This book about Regilla is written by Sarah Pomeroy, a former professor of classics and history at the City University of New York and author of several books about women in ancient Greece and Rome, including Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity
(1975 & 1995). It is the first book about this woman. Who was she?
Regilla was born to an important Roman family in AD 125. She was related to members of the imperial family: Faustina Major, who was married to Antoninus Pius (emperor 138-161), and Faustina Minor, who was married to Marcus Aurelius (emperor 161-180). Before she was 15 (in 138 or 139), she was married to a man who was more than 20 years older than her. Herodes Atticus (born ca. 101) was a wealthy man from Greece, appointed as a tutor of the future emperors Lucius Verus (161-169) and Marcus Aurelius. The couple had five children, but most of them died young.
In 160, when she was eight months pregnant with their sixth child, she died under mysterious circumstances. A slave named Alcimedon allegedly kicked her in the abdomen, following an order from Herodes. Both mother and child died.
Her brother Bradua, a consul in that year, accused Herodes of murder. The case was taken up in a Roman court, where Herodes was acquitted, maybe because of instructions from Marcus Aurelius, who wanted to protect his former tutor. Herodes outlived his wife by some 17 years. He claimed he was innocent. But Pomeroy believes he was guilty. After his acquittal, he built several monuments commemorating and praising his deceased wife. Pomeroy believes this merely shows his bad conscience.
The slave Alcimedon was not punished, either, he remained with Herodes for many years. In 174, when Herodes was summoned to meet the emperor in Sirmium, he accompanied his master on the journey.
It is not easy to write a book about Regilla, because the evidence is so sparse. There are some written sources, in Greek and Latin, and some archaeological monuments with inscriptions, mostly in Greek. But Pomeroy seems to be an ideal person for the task because of her qualifications and her background.
Does she succeed? According to the critics, the answer is yes. She got some good reviews. On the back cover of the paperback edition there are excerpts from three reviews of the hardcover edition:
* Publishers Weekly: "Numerous illustrations and quotations lend depth to Pomeroy's masterful depiction of second-century Greece."
* The New Yorker: "An absorbing analysis of justice, culture, and customs in the second-century Roman Empire."
* Times Literary Supplement: "Pomeroy's passionate account ... is a sharp reminder of the brutally blunt edges of gender inequality."
I agree. This book is an interesting account of one woman's life and death in the Roman Empire. But this does not mean that we have to accept every claim and suggestion Pomeroy makes in it.
Leofranc Holford-Strevens, a consultant scholar-editor at Oxford University Press and author of Aulus Gellius: An Antonine Scholar and his Achievement
(2003), has reviewed the book in the internet-based magazine "Bryn Mawr Classical Review" (2008.01.44), where he has some critical comments:
(1) When did the trial take place? Pomeroy never considers this question. She places it in 161 or later, because she refers to Marcus Aurelius as "emperor." But we cannot be sure. Maybe it was in 160, while Bradua was consul, and Antoninus Pius was still emperor?
(2) When were Regilla's five children born? Pomeroy claims to know this. But other sources disagree with her and with each other. Even the birth-order is in doubt. Pomeroy does not deal with this problem.
(3) Herodes erected several monuments to his deceased wife. What can we conclude from this fact? Does it show guilt or grief? We cannot be sure.
(4) There may be some evidence against Herodes, but it is circumstantial. We may have our suspicions, but "suspicion is not evidence."
In spite of these critical comments, Holford-Strevens praises Pomeroy's work. His review concludes with these words: "Our knowledge of ancient women's lives is richer for her book."
I agree. Pomeroy presents many interesting facts and suggestions. One interesting fact: Herodes had three foster children (known in Greek as trophimoi): three young men named Achilles, Memnon and Polydeucion. One interesting suggestion: Herodes had a homosexual relationship with Polydeucion. The obvious precedent - mentioned by Pomeroy on pp. 53-60 - is Hadrian (emperor 117-138) and the young man Antinous who died in Egypt in 130. The parallel is possible, but not proven.
Regilla was kicked in the abdomen while she was pregnant. The obvious precedent - mentioned by Pomeroy on page 122 - is Nero (emperor 54-68) and his wife Poppaea. In 65, while Poppaea was pregnant with their second child, the couple had a fight. Nero lost his temper and kicked her in the abdomen. Both mother and child died.
This book paints a very unsympathetic picture of Herodes. According to Pomeroy, he was not very nice to his wife, and not very nice to his biological children. She could be right. According to Pomeroy, Herodes loved his foster children and had a "special" relationship with one of them. Again, she could be right.
It is not very likely that Herodes ordered Alcimedon to kill Regilla (and the child she was carrying). It is much more likely that he ordered him to punish her for some minor infraction (real or imagined); for some reason things got out of hand, and the result was the death of both mother and child.
Regilla is mentioned in several recent books about ancient Greece and Rome, but usually they give her just one or two lines. This book gives us much more. It is not a biography in the modern sense of the word, which nobody can write, but it is probably as close as we can get.