May 1, B.C.62 Ladies Night

Scandal broke out on this day in 62BC, when the aforementioned meathead, the politician Publius Clodius Pulcher, dressed as a woman and sneaked into the festival for the Bona Dea, bent on seducing Caesar’s wife, Pompeia.

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To this day, we know her only as Feminea Dea (“The Women’s Goddess”)

The etymology website etymonline.com defines “pulchritude” as (n.) – “beauty,” c. 1400, from Latin pulchritudo “beauty, excellence, attractiveness”.

The word has fallen out of everyday usage, and the website indicates origin unknown.  Possibly, the term comes down to us from an individual, who may have been the greatest maniac if not the dumbest man, in Roman antiquity.  Either that, or a man so bull-headedly determined to get what he wanted, that he deserves to be remembered as one of the great Meatheads, of history.

In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival, strictly forbidden to Roman men.  So stringent was this line of demarcation that only women were permitted even to know the name of the deity, to whom the festival was dedicated.  For everyone else she was simply the “Good Goddess”. The Bona Dea.

The first of two annual festivals of the Bona Dea was held during the winter, at the Aventine Temple. The second rite took place every May, hosted by the wife of the current Pontifex Maximus and attended by an elite group of Roman matrons, female attendants and vestal virgins.

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Publius Clodius Pulcher

Eighteen years before the end of the Republic, the Pontifex Maximus was Julius Caesar. Scandal broke out on this day in 62BC, when the aforementioned meathead, the politician Publius Clodius Pulcher, dressed as a woman and sneaked into the festival for the Bona Dea, bent on seducing Caesar’s wife, Pompeia.

I’m not even sure how that was supposed to work but, of all the women in Rome, this guy set his sights on the wife of Julius Caesar.

Apparently, ol’ Pulcher was insufficiently pulchritudinous. He was found out and thrown out.  Thus vitiated, the rites of the Bona Dea were rendered null and void, necessitating repetition by the Vestals.  Meanwhile, the desecration of such rites carried a sentence of death.  The legal wrangling went on for two years.

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Pompeia, Granddaughter of Sulla, 2nd Wife of Caesar

In the end, Clodius was acquitted, a fact which Cicero put down to fixed juries and back-room dealings.  Pulcher’s populist politics would one day transform Clodius into “One of the most innovative urban politicians in Western history”.  His transvestite dalliance with the Bona Dea provided arch-rival Cicero with verbal ammunition, for years.

The verdict of the ages was quite unfair to Pompeia.  Nothing more substantial than gossip and rumor ever implicated her in the Bona Dea scandal.

Her husband, one of the most ambitious politicians of the era, divorced her anyway, claiming that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”.

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March 15, 44BC Ides of March

Here’s where the story becomes Really interesting. The last words “Et tu Brute” were put in his mouth by Shakespeare, 1,643 years after the fact.

The history of Rome may be drawn into two parts, the Republic and the Imperium. Since 509BC and the overthrow of the Monarchy, the Republic operated based on separation of powers, checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of power. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual could wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

A series of civil wars and other events changed that in the 1st century BC.  The Republic was dead by the 30s BC, leaving Imperial Rome in its wake, best remembered for its long line of Emperors.

Gaius Julius Caesar was born into this chaos, a son of the prestigious Julian Clan. In 82BC, the 18-year-old Caesar survived the “proscriptions” of the Dictator Sulla, in which the names of as many as 4,700 “enemies of the state” were nailed to the wall of the Roman Forum. Any man thus proscribed was immediately stripped of citizenship and all its protections. Anyone killing a proscribed man was entitled to keep part of his estate, the rest going to the government.  Rewards were paid for information leading to the death of anyone thus proscribed.

Proscriptions

At the age of 25, Caesar was kidnapped and held for ransom by Cilician pirates, a group which may be described as the Isis of its time. Caesar laughed on learning that his ransom was set at only 20 talents of silver, and demanded they hold out for 50.  He would yell at this band of killers for talking too loud while he was trying to sleep. He’d write poetry and read it to them, calling them “savages” if they were insufficiently appreciative of his work.

For 38 days, Caesar joined in their games and exercises.  As if he were their leader, instead of their prisoner.  Caesar promised these pirates that he would come back and crucify them all, and he said it with a smile.Did you know

The pirates thought it uproariously funny, but Caesar was as good as his word. The fifty talents were raised, and the captive was released.  He made good on his promise, raising a force sufficient to enforce his will and bringing his former captors to Rome.  There he had them all crucified, but not without a moment of kindness.  Caesar style.  He slit their throats, ending the ordeal of crucifixion by hours, if not days.

Caesar lost his hair at an early age, about which he was self-conscious. It’s probably why we see him depicted with the wreath on his head, but baldness didn’t seem to bother the women in his life. Caesar seems to have been quite the ladies’ man, having a son with none other than Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. One story has him being handed a note while speaking at the Senate. Caesar’s arch rival Cato (the younger) demanded to know the contents of the letter, loudly accusing him of complicity in the “Catiline Conspiracy” to overthrow the government. At last Caesar relented, reading out loud what turned out to be a love letter – a graphic one – written to him by Cato’s own half-sister Servilia Caepionis.

