Arria Major (d. 42 CE)

views updated

Arria Major (d. 42 ce)

Roman matron famous for her conduct during the arrest and death of her husband Caecina Paetus after his participation in a conspiracy against the emperor Claudius. Name variations: Arria Maior; Arria the Elder. Pronunciation: AH-ree-uh. Died 42 ce in Rome by a self-inflicted wound; grandmother of Fannia; married Caecina Paetus (a Roman senator); children: Arria Minor.

Arria Major impressed Roman writers of the 1st and 2nd centuries primarily because of her resolution during the arrest, trial and punishment of her husband, the senator Caecina Paetus. In 42 ce, Camillus Scribonianus, the governor of the province of Dalmatia (which included parts of modern Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania), attempted to lead a military rebellion against the emperor Claudius. Paetus joined the revolt and was arrested after Scribonianus was killed. According to a letter of the Roman writer Pliny the Younger based on a conversation with Arria's grandaughter Fannia some 40 years later, as Paetus was being loaded on a ship bound for Rome, Arria begged his guards to allow her to accompany him and perform the duties of his slaves. After this request was refused, she hired a fishing boat and followed the ship to Italy.

Back in Rome—and in front of the emperor—Arria upbraided Scribonianus' wife Vibia for informing on Scribonianus. Paetus was condemned and given the usual choice for senators: execution (and loss of property to his heirs) or suicide. It was clear to her family that Arria, although she had not been convicted of any crime, would commit suicide along with her husband. Pliny tells us that when a guard was placed around her, Arria remarked: "It is possible for you to see that I die badly, but not that I don't die at all." To prove her point, she ran at a wall, knocked her head against it, and lost consciousness. In the end, Arria set an example for her reluctant husband by stabbing herself in the breast first and handing the dagger to him with the words, "Paete, non dolet" ("Paetus, it doesn't hurt"). The Roman poet Martial imagined her telling Paetus that his cowardness hurt her more than the dagger.

By the time of Pliny's letter, "Paete, non dolet" seems to have become a byword for courage in adversity. It is likely that to upperclass Romans who had suffered at the hands of the emperors, Arria represented a model of strength and moral conduct. Pliny emphasizes that Arria's whole manner of life was exemplary, not just her death.

Nothing is known of Arria's birth, childhood or youth. The Greco-Roman historian Cassius Dio tells us that she was close to the circle of Messalina , Claudius' wife. Because she was married to a Roman senator of the highest rank, it is almost certain that Arria also came from the senatorial aristocracy—the most powerful and the wealthiest social order in the Roman Empire. The only other moment of her life we glimpse is the death of her son. Pliny relates that after he died from an illness, she convinced Paetus, who was also gravely ill, that their son was recovering. She even led the funeral services without her husband's knowledge, an unusual act for a Roman wife.

Arria's daughter Arria Minor also planned to die with her husband, Thrasea Paetus, when he was condemned by the emperor Nero in 66 ce. Thrasea discouraged his wife, even though, according to Pliny, the elder Arria had told him shortly before her own death that she would want her daughter to die with Thrasea if they lived as long and in as much harmony as had she and Caecina Paetus.


Cassius Dio, Roman History 60. 16.

Martial, Epigrams 1. 13.

Pliny the Younger, Epistles 3. 16.

Tacitus, The Annals 16. 34

suggested reading:

Vidén, Gunhild. Women in Roman Literature: Attitudes of Authors under the Early Empire. Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia, vol. 57. Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1993.

Alexander Ingle , Research Assistant, Institute for the Classical Tradition, Boston University

About this article

Arria Major (d. 42 CE)

Updated About content Print Article