Fulvia: the maligned wife of politicians who made herself the power broker of ancient Rome
As the wife of three successive political heavyweights, Fulvia attained a level of influence that few Roman women could have dreamed of. But, asks Danny Bird, is her legacy as a cruel opportunist (as well as someone willing to mutilate the severed enemy of a fallen enemy) entirely fair?
After Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great orator and defender of Roman republicanism, was murdered in 43 BC by agents loyal to Mark Antony, his killers delivered his severed head and hands to Rome. There, they were displayed on the speaker’s rostrum in the Forum after Antony’s wife, Fulvia, came to gloat over the gruesome spectacle.
Removing the pins from her hair, she repeatedly stabbed Cicero’s now-still tongue – symbolically silencing the man whose eloquence had done so much damage to her husband’s standing, as well as her own honour. Or so the story goes...
Fulvia’s life has become entwined in the story of Rome’s transition to one-man rule. Born to Marcus Fulvius Bambalio and Sempronia during the twilight years of the Roman Republic, she was a scion of two of the city’s most respected and wealthiest plebeian families – part of the general citizenry, as opposed to the privileged patrician class. At a time when politics was a male vocation, Fulvia’s innate political instincts distinguished her as an outlier during some of the Republic’s most climactic events.
Fulvia’s short-lived marriages #1 and #2
Fulvia initially gained prominence through her marriage to Publius Clodius Pulcher, an ambitious demagogue who appealed to the plebeians. When he was killed in 52 BC by associates of his political rival, Titus Annius Milo, Fulvia had his bloodied corpse displayed in the street, whipping up a mob of his supporters and sparking Milo’s exile.
After the customary 10-month mourning period, Fulvia marred Gaius Scribonius Curio. Having maintained the loyalty of her first husband’s plebeian support base, she soon mobilised it around Curio’s own political aspirations. But it was amid the geopolitical turmoil unleashed by Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC that Curio’s – and thus Fulvia’s – fortunes soared as the couple aligned their ambitions with Caesar’s.
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However, Curio’s death during the battle of Bagradas in North Africa later that year stymied Fulvia’s machinations. Widowed once more, she likely remained in Rome with her children. Fulvia’s status as a wealthy widow and power broker in the capital made her both a force to be reckoned with and an object of desire.
Within five years of Curio’s death, she married Mark Antony, Caesar’s right-hand man. Hot-headed Antony’s fortunes were boosted by Fulvia’s aptitude for political intrigue. However, their relationship soon became the subject of scurrilous gossip among Caesar’s adversaries.
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Fulvia and Antony: Roman power couple
In the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination by a group of senators in 44 BC, Cicero’s dismay over the survival of Antony – who had been discussed as another target on the fateful Ides of March – turned polemical. Within the 14 speeches known as the Philippics, Cicero excoriated Antony and accused him of having conducted an affair with Fulvia that had begun during her first marriage.
Despite Cicero’s campaign, Antony’s closeness to Caesar – coupled with the financial and populist clout that Fulvia lent him – had made them Rome’s ultimate power couple. In 43 BC, General Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Caesar’s named heir, Octavian, formed a triumvirate with Antony. To cement the alliance, Claudia – Fulvia’s daughter by Clodius – was married to Octavian.
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While Antony and Octavian stalked Caesar’s assassins in Greece, Fulvia was left to preside over the day-to-day politics of Rome. Then once Caesar’s assassins had been vanquished, the triumvirs partitioned the Roman world between themselves.
Antony claimed dominion over the eastern Mediterranean, launching a passionate affair with Egypt’s queen, Cleopatra VII. Meanwhile, Fulvia became rankled by Octavian’s control of Italy. Recognising his monstrous ambitions as a direct threat to her own – and perhaps seeking to lure Antony back from Alexandria – in 41 BC she helped foment civil war.
Was Fulvia a victim of misogynistic propaganda?
In league with her brother-in-law, Lucius Antonius, Fulvia rallied legions to seize Perusia (now Perugia) and Praeneste (Palestrina). Octavian besieged Perusia, which surrendered after sling projectiles engraved with scornful words aimed at Fulvia were hurled at the city.
Absconding to Greece, she reunited with a furious Antony, who soon departed to deal with Octavian. Abandoned in Sicyon, near Corinth, Fulvia died in 40 BC of an unknown illness. Antony reconciled with Octavian and married his sister, Octavia Minor, the two men conspiring to scapegoat Fulvia as the cause of their quarrel.
Both in life and death, Fulvia faced relentless criticism, painted as an androgynous interloper who defied Roman norms. Like Cleopatra after her, the sway she held over men such as Antony fuelled misogynistic propaganda. The fact that Fulvia was the first living woman (albeit depicted as the goddess, Libertas) to appear on Roman coinage is an enduring testament to her influence on the city’s political life.
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Revealed, responsible for researching and producing the magazine’s features
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