Tacitus’s Attitude To Women – His Use Of The Word ‘Muliebris’
Did Tacitus hate women? When you look at his use of the Latin word muliebris, you can see that he was certainly deeply prejudiced…
In your English GCSE, you have probably come across the terms ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ applied to a picture, or a word. The word ‘stupid’, for instance, is defined as/has a denotation of ‘not intelligent’. But we all know that it carries connotations of inferiority and scorn. You do not call someone ‘stupid’ unless you want to insult them.
Femina v. Mulier
Tacitus uses two words for ‘female’ in the Annals. Fransesco Santoro L’Hoir (1992) has written a book about them! The two words, she explains, had specific and intentional connotations. Femina (‘woman’) was the opposite of the word vir (‘man’), but it referred primarily to the more refined, upper class women. By contrast the alternative terms homo (‘man’) and mulier (‘woman’) referred to the common people = everyone else.
(L’Hoir tells us that this isn’t the same as ‘lady’ v. ‘woman’, but you get the idea; you didn’t call a nice female a mulier.)
Since it was associated with the common people, the adjective derived from mulier (i.e. muliebris = ‘womanly’) consequently gained negative connotations (as, similarly, our adjective ‘common’ has in English). The adjective from the Latin word vir was virtus = ‘virtuous’. By contrast, muliebris had negative connotations, and was used in a context of unreason (lack of self-control and rage), vice (greed and pride) or where a woman was the victim.
You can get some idea of how negative a word muliebris was when you realise that muliebria (plural, used as a noun) is the word for a woman’s private parts. Muliebris behaviour, therefore, was that behaviour which derived from a woman’s sexual organs (just as our word ‘hysterical’ derives from the Greek word for womb). Muliebris was a reference to her basic, gender instincts. The word itself was pejorative, and therefore betrayed prejudice by its very use.
Tacitus’s use of muliebris in the Annals
Tacitus uses the word muliebris 22 times in the Annals. On two occasions the word is neutral (e.g. men and women were killed in an earthquake). Twice the word is used of homosexual men.
On the other 18 occasions the word has negative connotations – these therefore constitute 18 occasions on which Tacitus (intentionally) disparaged women.
So what does he say? And what insight can we get about what he thought of them?
There are five occasions where he uses the word of ‘women-in-general’. On three of those occasions, the words are Tacitus’s:
- in Book 1.33, the clash between Livia and Agrippina the Elder is defined in terms of muliebres offensiones (= ‘women’s rivalry’)
- in 12.64, Agrippina ruins Domitia Lepida muliebribus causis (= ‘for women’s reasons’), which turn out to be rivalry and jealousy over Nero
- and in 13.13, Agrippina was raging in modum muliebriter (= ‘like women do’)
- in Book 1.14, Tiberius forbids any honours to Julia, regarding a woman’s elevation (muliebri fastigium) as a personal insult
- and in 5.2, Tiberius sneers at woman’s friendship (amicitias muliebris).
A feminist would have a field day with these statements! In them, women are objectified, trivialised and stereotyped. The context is negative, and the term is used as an abuse word. In some ways, the last instance is worst, for even something positive (friendship) is derided as ‘womanly’ – so nothing that is muliebris (‘womanly’) is worth anything. Indeed worse, it is inferior and negative purely because it is muliebris.
Together, the statements amount to a character-attack on women-in-general. L’Hoir comments that the uses of muliebris in the Annals constitute ‘subtle expressions of the historian’s innuendo’. Surely that is an understatement. I see little ‘subtle’. For me, it is obvious that, in these uses of the word, Tacitus was seeking to indoctrinate and prejudice his reader not only in specific contexts, but against women in general.
Assigned muliebris in Tacitus’s Annals
There are ten occasions in the Annals where Tacitus does not use muliebris of women-in-general, but applies the adjective to the behaviour of a specific woman:
- in Book 1.4, Tiberius was dominated by a mother with muliebri impotentia (= ‘a woman’s lack of self-control’), and in 12.57, likewise, Agrippina is accused of impotentiam muliebrem by Narcissus
- in 2.43, the murder of Germanicus at the behest of Livia is ascribed to aemulatione muliebri (= ‘a woman’s competitiveness’)
- in 2.71, Germanicus in his death speech ascribes his death to muliebri fraude (= ‘a woman’s treachery’) … just as in 11.3 Asiaticus is betrayed fraude muliebri
- in 4.39, Sejanus is encouraged to act foolishly muliebri insuper cupidine (= ‘by a woman’s overweening desire’)
- in 13.14, Agrippina is accused of superbia muliebris (= ‘woman’s pride)
- in 14.2, during the incest crisis, Agrippina is accused of using muliebris inlecebras (= ‘a woman’s enticements’)
- in 15.54, the slave Milichus betrayed his master after taking advice from his wife which was muliebre ac deterius (= ‘womanly and baser’)
- and in 16.10, Vetus’s daughter pleaded for an audience with Nero muliebri eiulatu (= ‘with womanly wailing’).
