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  • The Enigmatic Lady Pudentilla
  • Vincent Hunink

Roman literature, like Roman society in general, was dominated by males. From this “men’s world” only a few women seem to stand out as individuals. Hence it is not surprising that whenever a Roman text presents a marked female personality, the relevant data from the text are readily used by scholars to reconstruct her biography.

This is certainly the case for Aemilia Pudentilla, the wife of the famous orator and Platonic philosopher Apuleius of Madauros, who lived in Africa in the third quarter of the second century a.d. Between the lines of his extant speech Pro Se de Magia, commonly known as the Apology, Apuleius seems to provide much information about his wife. And in fact, we do not know, about any other woman from this period and this province, even approximately as much as we know about Pudentilla.

Thus Pudentilla has become quite popular among modern historians of her place and time, perhaps even more so than her husband. She appears in many studies on the social and economic history of the Roman Empire.1 In 1992 Andreas Gutsfeld devoted a lengthy article expressly to her, in which he attempted a reconstruction of her manifold possessions and her commercial activities, in the context of the economic mentality of the upper class to which she belonged. Even more recently, Elaine Fantham (1995) has attempted to correct Apuleius’ picture of his wife and to examine the situation from Pudentilla’s point of view.

Relevant and interesting as these approaches may be, some caution seems due here. It must be realized that we know absolutely nothing about Pudentilla from any other, independent source: every single detail is derived from Apuleius’ speech. More important, however, is [End Page 275] that the Apology is not an official document but a judicial speech, which is, moreover, characterized by a strongly literary color. Historians have not always taken these special circumstances sufficiently into account.

Discussion below reviews the most important pieces of information about Pudentilla provided by the text and considers them in relation to the aims and strategies of the speaker. In the end, this will prove to be of some consequence for the portrait of Pudentilla.

There is a crucial problem concerning her, which lies at the heart of the speech. Apuleius’ opponents have suggested that she must have been out of her mind to agree in marrying the much younger, impoverished philosopher Apuleius. Under the influence of magical powers, so they suggested, she was robbed by Apuleius of a great capital (e.g., 67.4).2 He, on the contrary, asserts that she had rational, sensible, and practical arguments to marry him, and that she lost no money to him. So we immediately see two conflicting images of Pudentilla: she is considered either as a bewitched hysteric or as a prudent and responsible lady. Who is the real Pudentilla?

Hard Facts

An entirely reliable answer to this question will always remain out of reach, since we only have Apuleius’ account to go by. Nonetheless, in practice some pieces of information may be taken or inferred from his text. Surely, it contains some elements which seem beyond reasonable doubt.

First, the “previous history” to the marriage, as presented by Apuleius at 66–73, seems clear and plausible.

Apuleius says that he was a friend of Pontianus, Pudentilla’s elder son. On his way to Alexandria, he fell ill in the town Oea, where Pontianus lived. He was forced to stay there for the winter, and there he met Aemilia Pudentilla. She had been a widow for fourteen years by then. From her marriage to Sicinius Amicus she had two sons, Pontianus and Pudens. The boys’ grandfather was legally in charge of them and, moreover, could decide on the inheritance of their father. Being well [End Page 276] aware of this, he put pressure on Pudentilla to marry his second son. Pudentilla, however, had rejected that idea and remained a widow. Only after this grandfather’s death had she become freer to act, as Pontianus had become the legal tutor of his younger brother. She then decided she would remarry, mainly for specific, medical reasons. Pontianus offered...

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pp. 275-291
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