I really enjoyed the many responses to this meme/tweet- furious pirates, Resistance heroines and many others featured. My own effort focused on a figure I’ve been fascinated by for a long time- Tullia Minor.
Tullia, as presented by Livy, is a nightmare. She murders her sister and her husband, and then conspires to murder her own father. These are the most horrific of crimes- Livy describes them as “foul and unnatural,” actions against the social order, wiping out those to whom a patriarchal society demands deference and respect. And it seems like Tullia Minor (the murdered older sister is Tullia Prima) gets away with it for many years- she and her new squeeze, Lucius, do take power in Rome. Of course, for Livy, writing centuries later, it is essential that Tullia gets her comeuppance- when her sons lose power in Rome, it is presented as the natural result of her behaviour- she has corrupted them by her bad example. She is cursed wherever she goes, reminded of her cruelty and viciousness. But at least she doesn’t end up in a sack in the Tiber fending off a variety of creatures, including but not restricted to a dog, viper, cockerel and monkey- the later punishment for patricide.
It’s hard and probably inappropriate to try and rehabilitate Tullia, as presented by Livy. But for an intelligent and strong minded woman, trapped in an arranged marriage to a total drip (as her first husband Arruns comes across…) and in love with someone else, someone who could help her grab and maintain power from the father who put her in this terrible situation in the first place… well, maybe we can see how those actions might not seem quite so extreme. A historical novel might be a fun punt, to explore all these goings on in glorious fiction.
Livy’s presentation, too, deserves a closer look. Tullia, and her mother-in-law Tanaquil (who deserves her own post- although I have poor track record with blog series…) are exceptional characters- they are women who not only wield power, but who create it for their male relatives. Tullia is a key player in the coup that brings her second husband Lucius to power. She then *literally* creates power by giving birth to children- sons who present a clear and secure line of succession and a daughter who brings a powerful ally on board through a dynastic marriage. But in Livy’s version this power, given to men by women, is fundamentally weakened by its gendered origin. Tullia is incapable of raising moral, virtuous children- and so their actions lose the dynasty everything. The point that Livy’s account makes is that such a strong position for women can only end in trouble- unnatural murder, alienation from the gods, and exile and death.
Well, that’s cheerful. More #badassetruscanwomen, and more Roman misogyny (boo hiss) another day.
There’s a whole chapter on Etruscan women in the book, by the way- including a more detailed rundown of the Tarquinii wives (can’t you just see that coming to ITV Be next year?) You can still get it in time for Christmas.