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  • Constructing a New Woman for the Body Politic:The Creation of Claudia Quinta
  • Krishni Burns (bio)

Rome's legendary historical narrative is an excellent source for the defining characteristics of self-constructed Roman identity.1 While this identity naturally centers on the masculine military/political realm, women do play a role in the construction of Romanitas. Rhea Silvia is raped to bear Rome's founders; the kidnapped Sabine women form a human shield between their men folk to meld two peoples into one; and women like Tullia Minor and Tarpeia serve as negative examples of correct behavior. The positive portrayals of individual women usually end in their sacrifice to the greater good of the Roman state. In particular, the tragedies of Lucretia and Verginia mark major turning points in the sociopolitical Roman landscape. To quote Sandra Joshel's introduction to her landmark article "The Female Body and the Body Politic," "raped, dead, or disappeared women litter the pages" of Livy's comprehensive history (Joshel 1992, 112).

There is another way that legendary women can contribute to the mos maiorum, however. Although Roman women's social position limited their political roles to inspirational victims, in the religious sphere women had the potential to contribute substantially to the construction of Roman identity and bolster the safety of the state without becoming a sacrifice. One such woman is Claudia Quinta, who performs a miracle in the service of the Magna Mater and thereby, at least according to legend, saves Rome from Hannibal's invading Punic armies. Joshel suggests that positive portrayals of active women appear in the literary records only when events force Roman historians to admit them. Yet Claudia Quin-ta's act of superhuman strength in the service of the Magna Mater cannot have been an unavoidable fact of history. Evidence suggests that not only the miracle but the woman herself were fabricated in order to serve a socio-religious goal. That moment in Rome's self-fashioning was defined by a purely legendary event where a female character was created, given a voice and the power to act both on her own behalf and in the best interests of the state. Claudia Quinta represents a different way [End Page 81] of being for Rome's legendary women—an active agent instead of a silent victim.

When the cult of the Magna Mater was introduced to Rome in 204 BCE toward the end of the Second Punic War, there was an elaborate welcome ceremony to incorporate the new goddess into Rome's mythic pantheon.2 The foreign goddess had been invited to Rome after the Sibylline books declared that her presence was necessary to drive Hannibal out of Italy.3 Ancient sources relate that the goddess was brought to Rome from Asia Minor in the form of a black meteoric stone. Cheering crowds met the goddess's barge at Ostia, many of whom were virtuous Roman matrons whose presence had been dictated as necessary for the deity to be properly introduced (Livy 29.14.12). The crowd escorted the barge up the river Tiber and a carefully selected vir optimus received it in Rome as per the instructions of the Delphic Oracle. The historical event developed quickly into a mythical episode in Rome's conceptual autobiography.4

The new myth hinged on a miraculous feat of strength performed by Claudia Quinta, presumably one of Rome's matrons from the prestigious gens Claudii. She single-handedly pulled the goddess's barge free after it became trapped on the Tiber's bank. No contemporary source for this woman survives to describe her historical life, yet she becomes a major figure in the Magna Mater's mythic tradition. In the later literary tradition Claudia Quinta overshadowed the event's main official participant, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, Rome's chosen vir optimus.5

Claudia Quinta's historicity has long been taken for granted, since she lived during the solidly historical mid-Republic, not during the nebulous Regal period.6 Yet while all the other actors in this drama, including Scipio Nasica, are well documented in the historical record, Claudia Quinta's very existence cannot be substantiated.7 As was typical of women of the Republican...


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