The assassination of Caesar and events immediately following have largely been treated by historians as an all-male affair. I argue that Caesar’s wife Calpurnia played an important role in the aftermath of the Ides, defending her dead husband’s memory. Extant ancient accounts downplay this. Their emphasis is on Calpurnia’s futile warning to Caesar the morning of his death, which does confirm her concern for him but has skewed modern perceptions of her. My paper yields a new and fuller picture of Calpurnia as a Roman woman of the Senatorial class who cultivated personal honor, studied philosophy, and shaped public life.
Calpurnia is, at most, mentioned only in passing in historical accounts of Caesar’s assassination (e.g., Lintott 2009, Strauss 2015). Standard reference works fail to collect all of the evidence that documents her life (e.g., RE, Drumann-Groebe). At the same time, Calpurnia has not been discussed in important reassessments of Roman women’s education (Hemelrijk 1999) and Roman women’s role as political agents and exponents of honor in their own right (e.g., Welch 2010, Brennan 2012, Osgood 2014).
I make a fuller collection of the literary testimonia than currently exists. I supplement this with evidence mainly discussed by literary historians, a verse epitaph from a monument commissioned by a freedwoman of Calpurnia, which calls her “wife of the magnificent god Caesar” (magnifici coniunx Caesaris…dei, CIL 6.14211; Boyancé 1955, Armstrong 1993, 201). The contents of the poem reflect a commitment to Epicurean philosophy by Calpurnia and her freedwoman.
In addition to reexamining the evidence for Calpurnia, I contextualize it more fully by making comparisons to other high-ranking Roman women of her era who also confronted ongoing civil violence. For example, I begin my paper demonstrating how Calpurnia received Caesar’s body on the Ides of March and protected it in his house over several days of unrest, until he could have a proper funeral; her actions can be compared to those of Clodius’ wife Fulvia and the wife of the Laudatio Turiae. I then analyze Calpurnia’s decision to turn over Caesar’s papers, as well as valuable works of art, to Marc Antony. The unique testimony of Plutarch that she gave to Antony Caesar’s fortune will also be explained. I will examine how Calpurnia’s father helped to secure Caesar’s funeral and argue that the funeral must in part be understood as a family affair.
Calpurnia’s actions after the Ides are attested only in scattered references. She was mostly written out of history here. In contrast, her premonitory dream the night of Caesar’s murder along with her imploring of him to stay away from the Senate is a standard element in ancient accounts of the Ides. This was because the dream fitted neatly into a narrative of how Caesar ignored warning signs. Assuming that the story of Calpurnia’s troubled sleep is not an invention, I suggest that she shared it with friends of Caesar, including Balbus, who wrote about the portents of Caesar’s death. Calpurnia’s plea to her husband to look after his safety is comparable to the actions of other women during Rome’s civil violence, including the wife of the Laudatio Turiae, Brutus’ mother Servilia, and Octavian’s mother Atia. It can be reinterpreted a sign of her political agency around the Ides, rather than (simply) a part of Caesar’s tragedy.
Plutarch’s account (Caes. 63.8-11) of the dream indirectly confirms Calpurnia’s commitment to philosophy. The funerary epigram mentioned above offers a final glimpse of the Dictator’s widow well after the Ides, honoring his memory while also finding satisfaction in the fellowship of Epicurean philosophy. Philosophy helped to sustain women as well as men in the face of personal losses and political crisis. Calpurnia was much more than the desperate figure made familiar by William Shakespeare.