Aurelia Philematium’s epitaph, in which she embodies the ideal of the chaste coniunx, is one of the best known spousal inscriptions to survive from Rome. Less well known is the stele of Maria Auxesis, an amica who died c.98-117 C.E. By terminology alone these two women should represent opposite ends of the spectrum: one was a respectable coniunx and the other was an amica, a girlfriend or mistress at best. Yet, as this paper illustrates, a comparison oftheir epitaphs to each other and to a wider range of inscriptions demonstrates that both inscriptions challenge long-held assumptions about what it meant tobe either a wife or an amica.
Select readings of the literary and epigraphic sources have provided a rather narrow portrayal of the Roman wife over a broad period of time. Roman wives are often depicted as chaste and loving with Lattimore’s summation as the benchmark: “we are presented with the ideal of a woman as housewife...pia, which sums up such qualities, is much in evidence; and we hear much of chastity” (Lattimore 295-6). This view of Roman wives and Roman marriage is easy to find on large scale inscriptions such as Aurelia Philematum’s (Treggiari; D’Ambra; Koortbojian). Such inscriptions are taken as emblematic of spousal ideals on epitaphs throughout the Roman period. But were they?
Amicae are often even more problematic and more narrowly portrayed. Identified as girlfriends, mistresses, and prostitutes, the neutral application of this term is often overlooked, particularly when applied by a man to a woman, (Rawson 287; Adams 348-350; Konstan 90-91). This is, however, largely based on a gendered reading of the literary evidence (e.g. Catull. 41, 43, 72; Prop. 1.6.10; Juv. 4.20), which also seems to illustrate a lack of amicitia between men and women (Konstan 146). Yet an examination of amicae inscriptions, centered on Maria Auxesis’s example, reveals a discrepancy. The literary portrayal of amicae does not correspond to the depiction found in the epitaphs.
This paper focuses on the commemorations of Aurelia Philematium and Maria Auxesis in order to challenge the traditional understanding of Roman wives and so-called sexual partners. By comparing them to each other and to a wider sample of over 2,500 inscriptions commemorating women, it becomes quite clear that the portrayal of Roman women in epitaphs was influenced by numerous factors. The term of relation (coniunx, uxor, amica), the place of burial, and the status of those involved could intrinsically affect how the deceased woman was described. More importantly, this description changed significantly over time. The result is that when amicae and wives are compared and analysed statistically, as they have been for this paper, startling patterns emerge.
Maria Auxesis appears, at first, to be an example of a very unusual amica while Aurelia Philematium has been held up to be an example of a very typical coniunx. What this paper effectively demonstrates is that the opposite is true. Maria Auxesis was a typical Roman woman commemorated as a friend by a friend. Aurelia Philematium was a very odd example of a Roman wife and one that most Roman women would not have seen when they looked in the mirror.