unRoman Families and Relationships

41 Case study: Fannia and “Good Roman Women”

S.S. Boutaleb


This is a photo of a carved marble sculpture held at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France (link here). The emotive sculpture depicts the famous suicide of Fannia’s grandmother Arria Major in 42 CE (centre). It was carved in 1685 by French sculptor Pierre Lepautre, many years after the event depicted took place, showing how Arria’s actions kept her family in the public’s memory for centuries.

See introductions below for more details on Arria’s suicide and how it ties directly with Pliny the Younger’s letter about Fannia.


Ancient Roman society was one that revolved around appearance, both literal and figurative. The rich and the poor alike were expected to adhere to strict societal guidelines. Elite and ‘respectable’ Roman citizen women, for example, legally held no political power and were under the lifelong guardianship of either their pater familias (male head of family ) or, in his absence, their tutor (alternative guardian). Upon reaching adolescence, these women were expected to marry, have children and run a household (this would include instructing a household of slaves if they were wealthy), all while wearing a stola (long woollen dress). I emphasize that these women were expected to behave in this manner because, unsurprisingly, some women did not wish to marry, have children, run a household or wear a heavy woollen dress. When considering Roman ideals, we must always keep in mind that women were people with agency (capacity/desire to act independently) and therefore did not always adhere to these guidelines.

Clodia Fannia (late 1st- early 2nd century CE) is an ideal case study for Roman elite women because, as we shall see in the following letter, she is viewed as someone who has exceeded the expectations of a respectable matron (married woman). However, Fannia did not live by many of the guidelines listed above, making her a curious role model. She was a three-time-exiled political rebel who did not bear any children of her own. By analyzing Pliny the Younger’s acclamations, we gain additional perspective into what constituted a ‘good’ Roman woman and how Fannia achieved this status despite her nonconforming behaviour.

It is worth noting that Fannia’s elite lineage gave her an advantage at birth. We know more about elite women like Fannia than we do poor women because many of our written sources were composed by the elites themselves (Pliny included). Any value attributed to her would have been difficult to earn were she underprivileged. The slaves, for example, owned by elites like Fannia, would certainly not have experienced similar praise in their lifetime, regardless of their behaviour.


Pliny the Younger was a Roman lawyer, senator, author and the nephew of the renowned naturalist Pliny the Elder. Throughout his life, Pliny (the Younger) published a number of books containing his private correspondence in an effort to advertise his connection with various socially and politically prominent individuals. The 2nd century letter 7.19 (Book 7, Letter 19), outlined in the following pages, is an excellent example of Pliny’s strategy in action as he writes in earnest to his friend Priscus about his concern and admiration for the ill matron Clodia Fannia.

Author’s Note:

I have divided the following translated letter into its four paragraphs, prefacing each with a brief introductory statement in italics and placed footnotes throughout to provide additional context to the letter’s content. If you wish to read the English translation without pause, see the following source. For the original Latin text, see passage 19 here.

The letter begins with Pliny’s concern for Fannia’s health; specifying she fell ill while nursing her relative Junia. These opening words have been carefully chosen; Pliny is not simply stating the circumstances surrounding Fannia’s illness but is paying a deliberate compliment to her character. He is essentially saying that Fannia, selflessly disregarding the risks to her own health, took in sick Junia of her own will (before the priests asked her) and cared for her as a relative and respectable Roman matron should. The emphasis on Junia’s role as a Vestal Virgin (priestess of the Roman hearth-goddess Vesta) further enhances Fannia’s character. Vestal Virgins were cherished public priestesses who, being appointed at an early age, lost all familial connection and made a thirty-year vow of chastity (abstinence from sex) to the goddess Vesta. By outlining Fannia’s care and relation to a Vestal Virgin in the opening of his letter, Pliny has already reinforced her irrefutable Roman-ness.

 From Pliny to Priscus.

I am most concerned about Fannia’s health. She contracted this illness while she was taking care of Junia, a Vestal Virgin, first on her own initiative (as Junia was a relative) and subsequently by order of the priests. For virgins, while obliged by serious illness to leave the atrium of Vesta,[1] are given into the care of some matron. Fannia was diligently performing this duty when she fell ill. She has constant fever and a cough that is getting worse; she is emaciated and generally in decline. Only her spirit is vigorous,[2] worthy of her husband Helvidius and father Thrasea.[3] But everything else is going down, and I am not merely afraid but deeply saddened. It pains me that so great a woman will be snatched from the eyes of her people, and who knows when her like will be seen again. 

