In Epistles 3.16, Pliny recounts a conversation he had with one of his long-term friends, Fannia. Fannia was the daughter and granddaughter of two women named Arria. The conversation concentrated on the grandmother.
Pliny recounts the conversation as an example of the irony of history.
Arria was chiefly famous for her suicide. When her husband, Caecina Paetus, was on the verge of execution for conspiring to overthrow Claudius, she encouraged him to suicide by stabbing herself. As she bled to death, she turned to her husband and said ‘nec dolet, Paete’ (‘it doesn’t hurt, Paetus’). Whether Paetus believed her or not, he killed himself.
For Pliny, these stories model ideal female behaviour. The irony rested in the fact that her well-known act of courage was not her greatest act of courage. He relates Fannia’s stories:
- When Paetus was ill, their son died. Because his health was so fragile, she kept the news from Paetus, arranged the funeral, and buried her son without Paetus ever understanding her sorrow.
- When Scribonianus’ revolt against Claudius collapsed and Paetus was arrested, Arria begged to be taken with him. She was refused permission and followed from Illyricum in a fishing boat.
- When she discovered that the wife of Scribonianus had given evidence against her husband, Arria reprimanded her for living once her husband had died.
- When Thrasea Paetus, her son-in-law, tried to persuade her not kill herself as the trial moved towards an inevitable conclusion, her asked her whether she would expect her daughter to do similarly if he were to be under the death penalty. She said yes, provided that she (the younger Arria) had lived as long and as happily with her Paetus.
- When Thrasea and younger Arria put her on suicide watch, she knocked herself out by running into a wall and thereby demonstrated her inflexible determination not to outlive her husband.
Thrasea was eventually to find himself in a similar situation. He was condemned under Nero. He and Arria must have had the same discussion. She, it is said, wanted to follow him to death. But he told to look after their child, Fannia, and to live, which she did (Tacitus, Annales 16.34).
And so to Fannia. She married Helvidius Priscus, who was to clash spectacularly with Vespasian. As Fannia was dying, Pliny recounted her career to his friend, Priscus (Ep. 7.19). We are told that Priscus was twice exiled. On his death, she asked Senecio to write a biography of her husband. When this resulted in his trial for treason, he rather ungallantly said that he was writing at her request. She was summoned to the Senate where she confirmed his story, and was for a third time exiled. Although she did not die for her husband, she certainly risked her life.
Pliny has another letter about a suicidal wife (Ep. 6.24). He was sailing with a friend on Lake Como, where he had at least one villa. The friend pointed out a window from which a woman had committed suicide. Her husband had a disease of the genitalia. He was giving up hope of a cure and she offered an opinion. She examined the affected area. She then tied herself to him and threw the pair of them out of the window into the lake.
So what are we being told in these stories?
- They depict a strong conjugal relationship. The women are devoted to their men. In two cases, to the point of death.
- They depict strong women. Arria and Fannia and unnamed woman on Lake Como are as strong or stronger than their husbands. They also show leadership in Roman society. They cannot take official political roles, but there is no doubt that they act politically.
- The younger Arria and Fannia are both friends of Pliny. Male social relationships include women on equal terms.
One could read these stories as evidence of a focus on conjugal love. They show men and women in partnership. It also seems that a political heritage passes down the female line. It is the women the connect the three generations of political dissidents: Caecina Paetus, Thrasea Paetus, and Helvidius Priscus.
But if there is a norm in which women are devoted to their spouses and in which conjugal affections are elevated to such importance, is this just another way in which women are subordinated to men and their ambitions?
The story of Arria and Caecina Paetus is not Romeo and Juliet. These are not star-crossed
lovers. The death is a social convention. Life in a world in which her husband has been killed is unsustainable. It is an act of personal political protest against the regime. Eighteenth-century artists understood the suicide as duty, not love.
The woman who jumps from the window into the Lake demonstrates, for Pliny, an act of loyalty to her husband. Is it an act of love?
At the very least, we may wonder whether a woman’s life is over if her husband dies?