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Portia (c. 70–43 BCE)

Portia (c. 70–43 bce)

Roman patrician. Name variations: Porcia. Born around 70 bce; died in 43 bce (some sources cite 42 bce); daughter of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensus (Cato of Utica), known as Cato the Younger, and Atilia; married Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus (died 48 bce); married Marcus Junius Brutus (one of the assassins of Julius Caesar); children: (first marriage) three sons, only one of whom (also named Bibulus) outlived her.

The daughter of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensus (Cato the Younger) and his first wife Atilia , Portia was born around 70 bce and had a brother who was named after their father. Cato the Younger belonged to the Roman Optimate (conservative) faction, and as such remained an ardent opponent of any perceived threat to the political status quo in general, and of Julius Caesar in particular, throughout his life. Portia zealously embraced the political ideals of her father and seems to have had no objection to her arranged marriage with Bibulus, another lifelong adversary of Caesar. (When Bibulus and Caesar were consular colleagues in 59 bce, Bibulus' attempt to scuttle Caesar's legislative program failed after Caesar essentially put his constitutional equal under house arrest.) Portia thus served to bind together the Optimates in sworn opposition to anything Caesarian.

When the alliance of Caesar's one-time political ally Pompey the Great and Cato's faction maneuvered Caesar into open civil war (49 bce), both Portia's father and husband took up arms in defense of the languishing Republic. Unfortunately, neither was a particularly effective rival of Caesar's in the field: Bibulus died in 48 bce as a result of exhaustion brought on by an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Caesar from crossing to the Balkans so as to directly engage his rivals, while Cato, besieged by a Caesarian army in the north African town of Utica, committed suicide (46 bce) rather than be captured by his nemesis. (In fact, the memory of Cato was a much more effective obstacle to Caesar's reform package than the living Cato had ever been.)

In 45 bce, Portia took as her second husband her cousin, Marcus Junius Brutus (they shared a common kinship in Livia [fl. 100 bce], from whose first husband Brutus was descended and from whose second husband Portia was descended). Portia seems to have had a decisive influence on her second husband (who divorced his prior wife Claudia in order to marry her), for although Brutus had initially been a partisan of Pompey's against Caesar in their civil war, after Pompey's defeat in 48 Caesar first pardoned Brutus, and then began to foster his political advancement. Brutus' reconversion to the Republican cause, after his marriage to Portia, pit Portia against Servilia II , Brutus' mother (but as Caesar's ex-mistress, also a pro-Caesarian). In the struggle for Brutus' political soul, Portia won. When in 44 bce Brutus joined the conspiracy to murder Caesar (on March 15), Portia insisted on being told of the assassination plot prior to the fact. Before doing so, she made a demonstration of her toughness to prove that she could be trusted never to divulge Brutus' most intimate secrets. She did this by taking a knife and making a deep cut in her thigh. Bearing the pain of the gash and the subsequent infection without a whimper, Portia thereby exhibited to Brutus her endurance in the face of suffering and won his complete confidence.

After the assassination of Caesar, Portia was a vocal presence at the conference of Republicans which met at Antium (in June) as they attempted to stem their rapid decline in popularity among the masses. The conference also met to plan a defense against the growing military threat being organized by Caesar's still faithful followers (including especially the "Second Triumvirate," Marcus Antony, Lepidus and Octavian). When Brutus sailed east in order to organize the defense of his interests, Portia returned to Rome where, in increasing despair, she fell ill in the summer of 43 bce. Beset by the deteriorating position of Brutus and his allies and suffering physically, Portia decided to follow in the footsteps of her father by committing suicide. This she did either by inhaling the poisonous fumes wafting from a brazier, or (more dramatically) by swallowing live coals.

Portia was affectionate by nature (at least with those who counted as her friends) and extremely proud of her family. With Bibulus, she had three sons, only one of whom (also named Bibulus) outlived her. This Bibulus joined his stepfather Brutus in the war against the Second Triumvirate, for which he was proscribed. After Brutus' defeat in the battle of Philippi, however, Antony offered the younger Bibulus a rapprochement, enabling him to recover his citizenship rights. Although Bibulus thereafter wrote a fond memoir of Brutus, he nevertheless abandoned the Republican cause so dear to Portia and her spouses by collaborating with the Triumvirs until his death about 32 bce.

William S. S. , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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