Pliny exalts Fannia’s character using four Latin terms often attributed to Roman men (castitas, sanctitas, dignitas, Constantia) and praises her lifelong commitment to Helvidius, her late husband. Fannia followed Helvidius into exile twice for his association with the Stoic opposition, a collection of elites who disapproved of the emperor. Years after his execution, she was questioned in trial for endorsing a posthumous biography of his life, which she boldly admitted to and after which, against the Senate’s orders, defiantly snuck (the biography) into her third exile.  

What chastity, what sanctity, what dignity, what constancy! Twice she followed her husband into exile, and the third time she herself was exiled on his account.[4] For when Senecio,[5] on trial for writing the life of Helvidius, said in his own defence that Fannia had asked him to write it, Mettius Carus[6] asked threateningly whether she had. “I did ask him,” she replied; and to whether she had given him her husband’s diaries – “I did give them.” And to whether her mother knew about this, “She does not.” In other words, she did not utter a single word to reduce the danger to herself. She even took into her exile its very cause – those books which the senate had through the compulsion and fear of the times ordered suppressed[7] – for she had managed to save them when her goods were confiscated.

Women, even the elite, were not often named as role models for men in 2nd century Rome, as Roman virtues were primarily associated with elite men. However, we see here Pliny doing just that. He continues by saying he worries Fannia will be the last of her house (lineage) as no person could ever live up to her repute.

How pleasant she is, how kind, how respectable and amiable at once – two qualities rarely found in the same person.[8] Indeed, she will be a woman whom later we can show our wives, from whose fortitude men too can draw an example,[9] whom now while we can still see and hear her we admire as much as those women whom we read about. To me her very house seems to totter on the brink of collapse, shaken at its foundations, even though she leaves descendants.[10] How great must be their virtues[11] and their accomplishments for her not to die the last of her line.

Fannia was not the first model-Roman woman in her family; she came from a long line of respected matrons, celebrated for their political collusion (plotting). Here, Pliny makes reference to her mother, Arria the Younger, and (indirectly) her grandmother; for as we shall see, no one can mention Arria the Younger without also calling to mind her namesake, Arria Major (see Pliny 3.16 here). Arria Major (died 42 CE) was, like both her daughter and granddaughter, a political rebel. When her husband Aulus Caecina Paetus (dates unknown) was condemned for treason against emperor Claudius in 42 CE, he decided suicide would be a more noble death than execution. However, when the moment came, Paetus could not bring himself to the task so Arria, being the braver of the two, allegedly seized the dagger and plunged it into her own chest saying, “It does not hurt, Paetus,” and Paetus soon followed. The Romans saw Arria’s suicide as a noble act of courage and opposition to autocratic rule, and she soon became a legendary model for Roman men and women alike (see sculpture above).

It is with this history in mind that Pliny publicly references Fannia’s lineage and late mother, Arria the Younger, with whom he claims to have been friends. He mentions both women’s exile, adding that he supported them unconditionally during and after their troubles (presumably as a lawyer). He closes his letter by stressing the value of their friendship and connection, saying that he shall forever be indebted to them. This statement puts the two women, particularly Fannia, in a position of power and superiority that was rare for a living woman of the period.

My anguish is even greater because I feel I am reliving the death of her mother, that I can find no higher praise – great mother of a great woman, who, as she is given back to us in her daughter, so will be taken from us yet again, and I must suffer the old wound reopened as well as the new one. I honoured and loved both – I do not know which the more, nor did they want me to decide. My services were theirs in good times and bad; I comforted them in exile and avenged them when they returned. But that was not enough to repay my debt to them, and I am all the more eager that she be saved, so that I will have time to do so.[12] There are my worries as I write you; if some god turns them into, I won’t complain about my present fears.


Pliny the Younger, Letters 7.19


Romanness: Reality or fiction? How does Pliny’s letter about Clodia Fannia compare with what we have learned about expectations for elite Roman women in the 1st and 2nd century CE? Were these societal guidelines truly necessary for earning respect as a woman in Rome?

