Female Voices, II

salvēte, amīcī! Today we’ll look at the beginning of a new story in which focus a bit more closely on some underdeveloped, but centrally important female characters: Caelia Valeriī and Vipsānia Caeliī. As I was writing the list of female characters in yesterday’s post, I realized, to my surprise, that I’d started to fall into a trap for which I’ve criticized the Big Three reading-method textbooks in the past: their tendency to de-emphasize the māterfamiliās as they focus on her husband, her children, and even her servants.

For those who are familiar with the Big Three, you may find it humorous that my face-to-face students frequently ask, “Does (I won’t say her name) ever do anything but sit in the atrium?” Of course she does! But she rarely appears in stories. I don’t want that to happen to Caelia or Vipsānia! Ironically, if you’ve read the Tres Columnae stories that have appeared on the Version Alpha Wiki site or on the blog so far, you probably have a much stronger sense of the personalities of the female servants (especially Planēsium nūrus) and the female animals (especially Sabina mustēla, Impigra mūs, and Fortunata bōs) than you do of the main characters’ mothers. Even Lollia, māter Cāiī, is more developed than her counterparts, especially after the eruption. And we will learn a bit about Caelia, māter Lūciī, when she and Valeria are planning the wedding … we’ll see some of those stories later this week.

But you may have been wondering if we have something against wealthy Roman women at Tres Columnae! 🙂 Well, we don’t … some of our best friends are … wait! That’s not right! In fact, it’s not even possible, is it? But we really don’t have anything against wealthy Roman women; unfortunately, we seem to have fallen into that bad pattern (which dates back to the wealthy Roman men) of taking them for granted. We’ll try not to do that again!

So this story is for them, and it’s also for all parents who have ever wondered “what to do” about a wayward child … and for all the “wayward” children whose parents have ever worried about them. It comes from Lectiō XI or XII, shortly after Cnaeus’ refusal to get out of bed and go to school (the famous incident with Fortūnāta, bōs placida). Apparently Vipsānia, māter Cnaeī, has noticed that her sister-in-law’s children are better behaved than her own (what an observant lady she must be!), so she decides to ask her for advice. We’ll see the first part of the story today, and Part II tomorrow; we may have to divide Part II and finish it on Wednesday. Then, starting on Thursday or possibly Friday, we’ll consider how we might use this story (and some others) to explore issues regarding the status and experiences of all kinds of Roman women.

hodiē māne Vipsānia, uxor Caeliī māterque Cnaeī, ad urbem Herculāneum iter facit, domum Valeriī vīsitātum. “mihi necesse est cum Caeliā Valeriī, sorōre marītī meī, colloquium habēre,” sēcum putat. “Caeliae enim et Valeriō est fīlius ingeniī optimī, mihi et marītō pessimī. fortasse Caelia mē adiuvāre potest. fortasse Caelia Cnaeum meum meliōrem reddere potest.”

Vipsānia igitur duōs servōs et duās ancillās arcessit. “mihi necesse est,” inquit, “urbem Herculāneum hodiē vīsitāre. vōs iubeō mēcum iter facere. vōs iubeō carpentum parāre. necesse est nōbīs quam celerrimē prōgredī.” servī ancillaeque celeriter dominae pārent et carpentum parant.

carpentum, quod Vipsāniam fert, iam portae urbis appropinquat. ūnus servus carpentum equōsque agit, alter cum ancillīs per viam ambulat. Vipsānia mūrōs urbis cōnspicit et “heus!” exclāmat, “carpenta nōn oportet per portās īre! mihi exeundum, vōbīs servīs hīc manendum est. ancillās decet mē per viās urbis comitārī.” tum Vipsānia dē carpentō dēscendit et per portam urbis ingreditur. cum ancillīs ad domum Valeriī celeriter contendit.

Vipsānia tamen, dum per viās urbis prōcēdit, forte tabernam praeterit, ubi gemmae pretiōsae vēneunt. “hercle!” inquit, “nōnne pulcherrimae sunt illae gemmae? nōnne rēs pulchrās habēre dēbeō, quod iste Cnaeus ita mē vexat? mē decet hanc tabernam vīsitāre … sed mē oportet cōnsilia Caeliae petere. vae! heu! quid facere dēbeō?”

ancilla, Dulcissima nōmine, verba Vipsāniae audit et, “domina mea,” inquit, “cūr tē vexās? domus enim Valeriī in viā proximā stat. tibi igitur necesse est hanc tabernam bis praeterīre.” Vipsānia “hercle! vērum dīcis, Dulcissima mea!” respondet. “prīmum verba sapientia Caeliae audīre, deinde gemmās pulchrās mihi emere possum! nōnne fēlīx sum, quod ancilla optima mihi es? valēte, vōs gemmae pulcherrimae!”

Vipsānia cum ancillīs celeriter ad domum Valeriī ambulat. Dulcissima tamen “dominam stultissimam et impiam!” sibi susurrat. “nōnne iste puer multō plūris est quam gemmae?”

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Vipsania isn’t exactly the most sympathetic character at this point … but at least she seems to care enough about Cnaeus to seek some parenting advice. Does that seem in character or out of character for a Roman woman of her social standing?
  • How would you characterize Vipsania? Do you think she’s motivated by real concern for her son, by concern for how others perceive his behavior, or by a combination?
  • Do those categories even make sense in the Roman world, where pietās has much more to do with right conduct than it does with right attitudes as we would define them?
  • And what do you think of Dulcissima? We’ll get to know her more in later stories as well.
  • If you were Caelia, what advice would you give Vipsania?
  • And why do you suppose that Lucius is a puer ingeniī optimī while his cousin pessimē sē gerit? Nature, nurture, or both???

Tune in next time for Part II of the story, in which Caelia tries to give Vipsania some advice. interea, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus!


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  1. […] Tuesday’s blog post for Part I of the story, and Wednesday’s post for Part II, in which Vipsānia impulsively visits her sister-in-law (unannounced and uninvited!) to ask for her advice […]

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