A Brief History
Sometime in the year 62 B.C., the famous Roman General Julius Caesar decided to divorce his second wife Pompeia. In regard to his reasoning, he famously said that any wife of his must be above suspicion.
Actually he said, “my wife ought not even be under suspicion.” This quote, however, later evolved into the expression: “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” So, what event brought about the doubt concerning Pompeia’s character? Well, she had hosted an all-girls party known as Bona Dea (good goddess) to which Vestal Virgins had been invited and to which entry by males was prohibited. A young, troublemaking politician known as Publius Clodius Pulcher managed to gain admittance by disguising himself as a woman. He was caught, but rumors soon circulated that he had intended to seduce Pompeia. Brought to trial for his transgression, both Caesar’s mother and sister condemned his action in court. Caesar, himself, however, said nothing and so without any angry words from the husband, Pulcher was acquitted. Punished instead was innocent Pompeia as Caesar served her with divorce papers, citing that with his political ambitions, he needed a wife who was free of scandal, more specifically speaking, she needed to be beyond reproach.
To the modern-day person, it seems that Caesar might have been looking for a way to rid himself of his wife, and Pulcher’s crashing of the party came at a convenient time. Either Caesar used it as an opportunity to openly find fault with Pompeia where there was otherwise none, or he had set Pulcher up to it. Why else did he not defend his wife’s honor in court? Nowadays, typical excuse for divorce include: “We’ve grown apart.” or “I love my wife, but I’m not in love with her.” etc. Leave it to Caesar, however, to not mince his words. With respect to Pompeia, the die was cast. Caesar may not have voiced the real reason why he wanted to be free of her, but he knew what he wanted, and for some reason being married to Pompeia was not advantageous for him any more, be it lack of children after 5 years or insufficient politician connections. Or, maybe he was being completely honest, and he simply did not want the embarrassing incident to negatively impact his political aspirations. At any rate, in regard to this particular marriage, the man who usually came, saw and conquered, instead came, saw and left.
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For more information, please see…
Macdonald, Fiona. Women in Ancient Rome. Brighter Child, 2000.
MacLachlan, Bonnie. Women in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook (Bloomsbury Sources in Ancient History). Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Rawson, Beryl. Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome (OUP/Humanities Research Centre of the Australian National University Series). Clarendon Press, 1996.
The featured image in this article, Pompeia from Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.