Fulvia, blazing star of the late Roman Republic

  • Themes: Classics

A daring and brilliant figure, Fulvia played an active role in elite politics in the dying days of the Roman Republic.

Fulvia pierces the tongue of Cicero's severed head
Fulvia pierces the tongue of Cicero's severed head. Credit: Penta Springs Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the most notorious women of the ancient world is today little known. Fulvia lived in the dying days of the Roman Republic and ventured boldly, often scandalously, into the political battlefield. She was once described as spitting on the decapitated head of her late enemy, Cicero, and puncturing his tongue with her hairpins. Later, during a military siege, she was targeted by missiles aimed explicitly at her vagina. It was quite unwittingly that she became, as the cuckolded wife of Mark Antony, a love rival of Cleopatra.

Fulvia’s family came from Tusculum, Latium, in central-western Italy. Fulvia’s father, Marcus Fulvius Bambalio, was a wealthy ‘man of no consequence’, according to Cicero. He had a speech impediment – Bambalio meant ‘Stammerer’ – which could explain the orator’s cutting dismissal of him.

Fulvia may have inherited this trait, for one of her cheeks was observably larger than the other. It is impossible to see this in surviving portraits, which are limited to stylised representations on coins showing her in profile and in the guise of the goddess Victory, with big eyes, a slim nose and hair done up in a knot. But Fulvia was deemed to be attractive. A Sicilian rhetorician described her as ‘tempting the point of [his] pen’.

Fulvia’s mother was named Sempronia. She is thought to have been a close relation of another Sempronia, who joined the Catilinarian Conspiracy of 63 BC. The repercussions of Catiline’s failed coup, which aimed at toppling the establishment, were still being felt when Fulvia married for the first time. Her date of birth has not been recorded, but she was probably about 18 at her wedding to Publius Clodius Pulcher, a man cut from a similar cloth to the divisive Catiline.

Fulvia was aware of Clodius’ reputation. Around the time of their marriage, he was taken to court under accusation of threatening the chastity of Rome’s Vestal Virgins. Clodius had snuck into a strictly women-only religious festival at the house of Julius Caesar, wearing women’s clothes. Against Cicero’s best efforts to take him down in court, Clodius escaped without charge, his aristocratic birth and powerful contacts proving invaluable.

Fulvia’s sister-in-law, Clodia Metelli, was equally well-known. She is widely believed to have been the hot-and-cold lover Catullus immortalised as ‘Lesbia’ in his poetry. Clodia aided her brother in his efforts to climb the political ladder through unorthodox means. Clodius went so far as to have himself demoted in social class in order to run for the position of tribune of the plebs, an office reserved for men of plebeian stock.

Fulvia was apparently untroubled by her new husband’s habit of courting controversy. The pair were said to have been inseparable and soon had two children, a son, Publius Clodius, and a daughter, Claudia. It is likely that Fulvia followed Clodia in aiding Clodius’ political work. It has even been speculated that she had a hand in Clodius’ establishment of collegia or political gangs, which stoked violence in the city.

Fulvia and Clodius were married for about a decade before the legacy of that violence hit home. Clodius was travelling along the Appian Way when one of his political enemies, Milo, approached from the other direction. The two parties clashed. Clodius was killed following a brawl.

Hearing the lament that accompanied the return of his body, Fulvia opened the doors of her villa, her mind fixed on inciting the passions of the crowd. Onlookers could witness for themselves the brutality of Milo and his men. Fulvia permitted the bloodied corpse to be carried to the forum before being cremated in the Senate House.

The following spring, Fulvia attended the trial of Milo with her mother and, ‘with their weeping’, the pair ‘greatly moved those who stood gathered’. Milo was convicted and sent into exile.

Fulvia’s second husband, Gaius Scribonius Curio, may have invited fewer raised eyebrows than his predecessor, but he was equally ambitious to climb the political ladder. Among his most interesting achievements was the commission of a seminal amphitheatre that could be split in half to form two D-shaped theatres. Curio’s relationship with Fulvia is not well documented because it proved short-lived. Fulvia was widowed for the second time when Curio died in battle.

A few years later, Fulvia was betrothed to Mark Antony, the son of one of Julius Caesar’s cousins. Antony held a distinguished military record and had served as ‘Master of Horse’ to Caesar after he was hailed dictator. He was also renowned for his love affairs. Fulvia was said to have been initially wary of him owing to his relationship with a mime-actress. Antony supposedly won her over with a promise never to see the actress again.

Fulvia was as pro-active in her support of Antony in his career as she had been of Clodius. She was instrumental in helping him to forge an alliance with Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew and heir, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. The pact of their so-called Second Triumvirate was sealed with the betrothal of Octavian to Antony’s stepdaughter Claudia, Fulvia’s daughter by the late Clodius.

