Ancient Rome: No country for Women. The story of Cecilia Metella

Women’s day is coming and so, this time, I would like to tell you the story of a Roman woman, Cecilia Metella.

Who was Cecilia?

She likely lived and died around the half of the 1st century BC and soon after her death her family built for her the amazing mausoleum still preserved on the via Appia.
The via Appia was the first road projected and built by the Romans in 312 BC, connecting Rome with Brindisi, the main harbor in South Italy to Greece. Because of its antiquity and importance this was known by the Romans as the Regina Viarum, the queen of the streets.


Cecilia’s mausoleum was built in the first highest and most prominent spot of the via Appia outside the ancient city walls: hence it was the most visible and majestic tomb of the first and most important Roman road.
Said this, a romantic soul could think that this could be considered a monument to Love, a kind of Roman Taj Mahal: a mausoleum built by an inconsolable husband for the loss of his only love. It would be nice, but, unfortunately, it’s not. Let’s see why.

Piranesi-cecilia metella

The tomb is decorated in the upper part with a low relief with wreaths and oxen skulls, both a reference to religious sacrifices (flowers and oxen were offered to the gods). But the most interesting part is the relief in the central part: here there is an helmet, shields and a prisoner…Quite strange for a woman’s tomb, isn’t it? But it’s not enough: on the front side there is a huge inscription:

Caeciliae Q. Cretici F(iliae) Maetellae Crassi
Cecilia Metella, Quintus Creticus’ daughter, Crassus’ wife”.

And that’s the point: we don’t know anything about her, nothing in the inscription, nothing in the Latin writers. She was two eminent men’s daughter and wife, and that’s all! Both men were famous Roman generals, but there’s not a word about the woman… neither a stupid and false adjective like loving, beloved … nothing at all! She was just men’s possession, and she is defined just by this.
And that’s not enough: the inscription give us also the opportunity to talk a little bit about the Roman naming system, that says a lot about women position in Roman society.

The Roman naming system

She was Cecilia Metella. Nowadays Cecilia is quite common female name in Italy, and we are tempted to think that this was her first name, while Metella was the surname. No way! Roman naming system was called system of the tria nomina, or three names. Cecilia’s father, for example, was Quintus Caecilius Metellus…are you starting to understand? His first name was Quintus, then Caecilius was the name of the gens, the clan, last name we could say, and finally Metellus was the cognomen, the name of the family line, a kind of second last name. And that’s the point: Cecilia Metella has no first name! No, not because she was a bad girl, unworthy of a personal name: this was the system for all Roman women. ALL the women of the family had the SAME name: in this case all were Cecilia Metella! Well, now imagine a mother who has to call all the daughters: quite easy :) Yes, convenient but confusing, hence usually they had a kind of nicknames, like First, Second, and so on, or Elder, Younger etc.
Are you starting to think that Romans were too lazy to name all the daughters? Sadly this was not only indolence, there was a clear idea behind this: for a Roman woman the glory consists in no one who pronounces her name! A Latin writer, Macrobius praises a woman saying that she was so prudish that no one knew her name. The message is clear: woman wasn’t and didn’t have to be a person, but only a passive and anonymous part of the family!

So, why this huge tomb?


Said all this, why build a so huge monument for a woman, if she wasn’t important? Because – sadly to say but that’s it! – her death was just a pretext to celebrate the greatness of the family, during an historical period when Rome was afflicted by the civil wars and there was need and will to show off the power of the most eminent families. Cecilia Metella’s tomb is simply a way to celebrate the glory of the family men, whose names are in the inscription.

Another woman’s story: Annia Regilla

This beautiful and pleasant place is connected also with another woman…sorry, not happier story, but I told you: no country for women!
In the 2nd century this place became part of Herodes Atticus‘s property.


He was a rich senator and a philosopher from a glorious and ancient Roman family. When he was 40 years old married the 14 (yes, 14!) years old Annia Regilla, from another rich and glorious family. Thanks to her dowry they bought the propriety on the via Appia.
It happened that while she was pregnant of her sixth son, was killed, kicked to death to her abdomen, by an Herodes’ freedman. The husband was immediately accused to be responsible for the murder.
He had a process and was acquitted. Anyway people didn’t believe to his innocence – corrupt judges was frequent and easy for rich people. The public opinion was so important for a Roman that he had to do something to change people’s opinion. Hence he started to show off is sorrow: painted his house in black and began to built monuments and temples dedicated to Annia. The property on the via Appia became a huge sanctuary sacred to Demeter and its boundaries were marked by two columns bearing this inscription:
To the memory of Annia Regilla, wife of Herodes, the light and soul of the house, to whom these lands once belonged”.
Well, she was luckier than Cecilia and had at least some adjectives…anyway not so great reward for having been murdered by her own husband!

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Pictures Credits:

  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella- All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Carole Raddato
  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1756
  • Via Appia mit dem Grabmal der Caecilia Metella – Oswald Achenbach, 1886
  • Portrait of Herodes Atticus – CC BY 3.0 – Marie-Lan Nguyen


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