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Roman Women’s Useful Knowledge: Historical Examples in Women’s Speech in Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Eva Carrara

Florida State University

Scholars have long noted that Roman women act as exemplary figures for readers of history (e.g. Langlands 2018, Roller 2018), but women’s use of exempla in speeches has not yet been sufficiently discussed. I examine the speeches of Tullia, Valeria, and Veturia in Dionysius of Halicarnassus for how these women use historical examples to persuade listeners to political action at critical moments in early Roman history.

Women wield significant power in Augustan-era historiographic representations of archaic Rome, often behind the scenes in the regal period as kingmakers (Glinister 1997), but they also effectively and publicly defend the Republic (Cid López 2010). Much past scholarship focuses on Livy, though Dionysius is now receiving similar attention (Schultze 2019; Cailleux 2018; Redondo-Moyano 2016; Buszard 2010). Still, women’s political action in his History of Archaic Rome should be contextualized with several of his historiographic strategies. First, he emphasizes the importance of speeches, which amount to around one-third of the extant text (Dion. Hal. 7.66; Oakley 2019); secondly, in his view, history is a means of political education (Fox 2001). These ideas coalesce when speakers effectively use historical examples in political crises to avoid stasis, and in the process teach readers how to use said examples appropriately in their own politikoi logoi (Gabba 1991). In Dionysius, women speak at politically decisive moments at home and in public in both the regal and Republican periods; moreover, they use historical examples to persuade their audiences, which are often mixed gender. This raises questions about women’s power to shape the future through the Roman, and the Dionysian, past.

In Tullia’s kingmaking speech (4.29), she uses Greek history to persuade Tarquin to depose Servius Tullius, but her portrayal of Tarquin’s Corinthian heritage does not align with Dionysius’ own portrayal of Corinth as a breeding ground for tyrants elsewhere in the work (3.46–47; 4.53-58). Tullia functions as a bad reader of history inasmuch as she fails to extract its lessons, but also inasmuch as where and how she speaks: in private, away from the proper venues for political speech (4.29). In the Coriolanus episode, on the other hand, Valeria and Veturia both speak in public and show themselves to be astute readers of Dionysius’ history in their quest to save the Republic (8.39–8.53). Valeria recalls the programmatic behavior of Hersilia and the Sabine women, while Veturia recalls Republican history and, tellingly, Dionysius’ justification for including so many speeches in his history (7.66).

Thus, I argue that in the History of Archaic Rome women stand out as being as knowledgeable about the past, and as rhetorically skilled at using it as their male counterparts. The examples of Tullia, Valeria, and Veturia indicate that women’s political speech is integral to Dionysius’ view of an archaic Rome where debate stops political violence. I suggest that these speeches model women’s ability to use historical examples, and that this indicates, if not a mixed-gender audience for Dionysius’ history, then at least a place for women among the earliest practitioners of politikoi logoi.

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