Fulvia: Ancient Rome’s Femme Fatale

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Fulvia, most commonly known as the wife of M. Antonius, is well-known among scholars and ancient writers, but is not known for having a respectable reputation. She has been considered a prominent political figure for her time. For a woman to assert herself into a man’s world was unconventional and shown in a negative light. In the case of Fulvia, a reputation as an androgynous, wicked woman was bestowed upon her as she overstepped her bounds as a Roman woman.

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Most modern scholars, such as Kathryn Welch, who claims that attempts to revise the common portrayal of Fulvia have been unsuccessful , have accepted the reputation that has survived centuries without considering her early career, her motives, and, possibly most importantly, her husbands. The purpose of this research is to investigate the time at which Fulvia debuted as an authoritative politico and discover the motives for her actions to determine whether the characterization she has held is one that she is owed.

The research will explore Fulvia’s influence during her three marriages; examine the actions of her Egyptian counterpart, Cleopatra, as a comparandum for the treatment endured by powerful women of antiquity; and analyze primary sources seeking evidence that explains the origin of her depiction.

After careful consideration of nine secondary sources and several primary sources, there is no proof suggesting Fulvia was politically active in her first two marriages but became a dominant figure in politics during her third marriage. Furthermore, the research suggests that she was the most convenient target for political propaganda, which is the most substantial reason for the attack on her reputation.

In order to understand her ending, we must first understand her beginning. Fulvia, born around 83 BCE, was the only daughter of Marcus Fulvius Bambalion and Sempronia Tuditana. Her father was the last in the line of the Fulvii and her mother was the last in the line of the Sempronii. As a woman, she had no hope of returning her family name to its former glory, and as a result, their name was gradually falling into extinction. Suetonius also describes her physical appearance as asymmetrical with one cheek fuller than the other. Descended from a declining family name and apparently lacking in physical attractiveness, what could she possibly offer potential suitors? Conveniently, however, as the last member of the two once distinguished noble families, she was the sole heir to substantial wealth and a political tradition favoring the populares. Furthermore, she is believed to have had a half-brother, which would have lessened the amount of her inheritance, but would, in turn, make her the stepdaughter to the consul of 62 BCE, Pinarius . With her wealth and social status, she was able to procure marriages to three respected husbands, Publius Clodius Pulcher, Gaius Scribonius Curio, and Marcus Antonius, respectively, each on the brink of their political careers and each of high social rank and family.

Her first marriage to Publius Clodius Pulcher took place in 62 BCE . Clodius was not left a large enough fortune to support all his siblings, who were aspiring to political careers. As a result, Fulvia was likely an attractive match due to her political ties and money. Although, the motives for the marriage were seemingly financial, the union is rumored to have been happy as Clodius rarely went anywhere without his wife. In Pro Milone, Cicero states twice the unusualness of Clodius traveling without his wife:

Ob viam fit ei Clodius, expeditus, in equo, nulla raeda, nullis impedimentis; nullis Graecis comitibus, ut solebat; sine uxore, quod numquam fere.

Clodius meets him, unencumbered, mounted on horseback, with no carriage, with no impediments, with no Greek companions, as was usual; without his wife, which was nearly never.

Age nunc iter expediti latronis cum Milonis impedimentis comparate. Semper ille antea cum uxore, tum sine ea.

Come now, compare the journey of the unencumbered mercenary with the impediments of Milo. Previously, he was always with his wife, now without her.

Their probable happiness can also be inferred in the description of Fulvia’s grief over the deceased Clodius in Asconius’ commentary on Cicero’s Pro Milone:

Augebat autem facti invidiam uxor Clodi Fulvia quae cum effusa lamentatione vulnera eius ostendebat.

However, Fulvia, the wife of Clodius magnified the displeasure of the deed when she was displaying his wounds while shedding tears.

Cicero, in his Philippics, mentions an alleged love affair between Fulvia and M. Antonius during her marriage to Clodius. However, it is natural to question the reliability of the source as Cicero is the only one to make mention of any such dalliance. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that the Philippics were a method of propaganda against his enemies, which further diminishes its credibility.

