Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.06

Susan Treggiari, Terentia, Tullia and Publilia. The Women of Cicero's Family.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2007.  Pp. xxii, 228; maps 3, figs. 7.  ISBN 978-0-415-35179-9.  $34.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by David Noy, University of Wales Lampeter (
Word count: 2013 words

Routledge's new Women Of The Ancient World series offers "compact and accessible introductions to the lives and historical times of women from the ancient world". A review of one, Elizabeth Carney's Olympias, has already appeared in BMCR 2007.08.27, and others published so far deal with Cornelia, Julia daughter of Augustus and Julia Domna. The compactness is inevitable: the facts known about any individual Greek or Roman woman would make a very short book indeed. There is more primary source material about Cicero's first wife Terentia and their daughter Tullia than about any other Roman women, but since the source for nearly everything is Cicero's letters, Cicero's perspective cannot be avoided. Following a largely chronological structure, Treggiari presents as full a picture of the two women and of Cicero's second wife Publilia as could be hoped for, using all available evidence and avoiding the hasty conclusions which have marked much previous scholarship on (particularly) Terentia, even if some of them have found their way into the blurb on the back cover. The evidence is still very fragmentary, leading to an inevitable proliferation of "Terentia may have...", "Tullia will have...", "Publilia perhaps...", and Treggiari frequently has to note the lack of anything to show how the women themselves thought and felt.

Nothing definite is known about Terentia's family, except that her half-sister was a Vestal Virgin. She may have been related to M. Terentius Varro but there is nothing to confirm this. Her father probably died early in her life, since he is never mentioned by Cicero and she is always referred to as an independent owner of considerable extra-dotal property. A fragmentary inscription (CIL VI 27261=34178, discussed by Treggiari at 178 n.1) commemorates a group of Terentii and Tullii who appear to have been the ex-slaves (and their families and own ex-slaves) of Terentia and Cicero -- the mixture of names is unlikely to have another explanation. The male Terentii in this group have the praenomen Marcus, which must derive from Terentia's father according to the rules of ex-slave nomenclature. It has often been noted that there is no information about who Terentia's tutor was, even though she must have had one, something which suggests that tutela was no more than a rubber stamp for women of her status at this time (so translating the term as "guardian", evidently part of an editorial policy of avoiding Latin terminology, is somewhat misleading). Despite the strict legal separation of the property of husband and wife, it seems to have been assumed, by Terentia and everyone else, that Cicero had a moral claim on her resources when he had none of his own, and that her wealth should ultimately benefit their children. Terentia's freedman Philotimus was involved in the management of Cicero's property as well as Terentia's. At the end of the marriage, Cicero complained about her retention of HS 2,000 which he may really have owed her. Whatever other reasons there were for their divorce in late 47 or early 46, it protected Terentia's property at a time when Cicero's reintegration into Caesarian Rome was far from assured (130).

Politicians' wives, sisters, mothers and daughters were expected to take an active interest in politics, and Cicero accepted this quite happily when it suited him. Treggiari shows how Terentia, like other such women, was particularly involved in a network of female patronage. Women who wanted favours from male politicians conventionally approached the men's wives or other female relatives first, but it was a class-dominated system and Antony breached etiquette by treating the freedwoman Cytheris as his wife and making elite women consort with her as if she was one of them. Women with important information imparted it to other women, who were expected to pass it on; this may have been how Terentia knew about the Catilinarians. Attacking men as subservient to their wives was a normal part of political invective, illustrated by what Cicero says about Antony and Fulvia; Treggiari suggests that Plutarch may have been influenced by a comparable anti-Cicero source when he depicted Terentia as "difficult and domineering" (49). Wives were expected to stay in Rome to work in the interests of exiled husbands; Terentia's activities in 58 foreshadowed those of "Turia" (in the Laudatio Turiae) and Ovid's wife. Terentia seems to have faced violence and physical danger as "Turia" did. Tullia, too, acted on her father's behalf, going down on her knees to the consul at one point. As far as we can tell, neither woman had any political agenda of her own, but did her best to promote Cicero's career and interests. Treggiari notes (159) that Cicero's "brave and fatal fight for the Republic in 44/3" took place when he no longer had to think about the advice or interests of either of them.

The nature of the evidence makes it difficult to get much of a sense of domestic life. Cicero's letters to Terentia obviously only refer to arrangements which had to be made while they were apart, and it seems to have been a matter of etiquette not to discuss intimate matters in letters even to very close friends. Treggiari observes (46) that "Terentia presumably normally slept with her husband, as Quintus expected his wife to do, but she must have been in the habit of leaving the bedroom before her husband's levée." Cicero owned numerous houses, which contained not only a staff of slaves and ex-slaves but also short- and long-term residents: clients, teachers, students, a doctor at one time. Women were likely to spend more time on country estates than men who needed to be in Rome, so Terentia and Tullia were probably often at Tusculum and the other villas, but there is very little evidence of what they did there. Treggiari notes (102) the complete lack of any reference to female slaves in the correspondence. It seems that they must have been, if not invisible to Cicero, then at least not an interesting enough topic to mention in writing.

