On a chilled December evening in the Year of the Consulship of Silanus and Murena, the noblewomen of Rome were preparing to gather at the home of the pontifex maximus, the high priest of Roman religion, to celebrate the sacred rites of Bona Dea, the Good Goddess. This annual religious festival was always celebrated in the home of one of Rome’s most influential magistrates and this year was no different. The pontifex maximus was none other than Julius Caesar whose political career was on the rise and this momentous celebration clearly showed just how important he had become. His days of conquering Gaul, defeating Pompeius Magnus, and being named dictator for life were still well in the future. But despite the honor being done to him by having this celebration hosted at his home and the fact that he was high priest, Julius Caesar would not be participating in those night’s events. Not only would he not participate, but he was not even allowed in the house. That afternoon, Caesar had packed his bags and left his home for the evening, along with all his male servants and even the male cats and dogs. It was a night for the women of Rome.
This was to be a particularly special Bona Dea festival, imbued with even more sanctity than in other years because Caesar’s house was no ordinary Roman villa. He lived with his wife, Pompeia, and his mother, Aurelia, in the domus publica, the public house – official residence of the high priest. Unlike the villas of the Roman elite on the famous hills, the domus publica was in a valley amid the hills in the Forum along the Via Sacra, the Sacred Road. The Forum dominated Roman civil and religious life. It was here that the Senate met. It was here that the (male) citizens voted. It was here that many of the most important temples to the Roman gods were located. Among these temples was the Temple of Vesta – home of the Sacred Hearth and Eternal Flame of Rome. This flame was continuously tended by the famous Vestal Virgins, Rome’s most elite group of priestesses. In the one house surrounded by these monumental works of Roman architecture was where the women of the most important families of the Republic would gather this evening to celebrate one of the most sacred rites for the safety and well-being of the city.
The night’s events were to be hosted, as usual, by the adult women of the hosting household – Pomepia and Aurelia, Caesar’s wife and mother. This was certainly no relationship of equals – the mother-in-law clearly dominated her daughter-in-law. Aurelia was one of Rome’s most respected matrons – a Roman of Romans. In the generations to come, she was to be upheld as an ideal of Roman matronhood – intelligent, beautiful, and unwaveringly devoted to advancing her son’s political career. Aurelia also took primary responsibility for raising Caesar’s daughter, Julia, whose mother, Cornelia, his first wife, had died after an illness when the girl was just five years old. Caesar adored his only daughter and Aurelia’s role in raising the girl eternally endeared her to her son. During the Consulship of Silanus and Murena, Julia was a fourteen year old girl and absolutely adored her grandmother, who ran the day-to-day life of the Caesar household.
Pompeia, on the other hand, was no one’s idea of an ideal Roman woman. She was vain and flighty and much too concerned with the material trappings of life for the politically savvy Caesars. Her marriage to Julius was one of political expedience and certainly no love match. Pompeia was forever competing for attention with the beloved Julia, the adored Aurelia, and the mourned Cornelia. Despite being the official materfamilias – mother of the family – of the Caesar family, Pompeia’s de facto role was very limited and she was full of resentment. Pompeia was the granddaughter of the long-deceased, but still renowned dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and was used to being treated with all the deference and respect that goes along with being the family of such a feared figure. However, she had little of the natural intelligence and political acumen that her grandfather, husband, and mother-in-law possessed. This, coupled with her spoiled upbringing, led to Pomepia frequently butting heads with Aurelia over the running of what was supposed to be her household. She was Caesar’s wife! That was supposed to come with certain benefits. His power increased by the day, and by rights, Pompia’s prestige should rise accordingly. But, instead, it was her sainted mother-in-law and Caesar’s dead wife whose stature grew, not hers.
Tonight, however, Aurelia and Pompeia had to put their differences aside for the good of Rome. The festival of Bona Dea was integral for the survival and the well-being of the Republic. The women of Caesar’s house, including all the female servants, were busy preparing for the upcoming celebration. As you might expect from Caesar and all the other men leaving the house, Bona Dea was a goddess who would not suffer the presence of a man, or anything male, for that matter. Because of this, the servants busied themselves covering the vibrant frescoes that adorned the walls of the house. Some of these elaborate paintings depicted male figures, including some of the gods of Rome. Bona Dea would not tolerate even the representation of men at her festival and this was for the good of Rome – everything had to be done perfectly.