Let’s review how Fannia fit into the social guidelines of elite women in Rome:


Women were expected to have children from a young age.

  • Ø Fannia did not have any children of her own but, being her husband’s second wife, had a stepson.

Women had no legal power and did not have political sway.

  • Ø Fannia was an active political rebel and member of the Stoic opposition.

Romans believed (or at least wrote that they believed) women should care for the domestic aspects of daily life.

  • Ø Fannia was exiled three times, with her possessions seized on the third.

Roman rank and lineage was traditionally passed through the paternal (father’s) line.

  • Ø Fannia’s grandmother Arria Major’s willingness to die for her Roman values gained her legendary respect. Her name was passed down to her daughter Arria the Younger, and her political reputation to her granddaughter Fannia.

Sought-after qualities like virtutibus (manliness) and dignitas (dignity) were restricted to Roman men of high rank.

  • Ø Pliny uses both these terms (and more) in his description of Fannia.

Only Roman men could be model citizens for other men.

  • Ø “Indeed, she [Fannia] will be a woman whom later we can show our wives, from whose fortitude men too can draw an example.” (Pliny the Younger, Letters 19)
Most of my information was collected from Women in the letters of Pliny the Younger: A study in authorial self-representation (Carlon, 2003). This book was an invaluable resource for close analysis of not only Pliny’s letter-writing but also of the context in which his letters were written and the genealogy (family history) of the people of whom he was writing.

Media Attributions

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  1. The atrium was the central-court (often with an open roof) of a traditional Roman house. It was the responsibility of a Roman priest or priestess to maintain and guard the temple (or ‘house’) of their god. Therefore, in this case, Pliny is saying Vestal Virgins were permitted, when ill, to leave the house of Vesta and stay with a relative.
  2. Romans (typically men) were believed to have a level of endurance and pride indifferent to illness or injury. Pliny is bestowing these ‘masculine’ qualities on Fannia, saying her body may be failing but her spirit remains “vigorous”.
  3. Helvidius Priscus (1st century CE), Fannia’s late husband, and Clodius Thrasea Paetus (1st century CE), Fannia’s late father, were two well-connected Roman men known for their active participation in the Stoic opposition (group of elites politically opposed to generations of emperors’ autocratic rule). Fannia was, herself, a Stoic political rebel; a fact Pliny implies made her equal to the great men of her family. This ‘name-dropping’ is, in a sense, Pliny’s attempt to align himself with Fannia’s famous family of Roman Stoics.
  4. Although exile was not typically celebrated by Romans, Pliny wished to align himself with the elite members of the Stoic opposition as, at this point, the oppressive emperor Domitian had been assassinated.
  5. Herennius Senecio (2nd century CE) was a fellow Stoic oppositionist who, at the request of Fannia, wrote a biography of her late husband Helvidius. He was charged and executed for the act under order of emperor Domitian.
  6. Mettius Carus (dates unknown) was the prosecutor who charged Senecio and had him executed for Domitian.
  7. Pliny’s “fear of the times” refers to the period under rule of emperors Vespasian and Domitian. Helvidius was connected to the Stoic opposition (opposition to Vespasian’s rule) and was consequently executed in 75 CE. Under the following emperor, Domitian, the Senate would not have wanted the posthumous biography of Helvidius, an outspoken opposer of the empire, to be distributed so they exiled Fannia in 93 CE.
  8. These qualities are meant to emphasize Fannia’s femininity and are juxtaposed with her equally prominent masculine traits.
  9. As mentioned in the introduction, women were rarely held up as role models for men, so this acknowledgement places extra emphasis on Pliny’s respect for Fannia. He believed her the pinnacle of Roman ideals and a model for both men and women.
  10. Fannia did not have her own children but was survived by the child of her stepson, her descendant in this case. This absence of children makes her an unconventional role model for Roman women.
  11. The original Latin word used for this was virtutibus, a word that literally means ‘manliness’, further emphasizing Pliny’s belief that Fannia held what were traditionally seen as positive masculine qualities.
  12. We do not know what illness Fannia suffered from but we do know she unfortunately did not survive.


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