Cicero's letters in which he writes about his feelings for Terentia in passionate terms come from the time when he was in exile and despondent about everything. He did not make a habit of writing love-letters (or, if he did, they were not preserved). Treggiari shows that the letters to Terentia from the end of the marriage in which he notoriously shows no feelings at all do not have to be seen as especially significant, and the final letter is evidence that he was still reliant on her for domestic arrangements. Tiro defended his second marriage to Publilia by saying that he married her for her money not because he was infatuated as Terentia claimed (Plutarch, Cic. 41), a justification which now seems bizarre but makes sense in a society where the senex amator was a figure of fun.

There is more detailed information about Tullia's three marriages than about almost any other Roman marriage, in terms of how they were arranged, how the dowry was paid, how in-laws were treated -- but of course not about Tullia's feelings with regard to any of them. It seems unlikely that she had no say in the choice of her first husband when the letters show that something as relatively minor as family travel arrangements could be changed to suit her while she was a teenager (53). She and her mother were entirely responsible for the choice of Dolabella as her third husband, but their precise motives can only be guessed. The difficulties of communication with Cilicia meant that they may have been ignorant of Cicero's preference for Ti. Claudius Nero rather than impervious to it. One aspect of marriage which is highlighted by Tullia's divorces is that they did not necessarily entail a break between the two families: Cicero "remained on polite terms" with Crassipes (77) and was very friendly with Dolabella for a time after the divorce, despite his ill-treatment of Tullia. While there were political reasons for this, it perhaps suggests that, if divorce did not always cause a political split, marriage was no proof of political co-operation. Cicero's relations with Terentia after their divorce seem to have been full of mutual suspicion, but he was anxious to treat her fairly by repaying her dowry on time, despite the chaotic state of his finances. The banker M. Cluvius of Puteoli, who made Cicero one of his heirs, also left a legacy to Terentia in 45, an interesting piece of evidence about how women could be involved in the relationships of amicitia which elite wills recognised, and comparable to the presence of women among legatees somewhat later in the Testamentum Dasumii.

Very little is known about Publilia (the article about her in Der Neue Pauly runs to 53 words excluding references), and most of it comes from later sources and not from Cicero himself, who only refers to his second marriage very cryptically. Treggiari disapproves of Cicero's conduct, abandoning her usual non-judgmental tone: "He had treated his young wife cruelly: no excuse is possible" (141). She finds some interesting evidence to suggest that later references to "the wife of Cicero" may mean Publilia rather than Terentia, giving her a series of marriages including one to Sallust the historian, although she ultimately dismisses all this as "a house of cards in which we should have no trust" (151). The information that Terentia lived to the age of 103 derives ultimately from Valerius Maximus, something which perhaps adds to its value even if it is not absolutely correct. There seems to be no other reliable evidence about her life after her divorce because, like the other well-documented women of the period such as Clodia and Fulvia, the ancient sources were only interested in her relationship to men. Extraordinary longevity was one of the few things which might be recorded about a woman entirely in her own right.

Treggiari rightly questions the bad press which Terentia has received from modern scholars, which derives ultimately from Cicero's hostile remarks made after the marriage had broken down, both those in his letters and those quoted by Plutarch. As she points out, no-one would take one party's account of a present-day divorce entirely at face value. She seems happier to accept the good press which Tullia has received, taking the absence of any criticism of her by Plutarch as confirmation of the entirely laudatory picture presented by Cicero. Most portrayals of individual women from the late Republic and early Empire are extremely hostile, so it is perhaps worth considering that one of the few which takes exactly the opposite point of view may be equally distorted, just as the Laudatio Turiae no doubt is. While there is no reason to doubt that Tullia reciprocated Cicero's devotion to her, the perspective of her husbands is as absent as her own. Treggiari pays some attention to the process of collecting and editing by which Cicero's letters came to be published; she does not ask the fascinating if unanswerable question of why there are no letters in the collection addressed solely to Tullia. If Terentia kept letters from Cicero which were ultimately included in the published archive (153), including some which can have seemed to have little literary or historical merit, it is surprising that Tullia did not do the same. Or were they destroyed by the grief-stricken Cicero after her death? There are no letters to Atticus written in the immediate aftermath of her death when he might have mentioned doing so.

This will be an extremely useful book for teachers and students taking courses about Roman women. Little previous knowledge is expected from readers, and short introductory sections provide basic information about Roman politics, law and society. It is difficult to say anything new about evidence which is generally well-known and thoroughly discussed, but having it all summarised in one place for the first time is in itself very helpful, and serves its avowed purpose of leaving readers to make up their own minds (xi). Everything is presented in a clear and lucid style with a careful avoidance of going beyond what the sources can support.

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