Silenced Women–Modern Lessons from an Ancient Murder

In the second century A.D., the pregnant wife of a prosperous Greek politician died from a vicious assault.

Appia Annia Regilla Atilia Caudicia Tertulla, or Regilla, was born into an affluent Roman family in 125 A.D.; she married the Greek politician Herodes Atticus, also from an affluent family, around 140 (when she was 15); and 20 years later, when she was 8-months pregnant with their 6th child, she died from a brutal beating which included a fatal kick to her stomach.

Everyone knew who killed her. It was her husband’s freedman Alcimedon. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius found Alcimedon “guilty of administering the lethal kick.” It also seems clear that Alcimedon  did not act alone. He had been ordered by Herodes, Regilla’s husband, to beat her. As a contemporary source recorded, “A murder charge was brought against Herodes in this way. When his wife Regilla was eight months pregnant, he ordered his freedman Alcimedon to beat her for trivial reasons. She died in premature childbirth from a blow to her abdomen.”

This is a case of domestic abuse that resulted in murder. A wife was beaten to death by the order of her husband. An unborn child, just weeks from birth, was killed by a father’s command.

What makes this story of domestic abuse even more horrific is that Regilla’s husband–although charged and tried for the murder of his wife–was acquitted by the Roman senatorial court. He went free. He was a member of the imperial family, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius intervened on his behalf. Neither Herodes nor Alcimedon suffered consequences for Regilla’s death, even though Alcimedon was technically convicted. Quite the opposite, actually, as they became wealthier and more prosperous. Herodes seized the vast property of his dead wife, managing it as his own and prospering from it until eventually Regilla’s only surviving child inherited. Herodes also lavished wealth and status on Alcimedon’s family, thus creating a situation in which the convicted murderer of Regilla directly benefited from her death.

Thanks to the historical skills of Sarah B. Pomeroy (The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity, Harvard University Press: 2007), Regilla’s voice, silenced more than 1800 years ago, can once again be heard.

But it is far too late to help her.

I often assign Regilla’s story in my upper level Women’s History course. The text makes a significant impression on my students. Questions spill from them during our discussions. How in the world was Herodes acquitted?  Why in the world did the Roman legal system provide so few protections for battered women? Why were women in the ancient world so disempowered that their voices–just like Regilla’s–could not be heard? How did a woman who was so powerful and wealthy in her own right end up in such a desperate and deadly domestic situation?

Although we discuss these questions from a historical context, we can’t really answer them. There are no good answers to why Regilla was killed by her husband nor to why he escaped punishment.

So, aside from it provoking great class discussions, why do I assign the text?

Two reasons. First, it sheds tremendous light on New Testament attitudes toward women. Suddenly, the profound nature of Paul’s call for husbands to love their wives just as Christ loved the church becomes apparent to students faced with the marriage of Herodes and Regilla.  Second, it helps students understand the dangerous implications of systems which disempower and silence women.  Again, this helps them better understand how empowering the New Testament was for early Christian women. It also helps them better understand more recent events in Women’s history. The 1960s and 70s cries of “Heigh Ho, Patriarchy has to go” from women who couldn’t even buy cars without male cosigners and the violent measures employed by suffragettes in the early 20th century (women so legally disempowered that, once married, they lost control over their own property and even their own children) become more explicable.

I confess that I do not agree with the violent measures used by some women in the past to overthrow the dangerous systems that so confined them. But I can understand their desperation. I just read this morning about a Pakistani religious law (issued by the Council of Islamic Ideology) which allows for women to be “lightly beaten” by their husbands “if she defies his commands.” “Currently,” the Washington Post story on the Pakistani law continues, “Pakistan’s domestic violence abuse laws are vague, although prosecution even in the most heinous cases has been rare.” The Council of Islamic Ideology claims that it is “un-Islamic” for women to leave abusive relationships. This sounds frighteningly similar to the world of Regilla. Yet it is still happening more than 1800 years after Regilla’s brutal death.

It is hard to fathom the continued existence of these systems which so disempower and silence women.

But they do.

Indeed,  all one has to do is open a news web browser and the danger of systems which disempower and silence women become brutally apparent. I opened a web browser just to test my statement, and immediately another Washington Post article surfaced about a teenage girl in Brazil who was drugged by her boyfriend and then gang raped by more than 30 men……..

My only consolation is that the voices of some of these more recent victims of domestic and sexual violence are beginning to be heard. And, unlike the case of Regilla, they are being heard while there is still time to help.

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