.” That could also be translated a woman harpist or lyre-player. Such entertainers were associated with courtesans and symposia. This female disguise, along with Aurelia’s attendant asking to play with Clodius, indicates the erotic dimension of the Bona Dea festival.

Clodius asked for Pompeia’s “Abra {Ἅβρᾰ}.” That word in ancient Greek means favorite servant-woman / chambermaid. That apparently was also the woman’s name.

Cicero wrote immediately after the Bona Dea scandal. Plutarch wrote nearly 200 years later. For other ancient accounts, Cassius Dio, Roman History 37.45 and Suetonius, Julius 6.2.

[3] The golden crown indicates that the sow is a queen. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates imagines a city that Glaucon disparages as a “city of sows {ὑῶν πόλιν}.” Plato, Republic 370b7-372d3. In learned medieval romance authors’ minds, a queen nourishing twelve wolf cubs probably would have evoked Circe nourishing Odysseus’s men as pigs. In a gynocentric interpretation of the city of sows, McCoy finds academic-conventional “tensions and paradoxes”:

Platonic philosophy exists precisely in living in the tensions and paradoxes posed by the oppositions of masculine-feminine {read: bad-good}, political-private, and marked history–cyclical history.

McCoy (2015) p. 158. Another paradox is how scholars with a simplistic view of men (they’re aggressive, status-obsessed oppressors who should behave as their women-betters) can consistently interpret texts as displaying tensions and paradoxes. For the city of sows in broader context of Socrates’s intellectual practice, Zander (2019).

[4] Romance of Merlin in prose {Roman de Merlin en prose} Chapter 23, Old French text from Sommer (1894) pp. 308-9, English translation (modified) from Roche-Mahdi (2002) pp. 15-6. On the Grisandole episode, Paton (1907) and Roche-Mahdi (1992) p. 317.

The prose Roman de Merlin is an adaptation of Robert de Boron’s verse Roman de Merlin. The Roman de Merlin drew upon Wace’s Roman de Brut, which in turn was based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. The Roman de Merlin, composed about 1200, is the first work centered on Merlin. On this romance in relation to Merlin, Kissam (1967) Ch. 2.

[5] Roche-Mahdi (2002) p. 16. Such subordination of husbands to wives has long been conventional. A still-current proverb underscores the imperative: “happy wife, happy life.” More generally, gynocentrism helps to explain modern phenomena such as lack of concern for men’s gender protrusion in mortality, penal systems that predominately imprison persons with penises, and men’s lack of reproductive choice.

[6] Although little is known for certain about Fulvia, she was, like Josephine Crabtree, a “strong-willed, independent woman”:

Later, as the wife of Antonius {Mark Antony}, she became the most powerful woman in Rome, at one point even taking an active role in the military conflict between Antonius’s allies and Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. Her husbands’ enemies painted her as domineering, vicious, greedy, and petty. This book peels away the invective to reveal a strong-willed, independent woman who was, by many traditional measures, an immensely successful Roman matron.

Excerpt from book blurb for Schultz (2021). Lacking the benefit of such positivistic, wholly objective history, medieval authors surely regarded Fulvia as wicked — domineering, vicious, greedy, and petty. For an example of a much different historical methodology, yet the same gender orientation, McCoy (2015).

[7] Heldris of Cornwall {Heldris de Cornouaille}, The Romance of Silence {Le roman de Silence} vv. 6560-66, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Roche-Mahdi (1992).

[8] Roman de Silence, vv. 6684-6701, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Roche-Mahdi (1992).

Composing in the twelfth century, the German minnsanger Reinmar von Hagenau (also known as Reinmar der Alte) indicated his difficulties in loving a woman and also affirmed the norm of not criticizing women:

I could lament before you about this greatest peril,
only I cannot speak ill of women.

{ Ich solte iu klagen die meisten nôt —
niwan daz ich von wîben übel niht reden kan. }

Reinmar goes on to declare:

To say things now I have forborne to say of them
would be a great disloyalty.
I have loved for so long in great unrest,
and here am I now, in the same toils.
Still, to suffer like this is better
than to speak ill of women.
I shall not do that. They are too high for that by every right.

{ Spræche ich nû des ich si selten hân gewent,
dar an begienge ich grôze unstætekeit.
Ich hân lange wîle unsanfte mich gesent
und bin doch in der selben arebeit.
Bezzer ist ein herzesêr,
danne ich von wîben misserede.
Ich tuon sîn niht: si sint von allem rehte hêre. }

Reinmar von Hagenau, Song 33, “Let no suffering lover come to me for any help {Niemen seneder suoche an mich deheinen rât},” vv. 6-14, Middle High German text and English translation (modified slightly) from Goldin (1973) pp. 84-5. Here are an online Middle High German edition and modern German translation (lied 20).

[images] (1) Lupa capitolina: she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. Bronze sculpture made in the thirteenth century. The statuettes of Romulus and Remus were added in the fifteenth century. Preserved as accession # MC 1181 in the Capitoline Museums (Rome, Italy), Palazzo dei Conservatori, Hall of the She-Wolf. Source image thanks to Jastrow (2006) and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Fulvia sticking her hairpins into the tongue of Cicero’s severed head. Excerpt from Pavel Svedomsky’s oil painting, “Fulvia With the Head of Cicero,” made in 1898. Source image via Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Goldin, Frederick. 1973. German and Italian Lyrics of the Middle Ages: an anthology and a history. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.

Kissam, Margaret Denslow. 1967. The Characterization of Merlin in the Middle Ages. M.A. Thesis, McGill University, Canada.

McCoy, Marina. 2015. “The City of Sows and Sexual Differentiation in the Republic.” Ch. 9 (pp. 149-160) in Jeremy Bell and Michael Naas, eds. Plato’s Animals: Gadflies, Horses, Swans and Other Philosophical Beasts. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press. Review by Deborah Achtenberg.

Miniailo, Nataliia. c. 2015. “Some New explanation of the Cult of Bona Dea.” Post-graduate student paper at Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University. Online.

Paton, Lucy Allen. 1907. “The Story of Grisandole: A Study in the Legend of Merlin.” PMLA. 22 (2): 234-276.

Purser, Louis Claude, ed. 1903. Cicero. Epistulae ad Atticum. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roche-Mahdi, Sarah, ed. and trans. 1992. Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Roche-Mahdi, Sarah. 2002. “A Reappraisal of the Role of Merlin in the Roman De Silence.” Arthuriana 12 (1): 6–21.

Schultz, Celia E. 2021. Fulvia: Playing for Power at the End of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Cristina Rosillo-López.

Shuckburgh, Evelyn S., trans. 1899. The Letters of Cicero: the whole extant correspondence in chronological order. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Vol. 3. Vol. 4. London: G. Bell and Sons.

Shuckburgh, Evelyn S., trans. 1900. Letters to Atticus. London: G. Bell and Sons.

Sommer, H. Oskar, ed. 1894. Le Roman De Merlin, or the Early History of King Arthur Faithfully Edited from the French Ms. Add. 10292 in the British Museum (about A.D. 1316). London: Private Printing for subscribers by Ballantyne, Hanson, & Co.

Tatum, W. Jeffrey. 1999. The Patrician Tribune: Publius Clodius Pulcher. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Versnel, Henk S. 1992. “The Festival for Bona Dea and the Thesmophoria.” Greece & Rome. 39 (1): 31–55.

Zander, Shannon E. 2019. In defense of Socrates’ City of Sows (370b7-372d3) : the pedagogical role of prefiguration in the Republic. Honors Thesis. Whitman College (Walla Walla, Washington, USA).

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