Lady Stoics #2: Fannia

Brief article on Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea and wife of Helvidius Priscus, and along with them a member of the Stoic opposition to Nero.

Fannia was part of the “Stoic opposition” against Nero, led by her father, the Stoic political hero¬†Thrasea, along with her celebrated husband Helvidius Priscus. ¬†She lived¬†during the reign of Nero and died around 103 AD, under the reign of Trajan. ¬†In Fyodor Bronnikov’s painting Reading of Thrasea Paetus’ Death Sentence, she is presumably depicted as one of the women who comfort her father, Thrasea.

She was the granddaughter of a famous Roman woman called Arria Major, whom she related the following story about to Pliny the Younger. ¬†Arria’s husband, Caecina Paetus, was ordered to commit suicide for his part in a rebellion by the Emperor Claudius. ¬†He did not have the courage to take his own life so Arria grabbed the dagger from him, stabbed herself with it, and returned it to him saying “It doesn’t hurt, Paetus!

Pliny the Younger described Fannia herself as a woman of fortitude and respectability but a political rebel. She followed her husband Helvidius Priscus into exile when he was banished by Nero for sympathizing with the Republican heroes Brutus and Cassius (which Nero prohibited).  She then followed him into exile for a second time under Vespasian for opposing his reign.  Priscus was later executed by Vespasian.

Fannia herself was exiled by Domitian in 93 AD for asking the Stoic Herennius Senecio to write a biography praising her late husband, and Herennius was executed. ¬†During his trial, Fannia was asked threateningly if she’d instructed Herennius to write the book and she boldly confirmed that she had given her husband’s diaries to him. ¬†Pliny writes that: “she did not utter a single word to reduce the danger to herself.” ¬†Her possessions were seized, but Fannia saved her husband’s¬†diaries and the biography of him.

When she was sick and apparently dying, her friend Pliny wrote of her:

Only her spirit is vigorous, worthy of her husband Helvidius and father Thrasea. but everything else is going down, and I am not merely afraid but deeply saddened. It pains me that so great a woman will be snatched from the eyes of her people, and who knows when her like will be seen again.  What chastity, what sanctity, what dignity, what constancy!

He goes on to say:

How pleasant she is, how kind, how respectable and amiable at once-two qualities rarely found in the same person. Indeed, she will be a woman whom later we can show our wives, from whose fortitude men too can draw an example, whom now while we can still see and hear her we admire as much as those women whom we read about. To me her very house seems to totter on the brink of collapse, shaken at its foundations, even though she leaves descendants. How great must be their virtues and their accomplishments for her not to die the last of her line. (Pliny the Younger, Letters 7.19.L)

Thrasea

Lady Stoics #1: Porcia Catonis

Short article containing a brief account of Porcia Catonis, the daughter of the Stoic hero Cato of Utica, who was herself portrayed as a female Stoic by Plutarch.

Porcia CatonisPorcia Catonis was the daughter of Cato of Utica, Cato the Younger, the great Stoic hero of the Roman republic.  We know little about her except a few anecdotes of dubious historical authenticity.  However, she appears to be portrayed as a female Stoic, dedicated to philosophy, following in the footsteps of her renowned father.

She lived in the first century BC, several generations before the Roman Stoics of the Imperial period, whose works survive today: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. ¬†She was a contemporary of Cicero and the Stoic Posidonius of Rhodes. ¬†She was the wife of Brutus, a Roman politician and philosopher also influenced by Stoicism, who was to be the leading assassin of the tyrant Julius Caesar. ¬†Brutus’ mother was the half-sister of Cato the Younger, making him both Brutus’ uncle and later his father-in-law, via his marriage to Porcia.

At the end of his Life of Cato, Plutarch wrote:

Nor was the daughter of Cato inferior to the rest of her family, for sober-living and greatness of spirit. She was married to Brutus, who killed Caesar; was acquainted with the conspiracy, and ended her life as became one of her birth and virtue.

Plutarch’s Life of Brutus contains the following story:

Porcia, being addicted to philosophy, a great lover of her husband, and full of an understanding courage, resolved not to inquire into Brutus’s secrets before she had made this trial of herself. She turned all her attendants out of her chamber, and taking a little knife, such as they use to cut nails with, she gave herself a deep gash in the thigh; upon which followed a great flow of blood, and soon after, violent pains and a shivering fever, occasioned by the wound.

Now when Brutus was extremely anxious and afflicted for her, she, in the height of all her pain, spoke thus to him: “I, Brutus, being the daughter of Cato, was given to you in marriage, not like a concubine, to partake only in the common intercourse of bed and board, but to bear a part in all your good and all your evil fortunes; and for your part, as regards your care for me, I find no reason to complain; but from me, what evidence of my love, what satisfaction can you receive, if I may not share with you in bearing your hidden griefs, nor to be admitted to any of your counsels that require secrecy and trust? I know very well that women seem to be of too weak a nature to be trusted with secrets; but certainly, Brutus, a virtuous birth and education, and the company of the good and honourable, are of some force to the forming our manners; and I can boast that I am the daughter of Cato, and the wife of Brutus, in which two titles though before I put less confidence, yet now I have tried myself, and find that I can bid defiance to pain.”

Which words having spoken, she showed him her wound, and related to him the trial that she had made of her constancy; at which he being astonished, lifted up his hands to heaven, and begged the assistance of the gods in his enterprise, that he might show himself a husband worthy of such a wife as Porcia. So then he comforted his wife.

According to one story, when she later heard of Brutus’ death, Porcia committed suicide by swallowing hot coals. ¬†Although other accounts contradict this, it became a well-known story and inspired several authors, most notably Shakespeare.

Porcia was sometimes referred to as Portia in Elizabethan English literature.  Shakespeare portrays her in the play Julius Caesar and in The Merchant of Venice he wrote:

In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages:
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.