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The Murder of Regilla by Sarah B. Pomeroy

Book Review by Bryaxis Hecatee

This book comes in a pleasant little format, some 170 pages (plus notes and annexes) which claims to tell us all that is known about the murder of Regilla, a noble lady of ancient Rome, and wife of Herodes Atticus. A tall order indeed but something which promiment scholar Ms Pomeroy would seem be able to accomplish, well versed as she is in the study of women in the ancient world. I speak of the study of women rather than gender studies because she did not devote all of her career to the study of the status of women in general and took a larger approach in her work that is apparent in this book: in addition to status she attempted to study the life of women through different the sources ranging from archaeology to literature, and from ethnological-like comparisons to epigraphy.

In this way, Pomeroy proceeds to tell us more than the story of an ancient celebrity’s scandalous death, she does more than simply run through ancient gossip, she looks further than what the sources can directly tell us : in this book she takes any author who lived less than one century after her heroine in order to shed light on what her life might have been like, she gathers information based on what is known from other sources and other cases, and she gives us her view of what happened to this noble lady who was beaten to death while she was still with child. Pomeroy clearly describes both her methodology and her goals in her introduction and makes no mystery of her opinions, which she tries to substantiate throughout the book.

So Pomeroy begins by giving an account of the victim´s early years, how she grew up in a Roman household with close ties to the Imperial family, a family of Patrician rank with roots dating back to the Republic, and claiming to go back to Venus herself. She received an education that was less extensive than that of her male relatives, which focused mainly on training her to be a good wife, bearing children, looking fine (and this does not mean “beautiful”) in public with her Roman husband, and overall being a chess piece in the political games of both her original and new family. Pomeroy then proceeds to show us that a surprising political decision was made to marry her off to a powerful man who was a friend of the Imperial family, a tutor to the Imperial heirs, and the richest private owner of the Empire. A Greek. A point which, for Pomeroy, is essential.

Indeed the author considers that the ways of the famous Athenian Herodes Atticus were totally alien to anything the young Regilla might have been expected to know and an experience to which she would have had no point of reference, a sacrifice made to serve the political interests of her family and the Emperor, but that would turn out to be a real trauma for the young woman, ultimately leading to her violent death at the hands of her husband’s freedman. At least twice her age, exceptionally cultured, more versed in an archaic form of Greek than in Latin, known to be a violent man who dared raise his hand on the Imperial heir whom he was teaching, a lover of young boys more than ladies, this is the Herodes Atticus that Pomeroy portrays for us, a violent contradiction to every Roman virtue, a man born and raised outside of the experience of the Roman social elites.

Very soon Regilla finds herself pregnant, the first of six pregnancies of which only three living children will result, two girls and a boy described as lacking his father´s intellect. Those pregnancies are carried to term in Athens, a place where Regilla is described as socially isolated, kept at home by her husband when he does not want her to play some religious role, confronted daily by Atticus’s lovers living alongside the heirs she bore him, surrounded both symbolically and materially by her husband´s presence in the form of his servants, his architectural tastes, his friends, his fortune. Not that she was deprived of her own considerable fortune or that Herodes did not present her with sumptuous gifts, like the lands he gave her in the Marathon plain, but he left his own mark in everything he did, such as the land that he gives her which is surrounded by his own.

Pomeroy then describes what can be surmised from Regilia´s few public acts that can be reconstructed, always presenting them as carried out under Herodes’s guidance or later embellished by him. Of the buildings ascribed by epigraphy or Pomeroy’s research to Regilla, many can still be seen or identified in ancient texts : a nymphea at Olympia (fed by an aqueduct built by Herodes), a fountain in Corinth (traditionally ascribed to her husband), a small temple by the stadium of Athens where Herodes created a new priesthood for her, and of course the various ruins in places where she lived both in Italy and in Greece, her personal estate on the Via Appia near Rome and her shared estate in Marathon. Pomeroy investigates all of this in order to create the picture of a poor woman subject to her husband’s every whim and isolated from the rest of society by barriers set by her husband. Herodes goes as far as to divinize his wife before she is even dead.

But does Pomeroy convince us of her thesis? This particular reader must say no. Pomeroy’s constant charge is not backed up by enough hard facts, especially when she refers to Regilla’s isolation from any social life. For instance, Regilia is able to exchange messages with her friends and family in Rome where, despite his influence, Herodes held much less power than in Athens (which, some do argue, was almost his fiefdom, to the extent that some of his political adversaries went to the Emperor claiming that Herodes aspired to tyranny). Furthermore, Regilla’s brother, who intended to start a judicial procedure against Herodes after his sister’s death, could have turned to the Emperor for assistance much earlier had the situation truly been as described by Pomeroy.

Also one must wonder about her view on Herodes’s education, philosophy and way of life, and the alleged gap between a very rich Greek who lived so many years in Rome and a member of the roman aristocracy. After all, education rested heavily on the same texts (of Greek origin), and the life led by the Roman governors in Corinth must have been an ideal which wealthy Greeks might have aspired to. I do not know enough of the topic to give any answers to these questions, but all the same, I was disappointed by the absence of a true study of this point in Pomeroy’s work.

Another point which this book fails to address is the question of why this case is given so much importance in literary sources. This story is very well documented as far as ancient events are known, better than many facts in the lives of Emperors, and Pomeroy does not dwell much on the causes of this curious fact. She also looks at the events exclusively from an internal point of view, and does not place the affair in the larger context of the Empire, which could have brought interesting perspectives to her case. So, what to conclude? Probably that this book, while raising many questions, does not do a very good a job at answering them, partly because it seems that the author started writing with a number of preconceived ideas which permeate the book without being satisfactorily backed up. A pity.

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The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity - Related Topic: Roman Marriage


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