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About marital fidelity

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Elisabetta Sirani, Porcia Wounding Her Thigh
Elisabetta Sirani, Porcia Wounding Her Thigh

There are many examples of marital fidelity in ancient Rome. Often, when one of the parties died, the other often took her own life in a gesture of despair.

Plutarch and Pliny provide an anecdote about Tiberius Gracchus (the famous people’s tribune from 133 BCE). Two snakes were spotted in his home, one male and one female. The soothsayer informed Tiberius that if he let the male go free, he would cause his wife – Cornelia to die, if he let the female go free – he would die himself. Tiberius, without thinking very much, ordered to kill the male, releasing the female slowly. Soon he was murdered near the temple of faithfulness.

Gaius Plautius Numida (senator living around 100 BCE), hearing about the death of his wife, in a frenzy of despair, he grabbed his sword and stuck it in his chest. The inmates came to his aid and treated the wound. When Plautius regained consciousness, he tore the bandages open and opened the wound. This time it was impossible to rescue him.

Marcus Plautius (Marcus Plautius Hypsaeus) was a fleet commander in 84-83 BCE. He commanded the crossing of 60 ships to Asia. During a stopover in Taranto, his wife Orestilla, who was accompanying the trip, fell ill and died. Her funeral was organized, during which Marcus dealt himself a fatal blow with the sword. His companions laid his body next to his wife and set it on fire. A tomb was built for them, which was called “the tomb of two lovers”.

Julia, daughter of the famous Julius Caesar, when she saw in her chambers the bloody robe of her husband Pompey the Great (famous politician and military commander), she was so upset that she passed out. Unfortunately, she was pregnant at the time and due to stress, she had a miscarriage.

But not only men, at the news of their spouse’s death, took their own lives. Portia, a staunch republican – daughter of Cato the Younger (the famous politician and philosopher, during the conflict between Pompey the Great and Caesar, sided with the former. Not wanting to witness the fall of the republic, committed suicide in 46 BCE), and the wife of Brutus (Caesar’s killer) on the news that the spouse suffered defeat in the battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, with the troops of Antony and Octavian, he took his own life, she took her own. Initially, she wanted to pierce with a sword but was denied it. So she swallowed the hot coals. Her act was compared to the suicide of her father. It was even considered that she was even braver than him, because her father had taken his own life in a known way, and she had taken a new one.

The examples presented were often cited by the ancients. In a sense, they even glorified such behaviour. Of course, they weren’t meant to encourage people to take their own lives. They had a moralistic overtone, especially in times when marital fidelity was practically zero.

Author: Roger Rytter (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • L. Richardson, jr, A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome
  • FONTES HISTORIAE ANTIQUAE Zeszyty Źródłowe do Dziejów Społeczeństw Antycznych pod redakcją Leszka Mrozewicza Marii Musielak Zeszyt XXXIX Valerius Maximus FACTA ET DICTA MEMORABILIA

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