BMCR 2008.01.44

The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity

, The murder of Regilla : a case of domestic violence in antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (249 pages) : illustrations, map. ISBN 9780674042209. $24.95.

Table of Contents

At the height of the Antonine age, the plutocrat, former Athenian archon, and Roman consular Herodes Atticus, whose wife Regilla had miscarried and died in the eighth month of pregnancy, allegedly from a blow to the belly administered at her husband’s order by his freedman Alcimedon for a trivial cause,1 was prosecuted for her murder by her brother Bradua, consul ordinarius of AD 160, either in that year or afterwards; whose speech proving not to the purpose, the defendant, denying the order and pointing to his public grief, was acquitted. Rightly so, according to Philostratus ( VS 556), who likes to think well of his subjects and dedicates his Lives of the Sophists to Herodes’ descendant ( VS 479), but not according to those even at the time who considered his grief a sham, and certainly not to Pomeroy, who in this book renders justice to Regilla, a marginal figure in scholarship hitherto, not only as a victim but as a woman and a noblewoman.

In so doing, Pomeroy is of course hindered by the paucity of evidence about Regilla before her death; she blames this on the move to Greece, but for which ‘her contemporaries at Rome would have taken notice of her and we would have known more about her’ (p. 3). In another age, perhaps, or even if we had Dio whole; but as things stand, her one chance of posthumous fame was in the correspondence of Fronto, had she impinged on his attention and the letter been legibly preserved. However, Herodes’ emotional reaction to the death of his firstborn, while he was still in Rome, did not suggest to either Marcus or Fronto that Regilla too might be in need of consolation; Pomeroy admits that that may have been considered Herodes’ function (p. 37), but if so it is unlikely he could discharge it (p. 38). The sad fact is that, but for her suspicious death and her commemoration by her widower, from grief or guilt as the case may be, we should know nothing of her save a few Greek dedications that would not have inspired the exploration of her life even for the sake of women’s history.

As it is, for want of specific evidence, Pomeroy has to present ‘a generic picture of upper-class girlhood and adulthood’ (pp. 6-7); this is especially noticeable in ch. 1, ‘Girlhood in Rome’, a topic hitherto inadequately treated, as she admits (pp. 181-2 n. 15), even by her. In the nineteenth century W. A. Becker wrote two famous books on Greek and Roman life as seen through the eyes of an Athenian and a Roman boy, Charikles and Gallus; much admired until the progress of knowledge had rendered them obsolete, they would be well worth emulating today, but would need to be accompanied by Charikleia and Galla.

Pomeroy emphasizes Regilla’s social superiority, at least at Rome, to Herodes, a point she repeatedly returns to; she also brings out the less savoury features of Herodes’ character, in particular his tendency to violence. In this connection she naturally mentions the forensic clash with Fronto defused by M. Caesar ( Epp. 3. 2-6), but strangely calls him ‘the emperor’; likewise on p. 2, she had attributed Herodes’ acquittal to ‘the intervention of the emperor’, whom on pp. 119 and 124 she identifies as Marcus without considering the widespread opinion that the trial took place Bradua consule, hence still under Antoninus Pius.2

The birth (and hence death) of Herodes’ and Regilla’s firstborn is dated on p. 35 ‘by 141’. Contested as the dates of Fronto’s letters are, that cannot be, for his reply to Marcus speaks of his consulate, which we now know to have fallen in July and August 142, as in the past ( Ep. M. Caes. 1. 7. 2). ‘Less than two years later’, we read on p. 38, Regilla gave birth to Elpinice, after which the family moved to Herodes’ city; in ch. 2, ‘A Roman Matron in Imperial Athens’, firm dates are given for the births and deaths of other children. Alas, other scholars disagree with her, and each other, even about the birth-order;3 precision seems illusory. Sounder is the description in the same chapter of the differences in customs between Greece and Rome that Regilla will have encountered to her disadvantage as a woman; here Pomeroy draws on Plutarch’s Coniugalia praecepta, which she has translated (Oxford, 1999).