Caesar rose through the ranks, organizing a coalition of three to rule the Republic. It was the first such “Triumvirate”, combining the popular general Pompey “The Great”, Crassus, the wealthiest man in all of Rome, and the rising young general and politician Julius Caesar.

first_triumvirateThe partnership was doomed to fail, given the egos and animosities of the three. Crassus was killed in 52BC as Pompey became increasingly hostile to his co-ruler, who was then on campaign in Gaul.  A string of military successes against Celtic and native Germanic tribes caused Caesar’s popularity to soar, posing a threat to the power of the Senate and to Pompey himself.

The Senate ordered him to resign his command and disband the army, or become an enemy of the state.  Everyone knew what it meant when Caesar crossed the Rubicon River at the head of that army, in 49BC. It meant Civil War. To this day, to “Cross the Rubicon” means to take a step which cannot be reversed.

Caesar emerged victorious, declaring himself Dictator for Life, the first time such a title had ever been made permanent. Nothing was more repugnant to traditional Roman sensibilities, than the idea of a dictator for life. Caesar’s days were numbered.

According to Plutarch, Julius Caesar arrived at the Senate on March 15, 44BC. Tillius IdesOfMarchKnife640Cimber presented him with a petition, as Senators crowded around. Cimber grabbed the Emperor’s shoulders and pulled down his tunic. “Ista quidem vis est!” said Caesar, “Why, this is violence!” Casca pulled a dagger and stabbed at the dictator’s neck. Caesar turned and caught him by the arm. “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” Frightened, the Senator shouted “Help, brother!” in Greek “adelphe, boethei!” In seconds the entire group was striking at the dictator. Caesar attempted to get away but, blinded by his own blood, he tripped and fell. The men continued stabbing at him as he lay defenseless on the steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, 60 men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times, though only one wound was fatal.

Here’s where the story becomes Really interesting. The last words “Et tu Brute” were put in the Dictator’s mouth by Shakespeare, 1,643 years after the fact. No eyewitness account of his assassination survives today, though a more contemporary source recorded the Greek words “Kai su, teknon?” as Brutus plunged the dagger in. “You too, my child?”

Marcus Junius Brutus (the younger) was the son of the same Servilia Caepionis, above. Brutus was 41 at the time of the assassination, Caesar 56. It is unlikely though not impossible, that Brutus killed his father that day. The affair between Brutus’ mother and Caesar, had carried on for years.

December 5, 63BC The Catiline Conspiracy

Lucius Sergius Catilina was an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his wife and son, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin

Ever since the overthrow of the Roman Monarchy in 509BC, Rome governed itself as a Republic.  The government was headed by two consuls, annually elected by the citizens and advised by a Senate.  The Republic operated on the principle of a separation of powers with checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of power.  Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

A series of civil wars and other events took place during the first century BC, ending the Republican period and leaving in its wake an Imperium, best remembered for its conga line of dictators.

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator during this period, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the Republic.  In particular the power of the aristocratic Senate.  He seems to have been an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his wife and son, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

The first of two conspiracies bearing his name began in 65BC.  Catilina was supposed to have conspired to murder a number of Senators on their entering office, and making himself, Consul.  He may or may not have been involved at this stage, but he certainly would be for the second.

In 63BC, Catilina and a group of heavily indebted aristocrats concocted a plan with a number of disaffected veterans, to overthrow the Republic. On the night of October 18, Crassus brought letters to Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero warning of the plot.  Cicero read the letters in the Senate the following day, later giving a series of four speeches:  the Catiline Orations, considered by many to be his best political oratory.

In his last speech, delivered in the Temple of Concordia on December 5, 63BC, Cicero established a basis for other speakers to take up the cause.  As Consul, Cicero was not allowed to voice an opinion on the execution of conspirators, but this speech laid the groundwork for others to do so, primarily Cato the Younger.

The actual Senate debates are lost to history, leaving only Cicero’s four orations, but there was considerable resistance in the Senate to executing the conspirators.  They were, after all, fellow aristocrats.

Armed forces of the conspirators were ambushed at the Milvian Bridge, where the Via Flaminia crosses the Tiber River.  The rest were executed by the end of December.  Cicero’s actions had saved the Republic.  For now.

At one point during this period, then-Senator Julius Caesar stepped to the rostrum to have his say. He was handed a paper and, reading it, stuck the note in his toga and resumed his speech. Cato, Caesar’s implacable foe, stood in the senate and demanded that Caesar read the note. It’s nothing, replied the future emperor, but Cato thought he had caught the hated Caesar red handed. “I demand you read that note”, he said, or words to that effect.  He wouldn’t let it go.  Finally, Caesar relented. With an actor’s timing, he pulled out the note and read it to a hushed senate.

It turned out to be a love letter, a graphic one, wherein Servilia Caepionis described in detail what she wanted to do with Caesar when she got him alone. As if the scene wasn’t bad enough, Servilia just happened to be Cato’s half-sister.

Here’s where the story becomes Very interesting. Caesar was a well-known lady’s man.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,
The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in. “And you, Brutus?” But that’s not what he said

By the time of his assassination, he had carried on with Servilia for years.  Servilia Caepionis had a son, called Marcus Brutus.  He was 41 on the 15th of March, 44BC.  The “Ides of March”.  Caesar was 56. The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in.  “And you, Brutus?”  But that’s not what he said.  Those words were put in his mouth 1,643 years later, by William Shakespeare.

Eyewitness accounts to Caesar’s last words are lost to history, but more contemporary sources recorded his dying words as “Kai su, Teknon?”  In Greek, it means “And you, my child?”

I’m not convinced that Brutus murdered his father on the Ides of March, in fact I believe it to be unlikely.  Still, it makes you wonder…