Powerful Women In Roman History: The Sabine Women, Lucretia, Cleopatra, And Dido

Throughout Roman history, women have played a significant role in Roman culture in fostering Roman identity. Despite the fact that women were often believed to be weak and submissive, ancient writers seemed just as interested in these women who departed from their expectations set by society. Ancient writers such as Livy, Virgil, and Plutarch have taken note of instances where women in Roman history have attempted to take power into their own hands. For instance, the Sabine women, Lucretia, Cleopatra, and Dido all displayed exemplary acts of bravery, self-sacrifice, or nobility within the male dominant Roman world. Whether it was historical, mythical, or legendary, these women were important aspects to Roman history as their actions proved that women do have strength and power.

In 753 BC, Romulus became the founder and first king of Rome. As one of his main goals for the city, he wanted to expand Rome’s territory and increase its population. In addition to increasing population, Romulus needed to secure a stable population. In order to do so, he needed more women in Rome. According to Livy, the Sabinians refused Romulus’ offer of intermarriage and as a result, Romulus and his Roman men abducted the Sabine women from their men and fathers. This demonstrates how women were perceived as weak objects that could be stolen, used, and replaced clearly diminishing their value as human beings. It also highlights women’s expectations to bear children and raise a family in Roman society. As a result of the abduction of the Sabine women, a fight broke out between their Roman husbands and their fathers. But before the two sides engaged in combat, the Sabine women resolved the conflict by interposing themselves between the men. According to Livy, the women argued that “if you cannot abide… turn your anger against us. As for us, it is better to die than to live as widows or orphans”. This moment demonstrates the Sabine women’s act of bravery and self-sacrifice as they risk their own lives in an attempt to end the conflict between their Sabine parents and Roman husbands. Rather than playing the submissive role, the Sabine women took the fate of their future into their own hands. Their act of interposing themselves in between the men showed the men the consequences that their fighting are having on the women. It showed them that no matter which side won the battle, the women will end up being hurt either way. The Sabine women’s simple act of bravery delivered a message strong enough to create peace between the Romans and the Sabinians.

Similar to how the Sabine women’s actions showed that women can take fate into their own hands, Lucretia, the wife of Collantinus, also displayed power through her act of self-sacrifice. Near the end of the monarchy, Tarquinius Superbus ruled as the seventh and last king of Rome. During his reign, his son, Sextus Tarquinius threatened and raped Lucretia. After playing a game to see which Roman had the most virtuous wife, Lucretia was found sitting quietly at home spinning wool while the other wives were found partying. According to Livy, Tarquin begins to develop a lust for Lucretia and wants to sleep with her. He ends up returning to her room on another night and threatens her into submitting, telling her that if she refuses, he will frame her of committing adultery with a slave, which was a fate for Lucretia that was worse than death. This reflects how women were worried about their image and status in society. After Tarquin rapes her and flees, Lucretia summons her father, Collantinus, and Brutus and explains what has happened. Despite the fact that she has been raped, Lucretia argues that “only my body was defiled, my soul is not guilty” and kills herself with a knife, accepting her punishment for being a defiled woman. Lucretia’s own sacrifice exemplifies the dignity she has a woman. It illustrates how she would rather die than to live knowing that she had been defiled by Tarquin against her own will. Lucretia’s suicide causes the people of Rome to mourn her death and revolt in anger against Tarquinius Superbus. This angry revolt led by Brutus and Collatinus against the king, eventually leads to the expulsion of the last king of Rome, ending the age of the monarchy in Rome. Though Lucretia’s sacrifice could be seen as an act to protect her own image, her brave sacrifice paved the path to the beginning of the Republic, with Collatinus and Brutus as the first two consuls of Rome.