Even with a focus on Regilla and not her husband, Pomeroy (like her) cannot avoid Herodes’ τρόφιμοι, in particular his imitation Antinous, Polydeucion. If she disliked the relationship, either as such (because in Rome, Cupid ‘regularly employs his arrows for heterosexual purposes’, p. 64, though Martial and Juvenal say otherwise) or as an εὐνῆς παροψώνημα, she no doubt knew better than to show it; but even if her mother-in-law’s failure to commemorate the children of the marriage (or indeed Regilla herself) as she did Polydeucion may be explained by death, rather than by the hostility Pomeroy not implausibly suspects (pp. 52-3; note the admission at p. 197 n. 45), she must have noticed that the foster-son trumped the children in their father’s statuary.4 One would like to know which partner had insisted on the division of the estate at Marathon into His and Hers, separated by a Ὁμονοίας ἀθανάτου πύλη whose name was perhaps Orwellian avant la lettre. In her portion there was a statue that by the seventeenth century had attracted the legend of a wealthy woman who, like Niobe, had proclaimed herself beyond the reach of misfortune (pp. 79-80); on Pomeroy’s showing Regilla can hardly have harboured any such thought.

Ch. 3, on ‘Public Life’, is concerned with the functions that as a foreign woman Regilla was permitted to fulfil, and with the benefactions attested as hers by inscriptions yet stolen from her in modern scholarship. Service as priestess of Demeter at Olympia, that hot and uncomfortable place, evidently led to the installation of Regilla’s nymphaeum, fed by Herodes’ aqueduct and credited to him by later writers (not only male),5 who have made even her dedication to Hygieia a joint affair. It seems also to have been Regilla who bestowed the fountain of Peirene on Corinth, and the exedra or some other benefaction on Delphi.

At the beginning of ch. 4, ‘Death in Athens and Murder Trial in Rome’, Pomeroy states that the sole burden of guilt for Regilla’s death was laid on Alcimedon: ‘No one claimed that she had died of natural causes’ (p. 119). This does not emerge from Philostratus’ account, in which Herodes denies giving any such order, but is not said to have admitted that Alcimedon gave the blow; it was surely safer to claim that, not having been present (the charge as reported does not imply he was), he naturally had no first-hand knowledge of how Regilla died, but on interrogating the household had been informed that she had spontaneously and fatally miscarried, than to lay himself open to the question why he had taken no action against the murderer, whom we still find in his service fifteen years later at the trial in Sirmium (Philostratus, VS 560-1). Moreover, if the blow were not in dispute, once Herodes had been acquitted of commanding it, Alcimedon, his only defence gone, must surely have been convicted of delivering it, for Sirmium shows that Romans had no modern prejudice against scapegoating the subordinate; Pomeroy indeed states that ‘Marcus Aurelius found him guilty’ (p. 132), but the failure to punish him becomes inexplicable even as a favour to Herodes (p. 126), who was thus abandoned to live under the control of a blackmailer (p. 133). Moreover, if Alcimedon had such a hold over his patronus as Pomeroy supposes (pp. 130-3), would he, if saddled with the blame, have been content for Herodes to draw attention to the crime, again and again, with his monuments to the victim?

Pomeroy does not openly accuse Alcimedon of instigating the murder, as she does of alienating Herodes’ affections from the younger Bradua (pp. 132-3), in whose stupidity and playboyishness, hardly infrequent in rich men’s sons, she is reluctant to believe; but her Cassian question Cui bono? (p. 126) is suggestive, and otherwise, as she admits, ‘Herodes’ motivation is difficult to fathom’ (p. 125). Nevertheless, to her his guilt seems clear; he escaped conviction by a Senate better disposed to the Roman prosecutor than to the Greek defendant only through his relationship with Marcus, which certainly saved him at Sirmium, albeit on lesser charges. Yet however biased Philostratus was in Herodes’ favour, we still need a reason for disbelieving his assertion that Bradua offered no solid argument ( πιθανὸν μὲν οὐδὲν διῄει περὶ τῆς αἰτίας); we do not know what evidence he had to lead against either Herodes or Alcimedon, since he could not put Herodes’ slaves, or even Alcimedon, to the question against his caput.6 Moreover, his family laudatio, for which Pomeroy does her best (p. 124), may well have struck the senators as overdone, and his reference to a single benefaction of his own certainly invited the devastating response from Herodes that it evoked; in the face of such ineptness we may be the less surprised that he played a poor hand badly—or that Herodes could afford to treat him with contempt. Full many a scion of noble house has been a pompous ass.