Cicero, an inveterate champion of the Republic, bitterly opposed the foundation of the alliance. As he composed a series of polemical speeches, the Philippics, to pour scorn on the immorality of Antony in particular, Fulvia found herself caught in the crossfire. She was a bloodthirsty degenerate, Cicero railed, and financially grasping to boot.

The cost of incurring the enmity of Fulvia and the triumvirs became all too apparent when, at the end of 43 BC, Cicero was assassinated by Antony’s soldiers at Formiae. The orator’s head and the hand with which he had written his speeches were borne to Rome to be displayed in the forum. It was there that Fulvia allegedly got to work with her hairpins. One detects in this story (surely only that) the intense scorn of a male historian.

Fulvia attained fresh notoriety after Octavian began to mock her for what he perceived as interference in his and Antony’s political affairs. ‘Fulvia set this punishment for me,’ jested the future emperor of his mother-in-law in a poem, ‘that I should fuck her also.’ Fulvia had become so powerful, he complained, as to threaten him: ‘Either fuck me,’ she barks, ‘or fight me!’ Their feud reached a head when Octavian returned Fulvia’s daughter Claudia untouched so that he could marry Scribonia.

Fulvia had every right to be incensed. Rumours that she and her brother-in-law Lucius would now aim at supreme power gained some currency when, in 41 BC, news broke that they had sparked war against Octavian’s forces at Perusia (modern Perugia).

It had not escaped Fulvia’s notice that Octavian’s popularity was waning. His recent redistribution of land had left many people destitute. Antony, meanwhile, had been put in charge of Rome’s eastern provinces. Trouble was brewing among the Parthians, but reports out of Egypt were equally concerning. Mark Antony was having an affair with Cleopatra VII, and every sign suggested it was serious.

Ancient historians would present the Perusine War of 41-40 BC as a stratagem engineered by Fulvia to extricate Mark Antony from Cleopatra’s clutches. It is possible that Fulvia wished Antony to spend some time in Rome. The couple now had two young sons, Marcus Antonius Antyllus and Iullus Antonius, whom Antony had barely seen. But Fulvia’s motivation at Perusia was surely more altruistic. Here lay an opportunity to capitalise on people’s frustrations with Octavian, who had shown her such contempt with the return of her daughter, and to champion Antony instead.

Fulvia played a pivotal role in raising legions for the war. She travelled to Praeneste in northern Italy, where ‘a sword was girded to her side and she gave signals to the soldiers and even addressed them’. The historian Cassius Dio’s description was intended to present Fulvia as peculiarly masculine. There is nothing to say, however, that Fulvia did not hold a sword to make a rousing address.

Fulvia urged further soldiers to travel from Gaul. The fighting grew increasingly intense. Missiles, released by slingshot, were hurled by both sides over the city walls as Octavian’s forces laid siege. Miraculously, some have survived, providing evidence of Fulvia’s prominence. ‘I’m aiming for Fulvia’s clitoris,’ reads the inscription on one of the lead shells. A counter missile aimed at Octavian’s back passage. ‘Bald Lucius Antonius and Fulvia,’ bade another, ‘open your assholes!’

Unfortunately for Fulvia, the war did not go her way, and Octavian’s forces carried the day. Up to 300 senators and equestrians who had fought on the losing side were put to death and Perusia was razed.

Where could Fulvia turn? In the aftermath of her failed war, she wrote to Antony urging him to meet her and the children on the Greek mainland. Antony agreed to this but, in the event, there was little time for a reunion. He was soon summoned to a conference with Octavian in Italy. Antony left Fulvia at Sicyon, near Corinth, after she was taken unwell. The conference had begun when news came that Fulvia had died.

‘The death of this public affairs-obsessed woman who fanned the flames of war out of jealousy for Cleopatra,’ wrote the historian Appian, ‘seemed extremely profitable for both parties, who were freed of her.’ It was commonly and unfairly assumed that the death of Fulvia would lead to better relations between the triumvirs. Certainly, Antony had shown his wife no thanks for the Perusine War. As in life, so in death, Fulvia was lambasted for overstepping her position and meddling in her husband’s business.

Perhaps, however, Fulvia has the last word. The alliance which united Antony and Octavian was to break down irreparably and give way to civil war. Antony and Cleopatra would commit suicide after their defeat at Octavian’s hands. And so Fulvia was vindicated. She had not been the problem after all.

Postscript: Fulvia’s eldest son by Mark Antony would be brutally killed as Octavian began to cement his claim to sole rule. The younger, Iullus, raised by Octavian’s sister Octavia, who married Antony after he was widowed, lived at least long enough to see Rome transformed into an empire. Iullus would later die on the emperor’s orders for an alleged affair with his daughter.

If you enjoyed this piece by Daisy, listen in through the link below to her in conversation with EI’s Paul Lay:


Daisy Dunn