The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity.
This is not really a detective story. The author admits that "the bare bones of the story are few" (3). In AD 160 Regilla, the wife of the rich and influential Greek sophist Herodes Atticus, died from a beating inflicted by her husband's freedman. Regilla's brother prosecuted Herodes as well as the freedman, but Herodes was acquitted through the intercession of his former pupil, Marcus Aurelius. Though the freedman was found guilty, he escaped punishment and remained Herodes's close associate.
Sarah B. Pomeroy focuses on the murder in only one chapter; the rest is about Regilla's life with insights into the lives of aristocratic women in early imperial Roman Greece. Pomeroy invokes the notion of incident analysis, "in which a single dramatic event such as a murder becomes a means of exploring social relations in the past" (7). This approach suggests a dilemma familiar to social historians: was Regilla a typical aristocratic Roman matron or an atypical transplant to Greece with her story further complicated by Herodes's peculiar character and tastes? Historians know next to nothing about Regilla's early life or even about some typical rites of passage. For example, when Pomeroy imagines Regilla's wedding, she acknowledges the lack of information about such ceremonies in the early Empire, but reasonably supposes that conservative Romans would have preserved those of the past, for which there is evidence of a sort--from a poem by Catullus. Some may find a related stylistic device in the book disturbing. When the journey to Greece is described, readers are treated to a vivid scene: "When Regilla reached southern Italy and her family estates in Canusium, she found the town was dry and dusty" (40). The evidence for the subject's personal observation is actually a description of Apulia in a famous satire of Horace. To be fair, thereafter Pomeroy details actual improvements made in the aqueduct system thanks to Herodes's generosity.
Pomeroy also sketches the unusual relationship between the young Regilla and her imperious husband. Though Regilla could communicate with her husband in Greek, Herodes cultivated an archaic style that probably bewildered his fellow Greeks. Evidence from Plutarch suggests that Greek social restrictions on women--such as their exclusion from symposia--relaxed under Roman rule; but in this, too, Herodes may have been reactionary, just as he gleefully embraced the old practice of pederasty. Coupled with a violent and arrogant disposition, these peculiarities must have made for a stormy relationship. Beyond textual evidence, Pomeroy makes excellent use of archeological material. Numerous building projects and monuments recall the couple's public life.
Pomeroy dissects their iconography and analyzes the language of their inscriptions for clues to perform an "autopsy of the marriage." In the end she does conclude that Herodes was responsible for the murder, though much of her argument remains surmise. For example, in a paroxysm of grief Herodes built grand monuments in Regilla's memory, including the famous Odeion below the Acropolis.
Was this a guilty conscience at work? Whether or not Pomeroy has convicted Herodes, this is a fascinating and highly readable book.
John M. Lawless
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|Author:||Lawless, John M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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