A dangerously undomesticated Roman wife

Suzanne DixonSuzanne Dixon is a feminist activist and scholar, now retired from her position as Reader in Classics & Ancient History at the University of Queensland, but still writing and agitating from her idyllic island home off the east coast of Australia. She has written several books and innumerable articles about Roman women (and other things). While not as energetic as Fulvia, she is proud that her achievements include active promotion of interdisciplinary women’s studies, child care and rape law reform in Australia. She is unquestionably a dangerous woman.

‘If I could kill you I would’ was one of the many online threats [Labour MP Tulip Siddiq] has received.
Labour MP Jess Phillips said she received more than 600 threats of rape in one night on Twitter in May.

– from Emine Saner, “Vile online abuse against women MPs ‘needs to be challenged now“, The Guardian, 18th June, 2016.


Baldy Lucius Antonius and Fulvia, open your arseholes.

– Inscription on a bullet from the siege of Perugia, 41-40 BCE (Corpus of Roman Inscriptions, CIL, XI.6721.305.14).


Women who step out of line must be punished. A woman who intrudes on the male, public sphere, is fair game. Her appearance, sexuality and fertility will be mocked. She will probably face violence and the threat of violence.

Because women are all intrinsically dangerous but can – like rivers or wild animals – be contained. There is an uneasy truce while they conform to the male rules of propriety. But once the river overflows or the elephant tramples the stockade, all bets are off.

Fulvia was a political woman born into a well-connected political family in Republican Rome. The Roman political elite was divided – like Whigs and Tories – between the reforming popularis tradition and the more traditional Optimate cause which favoured senatorial legislation over the less predictable proposals of plebeian tribunes in the popular assembly. Fulvia’s birth family and her three husbands – Clodius, Curio and M. Antonius (“Mark Antony”) were all populares, their cause generally vilified by the conservative tradition of Roman chroniclers. Her life was short by modern standards (ca 78-40 BCE) , but she left her mark on history.

In a position of great power following the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE (Dio 48.4.1-6), she was ultimately on the wrong side of the civil war which ended, some years after her death, with the triumph at Actium in 31 BCE of Caesar’s youthful great-nephew Octavian over her husband Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius). As “Augustus”, founder of a new regime, Octavian reigned supreme.  Victors’ spoils include the archives. The hostile tradition against Fulvia has endured for two millenia, replete with reactionary dislike of the popularis cause and vicious misogynist stereotypes. Only since the later 20th century has this hostile image been tempered, especially by feminist scholarship

Why was she dangerous?

Not only did Fulvia plunge openly into politics and public demonstrations– albeit in the role of supportive wife – but she collected, led and addressed armies in the Italian peninsula to ensure her husband’s support base.

Politics and the military, two bastions of masculine exclusivity.

Her body, her marriages, her sex appeal were all subject to abuse. And it served her right.


By the second century C.E., the hostile tradition was well established. The biographer Plutarch, the source of so many of Shakespeare’s influential images of these personalities, wrote of Fulvia:

She was a woman who took no thought for spinning or housekeeping, nor would she deign to bear sway over a man of private station, but she wished to rule a ruler and command a commander. Therefore Cleopatra was indebted to Fulvia for teaching Antony to endure a woman’s sway (gynokracy), since she took him over quite tamed, and schooled at the outset to obey women.

(Plutarch, Life of Antony 10.3, Loeb translation by B. Perrin)

What could be worse? Clearly a very dangerous woman.

Paradoxically, Fulvia’s transgressive intrusion into male politics and warfare has guaranteed her more exposure – in every sense – in the historiographic tradition, which focused on these Boys’ Own activities. Her treatment constitutes a warning for women contemplating public life. The resemblance to warnings meted out by misogynist trolls towards her modern equivalents is often chilling.

