22 January 2012

Four Passive Imperial Goddesses

Ulpia Marciana
In the early second century CE, the emperors Trajan (r. 98-117) and Hadrian (r. 117-138) made four extraordinary deifications of their imperial women. Trajan started the ball rolling by deifying his beloved sister, Ulpia Marciana (left) immediately after she died in 112. Hadrian, when it was his turn, became a serial deifier.  In 119, he made a goddess of Marciana’s daughter, Matidia (who was the mother of his wife), in what must have been, even then, a very rare tribute to a mother-in-law.  Next in line for goddess rank was Pompeia Plotina, the dowager empress of the emperor Trajan, raised to the heavens soon after her death in 123.  And, some years later, he gave goddess-hood to  his own recently deceased wife, Vibia Sabina who died in 136 or 137 -- a little more than a year before her husband.

None of these women is much remembered in historical records.  In fact, you'd be hard put to find a more obscure group of imperial Roman women in any equivalent period when sources are so (relatively) rich.

Does that mean that they became goddesses despite having done nothing of note?

Well, that depends.

First off, what does deification mean?  Did anyone really believe that these women were divine; or was this merely the natural bunch of honours handed out to members of the imperial family?  How important (or unimportant) was each individual woman to the emperors -- and, for that matter, to those who became their priestesses and worshipped them -- at least in public?

One diva after another

Vibia Sabina
diva (a mortal woman who was declared a goddess) was different from and on a lower level than a dea (a traditional goddess), but she was nonetheless divine and immeasurably higher in ranking than any normal ex-human being.  Officially consecrated by the earthly Senate, that was enough to transform her into a deity, and, most important, into a power capable of hearing and answering prayers.  For that reason, priests and priestesses of the Imperial cult had no qualms about offering sacrifices to deified emperors and empresses just as they would do to any other divinity.  

The worship of divae, as far as we can tell, did not differ much from the worship of divi (deified emperors).  Their images were also divine in their own right, but, since women did not run the Empire, they were portrayed as more passive deities.  The four new divae of the Trajanic family were models of Roman womanhood, possessing the moral worthiness and exemplary qualities that made them most helpful to their husbands or brothers.  In a sense, they became the personified virtues of social propriety, modesty, piety, and loyalty.

So, were the four divae simply part of an elaborate system of sucking-up to the Imperial family, or was there something in their relationship with the people that remains difficult for us to understand?

Only two of the women were empresses — Pompeia Plotina (60s?-123), Trajan’s wife, and Vibia Sabina (85?-136/7), wife of his successor.  The other two were lesser members of the imperial household — Trajan’s sister, Ulpia Marciana (48-112) and her daughter, later Hadrian’s mother-in-law, Salonia Matidia (68-119). 

The question is 'why'?

Why were these quiet women deified (or any imperial women, for that matter)?  Denied the pursuit of any sort of public career, and barred from membership in Rome’s assemblies, women played no official part in public life.  Their power was derived solely from their relationship to powerful men.

Therein lies the rub.  

In a new dissertation, Karin S. Tate (University of Saskatchewan)*, explains what she thinks happened in the imperial family early in the second century:
Under an imperial system, the family of the leading man — women included — was inevitably cast into the public eye, and shared to some extent the same bright light that shone on the pre-eminent man. Female members of the imperial house therefore possessed an exponentially greater potential for influence on the public sphere, enormous social prestige, and a public presence that was so apparent, and implied so much, that it could not be ignored. (35)

the empress Plotina
In a nutshell, the Romans found that they needed to explain the public omni-presence of women in a way that did not violate the hierarchical and patriarchal assumptions of elite Romans.  Raising imperial women to the status of divae may have helped make sense of their very public presence while simultaneously supporting traditional Roman values and the idealized familial piety that could justify one-man rule.

In her detailed study, Ms Tate takes a good look at the abundant archaeological evidence for the prominence of the four divae – statues, coins, inscriptions, and buildings they constructed in Rome – and concludes that the ladies were, in fact, strikingly active in real life. 

Here's what she found.

Four Passive Goddesses?

Pompeia Plotina, Ulpia Marciana, Salonia Matidia, and Vibia Sabina possessed senatorial status by birth and significant personal wealth of their own, the foundations upon which any individual’s claim to status was built in ancient Rome.  All four participated in Roman life as benefactresses and advocates on behalf of their clients, possessed an intricate web of social connections, and were active as leading matrons in both social and religious spheres.   They were substantial property owners, with holdings in Rome, in Italy, and in other parts of the empire.  When you put all the bits of epigraphic and archaeological evidence together, while unique in their relationships with the emperors, you get a strong sense of women who were situated within Rome’s elite as wealthy and independent business women and benefactors.