None of this means that Herodes was innocent, or that (as has been asserted) ‘the charge was excessive’7, only that the prosecution did not, and perhaps could not, prove its case. Pomeroy is certainly not alone in suspecting Herodes got away with murder; it would (though this is a two-edged argument) befit his image that he should order an underling to do the dirty work that Periander and Nero had done for themselves. Nor should Marcus be given a free pass simply because of his saintly reputation; if his assistance was needed, it was no doubt given. But suspicion is not evidence; and although Philostratus still thinks it necessary to rebut suspicions that his elaborate mourning was a πλάσμα, it appears from VS 5578 and Lucian, Demonax 339 that not even those who despised the show all took it for a sham. Indeed, Herodes seems to have suffered less from an allegation of which he may well have been guilty than the Earl of Leicester from one of which he was almost certainly innocent.10

For Philostratus, Herodes’ public grief is a mark of innocence; for Pomeroy it is ‘tantamount to a confession’ (p. 124). One might suppose that either argument smacked too much of the appeals to εἰκός made by the earlier Attic orators; however, the analysis of his monuments in ch. 5, ‘Regilla’s Final Resting Place’, which shows him appropriating her properties and redesigning her image, is pervaded by a determination to read an expiatory purpose into them. Thus the inclusion of Nemesis in the Triopeion is an attempt to forestall revenge from Regilla and the Braduae (p. 162), though as she admits Herodes had an interest in her cult at Rhamnous; moreover, in Callimachus’ version of the myth ( Hymn 6. 56), where Triopas’ son Erysichthon is the aggressor, it is Nemesis who κακὰν ἐγράψατο φωνάν. In cumulation, however, one must admit that a guilty conscience might be a common theme.

If we could be sure that the images on the sarcophagus in Kifissia were made to Herodes’ detailed specification, we might learn something of his character from the image of Leda and the Swan reproduced on p. 142, which unlike certain other representations of the myth portrays an indubitable rape, all the more so if as Pomeroy supposes it was an attempt to provide Elpinice in death with the husband she had lacked in life.11 On Herodes’ estate, indeed, supervision does not seem improbable; but I find it hard to believe that the author of such pretentious inscriptions as Ameling no. 140, too contorted to be understood, and no. 143, with its Attic script and its hypercorrect Ο for ΟΥ, should have overseen Ameling no. 144 (pp. 165-6, where the Greek text is wrongly said to be in Attic script). Granted that τὸ φῶς τῆς οἰκίας is Herodian (Ameling no. 147), the clause τίνος ταῦτα τὰ χωρία γέγοναν, with the vulgar plural γέγοναν, after a neuter plural subject at that, instead of γέγονε,12 and τίνος functioning as a relative,13 must be a mistranslation of the Latin text, cuius haec praedia fuerunt.14

The book ends with a translation of Marcellus’ poem in Regilla’s of honour, omitting the closing curses on whoever shall interfere with the monument; at l. 40 [= εἰ ] φίλον is strangely rendered ‘dear friend’ (cf. p. 169) instead of ‘if you will’, and at 65 she follows Ameling’s punctuation, which forces her to ignore κε. and render ἀλέγησθον as if it were ἀλεγοίσθην, instead of his note, which explains that τόφρα = ὅπως (or indeed ὄφρα). At 61 Οὔπι becomes ‘from your look-out’, but a discussion of why Nemesis is called by a name associated with Artemis would have taken Pomeroy too far from her purpose.