By the second century BCE, the power of Rome extended throughout the Mediterranean but from the late second century BCE on its internal politics were characterised by upheaval, instability and terrible civil wars. By 43 BCE the Republican constitution was a façade. Once its self-styled (Optimate) defenders, assassins of Julius Caesar, had been decisively defeated by Caesar’s populares heirs and supporters, the state was ruled in practice by the Second Triumvirate of Antony, Octavian and Lepidus. In the fashion which had become horrifically normal throughout that terrible century, the triumvirs confiscated land to give to their supporters, including their soldiers. They drew up lists of “proscribed” enemies, whose lives and estates were forfeit. Their heads, brought to Rome as proof of their murder, would elicit rewards.

Inevitably, the head of the orator Cicero, a bitter enemy of Antony, was brought to Rome. Other sources record Antony’s satisfaction, but only the much later author, Cassius Dio, adds a detail of Fulvia’s response:

. . . Antony uttered many bitter reproaches against it and then ordered it to be exposed on the rostra more prominently than the rest, in order that it might be seen in the very place where Cicero had so often been heard declaiming against him, together with his right hand, just as it had been cut off.  And Fulvia took the head into her hands before it was  removed, and after abusing it spitefully and spitting upon it, set it on her knees, opened the mouth, and pulled out the tongue, which she pierced with the pins that she used for her hair, at the same time uttering many brutal jests.

(Dio, Roman Histories 47. 8 )

What a bitch!

In a narrative filled with cruelty and violence this scene is designed to showcase Fulvia’s savagery, executed with a particularly feminine weapon.

When Mark Anthony left Italy to pursue Roman affairs in the Eastern Mediterranean, his position seemed assured. He had loyal generals, senatorial supporters and soldiers on his side in Italy. His younger brother, Lucius Antonius, was one of the two consuls for 41 BCE. Fulvia, says Dio, was effectively the other consul. (48.4).

Trouble soon developed between Lucius Antonius and the triumvir Octavian, who schemed to win over Antony’s supporters. Fulvia was immensely active throughout 41 BCE, travelling around the country to ensure that Anthony’s former soldiers knew that their land grants and other benefits came from HIM, not Octavian. She took Antony’s children with her – a form of display which was to become familiar under the imperial dynasties of the future. The appearance of a loyal wife and young children before the troops was a very direct kind of appeal.

Initially, Fulvia attempted to make peace with Octavian and to temper Lucius’ provocative behaviour throughout this period. Until, says Appian (Civil Wars 4.19) Antony’s agent Manius made mischief:

Antony’s soldiers, and Octavius also, blamed [Lucius Antony] for working against Antony’s interests, and Fulvia blamed him for stirring up war at an inopportune time, until Manius maliciously changed her mind by telling her that as long as Italy remained at peace Antony would stay with Cleopatra, but that if war should break out there he would come back speedily. Then Fulvia, moved by a woman’s jealousy, incited Lucius to discord.

So Fulvia started a war to get her husband to leave the foreign mistress and return to Italy! Rather at odds with her astute political actions.

So womanish.

Once open warfare broke out, Lucius Antonius ensconced himself in Perugia in the north with his troops, while Fulvia was based closer to Rome in Praeneste (modern Palestrina), taking advice from high-ranking supporters before dispatching orders to the various Italian regions. Dio predictably damns her usurpation of masculine prerogative. “And why”, he asks rhetorically, “should anyone be surprised at this, when she would wear a sword around her waist, give out the password to the watch and even address the troops directly on occasion?” (Dio.48.10)

So unfeminine.

The tone was set by contemporaries and orchestrated by Octavian. His own jingle (cited by the satirist Martial 11.20) taunts Fulvia for Antony’s infidelity with the foreign queen Glaphyra:

Because Antony fucks Glaphyra, Fulvia has set
this penalty for me, that I fuck her in turn….
“Either fuck me, or let us fight,’’ she says. What if my prick
is dearer to me than my life? Let the trumpets sound!

(translation, Amy Richlin, The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor  1983)

A rather different way of blaming her for the armed conflict.