In the same way that Lucretia’s death demonstrated her strength and dignity as a woman, Cleopatra also displayed actions that asserted her dignity and power as the queen of Egypt. In Plutarch’s Life of Antony, Plutarch recounts Marc Antony’s meeting with Cleopatra during the Republic. According to Plutarch, Cleopatra was well spoken, persuasive, charismatic, and had beautifully attractive looks. Her presence drew people towards her and her presence exerted fascination. When Antony invited Cleopatra to meet with him, she had the audacity to treat him with disdain. While going to meet Antony, she dressed herself up in her finest clothes and equipped herself with plenty of gifts and money. Plutarch notes that she arrived “reclining beneath a gold-embroidery canopy, adorned like a painting of Aphrodite, flanked by slave-boys who cooled her with their fans”. This demonstrates the power and pride that Cleopatra had as the queen of Egypt. For instance, rather than going to the dinner that Antony invited her to, she prefered him coming to meet her instead. This demonstrates Cleopatra’s display of her authoritative personality to Antony as she refuses to look weak, obediently following a man’s orders. Even after being captured by Caesar and undergoing much mental and physical suffering from grieving Antony’s death, Cleopatra still upholds her dignity as she refuses to be captured alive and serve as a trophy for Caesar’s triumph over Antony. Upon visiting Antony’s tomb, she says “let me not be the centerpiece of a triumph celebrated over you bury me here in this tomb beside you”. Despite the fact that Caesar claims he’ll treat her well, Cleopatra still displays an act of nobility by wanting to stay by Antony’s side, even after he has died. The fact that she would rather end her life than continue living as a centerpiece of a triumph, it emphasizes her sense of dignity and highlights her integrity.

Another exemplary female figure in Roman history was Dido, a female character in Virgil’s book, Aeneid. Virgil’s Aeneid told of a tragic love affair story between Aeneas and Dido. After Dido falls in love with Aeneas, news of their union spread across Libya and reaches the Libyan king. He sends a prayer to Jupiter, who sends Mercury to Aeneas to remind him that he must set sail to Italy at once since his destiny lies elsewhere. Upon hearing the news that Aeneas is planning to leave for Italy, Dido is heartbroken and confronts him in an attempt to persuade him to stay. After her failure, Aeneas continues to sail away as Dido curses Aeneas and all the Trojans, invoking the eternal hatred of her people upon them. After cursing Aeneas and the trojans, Dido kills herself, reflecting the typical Roman attitude of women being emotional and weak if they cannot be with their love. But at the same time, Dido’s curse upon Aeneas and the Trojans is a significant moment since it foreshadows the Punic Wars between the Romans and the Carthaginians, an important moment in Roman history.

Similarly, in the article “A Study of Dido and Aeneas” by Verda Bach Evans, Evans makes note of the gender roles displayed in Virgil’s Aeneid. While analyzing Aeneas and Dido’s characters, Evans analyzes how Aeneas and Dido are perfect examples of an “eternally feminine” woman while Aeneas is “everlastingly masculine”. However, she also argues that Dido is a “free moral agent” as there are instances where she proves she has power within her that drives her own actions. For instance, Evans notes how Dido displays her power to deny and reject her growing love towards Aeneas in her conversation with Anna. At the beginning of book IV, Dido contemplates whether she should allow herself to love Aeneas as she is guilt ridden over her resolve of not breaking faith with her dead husband, Suchaeus (OARL 198). By contemplating the decision of keeping faith with her dead husband and finding a new love, it suggests that Dido has a set of morals that creates an internal conflict, demonstrating that she is not a simple woman who can be easily swayed by love.

All four of these women in Roman history the Sabine Women, Lucretia, Cleopatra, and Dido have displayed acts of bravery, self-sacrifice, and nobility. Their actions proved that women are not as weak and submissive as they are thought to be, but rather, these women are much stronger and powerful in their own ways. The Sabine women’s brave act of interposing themselves between the Roman and Sabinian men created peace between the two groups. Lucretia and Cleopatra’s self-sacrifice exemplified their own dignity and nobility for the ones they love. Dido’s internal conflict and her curse highlights her morals, as well as the prophetic fate that awaits in the Punic Wars. Despite the lack of respect from men, these women proved to be a significant role in Rome’s history and identity.

14 May 2021
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