There is much speculation about her role in Clodius’ political career. Scholars, such as Charles Babcock, postulate that she was politically active early on. Yet, the evidence is scant at best. Babcock attempts to demonstrate Fulvia’s influence over the political decisions of Clodius but contradicts his own claim by saying the actual effect on Clodius’ career can only be surmised from a few references. He cites sources, such as Cicero’s Pro Milone, which depicts Fulvia as a devoted and dutiful wife, but indicates nothing of her political involvement. She seemed a woman and wife above reproach, always at her husband’s side in life and avenging his murder. In fact, Fulvia’s first recorded public appearance was at the trial of Milo, to which she was called to testify, following the death of Clodius. It would seem Babcock was less than successful in supporting his claim that she played a role in the political decisions made by Clodius during his tribune in 58 BCE.

Fulvia’s second marriage was to Gaius Scribonius Curio sometime around 52-51 BCE. He was not from a prestigious family and though he was more financially sound, Fulvia perhaps had the same allure as she did ten years earlier, family money. She married only months after the murder of Clodius and the marriage was short-lived given that he left Rome soon after marrying and died in 49 BCE. There is very little documentation on her marriage to Curio, Cicero’s Philippics being the only record. Unfortunately, it can only be speculated that the marriage was happy given that there was not enough time before his death for the marriage to turn bitter. There is not enough evidence to determine whether Fulvia had any political involvement during this marriage.

Fulvia’s third and final marriage was to Marcus Antonius around 47-46 BCE, for which she would be most known. As with her first two marriages, her family money were appealing assets, especially for M. Antonius, who was known for having an unruly and lavish lifestyle. Additionally, Augusto Fraschetti posits that her family’s political views, which were skewed toward the populares, which came to mean on Caesar’s side, were of significance to M. Antonius as well. In Ant. 10, Plutarch alleges that M. Antonius intentionally sought Fulvia in order that she might redirect his career, which was endangered by his lifestyle. Babcock claims that Antony’s near defeat of Octavian, an astute politician, is undoubtedly an example of her manipulative influence. Furthermore, he claims that each husband married just at the right time in his career and their achievements all suggest Fulvia’s hand.

Fulvia enters history as the wife of M. Antonius and is most known for her role in the Perusine War. Her mark in history coincides with the time at which Diana Delia suggests she really began her career in politics – after the death of Caesar when M. Antonius and Octavian vied for control of Rome. This is also when she became more prominently featured in the triumviral literature. She only appears briefly prior to this time suggesting her political role was minimal, if not completely lacking. Delia claims Fulvia’s involvement in the Perusine War is the most convincing piece of evidence to support the notion that her actions were on her husband’s behalf.

Lucius Antonius opposed Octavian’s colonization program, which had gotten out of control with accusations that Octavian was allowing his soldiers free reign resulting in violent land seizures. While Antony was abroad in Asia, Fulvia and Lucius Antonius, brother of M. Antonius and consul in Rome, waged war against Octavian in Perusia, initially over land confiscations.

Octavian characterizes her as androgynous, meddlesome, and ill-tempered. An epigram written by Octavian and preserved by Martial depicts Fulvia as sexually aggressive, which is a conventionally Roman male conduct. He claims she propositioned him, and he rejected her saying that sex with her would be a punishment and compares it to penetrating Manius.

Caesaris Augusti lascivos, livide, versus

sex lege, qui tristis verba Latina legis:

“”Quod futuit Glaphyran Antonius, hanc mihi poenam

Fulvia constituit, se quoque uti futuam.

Fulviam ego ut futuam? Quod si me Manius oret

pedicem? faciam? Non puto, si sapiam.

‘Aut futue, aut pugnemus’ ait. Quid quod mihi vita

carior est ipsa mentula? Signa canant!””

Absolvis lepidos nimirum, Auguste, libellos,

qui scis Romana simplicitate loqui.

Translation

In his verse, Octavian suggests that Fulvia’s jealousy over M. Antonius’ lovers was the cause of the war in Perusia, pursuing war as a substitute for sex.

Cicero describes her as being fatal to M. Antonius just as to her two previous husbands, who both died violently.

Quis autem, meum consulatum praeter te Publiumque Clodium qui vituperaret, inventus est? cuius quidem tibi fatum sicut C. Curioni manet, quoniam id domi tuae est, quod fuit illorum utrique fatale.

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Fulvia: Ancient Rome's Femme Fatale. (2019, Dec 04). Retrieved September 27, 2022 , from
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