A generation later, Velleius Paterculus (19 BCE – 18 CE), also blaming her for the war, denounced her unwomanly behaviour: Fulvia, the wife of Antony, who had nothing of the woman in her except her sex, was creating general confusion by armed violence. (2.74.2)

Fulvia marshalled Antony’s legions to bring reinforcements to her brother-in-law, besieged by Octavian’s troops in Umbria (Appian Civil War 5.4.33). Inscriptions on surviving missiles from the siege of Perugia 41/40 B.C.E. link Fulvia and her brother-in-law as equal targets, urging them to present their arseholes to the bullets.

Eventually, the Antonine forces were starved out and Perugia was taken and sacked by Octavian’s soldiery. In the ensuing slaughter, Lucius, Fulvia and many of their high-ranking supporters were spared and allowed by Octavian to leave Italy. Fulvia, her children and the core of Antonine loyalists went East to meet up with Antony.

And then, suddenly, she died in Greece.

Strange to relate, a new pact was forged between the warring triumvirs, this time reinforced by Antony’s marriage to Octavian’s sister Octavia. Plutarch tells us that it suited both men to lay the blame on the dead Fulvia for the deterioration of their triumviral solidarity (Life of Antony,30.3).

A poor return for her loyalty.

The attacks on Fulvia are not unique. Roman political invective was vigorous and virulent in the Republican era, when crowds turned out to hear great orators like Cicero or Antony’s grandfather lambast their enemies (and even their friends) mercilessly in the forum and the law-courts. Prominent men’s sex lives, appearance and pedigree were routinely held up to ridicule also in Catullus’ political lampoons and the chants, graffiti and songs of the masses.

In the years between Fulvia’s death and Antony’s final military defeat (40-31 BCE), Octavian successfully depicted Antony to the Roman public as the emasculated slave of a scheming foreign queen (Cleopatra VII) and Plutarch duly credited the domineering Fulvia with grooming him for this subservience (Plut. 10. 3). Plutarch could as well have cited Antony’s mother Julia, also a forceful political actor, the type of woman credited by Roman authors with their famous sons’ successes (Dixon, 1988). But then, as now, uninhibited attacks were a sign that a woman was being taken seriously in public life, particularly as an opponent. Both Fulvia’s political clout (Welch, 1995) and Cleopatra’s famous statecraft were trivialised, reduced to laughable womanish defects.

The moral of the story?

Even strong women can become political pawns. With rare exceptions (Joan of Arc springs to mind), the media tend to harden their judgment of those who have gone beyond the pale. Fulvia’s record as a dedicated popularis, an extraordinarily supportive wife and prolific mother, reveals a woman in the tradition of exemplary Roman matrons like Cornelia, revered mother of the Gracchi brothers. Fulvia’s energy almost to the moment she died was monumental. Yet her legacy is a cluster of stock ‘bad woman’s’ epithets– overbearing, jealous, nagging, unfeminine, unfuckable. A true warrior – literally – for the popularis cause and for her husband Antony, she was vilified in her lifetime. And, the final insult, betrayed and blamed in her death by Antony himself to suit his immediate political convenience.

She was, indeed, dangerous, a harbinger of the imperial women who would appear on the coins of the new dynasties, embodying the womanly virtues, if they were ‘good’. Or, conversely, condemned, like the executed empress Messalina, to perpetual satiric and historiographic abuse as a sexual joke, a dangerous woman properly exiled from the masculine portals of power.



  1. Babcock “The Early Career of Fulvia”, American Journal of Philology 86, 1-32 (1965)
  2. BaumanWomen and Politics in Ancient Rome (1992)
  3. Dixon The Roman Mother (1988); “The Enduring Theme: Domineering Dowagers and Scheming Concubines”, in Stereotypes of Women in Power (1991), ed. B.Garlick, S.Dixon, P.Allen.
  4. Hallett Perusinae Glandes and the Changing Image of Augustus, American Journal of Ancient History 2: 151-171 (1977)
  5. Welch “Antony, Fulvia and the Ghost of Clodius in 47 B.C., Greece and Rome, 42.2: 182-201 (1995, series 2)

Ancient sources: especially Appian Civil War; Dio Roman Histories; Plutarch Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans