Laudatio Turiae: In Praise of Women
In the 1st century B.C., the impassioned expression of a nameless Roman citizen made his wife immortal.
“Take my wife, please,” the Jewish comedian Henny Youngman once said with such definitive sarcasm it became a running commentary on the state of marriage. Little did Youngman know that the joke was borrowed from Roman antiquity, minus the sarcasm, of course (another concept also borrowed from Latin).
Archeologists have discovered a 2100-year-old love letter better known as the Laudatio Turiae, carved in stone by a Roman husband to his wife, Turia, from the time of Augustus Caesar.
It is a portrayal of a remarkable, generous, and courageous woman and a husband who appreciated her. In our language, she kept his act together. Lauding her kindness to the his own mother, saving him during his exile, and offering prudent advice when he was thinking dangerous things makes her the classical version of an equal marriage partner.
Some readers may require retro glasses to resist the tendency to see all phenomena through the lens of today. Two millennia ago, as one might say, things were different. The question is not were they enlightened then, but given the benefit of time, are we as enlightened now?
For those with an interest in the history of love and the relationship between husbands and wives, the letter reveals something useful to our very inward looking age. Character, values, and generosity towards others play a great role in long lasting love.
The 180 lines were carved in stone scattered around Rome and reassembled. It is the longest surviving personal inscription from classical times.
To My Dear My Wife, Turia
“Very few women have encountered comparable circumstances to make them endure such sufferings and perform such deeds.”
Should I mention your domestic virtues: your loyalty, obedience, affability, reasonableness, industry in working wool, religion without superstition, sobriety of attire, modesty of appearance?
Dwell on your love for your relatives, your devotion to your family?
You have shown the same attention to my mother as you did to your own parents, and have taken care to secure an equally peaceful life for her as you did for your own people, and you have innumerable merits in common with all married women who care for their good name.
It is your very own virtues that I am asserting, and very few women have encountered comparable circumstances to make them endure such sufferings and perform such deeds. Providentially Fate has made such hard tests rare for women. We have preserved all the property you inherited from your parents under common custody, for you were not concerned to make your own what you had given to me without any restriction. We divided our duties in such a way that I had the guardianship of your property and you had the care of mine.
Your generosity you have manifested to many friends and particularly to your beloved relatives. On this point someone might mention with praise other women, but the only equal you have had has been your sister. For you brought up your female relations who deserved such kindness in your own houses with us. You also prepared marriage-portions for them so that they could obtain marriages worthy of your family. The dowries you had decided upon Cluvius and I by common accord took upon ourselves to pay, and since we approved of your generosity we did not wish that you should let your own patrimony suffer diminution but substituted our own money and gave our own estates as dowries.
I have mentioned this not from a wish to commend ourselves but to make clear that it was a point of honor for us to execute with our means what you had conceived in a spirit of generous family affection.
“You took the gold and jewelry from your own body and sent it to me, and over and over again enriched me in my absence.”
When I was in exile for political reasons, you provided abundantly for my needs during my flight and gave me the means for a dignified manner of living, when you took all the gold and jewelry from your own body and sent it to me and over and over again enriched me in my absence with servants, money and provisions, showing great ingenuity in deceiving the guards posted by our adversaries.
You begged for my life when I was abroad –it was your courage that urged you to this step –and because of your entreaties I was shielded by the clemency of those against whom you marshaled your words. But whatever you said was always said with undaunted courage.
“I was saved by your good advice when you did not allow me imprudently to tempt providence by an overbold step.”
Meanwhile when a troop of men … tried to profit by the opportunities provided by the civil war and break into our house to plunder, you beat them back successfully and were able to defend our home.
Why should I now hold up to view our intimate and secret plans and private conversations: how I was saved by your good advice when I was roused by startling reports to meet sudden and imminent dangers; how you did not allow me imprudently to tempt providence by an overbold step but prepared a safe hiding-place for me, when I had given up my ambitious designs, choosing as partners in your plans to save me your sister and her husband Cluvius, all of you taking the same risk? There would be no end, if I tried to go into all this.
It is enough for me and for you that I was hidden and my life was saved. When peace had been restored throughout the world and the lawful political order reestablished, we began to enjoy quiet and happy times.
It is true that we did wish to have children, who had for a long time been denied to us by an envious fate. When you despaired of your ability to bear children and grieved over my childlessness, you became anxious lest by retaining you in marriage I might lose all hope of having children and be distressed for that reason.
So you proposed divorce outright and offered to yield our house free to another woman’s fertility. I must admit that I flared up so that I almost lost control of myself; so horrified was I by what you tried to do that I found it difficult to retrieve my composure. What desire, what need to have children could I have had that was so great that I should have broken faith for that reason and changed certainty for uncertainty? But no more of this! You remained with me as my wife. For I could not have given in to you without disgrace for me and unhappiness for both of us.
But on your part, what could have been more worthy of commemoration and praise than your efforts in devotion to my interests: when I could not have children from yourself, you wanted me to have them through your good offices and, since you despaired of bearing children, to provide me with offspring by my marriage to another woman.
“This praise will be a consolation for me and I will not feel too much the loss.”
Fate decreed that you should precede me. You bequeathed me sorrow through my longing for you and left me a miserable man without children to comfort me. I on my part will, however, bend my way of thinking and feeling to your judgments and be guided by your admonitions. But all your opinions and instructions should give precedence to the praise you have won so that this praise will be a consolation for me and I will not feel too much the loss of what I have consecrated to immortality to be remembered for ever.
I pray that your spirits will grant you rest and protection.