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)
Free Email Course
Sign up today for our free email course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on this classic Stoic text.