March 14, 2008

The Murder of Regilla

'A murder charge ws brought against Herodes in this way. When his wife Regilla was eight months pregnant, he ordered his freedman Alcimedon to beat her for trivial reasons. She died in premature childbirth from a blow to her abdomen' Philostratus

Philostratus was writing a life of Herodes when he wrote those lines. Herodes was one of the richest men in Greece and Rome in the 2nd Century AD, he was a philosopher, a tutor to and friend of Emperors and a massive donor of public art to the cities of Europe, Asia and Africa. He stood at the apex of Roman society- and his biographer honoured him as a man of impecable learning and taste. But of course during this process of exaltation, Philostratus mentions a fact that neither Herodes nor his powerful friends might wish us to dwell upon, that Regilla, Herodes's wife died in suspicious circumstances. Furthermore Herodes was accused of murdering her by her brother and the case went all the way to the Roman Senate before it failed for some reason that we don't quite know. The whole tale is sketched out by Sarah Pomeroy in her book which takes not Herodes, but his wife Regilla as the main character and attempts to sketch out the drama of a life unjustly curtailed.

Regilla was born in Rome to one of the highest families in the Empire- she was related to the Imperial Antonine house. We know almost nothing about her upbringing- though we can presume it was typical for a Roman girl of her day. Though the typical Roman girl or woman is not a subject about which we have vast ammounts of evidence anyway! Pomeroy is the first historian to actually write a chapter on what a Roman girlhood would have been like and she provides fascinating details of that life. She would have had a dozen slaves, trained in childcare to look after her, and several different wet nurses. The nurses' characters would have been examined- Romans believed that a wetnurse gave her charge not merely milk but also character through the milk. Most nurses and many of the other specialist team of childminders would have been Greek- the Greeks were the adknowledged experts on childcare in the 2nd Century. A Roman senatorial daughter would have had massive powers to torment and command her slaves. She would have been taught Greek, though her younger brother Bradua would have had a larger retinue and a more extensive education. Even so, Plutarch informs us that Roman girls could expect to learn mathematics and other authors inform us of a curriculum that would include the classics and dancing.

This kind of detail is fascinating and its what comes through again and again in Pomeroy's account. As a primer on what a Roman aristocratic woman could expect there is no better book around, that I have read. For instance Pomeroy talks of life expectancy (mid-30s), of the number of pregnancies (normally around 6 or 7- data born out in studies of slavery fertility) and the differences between Greek and Roman marriage. Greeks tended to favour endogamy- in Athens only siblings by the same mother were forbidden to marry and in Sparta by the same father. Herodes own family had instances both of half siblings and first cousins marrying. Roman law on the other hand was much stricter- under Roman law noone (excepting the Imperial family) could marry closer relations than first cousins. The difference had an impact as Plutarch noted on the ways that Roman and Greek marriage worked- the fear of the girl's family meant that a Roman marriage afforded more protection than a Greek marriage where the family of the couple were the same people. Herodes had a reputation for his temper before he married- he had violent encounters and Pomeroy implies that he probably beat up his wife. Not to mention the fact that for Herodes his wife, in Pomeroy's view, was definitely less important than his two catamites (to whom he dedicated numerous statues and monuments) and that she was a mere political alliance.

For the distinction between Herodes and Regilla was not merely sexual- it was also political. Herodes may have been rich, but he was Greek and he also was a new man. His father had built up an empire of business connections- probably unscrupulously- and Herodes had legitimised it, rising to become a senator and a magistrate. But to turn that legitimation into acceptance by the Roman aristocracy, he needed to ally himself with an ancient family. Regilla's family were ancient- both her father and brother were consuls and her family went back to the early days of the Republic. The rich Greek and the noble Roman were made for each other politically and whilst we do not know what precipitated the marriage, we can be pretty sure that that was uppermost in most people's minds. Equally Pomeroy is right to emphasize that Herodes did something rather extraordinary when he got married- he went back to Greece taking his young bride with him. Few Roman women travelled far outside Rome- almost none left permanently (exile from Rome as any casual reader of Ovid will know was thought of as a fate worse than death). Regilla travelled to Greece and furthermore she left permanently. Pomeroy speculates about the psychological effect that this might have produced upon her. She also uncovers interesting evidence of the role that Regilla played in Greece- she was appointed a priestess in two temples (one Herodes constructed for the purpose in Athens) and played an important political role in public life. She also had a number of children- two girls and a boy- also confusingly named Bradua, whom Pomeroy asserts that Herodes hated unjustly. Again we have no evidence that Herodes's hatred was unjust, though he seems to have made scant effort to remember his son in his will.

Now we come to the murder. Simply put- all we have is the account with which I began this chapter, suspicions in the ancient sources about Herodes's character, the fact that Regilla's brother began proceedings and the way that Herodes behaved after her death. None prove in my view that Herodes murdered Regilla- its quite possible that as Pomeroy argues he did murder her- but there is no direct evidence that he did and we do not know why the senate refused to convict. Probably there wasn't enough of a prosecution case to convict upon- normally Roman slaves would be tortured and then pressed into giving evidence, in this case Herodes's slaves were far from Roman justice. There were enough rumours in Rome about Herodes's treatment of his wife for her brother to prosecute. The simple plain truth is that we probably will never know. Pomeroy argues that Herodes's massive building program after his wife's death was due to some guilt complex or to a desire to dispel suspicion. Again there is no way of knowing- and its always dangerous to impute motives to people when its perfectly reasonable to imagine other thought processes going through Herodes's mind- afterall if you can't boost your own prominence, why not boost that of your wife. The quote by Philostratus, who was one of Herodes's supporters, implies that there was some domestic violence involved- but why Alcimedon was never punished despite Herodes been found innocent has never been adequately deat with. The truth is that the pieces of evidence we have in our hands as to the murder are contradictory and don't clearly indicate anything save that there was a tragedy- we don't know enough about any of the principles and our sources are not good enough to conclude much. (Another review that takes a similar line to me is here and has further good reasons to be sceptical.)

The real value of Pomeroy's book lies not so much in its treatment of Regilla and her murder- despite my title- as in her discussion of ancient women. I am cautious as to whether there is much that we can really say about Regilla- all we can probably say is that somehow in that house in Greece a tragedy occured- and probably that that tragedy was related to domestic violence in some way. What happened though is veiled in mystery. Far more fascinating is the insight from this reconstruction of the life of Regilla, we get into Roman women as a group. It is probably impossible to do anything more than Pomeroy in attempting to reconstruct Regilla- but it seems from what she has written that there is plenty more to be done on Roman women. This book is a wonderful introduction to the subject as it sketches out a plausible vision of what a Roman aristocratic female life might have been like, based on the best evidence. We may not know how Regilla died, but thanks to Pomeroy we know much more about what her life might have been like.