Shortly before the festival was set to begin, the Vestal Virgins arrived. As Rome’s highest order of priestesses, they would be officiating the rites and were there to make sure everything was in order before the rest of the women arrived. The Vestals were in a cheerful mood when they arrived at the domus publica. Not only was it one of the most important nights of the year, but they had a nice little added bonus this year. They lived in the Temple of Vesta, which meant that in most years they had to climb the Palatine, or whichever hill the house that was hosting the celebration stood. This year, however, they just had to go next door. On a chilly December evening, not having a long walk was certainly a plus. They were admitted to the house by two maids – Aurelia and Pompeia’s hand servants. These two servants were trusted completely by their respective mistresses. Aurelia’s maid was an older woman who was known for being quite stern and serious. Her mistress was among the most influential women in the city and the maid reflected this power with her presence. Pompeia’s maid, however, was a young, capricious girl who delighted in frivolity and wine. Tonight would have aspects that suited both servants and both mistresses perfectly.
The Vestal Virgins brought with them all the religious trappings and offerings that would be needed for the night’s celebrations. The younger Vestals carried with them jugs, some filled with milk and some with wine, and jars filled with honey. The elder Vestals carried a bronze serpent, one of Bona Dea’s symbols. In ancient Rome, all of these objects – milk, wine, honey, and snakes – represented fertility, the production of the Earth. When this is paired with the many women who would be present, who represented the fertility of the Roman people, the importance of the festival becomes clear. Rome was obsessed with fertility. At the time of the Consulship of Silanus and Murena, Roman society was marred by many civil and military conflicts. The many deaths of Roman soldiers in battle, combined with a high infant mortality rate, fertility was integral to the survival of the Republic. Without fertile fields, fertile animals, and fertile women, Rome would cease to exist. Keeping Bona Dea happy was integral to keeping Rome fertile and, therefore, for the continued existence of the Republic. Rome’s well-being relied on the night going off without a hitch.
In a Roman villa in another part of town, as Rome’s most influential women arrived at the domus publica, one of Rome’s most divisive and controversial young politicians was planning to throw a wrench into the whole proceedings. This man was Publius Clodius Pulcher, a man who had a troublemaker’s personality who routinely looked to stir things up among Rome’s elite and to turn these scandals to his advantage. Clodius’ idea for tonight and the Bona Dea festival would be the biggest stunt he would ever pull. In his dressing room, Clodius applied a thick layer of makeup, donned a woman’s wig, and put on women’s clothes. He had acquired a flute to bring with him. All of this he did so that he could sneak into the festival, disguised as a common flute girl – part of the musical entourage for the rites. He had been planning this for days and had even drafted Pompeia’s maid into his plan. As Roman nobility was a relatively small group, Clodius’ servants were well acquainted with the servants of Caesar’s household and were able to help him in his plot. Pompeia’s impulsive maid was easily persuaded to help Clodius. She knew that her mistress was unhappy in her marriage and this controversial young man was among Rome’s most handsome and among younger circles had a reputation of being quite an accomplished lover. Clodius’ plans were twofold and he would be successful whether he was caught or not. First, Pompeia was much younger than her husband and was very beautiful, and Caesar was not at home. The wife of the mighty Caesar would be quite a notch on his bedpost – he certainly was not looking for anything more than sex, but like so many young men, what could possibly be more important? Even if he was caught, Clodius knew that his behavior would throw the entire city into a frenzy and would make his name known to everyone. While seducing Pompeia would inflate his stature among his young peers, getting caught would make him one of the most infamous people in the city.
As the flute-girl Clodius arrived at the domus publica, the Bona Dea festival was fully underway. Rome’s most important women had all arrived and the Vestals were preparing the sacrificial offerings of wine, milk, and honey on the small altar in the center of the house’s atrium. Pompeia’s maid met him at the door and he waited in the colonnade while she went to get her mistress. As he stood there, furtively observing the forbidden rites, Aurelia’s maid approached him and invited him to come inside – to join the festivities and the musicians who were already playing the sacred music. Clodius just stood there and did not respond, so the maid pressed him further encouraging him to come in. “I’m fine right here. I’m waiting for someone,” he replied and as he watched the maid’s face, he realized that he had made a terrible mistake – he wasn’t supposed to get caught so quickly! Aurelia’s maid’s eyes widened as she heard his clearly masculine voice. At the same time the music stopped and the room was momentarily reduced to a stunned silence. After a moment, there was a flurry of activity. Several women screamed. Aurelia and the Vestal Virgins flew around covering the sacred objects so they would not be profaned by the man in their presence. Aurelia’s maid grasped at Clodius to keep him from running away, but he scampered off trying to escape. His way back through the front door was blocked by a throng of bewildered and furious matrons – so he fled deeper into the house. As he ran past the servant’s quarters a hand reached out and grabbed the hem of his dress – it was Pompeia’s maid, his ally. She stashed him in her sleeping quarters and ran off to “help” with the hunt.
