This 1703 edition of ancient letters edited by John Savage presents a “severe” yet artful letter by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It opens by describing several Roman ladies’ theatrical farce upon the Emperor, their question to him about what scholars say of the origin of women, and the Emperor’s satiric reply.
Whilst I continue at Rhodes, improving myself in the Art of Oratory, you, I understand, have made and play’d a Farce upon me at Rome, on the Feast of the great Goddess Berecinthia. What you intended by this sort of Proceeding I have also learn’t, which was to expose my Life and trample upon my Fame.
The Author of this piece of Scandal I have likewise heard to be, Avlinia for the Composition, Lucia Fulvia for the Transcribing, and you Toringula for the Singing Part.
It seems you represented me after different Manners.
- You gave me a Book turn’d upside down, to signifie I was an absurd Philosopher:
- You made me go with my Tongue lolling out, to shew I was a bold Speaker:
- You planted Horns upon my Forehead, to make me pass for a common Cuckold:
- You put a trayling Pike into my Hand, to denote me a Cowardly Leader:
- You represented me with no Beard, as an effeminate Person:
- And lastly bound an Handkerchief about my Eyes, to make me look as if I had been a condemn’d Criminal.
Moreover not contented with all this, you at another time equipp’d me after a new Manner. You made me a Statue with Feet of Straw, Legs of Wood, Thighs of Brass, Belly of Horn, Arms of Pitch, Hands of Paste, Head of Plaister, Asses Ears, Serpents Eys, Cats Teeth, a Scorpions Tongue, Hair of Vine-Roots, and a Forehead of Lead, whereon were engraven the following Capitals, M.N.T.N.I.S.U.S. which signifiy’d, as I take it, That this Statue of mine, was compos’d of no more different Materials, than I was of variety of Falsehoods.
[The ladies’ question]
Now after all these affronts put upon me, I cannot but wonder how you cou’d have the Assurance to send Fulvius Fabritius, to ask me a Question in your Names?
Yet to shew you, your harmless Satyr does not in the least affect me, I will gratifie your Request, tho’ you have so little derv’d it of me. Your Question is,
Whether I have found in all the course of my Reading, of what, by whom, where, when, what and how the first Woman was made?
To which I answer, that according to the great variety of People that have been in this World, their Opinions have been likewise various.
The AEgyptians held that by the Overflowing of the Nile, certain fat clots of Earth being thrown upon the Shore, and there left, upon the Reflux of the Sun by its prolifick virtue impregnated them, and turnd them to Worms, one of which afterwards became Woman. Now your Ladiships must know, that had not this River overflowed, your Sex had never had a Being. All other Creatures have proceeded from their Mothers Bowels, except Woman only, who you see never had a Mother.
And this seems to be true in all respects, for as Woman was at first irregular in her Birth, so has she been ever since both in her Life and Death. Truly that Man has a great deal to suffer, many Wiles to find out, a long time to Think, much Assistance to require, many Years to wait, many Women to search amongst, before he shall meet with one that will be govern’d by Reason.
Be the Lian never so wild, at length he may be brought to be led by his Keeper; be the Bull never so fierce at last he may be taken by the Horns: The Horse in time submits to the Bit, and the young Colt to the Saddle; only Woman the most perverse of all Animals, never loses either her Imperiousness or Disobedience.
The Gods have made Man wise, and endu’d Beasts with natural Instinct, yet are neither of them able to defend themselves against the Subtilties of Woman. Her Obstinacy also is not less remarkable than her Cunning; for if she has a mind to Stay, no Spur can make her go forward; and if on the contrary she enclines to go, no Reins can hold her in. In a Word, no Law can bind her, Shame restrain her, Fear abash her, nor Punishment reform her.
To what a hard Fate is he expos’d that is oblig’d to take care of a Woman’s Conduct? For where once she entertains an Opinion, all the Arguments in the World shall not beat her out of it. If a Man give her warning of any Danger, she will never believe him; if he gives her good Advice, she will never take it; if he threatens her, she presently complains; if he flatters her, she immediately grows Proud; if he bears with her, she becomes Spiteful; and if he applauds her, Bold. In a Word, a Woman never pardons an Injury, nor acknowledges a Benefit.
Now a days the most simple of the Sex, will pretend to Wit; and yet the wisest of them swerves from Wisdom. They know not how little they know, and how much they are ignorant. They will determine suddenly upon the most arduous Matters, as if they had study’d for it a Thousand Years. Yet if you contradict them in their Opinions, they will take you for the very worst of Enemies. Bold is that Woman who presumes to give Advice to a Man, but much bolder he that thinks fit to take it. As he is a Fool that hearkens to it, so is he much more that asks it, and yet more that follows it.
Let him that has not a mind to stumble among so many Stones, prick himself among so many Thorns, nor blister himself among so many Nettles, give Ear to the Advice I give: When he is to promise, let him not do it sparingly; and when to perform, acquit himself niggardly; that is to say, let him do just nothing.
I would fain have divers dead Heroes ask’d, how they far’d with Women while they liv’d? I’m sure they were dealt so ill by, on their accounts, that they would never desire to return to Life, for their sakes.
