Depending on the historical source, Fulvia (83? - 40 BC) was either the antithesis, or role model, of a Roman matron. As sole survivor of a noble and deep-rooted clan, she coveted political status and power. As such, and within the constraints of Rome’s male-dominated culture, Fulvia influenced many powerful men around her. Like any ambitious Roman noblewoman, she sought partners of rising political status. Her first husband, an incendiary politician who championed the common people, was murdered in 52 BC. Afterwards, Fulvia’s public lamentations and trial testimony facilitated the murderer’s punishment. Fulvia’s second husband, also a popular politician among plebeians, died in 49 BC fighting for Julius Caesar’s cause. Afterwards, Fulvia entered into her third, and final marriage. This time, her husband was yet another dynamic and powerful political figure, Marc Antony.
Fulvia supported Antony in the chaotic period following Caesar’s assassination on the ides of March 44 BC. In the aftermath, Antony and Fulvia emerged as Rome’s most powerful couple. On at least two occasions, Antony was abroad when Fulvia, back in Rome, defended her husband against political enemies. The formidable list of opponents included Cicero, Rome’s most famous orator and lawyer. It is not surprising that several surviving accounts (especially Cicero’s) paint a negative picture of Fulvia: domineering, greedy, and cruel. To the extent Fulvia exhibited such traits, her actions seem hardly more objectionable than her opponents’. Allegedly, Fulvia played a major role in brutal proscriptions eliminating many prominent Romans, including Cicero. One account, probably apocryphal, describes her piercing his dead tongue with golden hairpins. Besides sparring with Cicero, Fulvia interacted and influenced many of Rome’s elite. She promoted the 43 BC reconciliation between her husband and his fellow Triumvirs Octavian and Lepidus. She even agreed that Octavian could marry her daughter, Clodia Pulchra.
Per the Triumvir’s agreement, Antony gained control over Gaul, including the mint city of Lugdunum, where he struck this ancient silver quinarius. The obverse depicts Victoria, the goddess representing victory. Close inspection reveals that Victoria's facial features suggest an older woman. Interestingly, the deity sports a nodus, a popular hairstyle among mortal Roman noblewomen, including Fulvia. Numismatic research suggests that Victoria on this coin represents Fuvia (she also appears on one provincial bronze issue that Antony struck in Phyrgia). Assuming the attribution is correct, Fulvia was the first Roman woman to behold her own coinage. The attribution remains equivocal; the first living Roman woman unambiguously appearing on coinage was Antony’s next wife, Octavia.
The coin’s reverse bears the inscription III VIR R P C, denoting Antony’s status as <i>triumvir reipublicae constituendae</i>, one of the three men for the regulation of the Roman Republic. The reverse depicts a lion walking right, along with an inscription proclaiming imperator Antony’s 41st birthday. Thus, the strike probably occurred in 42 BC, the same year Antony helped defeat Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, at the epic Battle of Philippi.
After the Battle of Philippi, Antony headed to Egypt, where he allied himself with Queen Cleopatra VII. Around this time, Octavian re-settled his victorious Roman troops back into Italy. However, doing so required confiscation of Roman property. As a result, there was widespread disapproval for Octavian among many of Rome’s civilians. Fulvia allied with Antony’s brother Lucius to oppose Octavian’s land policies. At least one of her motivations was advancing her husband’s power by raising discontent against Octavian. As tensions rose, Octavian divorced Fulvia’s daughter, claiming he never consummated the relationship. The situation continued to escalate, and a displeased Fulvia took action, raising a considerable army in conjunction with Lucius. Fulvia and Lucius briefly controlled Rome until Octavian showed up to confront them, backed by his own, much larger and more powerful force. Fulvia and Lucius had no choice but to retreat, and they chose the fortress of Perusia.
The struggle between Fulvia and Octavian resulted in some remarkable historical artifacts illustrating Roman propaganda. One such example is an epigram, or poem, allegedly written by Octavian himself. The epigram presents Fulvia as an aggressive matron so jealous of her husband Antony’s extramarital affairs that she offers her son-in-law an ultimatum of coitus or war.
<i>…since Antony screws Glaphyra </i>[his Cappadocian mistress], <i>Fulvia has appointed this punishment for me, that I too should screw her. Therefore do I screw Fulvia?...I don't think so, if I were sane...doesn't she know my is dearer to me than life itself? Let the trumpets blare!</i>”
Clearly, the poem is not so much an attack on Antony, but rather Fulvia, reflecting her prominent role in the events preceding the Perusine War. While it is nearly inconceivable that Fulvia made such an offer, it is easy to imagine Octavian’s propaganda machine generating the epigram. In particular, the vulgar tone and sexual language promoted Octavian’s masculinity in the face of accusations of the triumvir’s effeminacy.
Other, even more provocative, examples of ancient Roman propaganda resulted from Fulvia and Lucius’ war with Octavian. In ancient times, slings served as popular projectile weapons and their ammunition (lead bullets called glans) often bore inscriptions to intimidate or otherwise demoralize its targets. Given its shape (one that inspired naming of certain anatomical features), glans provided a particularly interesting canvas for ancient soldiers to taunt their enemies. Apparently, Octavian’s forces used the opportunity to encourage their glans to penetrate certain orifices belonging to Fulvia and Lucius. Milder examples poked fun at Lucius’ receding hairline. Not to be denied equal billing, sling bullets from forces representing Fulvia and Antony declared their intention to penetrate Octavia’s rear end. (Presumably, they were not aiming at Octavian’s sister, but rather questioning the Triumvirs’ sexual preference by addressing him by the feminine form of his name.)
Amidst the naughty jesting, Fulvia and Lucius’ forces tried to withstand Octavian’s siege. They might have persevered, if only Antony’s forces had come to their aid. Alas, Antony did not respond, and his lack thereof probably reflected his displeasure, if not betrayal, of his wife and brother, who had no choice but to surrender. In the aftermath, Octavian pardoned Lucius, but deemed reconciliation with his former mother-in-law impossible. Fulvia retreated eastward, and one account describes her meeting up with Antony, who then rebuked her, either for the audacity to wage her own war, or for failure to achieve its success, or both. It is also described that Fulvia grew despondent after the chastisement, and soon thereafter succumbed to disease and died.
Using Fulvia as scapegoat for instigating the Perusine war, Antony reached a renewed peace with Octavian and agreed to marry his sister Octavia (although neither truce nor marriage endured). Ironically or not, Fulvia supported her husband's cause even after her death.
Additional reading: “A Study of Fulvia,” A J Weir, 2007.
Coin Details: ROMAN IMPERATORIAL, Fulvia, first wife of Mark Antony, died 40 BC, AR Quinarius (1.79 g), Lugdunum Mint, NGC Grade: Ch F, Strike: 4/5, Surface: 3/5, Obverse: Bust of Victory right with the likeness of Fulvia, III VIR R P C, Reverse: Lion right between A and XLI, ANTONI above, IMP in exergue, References: Crawford 489/6; Sydenham 1163; RSC 3; ex. Neubecker collection.