The mystery of Fulvia–or how do we insult a woman more like a man?

Just finished Mary Beard’s article on the classical tradition and the silencing of women. The article itself is very good, but I wondered about the lack of commentary about the actions of Roman woman, rather than the words about them—specifically, the vengeful Fulvia. Most of my knowledge of the classical period comes from television miniseries, a Robert Harris book about Cicero, and Robert Graves’s I, Claudius.* I knew about Fulvia stabbing her golden hairpins into Cicero’s head, but it seemed like a pretty dull thing to do to a man by the standards of the time. Shouldn’t she have put them through his mouth while he was still alive, producing loads of stage blood and dramatic music, all against a background of artfully shot chiaroscuro? Who was this Fulvia?

Fulvia was the first Roman woman to have coins minted in her image. She had three husbands, all of whom were popular politicians, the last of whom was the famous Mark Antony. Being a Roman politician’s wife was a dangerous profession. Fulvia’s first husband was stabbed to death, so she paraded his corpse around the streets and set a mob off in search of justice. (Her second husband was killed in battle, which must have been less exhausting.) Fulvia must have been a great manager—her husbands were basically ganglords, and she managed to keep the loyalty of her husbands’ men after her husbands died. While each husband was still alive, she would travel at his side and campaign on his behalf.

Fulvia’s husbands weren’t her only important relations. Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) was her son-in-law. After Julius Caesar’s death, conflict broke out between Mark Antony and Octavian—Octavian won, and off Fulvia went to exile in Greece, where she conveniently died. Mark Antony and Octavian used Fulvia’s death as an occasion to bury whatever the Roman equivalent of the hatchet was. Octavian had previously divorced Fulvia’s daughter, which according to the I, Claudius miniseries was a bad idea because he would go on to turn into Brian Blessed (not bad) and marry Livia (bad).

I had never heard of Fulvia outside of her sticking the pins in Cicero’s tongue. Yet she was involved in some of the most dramatic conflicts of one of the most trod-over periods of Western history. What happened to Fulvia? Was she eclipsed by Cleopatra? Is it her name, which sounds ridiculous to English speakers? How has she so completely disappeared from popular culture? Some of her characteristics were rolled into the “Atia of the Julii” character in HBO’s Rome miniseries, although since I remember that character as a Roman version of Edina Monsoon, constantly killing things and wailing at her pasty daughter, that’s probably a degradation of the historical Fulvia.

atia edina

Must be the hair.

I’ll leave you with a link to more scholarly information on Fulvia at A Life Unexamined–who was this Faustina, hm–and with an insult to Fulvia (shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia). This is from her former son-in-law:

Spiteful censor of the Latin Language, read
six insolent verses of Caesar Augustus:
“Because Antony fucks Glaphyra, Fulvia has arranged
this punishment for me: that I fuck her too.
That I fuck Fulvia? What if Manius begged me
to bugger him? Would I? I don’t think so, if I were sane
‘Either fuck or let’s fight,’ she says. Doesn’t she know
my prick is dearer to me than life itself? Let the trumpets blare!”
Augustus, you certainly grant my clever little books pardon,
since you are the expert at speaking with Roman frankness.

Misogynist, as expected, although it turns out that both men and women are menacing the great Augustus’s prick. But it brings up another issue: as a Roman politican, in deed if not in name, Fulvia almost certainly did things worthy of insult and mockery and slander. Is it better to be insulted or forgotten? How do we insult more fairly? Is it possible?

* I’ve also watched a highly censored version of Tinto Brass’s Caligula but I don’t think the Romans really had the technology to build such advanced fuckships and decapitation machines. Doesn’t count.


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