But if you do not think fit to give Credit to what these Men suffer’d, demand of me how I have far’d with that Sex? Oh Women, Women! The very remembrance I had my Being from ye, makes me abhor Life; and for fear of living any longer among ye, wish for Death; this being by much more eligible than your Conversation.
[On men’s love of women]
I have often wonder’d how a Man can dote on a Woman so much, as to gaze on her all Day, tumble about with the Thoughts of her all Night, be continually enquiring after her when Absent, and when present making her offers of Service; chuse Darkness before Light, prefer Solitude to Company, torment himself incessantly, and all about such a trifle as Love? In this Case he neither hearkens to the Counsel of his Friends, the Reflections of his Enemies, the Danger of his Life, the Hazard of his Honour, or the Loss of his estate; nor during this Enthusiasm, ever sees with his Eyes, hears with his Ears, tastes with his Mouth, or feels with his Hand. All his Senses are surrender’d up to Love, and all his Resolutions dedicated to Folly.
I would fain have these Lovers know how this Love of theirs is occasion’d. The Bowels wherein we were conceiv’d being of Flesh, the Breasts we have suck’d being of Flesh, the Arms we were nourish’d in being of Flesh, the Women we have always convers’d with being of Flesh, our Affection must naturally encline towards the Flesh.
Yet, Ladies, I wou’d not have ye Vain, because I have allow’d it natural to love ye, since I must at the same time affirm, that ye are loose in your Thoughts, subtle in your Actions, and designing in your Words.
[What the Greeks say about women]
Now let us come to the Second Opinion concerning the Making of Women, which was long since pronounc’d by the Greeks after this manner. They said that the Sun displaying his Beams more in the Desarts of Arabia, than in any other part of the World, at the beginning first appear’d there one Woman and one Phoenix, the one being the Production of Fire and the other of Water. Of the Phoenix I shall say nothing, but as for the Woman, they affirm’d her produc’d by the Influence of the Sun, on the Dust that fell from a Worm-eaten Tree, which when fir’d burnt till it became Woman. Now tho’ I am a Roman Philosopher and no Graecian, yet do I not much dislike this Opinion, since it is most certain that you amorous Ladies, have your Tongues of the Nature of Fire, and your Conditions not different from the Rottenness of a Worm-eaten Tree.
According to the great variety of Animals, nature has plac’d their Strength in different parts of their Bodies. The Eagle has hers in her Beak, the Unicorn his in his Horn, the Serpent in his Tail, the Bull in his Head, the Bear in his Paws, the Horse in his Breast, the Dog in his Teeth, the Boar in his Tusks, the Wood-Dove in her Wings, and the Women in their Tongues.
Truly, Ladies, the flight of the Wood-Dove is not so lofty as your fantastick Notions: The Bear does does not wound more with his Paws, than you do some Mens Minds with your Importunities: The Boar does not more tire the Dog that assaults him, than ye do the poor unhappy Lover that Courts ye: He does not run so much risque of his Life, that catches a Bull by the Horns, as he that falls into your unmerciful Clutches: In a Word, the Serpent carries not so much Poyson in his Tail, as you Women do in your Hearts.
Now tho’ I have hitherto been so severe upon the Fair Sex in general, yet must I except all those Roman Ladies, who have any Title to the Character of good, whereof there are many. My design is only to expose such as are bad, than whose vicious Courses no Poyson is more pernicious to Man.
But since the Gods have ordain’d and our Destinies do permit, that we should not pass our Lives without them, I advise all young Men, beseech all that are old, rouze up the faculties of the Wise, and Instruct the Simple, to beware and flie from Women of an ill Fame, as they would do from a common Pestilence.
Reading the other day the Laws of Plato, I observ’d this Passage concerning ill Women:
We ordain, said that famous Law-giver, That every Woman who has been publickly Infamous, should be as publickly lash’d out of the City, wherein she has behav’d her self so infamously; to the end that other Women beholding the Punishment that has been inflicted on her Crime, may avoid the like Vice, for fear of the like Fate.
Also, in another place of the same Law, he says,
We farther ordain, that the Woman who shall commit a fault only in her Person, shall be forgiven, providing there by any hopes of Amendment in her; but as for her that shall offend with her Tongue, let her never be pardon’d; inasmuch as the former Crime proceeds from a natural frailty, when this is the Offspring of a study’d Malice.
O most divine Plato! Mirror of Understanding and Prince of Philosophers, if thou mad’st this Law in the time of the Golden Age, when there were so few ill Women in the World, and so many good in Greece, what wouldst thou now have done in Rome, where we have so many bad and so few good?
Instructions to women
Women are to be modest in their Countenances, sparing in their Speech, wise in their Understandings, sober in their Gate, sweet in their Dispositions, wary in their Words, and circumspect in all their Actions. They are also to be true to their Promises, and constant in their Affections. Likewise she that has a mind to be well esteem’d by all, let her trust to the Wisdom of wise Men, and flie from the Flattery of Fools.
