August 23, 2009

Agricola's Wife

From Britain Agricola returned to Rome to enter on his career of office and married Domitia Decidiana, the child of an illustrious house. It was a union which brought him social distinction and aid to his ambition for advancement. They lived in rare accord, maintained by mutual affection and unselfishness; in such a partnership, however, a good wife deserves more than half the praise just as a bad one deserves more than half the blame.

Tacitus's comment on Agricola's marriage is taciturn. Appalling puns apart this silence is both revelatory and a silence: it reveals and conceals in equal measure. It reveals the ancient Roman attitude to women. Domitia was a suitable wife for Agricola because unlike those harridans of antiquity- Aggripina the younger, Messalina or Faustina (wives of Claudius and Marcus Aurelius) she presumably did not have lovers or seek to exercise political influence. For Tacitus she was a perfect Roman wife- she bore children and kept quiet- she was seen but not heard. Furthermore the fact that nothing more has to be said about her reveals that Tacitus does not consider that she may well have had opinions about her husband's career and strategy- she does not matter and is a cipher, a container for children and a sympathetic sigh at home. That perspective reveals a deeply and unquestioning sexist attitude and morale. This is sexism, not as uttered pronouncement, but as precondition- as undefended assumption. It reveals as much about Tacitus's male world as about Aggrippa's actual life.

About which it reveals almost nothing. Domitia was from 'an illustrious family'- she would have been brought up in the centre of Roman politics and of Rome itself. She may have been a fool but there is no reason to suspect that: even with average intelligence she would have met many important and interesting people and imbibed their ideas, have seen the chaos of Claudius and Nero's reign and understood something of the sorrows that imperium could bring. It would be amazing if she did not communicate her own ideas to her husband, but we have no way of knowing whether she did or not or what she did. There is a hidden part of Agricola's biography that Tacitus cannot tell us therefore and that we cannot retreive: how did Agricola's family and in particular his wife influence his views. We can say this not merely about Agricola but about almost every important man across the next 1500 years and more. For characters as diverse as Cromwell, Charlemagne, the Earl of Liverpool (Prime Minister 1812-27), Constantine and more we have no way of knowing about the most important relationship of their lives and how it influenced their policies and political outlook. The politics of the bedchamber are hidden from us- in part from Tacitean silences, in part from the neccessary lack of sources.

I have commented of course about this before, but it needs restating again and again and again. The fact that we know nothing of Domitia beyond her name limits our knowledge of Agricola and ultimately of Roman policy in Britain at the time Tacitus was writing. Domitia probably as a patroness and a rich woman in her own right has her own history- not merely as an adjunct to her husband's- which involves supporting any number of individuals and influencing any number of spheres but it is one we will never understand. There are two things that you need to understand before you think about history: the first is that there is much more of history that we do not and possibly cannot know about than that we do know about, the second is that one of the larger areas of our ignorance in the historical record is about the role, influence, importance, intelligence and power of women. We know something thanks to the labours of feminist historians- but our history will never be complete because men like Tacitus thought fit only to record the name of women like Agricola's wife rather than give a more complex and detailed portrait.


James Higham said...

Harridan? Messalina was, by all accounts, not a bad looker and she sure could accommodate the men.

James Higham said...

... unlike Faustina. Great name though.

Harridan Messalina Faustina said...

It is! and it's in Kent, apparently:,_Kent