That purpose is the reclamation of a great and unfortunate lady from the oblivion in which recent ages have enveloped her; and it is achieved. True, much is and must be surmise, especially about her feelings; but Pomeroy has done her best to reconstruct Regilla’s likely emotions, not merely those that would have been her own if transported in time and place to Antonine Rome and Athens. She cannot prove how her heroine met her end, but no-one else can; at most one can suggest a different strategy for the defence. Our knowledge of ancient women’s lives is richer for her book.


1. Philostratus VS 555, in oratio obliqua.

2. So e.g. Paul Graindor, Un milliardaire antique : Hérode Atticus et sa famille (Cairo, 1930), 92, who argues that not till after the trial could Antoninus have decently made the younger Bradua a patrician to console his father; this would not hold if, as W. Ameling, Herodes Atticus (Hildesheim, 1983), i. 18 asserts, Regilla died c.157. In any case, the emperor may himself have presided, or even heard the case himself with a consilium of senators (Ameling i. 103 n. 46).

3. See Graindor 101-10, Ameling i. 16-21.

4. These comments assume that Pomeroy is right to accept the mid-140s dating of Polydeucion’s death, proposed by me ( CR, NS 43 (1993), 296-7) on grounds of Gellian chronology and by Hugo Meyer ( μδαἱρ) 100 (1985), 393-404, Boreas, 12 (1989), 119-22) on grounds of art history. If instead it fell in the 160s, the contrast in Vibullia Alcia’s conduct is the more telling, and no doubt her views were made clear in her lifetime; on the other hand Regilla then had many more years to endure her husband’s doting on his minion, for as Pomeroy points out (p. 66), even if she was glad that he sought his gratification elsewhere, he was doing no good to either his own dignity or hers.

5. Note already how ( pace Pomeroy, p. 94), Lucian, Peregr. 19 subsumes the nymphaeum under the aqueduct, and specifies ἄνδρα παιδέιᾳ καὶ ἀξιώματι προὔχοντα as the benefactor.

6. See W. W. Buckland, The Roman Law of Slavery (Cambridge, 1908), 88; Digest 48. 18. 1. 10. ‘The witnesses’ lips were sealed’ (Pomeroy, p. 123) by law as well as fear or loyalty. Herodes’ slaves could not testify even voluntarily (Digest 48. 19. 9. 1); Regilla’s slaves seem not to have been at Bradua’s disposal; and Alcimedon’s interest lay in denying the blow, not in blaming Herodes.

7. Anthony Birley, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (rev. edn., London. 1987), 113.

8. Pomeroy (p. 131) tries to read into Lucius’ jibe an allusion to the Athenian punishment for adulterers; it cannot even on its own terms be an accusation of infidelity in Regilla, but would have to mean (‘eating’ and ‘black house’ being figurative) ῥαφανιδούμενος or (the radish too being metaphorical) πυγιζόμενος. But it is nowhere suggested that Herodes received that service from Alcimedon or anyone else.

9. Lucian pairs Regilla and Polydeucion; at p. 199 n. 69 Pomeroy cites a reference to parallels between Polydeucion’s death and the suspicious end of Antinous, as if to imply that Herodes might have killed Polydeucion in order to have an eternally youthful beloved of his own, and commemorated him too out of guilt; but no ancient source suggests so.

10. That he had procured the death of his countess (Amy Robsart) in order to marry Elizabeth I (which eo ipso became politically impossible).

11. But on the incongruities of such mythological images, see Paul Zanker and Björn Christian Ewald, Mit Mythen leben. Die Bilderwelt der römischen Sarkophage (Munich, 2004), with Susan Wood’s review, BMCR 2004.11.22.

12. Misused for ἦν, but that was the fault of the age. Pomeroy interprets the perfect as allowing the estate still to be Regilla’s; that is good Greek (‘became and remains’), but in Latin fuerunt (not facta sunt !) closes off the past: fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium.

13. To be sure the usage is found elsewhere, but the coincidence is too strong.

14. The Latin text is flawless apart from the spelling Hirodis for Herodis, attesting to incipient iotacism; Romans were beginning to carve what they heard, as when f represented φ. And how many Greek-speakers would have thought of praedia as the correct translation of χωρία ?