Let a Virtuous Woman have always so great regard to her Reputation, as to suspect him that makes extravagant Promises; since when the Flames of Venus are once kindled, and Cupid has deliver’d his Arrows, the rich Man offers all he has; and the Poor all he can; the wise Man swears he will ever be her Friend, and the Fool professes himself her humble servant; nay both proffer to lay down their Lives for her sake: The old Dotard crys he will be a Friend to her Friends, and the young Bully vows he will be an Enemy to her Enemies. Some promise to pay her Debts, others to revenge her Injuries; but all this while she suffers them to make their Brags, and takes to the Course she pleases.
[Final attack upon the farcical ladies]
I shall now cease to say any more of the Virtuous Woman, it being not my Intention to Counsel those that have no occasion for Advice, and proceed to ask you Amorous Ladies, if Plato was among ye, when ye play’d a Farce upon me, and dragg’d a Statue, representing me, about the Streets of Rome? No certainly, for according to what I have seen, and what others have said of ye, there are but few among ye, that his Laws would have excus’d from Punishment.
One thing ye cannot deny me, and that is, that if I had been the very worst of Men, ye would by this time have found the end of my Villanies, whereas the least wicked among you, by far exceeds the most blameable Action that ever I was guilty of.
Wise Women run no small risque in living near the Foolish, Modest near the Shameless, Reserv’d near the Talkative, Meek near the Bold, Chaste near the Defil’d, nor Reputable near the Defam’d; for Women that are Infamous themselves, either think all others so, desire they should be so, strive to make them so, or procure to have them so, and then affirm they are so; all which they do, that they may conceal their own Infamy, by exposing others to the like Character, tho’ undeservedly.
O you Ladies, ’tis now a long time since I have known you, and you me, therefore if you are dispos’d to speak, I am dispos’d to do so also, if you know any thing, I likewise know something; if you are silent, I am so too; but if you think fit to divulge Secrets, I can do so too.
- You know well, Avilina, you that made the Farce on me, that Eumedes sold Calves dearer at the Market, than you did innocent Virgins in your House.
- You must needs remember, Toringula, that whilst you were reckoning up your Lovers in my presence, your Fingers being too few to do it, you require’d a Bushel of Peas for that purpose.
- You cannot forget, Lucia Fulvia, that when you were with you know who, you know where, your Husband intervening amidst your Jollities, you told him plainly, that unless he would consent you should lie out once a Week, you would never bed with him more.
- You must needs own, Rotoria, that whilst you continu’d two Years on board a Sicilian Corsair, you tolk him he need provide no other Mistress, for all his Ships Crew.
- You, Eugenia Curtia, must of necessity recollect, that at such time as the Censor visited your Quarters, he found four Mens Gowns, which you wore at Nights, and but one Woman’s Gown, which you went cloath’d with in the Day.
- You cannot deny, Pessilina Fabricia, but that after Alvinus Metellus had espous’d you before the Censor, he demanded his share of what you had got before Marriage by your Gallants.
- You must confess, Camilla, that not being contented with teh Stallions of your own Nation, you entertain’d Strangers, and by that means came to the Knowledge of several Languages.
Thus I have only persecuted those that first attack’d me, and only attack’d such as first thought fit to persecute me. As for others of your Sex, I have nothing to say to them, as not having ever been concern’d in any Scandal upon me.
As I have begun my Letter by resenting the Injuries done to my Person, and carried it on with some sort of Revenge, so shall I conclude it with advising all Men not less to dread your Company, than that of a publick Pestilence, for as all other Harms may be escap’d by abstaining from them, Women alone can be avoided by flying them. This from Marcus Aurelius the Rhodian. Farewel.
Whew. It was actually quite a depressing experience to transcribe the diatribe, especially since he goes to such lengths to cast dishonor on these particular women, and at times women in general. Even if he uses wit and humor at times, the overall harshness did not seem morally justifiable.
To balance this satire, if you read on in this volume, you will find a letter from his former mistress casting personal dishonour upon Marcus Aurelius in a similar fashion. I might post that online too if I find time.
Savage, J. (1703). A select collection of letters of the antients. Written originally by Phalaris, Solon, Socrates, Pythagoras, Euripedes, Xenophon, Aristotle, K. Philip, Alexander the Great, Democritus, Heraclitus, Diogenes the Cynick, Isocrates, Hippocrates, The Emp. Julian, &c. Greeks. Cicero, Seneca, Augustus Caesar, Mark Anthony, Brutus and Cassius, Pompey, Mithridates, Germanicus, K. Herod, Agrippina, Poppaea, Caracalla, M. Aurelius, Aurelian, Qu. Zenobia, &c. Romans. Whereby is discover’d the Morality, Gallantry, Wit, Humour, Manner of Arguing, and in a Word, the Genius both of the Greeks and Romans. By Mr. Savage. London: printed for J. Hartley, next door to the King’s-Head Tavern in Holborn; F. Coggan, in the Inner Temple-Lane; W. Davis, at the Black-Bull in Cornhill; R. Gibson, at the Roe-Buck between the two Temple Gates in Fleet-Street; and T. Hodgson, over against Grays-Inn-Gate in Holborn.
EDITORIAL NOTE: headings, bullets and paragraph breaks are not in the original. I have removed italics from many words, but have not modernized spelling or grammar.