The 4 public faces

The Trajanic women, alive and dead, were visually celebrated in coinage minted at Rome, and in statuary. And because these females were placed forever in the public gaze through art, just like their male relatives, the images of them that abounded in Rome inevitably became part of their public presence.  

diva Matidia Augusta
None is ever connected on their coinage with 'public' virtues which imply action and authority, but rather with idealized personal virtues like Piety, Peace, Loyalty, and Chastity (a valuable trait in an empress!).  They almost seem to be deified as symbols.  This imaginatively tied them to the traditional past, and reinforced the idea that the emperor and his family stood for all that was truly 'Roman'.

Still, there are hints of something less passive.  The eagle stamped on the reverse of some of Marciana's and Matidia's coins is a bird with strong symbolic connotations in the Roman imperial ethos: not only did the eagle represent the patron god of Rome, Jupiter, but it had close associations with the imperial cult and the eagle as a metaphor for imperial Rome became permanently associated with Rome’s ruling house.  With all the thrills and spills between the early first and early second centuries, this image on divae coins emphasizes the continuance of imperial traditions as well as the connection between deification and Rome as imperial power.

Not just a pretty face

An interesting case in point is Plotina’s  reported manipulation of the imperial succession after Trajan’s sudden death in 117, while he was in Syria, as it reveals some more details concerning the empress’ access to power, and the tensions this inspired. The story goes that Plotina delayed making public the news of Trajan’s death until after Hadrian’s adoption as his successor was affirmed.  One account implies that Plotina engineered Hadrian’s succession, signing the adoption papers herself and delaying news of Trajan’s death until after the papers had been received by the Senate in Rome.** 

Female proximity to imperial power in Rome was always fraught, but Plotina, certainly, was more than just a pretty ornament.

When she died, Hadrian praised her saying: "Though she asked much of me, she was never refused anything.”**

Sometimes, female imperials had ways of smoothing paths and it sometimes happened, too, the other way round: quid pro quo, I'd say.

* 'The deification of imperial women: second-century contexts' (Master's thesis, 2011), available for free download at the usask.ca website.

** Cassius Dio, 69.1.4;  69.10.31.


In addition to Karin Tate's thesis (above), I have used R.M. Muich, 'The worship of Roman divae: the Julio-Claudians to the Antonines',  M.A., University of Florida, 2004, available for free download at the fcla.edu website.


Top left: bust of Ulpia Marciana. Photo credit:
Ostia, Museo Archeologico.

 Next: statue of Vibia Sabina. Photo credit: Centre for Online Judaic Studies

 Next: bust of Pompeia Plotina. Photo credit"Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (minor), Plotina

Lower left:  posthumous coin of Salonia Matidia . Photo credit: Kaiserfrauen auf Münzen unter Hadrian.

03 January 2012

Zenobia's Blog

In her Fifth Year

On 3 January 2007, Zenobia's blog was born and, in welcoming her, I thought of  the poem by Anne Stevenson, Sylvia Plath, which asks

Poor Sylvia, could you not have been
a little smaller than a queen –
a river, not a tidal wave
engulfing all you tried to save?

This is how I still think of Zenobia and what she tried to do.

I've been writing now for five years about Zenobia and her world -- thinking about Palmyra between West and East, the third century CE, Rome and the Parthians, then the Sasanians, their roiled history, politics, and art. And thinking, always, about the incredible but true story of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who united almost the whole of the Eastern Empire under her rule and nearly succeeded in breaking free of Rome.

She will never be, to me, ever, a little smaller than a queen.

Blogging Milestones

Last month, Zenobia's blog passed two milestones:

On 18 December, Zenobia clocked up +10,000 monthly page views (rolling average) for the first time.

And then kept going -- right through Christmas -- beating her own new record every day and then leap-frogging herself to roll up 12,000 page views on three days running. 

As I write, she's hovering just below 11,800 on the monthly rolling average.  It's early yet.  She looks set to celebrate her fifth birthday tonight with +12,000 clicks yet again.  
The intact present, recently unearthed, shakes off the dust of centuries, smiles and suddenly starts to fly....*
My warm thanks to all my readers. 

Have a very Happy 2012.

* Octavio Paz (from his Nobel lecture, 8 December 1990)


Palmyran funerary relief.  Bust of 'Herta, daughter of Ogilu, son of Salmôi, wife of Rabel, son of Yarhai Yat' wearing  her best finery (traces of gold paint on the jewellery): two medallions hang from her necklace with miniature busts in high relief of women (?) wearing crowns.  This is quite a statement of status, wealth, and service to the goddesses (?). Photo credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum, 1885,0418.1; BM 125019.

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