The Murder of Regilla

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

More than a million people annually visit the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, and inevitably look down from the Acropolis on the well-preserved remains of the massive odeon or theater, with a seating capacity of about five thousand, built in 161 c.e. by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife Regilla. Many of these tourists learn that Herodes Atticus, one of the richest men in the Roman Empire of the second century c.e., was a major benefactor of building projects throughout his native Greece, and especially in Athens. What is less well known is that this Greek philanthropist was probably responsible for the violent death of his pregnant Roman wife in 160. In The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity, Sarah B. Pomeroy, a prominent scholar of the history of women in the ancient Greek and Roman world, makes a noble effort to fill this unfortunate knowledge gap and uses her vast knowledge of the social history of the Roman Empire to piece together from meager evidence the biography of Regilla and the circumstances surrounding her death at the relatively young age of thirty-five.

Unfortunately, no words of Regilla herself have survived to communicate her feelings and experiences directly to posterity. To understand Regilla and her difficult position as the wife of Herodes Atticus, Pomeroy employed varied and often wide-ranging evidence: letters between Marcus Aurelius (121-180) and his friend, Marcus Cornelius Fronto (c. 100-c. 166), a prominent grammarian and lawyer; a biography of Herodes Atticus by Flavius Philostratus (c. 170-245); archaeological remains of monuments associated with Herodes and Regilla in Italy and Greece; and inscriptions written to commemorate husband and wife, as well as other family members. Illustrations include many of these monuments and inscriptions. In addition to such material evidence directly related to Herodes and Regilla, Pomeroy appropriately cites ancient sources and evidence on the lives of Roman women in Regilla’s time in order to fill out the picture of her subject’s probable daily life and experiences.

Almost no full-length biographies of Greco-Roman women exist in antiquity, when only the poet Sappho of Lesbos received such attention. More recently, modern historians have begun to provide biographies of prominent ancient women such as Cleopatra VII and Livia, the wife of Augustus. Pomeroy’s study of Regilla goes further by focusing on the life of a woman who lived a quieter life on the fringe of the powerful and famous.

The importance of Regilla’s pedigree is suggested by the significance of her full Roman name: Appia Annia Regilla Caucidia Tertulla. The longer a name in Roman society, the more important the person was or wanted to appear. Appia associates Regilla with the Appii Claudii, an ancient Roman dynasty associated with the Appian Way, on which Regilla’s own family owned an estate. Her father’s family, the Annii Regilli, prominent in their own right, gained further importance as close relatives of Annia Galeria Faustina, wife of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Regilla, the name by which she was commonly known, means “little queen” in Latin. From her mother, Atilia Caucidia Tertulla, Regilla bears the name Caucidia, suggesting that her maternal ancestors claimed descent from the Etruscans, who ruled Rome in its early days. From her mother she also inherited the name Tertulla, literally “little third daughter.”

Pomeroy’s investigation is both an inquest into the death of one specific Roman woman and the examination of the kind of life such women lived in the second century c.e. Thus, lacking facts about Regilla’s own childhood, Pomeroy describes the typical life of a wealthy, upper-class Roman girl of that era. A girl such as Regilla would have lived a sheltered and happy life, surrounded by slaves who catered to her every wish. She would have been well-educated at home by slaves and would have learned Greek at an early age. Her upbringing groomed her to become the wife of a prominent Roman husband.

Regilla was married to Herodes Atticus around 140, when she was about fifteen years old. She probably had little say in the selection of her husband, chosen by her father, who was undoubtedly delighted to create by marriage a tie with such a wealthy man and close...

(The entire section is 1795 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Chronicle of Higher Education 54, no. 6 (October 5, 2007): 14.

The New Yorker 83, no. 39 (December 10, 2007): 113.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 23 (June 4, 2007): 41-42.