Although these statements all refer to the behaviour of an individual woman, they are still prejudiced statements against women, however … because, in each of these instances, muliebris is not used in the sense of the behaviour of ‘this woman’, but as typical behaviour ‘for a woman’. Tacitus does not analyse the specific pressures which caused these women to act as they did. Instead he dismisses their behaviour as typical. So we are encouraged to understand the behaviour of individual women because we ‘know’ that women have no self-control, that they are treacherous, competitive, arrogant and motivated by personal desire, that they get their way by misusing their sexual allure, and that when refused they wail.
These are all behaviours which you can find in teenage girls (which, remember, most Roman wives were) but Tacitus explains this behaviour, not as something a specific woman did in a specific situation (and often under great stress) … but ascribes it purely to their gender.
Indeed, by Book 15.54, muliebris has become an abuse word in its own right – Milichus’s wife’s muliebre ac deterius advice is wicked advice because it is base ... but also because it is muliebris. This is prejudice drunk neat – the advice is bad because it is womanly (inference: because it must be bad because ‘womanly’ is bad).
Finally, there are three occasions where women are not bad, but are weak:
- in Book 2.40, Agrippina the Elder leaves camp during the soldiers’ mutiny muliebre et miserabile agmen (= ‘in a womanly and pitiable procession’)
- in 14.30, Paulinus Suetonius (facing a Druid army which included wild women) urges his men not to fear muliebre et fanaticum agmen (= ‘the womanly and fanatical [enemy] line’)
- and, finally, in 15.57, Nero tortures Epicharis because he thinks her muliebre corpus (= ‘womanly body’) would be unable to resist the anguish of torture.
Tacitus’s view of women
In 1949, the French historian Pierre Wuilleumier accused Tacitus of misogyny – a pathological hatred of women per se.
What do you reckon? Since then, historians have lined up to defend Tacitus. The English historian Ronald Syme accepted that Tacitus’s interpretation was hostile … and agreed with him!
Even modern writers such as Barratt (1996) acquit Tacitus of misogyny. Ronald Mellor (2010) is prepared to admit to ‘borderline misogyny’ (whatever that is) but excuses it because that was how people thought of women in those days (and, to be fair, did so until the suffragettes). Meanwhile, LW Rutland (1978) did label Tacitus a misogynist, but she thought that his misogyny was betrayed in his treatment of women in his text, not in his language.
However you wrap it up, however, it is clear that Tacitus had a HUGE problem with the women he was writing about. L’Hoir – although she too denies that Tacitus was a misogynist (she prefers ‘maliciously chauvinistic’) – sees:
a genuine belief that the decline and fall of the Julio-Claudians and the subsequent evils that overwhelmed the empire could all be laid at the doors of that family’s overweening and imperious feminae (p.134).This is a very extreme and radical statement: ‘What did Tacitus think caused the fall of the Roman Empire … its women!’ Personally, I would not agree. Tacitus saw the empire as fatally flawed (‘evil’) … but I would reckon that he saw muliebres women as a symptom of the problem, rather than the cause.
For me, the issue seems fairly cut and dried. Tacitus, in his treatment of women, was pathologically prejudiced, to the point where he used muliebris intentionally as an abuse-word.
Whether we call this ‘misogyny’ or not is a detail. As far as we historians are concerned, it is the implications of that prejudice which we have to address.
Like Bessie Walker (1952), L’Hoir believes that Tacitean characters were ‘well-developed’. I think we have to disagree, at least as concerns his depictions of women. Tactitus’s women are generalised, trivialised, denigrated and stereotyped. They are unconvincing, implausible pantomime characters.
Above all, whenever you read what Tacitus is saying about any woman – not just our Agrippina – you need to exercise what Ginsburg calls ‘resisting reading’. You need to be aware that Tacitus is manipulating his language to prejudice you against them. And if he is manipulating the language, you need to ask yourself, to what extent he is also manipulating the facts…