Moments later, Aurelia and the Vestal Virgins found Clodius hiding in Pompeia’s maid’s room and angrily turned him out of the house. Meanwhile, Rome’s elite matrons were hurrying home to inform their husbands, the magistrates, what had happened. Since the domus publica was in the midst of the Forum, it took them several minutes to reach their houses on the surrounding hills. As bad news has the tendency to do, many of Rome’s magistrates met their wives at their doors having heard the noise of trouble wafting up from the streets below. “It was that awful Publius Clodius!” was a refrain heard over and over again around the city. The leaders of the city made their way down the hills to the Forum where they found a stunned Clodius still trying to remove his disguise upon which he was arrested. While Rome’s political elite tracked down the renegade, Aurelia, Julia (who at the time was 14), and the Vestal Virgins uncovered the sacred objects and completed the rituals to the offended goddess. By doing so, they saved a night that could have ended in abject disaster. Even though the night as a social event and a means of furthering political ties was ruined, the Vestals and the women of Caesar’s household saved Rome from falling wholesale into a state of sacrilegious impiety.
In the investigation that followed, Clodius’ servants were questioned about what they might know and, in so doing, the magistrates of Rome found out about his plot, the collaboration of Pompeia’s maid, and Clodius’ aims at seducing the lady of the house. Upon these revelations, suspicions of participation fell onto Caesar’s wife. The people of Rome found it hard to believe that Clodius would undertake such a bold and risky plan without some level of confirmation that Pompeia would be open to the idea of an affair with the young man. As these ideas grew in strength, Caesar, ever the politician, divorced his wife even though he doubted her participation, saying that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” Clodius, too, faced consequences for his actions. He was charged with impiety and prosecuted by the famed orator Cicero. Clodius, however, succeeding in getting himself found not guilty by means of bribing enough of the jury to ensure that the vote went his way. Cicero was furious when he would out that his prosecution had been so unjustly thwarted and bring Clodius to justice became an obsession. In return, Clodius tried with all his might throughout his political career to bring down the titan prosecutor. The fight between Cicero and Clodius went on for about a decade with each man gaining the upper hand at different times, the details of which could easily make another story – and I very well may cover it someday. But suffice it to say, that Cicero lost his house in the fight when Clodius had it razed to the ground and built a temple on the site. Attacking a man’s home was as much of an affront then as it is now and this tactic by the younger man further infuriated the Cicero. The feud would not die away until a full decade later when Clodius was traveling outside of the city of Rome. His entourage was met by Milo, an ally of Cicero, who also had a major political dispute with the impious Clodius. What exactly happened that fateful day will never be known, but what is certain is that Milo and Clodius had words and violence broke out. In the end Clodius laid dead on the road, run through by Milo and his men. As word made its way to Rome of Clodius’ fate, his interminable adversary, Cicero, made his way to the site where Clodius was slain. As he surveyed the scene, he could not help but laugh to himself. A few hundred yards from where Clodius fell, stood a sanctuary dedicated to Bona Dea. The Good Goddess had had her revenge.
Featured Image – Roman Forum. By DannyBoy7783 (talk) – Own work (Original text: I (DannyBoy7783 (talk)) created this work entirely by myself.), GFDL.
Figure 1 – Bust of Julius Caesar, by Andreas Wahra – Photo by Andreas Wahra, first uploaded to de.wikipedia GiulioCesare.jpg. Modifications by Wolpertinger und Phrood., Public Domain.
Figure 2 – Modern View of the Via Sacra, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Figure 3 – Medieval representation of Julia, By Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”, Public Domain.
Figure 4 – Medieval representation of Pompeia. By Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”, Public Domain.
Figure 5 – Vestals Tending the Sacred Flame, By Jean Raoux – Own work, Public Domain.
Figure 6 – Roman amphorae, By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0.
Figure 7 – Roman Woman, By Herkulaneischer Meister – Image:Puh213r1.jpg, Public Domain.
Figure 8 – Roman flutes, By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Two ancient Roman bone flutes with six finger holes, Museum het Valkhof, Nijmegen (Netherlands)Uploaded by Marcus Cyron, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Figure 9 – Bust of Cicero, By Glauco92 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Beard, Mary, John North, and Sion Price. Religions of Rome: Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Brouwer, H.H.J. Bona Dea: The Sources and a Description of the Cult. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989.
Versnel, H.S. Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion II: Transition and Reversal in Myth and Ritual. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993.
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“The Good Goddess Profaned.” by Andy Smyser is licensed under CC By 4.0. https://historyisstrange.com/2016/05/11/the-good-goddess-profaned/