It’s staggering to consider the lives lost to time. Though our histories are filled with colorful characters and mendacious megalomaniacs, they represent only a sliver of the human beings who have ever lived. The individuals who populated the armies, kingdoms, and empires of these infamous or notable personages left little behind to give us insight into their lives. Of these faceless multitudes, perhaps none were more isolated and ignored than the women who for millennia were regarded as chattel, the brief exceptions illuminated only in the reflection of their more prominent male partners. It’s a deficiency in our retrospective perception: with a full half of the population defined not by themselves but by the other half one must struggle to grasp the depth of the female presence in history, her thoughts, her place, and her true nature.
Appia Annia Regilla Atilia Caucidia Tertulla was defined by others from birth, her extended name referencing the aristocratic status of her family in second century Rome. Her familiar name, Regilla, meant “Little Queen,” and represented the upper-class lineage she bore through her father, which linked her to the emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. As a member of a well-to-do family, Regilla had a greater potential for fostering a legacy than most women of her era, and throughout her life undertook cultural and artistic projects which could have left a mark on the past. Unfortunately, a brutal and unconscionable crime allegedly perpetrated by the man with whom she shared her life removed her influence from the world, and further obscured her from view with a narrative of his own design.
In The Murder of Regilla, author Sarah B. Pomeroy searches for this tragic figure, using the scant information scattered among ruined monuments and broken icons in what remains of the fallen Roman Empire. Murdered at the age of 35 while eight months pregnant, her death set off a controversy that implicated her wealthy husband, the Greek rhetorician Herodus Atticus and serves as a particularly potent jumping off point for Pomeroy’s exploration of the difficult and frustrating plight that women endured during antiquity.
Painting with broad strokes, Pomeroy invites the reader into an archetypal aristocratic home, using her knowledge of Roman custom and tradition to recreate the type of environment Regilla might have grown up in as a child, and in which she would later raise her own family. It’s a privileged yet chilly household, with the minor chores like nurturing children handled by slaves and servants. The hallways were lined with the stone busts memorializing the family’s dead ancestors, and daily instruction groomed the young for their lives as prominent citizens. As an adult, Regilla fulfilled her societal duties, serving as something of an ancient debutante with the era’s goddess cults, and bearing her husband several children.
What’s missing, however, amidst the factual details of Roman society and the documented public life, is Regilla. Her personality is lost forever. Pomeroy’s attempt to fill in the blanks is admirable, and gets the reader as close to the subject as is humanly possible. Still, Regilla’s absence is palpable; she exists not in full, but as negative space around which a reasonably believable scenario has been constructed. The many pictures of her memorial statues, scattered throughout the book, are a sad and poignant reminder of this loss as none contains a complete representation of her face.
In contrast, there is an embarrassment of information about Herodus, a man who used his extreme wealth and political savvy to become one of the most prominent foreigners in the Roman Empire. Born in Greece, his marriage to the Roman Regilla, with her royal connections, was a major coup and established him as a legitimate mover in her world, rather than a colonized outsider. We learn about Herodus through the biographies written by his supporters, and through the massive architectural and monumental works he undertook to establish his legacy through time.
Pomeroy depicts Herodus as a power-hungry, self-centered man to whom Regilla was merely a method of currying favor with the powers-that-be and creating male heirs who would further establish him as a player in Roman society in addition to his elevated status in his native Greece. His involvement in her death is damning by modern standards, and was suspicious enough to in his own time to warrant a senatorial court to investigate. His acquittal reeks of secretive political maneuvering. Pomeroy makes no reservations about casting aspersions on Herodus, at times perhaps overreaching in her accusations. Though the evidence they are derived from is more than enough to convince of his culpability in one form or another, it is mostly circumstantial and many of Pomeroy’s suppositions require an insight into the motives and methods which hindsight cannot provide.
Though it has been positioned as a kind of murder-mystery crime drama of the ancient world, The Murder of Regilla contains a story that is far more compelling. It demonstrates the importance of a historical voice, and how groups that are marginalized, oppressed, or devalued like the women of antiquity can be squelched in favor of a version of reality which benefits those who dominate them. The primarily male chroniclers of the time did not bother with the great Herodus’ wife beyond brief references, and Herodus himself significantly diluted what is known of her by creating and dedicating scores of monuments to her after her death, all of which bore inscriptions pledging his love and subtly building his own reputation.
In the end, Regilla remains in the shadows, her face is unattainable to our modern perception yet her absence speaks volumes. In that negative space, we can see the shape of her pain, her disenfranchisement, and a reminder that everyone deserves a voice.