Academic journal article Helios

Fulvia, Mother of Iullus Antonius: New Approaches to the Sources on Julia's Adultery at Rome

Academic journal article Helios

Fulvia, Mother of Iullus Antonius: New Approaches to the Sources on Julia's Adultery at Rome

Article excerpt

In a 1983 essay, Amy Richlin sought to reconcile several wildly divergent accounts of Roman attitudes toward transgressive female sexual behavior. She observed that "each [account] obeyed the conventions of a [different literary] genre, [telling] the portion of the truth which its audience had come to hear." (1) Like Richlin, I will discuss a diverse collection of ancient Roman and Greek texts and other sources that document and elucidate the phenomenon of adultery in Rome. More precisely, I will examine one renowned instance of adultery in Rome discussed by Richlin in her essay and then revisited by her in 1992. I refer to the liaison between Julia, daughter of Augustus and Scribonia, and Iullus Antonius, son of Mark Antony and Fulvia, which was brought to light in 2 B.C.E. and resulted in Augustus's banishment of Julia and Iullus's suicide. Augustus's decision to punish this particular adulterous episode when he did, and how he did, has received, and still warrants, serious scholarly attention. (2) After all, Augustus had apparently overlooked his daughter's adulteries for over fifteen years, even after he himself had passed legislation outlawing sexual conduct of this sort. (3)

I will argue that in 2 B.C.E., a year during which he assumed the title of pater patriae, Augustus was not only wielding his own patria potestas over his sexually transgressive only child, but may also have been haunted by what one might call the matria potestas of Fulvia. I will contend that Augustus appears to have harbored complex and conflicted personal feelings toward Iullus's mother over time, and at that particular time, despite the fact Fulvia had died thirty-eight years previously in 40 B.C.E., a year before Julia's birth. In other words, I will suggest that, and why, personal and emotional factors loomed large in at least one Roman male's decision to punish, rather than overlook, adulterous conduct by a female relative. We may never be able to ascertain from our sources what we ourselves, much less an ancient Roman audience, would judge, in Richlin's words, "a portion of the truth." Yet examining different sources from different perspectives does allow for new, multiple, and plausible interpretations of Roman actions as well as attitudes--in this instance attitudes toward transgressive female sexual behavior.

Scholars such as Suzanne Dixon (1988, 2001) have joined Richlin in rightly insisting on the importance of literary genre in Roman constructions of gender. (4) In addition to speculating on personal and emotional reasons for Augustus's conduct, my discussion pays heed to generic conventions operative in these different sources, both literary and nonliterary, some of them produced in Augustus's lifetime, most of them after. These sources include inscriptions and coins; the sculptural reliefs adorning the Ara Pacis, the monumental altar of Augustan peace; a philosophical essay; lyric and epigrammatic poems; biographies; and historical narratives. By combining, if not reconciling, these diverse sources, I, like Richlin and Dixon, adopt an approach to Julia's adultery that is historicist as well as sensitive to literary and other aesthetic factors.

Fulvia emerges as a formidable figure--independent of her spouse's needs, vengeful, and simultaneously ambitious for and destructive to her own children--from our extant sources. This image helps to account for the indelible impression that she seems to have made on Augustus, and perhaps on her youngest son Iullus Antonius as well. It has much in common with the representations of mothers in the three major Roman poets analyzed in the other papers in this volume. Two of these poets, Propertius and Ovid, are also from the Augustan era; the third, Statius, who wrote over a century later, is contemporaneous with, or prior to, a number of important sources, such as Martial, Suetonius, and Plutarch, on both Fulvia and Augustus. Hence I would posit a dynamic interrelationship from the first century B. …

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