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Chiomara and the Roman Centurion

Jessica Clark

Florida State University

Ancient and modern historians have had no difficulty finding things to do with Roman rapes. We have places for Rhea Silvia and the Sabine women, for Lucretia, for Boudicca and the anonymous women objectified on trophies, coins, and monuments. An intriguing exception is the case of Chiomara, a Galatian of high social status taken prisoner by a centurion in the aftermath of a Roman military victory in 189 BCE. In Livy’s version of the story, the centurion follows ineffective persuasion with successful violence, and Chiomara subsequently exploits his greed for money to arrange her ransom and then, dramatically, the removal of her rapist’s head for presentation to her bemused husband (38.24.1-11). Valerius Maximus (6.1.e2) and Plutarch also relate the tale (Mor. 258E-F); Plutarch adds the detail that Polybius met Chiomara later in her life, in Sardis, and admired her qualities of mind.

Scholarship on women, war, and sexual violence has not neglected Chiomara, though her story remains little known. She features in reconstructions of Polybius’ travels (e.g. Walbank 1972: 6-7; Eckstein 1992: 399-400) or in explorations of Livy’s moralism and methods (Ratti 1996; Freund 2008; problematically, Walsh 1955: 378-79). She has also received attention because of her identification as a “Celtic princess” (valuably, Péré-Noguès 2013). This latter impetus towards the collectivization of powerful women - and thus their reduction to types - has paradoxically generated the greatest interest in, but the least individual attention for, Chiomara. Beyond classifying her with Tomyris and Boudicca, or Candaules’ wife and Lucretia, can we find the individual here? Interestingly, one of the richest scholarly applications of Chiomara’s story comes in conjunction with material evidence for gender and violence in Galatian culture (Voigt 2012: 223; cf. Armit 2010: 91), but these contributions from reception studies and archaeology have not informed parallel work in ancient history.

Her historicity perhaps renders her less susceptible to the interpretive lenses brought to bear on other women whose rapes lead (or, are written as leading) them to intervene in the course of history; if we regard her as a real person, it may seem a compounding violation to subject her narrative to analyses of tropes and emplotment. Conversely, examining her historicity shifts the focus of inquiry from the woman Chiomara to the men who transmit her story: when we consider whether Polybius included her story because of his antagonism with the Roman commander Cn. Manlius Vulso, we learn something useful about Polybius (cf. Champion 2004: 157 n.45) -- but not about Chiomara (or women; see Moreno Leoni 2019). Even meeting Chiomara in Valerius Maximus’ examples of pudicitia, or in Plutarch’s de Mulierum Virtutibus, we face a similar dilemma: we are meant to admire her, but what does she mean?

This paper will consider how Chiomara’s story complicates (our modern grasp of) Roman representations of women and power. Though she is a strong and clever woman who uses deception to arrange the killing of a Roman soldier who broke no laws in his rape of her, she is not an object of fear. She is a slave who kills her owner, but her action is righteous. Her husband appears weak, a “little king” (regulus) who “fled home” (domum refugerat) in defeat, from whose perspective her act is “hardly womanly” (haudquaquam muliebre; Livy 38.24.2, 9-10), but while Livy and Polybius elsewhere use pejoratively gendered terms to undercut male Galatians, we do not (conversely) see Chiomara constructed in masculine terms. Unlike Xerxes’ verdict on Artemisia (Her. 8.88), or the complication of gender identities in the visions of St. Perpetua (e.g. 10.7), that is, Chiomara appears markedly “woman.”

In short, her story has much to offer our understanding of power and gender in the Roman world. That Chiomara’s contribution to ancient history comes primarily from impressing Polybius says perhaps more than we should like to hear about the anxieties that have, historically, informed our field.

Session/Panel Title

Sisters Doin' it for Themselves: Women in Power in the Ancient World and the Ancient Imaginary

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