Inscription on the wall of the tomb of Caecilia Metella: CAECILIAE Q. CRETICI F. METELLAE CRASSI

245 000 visitors annually makes it 22nd most visited tourist site in Italy. It’s the tomb of Caecilia Metella, who was, as the inscription says, the daughter of the consul of 69 Q. Caecilius Metellus Creticus and the wife of M. Licinius Crassus. This popular tourist site is also a bit of a mystery. In its days it was a lavish mausoleum communicating the importance of Caecilia Metella or her memory, but why it was built and the role of her husband form the core of the mystery.

The inscription on the wall is the reason why we know who rested in the rotunda shaped tomb before it was converted as part of medieval fortress. Inscription in itself is also an interesting evidence of the role of women in the late Roman republic.

First of all a lot has been written about the role and place of women in the ancient Rome. While participating into politics as elected magistrates was forbidden to them, they still had an important role to play in public life. Building a lavish mausoleum was also a public statement. What is interesting, is that we do not know why this particular mausoleum was built – what was the reason why someone wanted to carry on the memory of Caecilia Metella.

Secondly it is interesting that inscription pays a lot of attention to the history of Caecilia Metella, that she is a daughter of Metellus Creticus. Actually the name formulation in the inscription resembles a lot the way the male names were officially recorded: praenomen – nomen – filiation – cognomen, e.g. M. Licinius M.f. Crassus. In the inscription there is no praenomen, as the women did probably not have a personal praenomen, but rest goes as the male name pattern: Caecilia (nomen) – Q. Cretici filia (filiation) – Metella (cognomen) of Crassus (signifying marriage). There is no obvious reason why there was a need to mention whose daughter Caecilia was.

We know very little about Caecilia. She certainly had a very illustrious background: her father was the consul of 69, grandfather consul of 113, great grandfather consul of 143 and great-great grandfather consul of 206. She was married to M. Licinius Crassus, who also had an illustrious background: his father was the consul of 70 and 55, the famous triumvir Crassus, and his grandfather was the consul of 97. Caecilii Metelli were one of the richest families in Rome and the father of Caecilias husband was widely recognized as the richest man ever in Rome.

Simplified tree of the Caecilii Metelli and Licinii Crassi.

Simplified tree of the Caecilii Metelli and Licinii Crassi.

A lot of has been written about triumvir Crassus. To sum it up he probably was unscrupulous businessman, a very ambitious and successful politician, able military commander and strong willed hard individual. He built his wealth in crude manner and rose to be the third most powerful man in Rome, competing against Caesar and Pompeius. Whereas both Caesar and Pompeius built their careers in extraordinary ways, Crassus was more traditional, which makes his rise ever more impressive. It is very probable that without Caesar’s success in the wars in Gallia, triumvir Crassus would have been the most powerful man in Rome.

M. Licinius Crassus triumvir, the father of Caecilias husband.

Partly because of this triumvir Crassus needed to get massive military success and he chose rich kingdom of Parthia as his target. As known, the war did not went well and Crassus and his younger son Publius died on the field.

The elder son of triumvir Crassus, the husband of Caecilia, is also a curious character. We know little of him. He is one of the two quaestores (legion commanders) that is mentioned by name in the self-laudatory memories of Caesar from the Gallian wars. This is remarkable, but the mentions are more passing than really descriptive or laudatory to younger Crassus. Undoubtedly references to him are not coincidental, but we don’t know why Caesar put them there. In any case Crassus seems to have been loyal to Caesar.

Younger brother of Crassus, Publius, seems to have been more active one of the brothers. He is generally described to be more like their father than Marcus by being more ambitious. Our Crassus seems to have been lacking political ambition: he rose only to the quaestor, while a man of his heritage certainly should have risen at least into rank of praetor, if not consul. He was not known either as a public speaker or philosopher, not as a business man, not as a military commander nor from anything else. Usually he is described as nonentity.

Let’s assume this is so. Why he then was mentioned in the Caesars Gallic Wars memories? If he was contended to live quietly and out of public attention, then why build such a grand mausoleum to his wife? It is also interesting to note that the son of him and Caecilia rose as a consul and was a renown military commander. I think that there is some important piece of information missing about Caecilias husband, as the sum of the person we seem to gather doesn’t seem to add up. I think M. Crassus has been a careful, but not passive character, who has played far-sighted game of survival and built way to success for his son. I also think he has been known for his contemporaries as such as there hasn’t been any gossips about the grand mausoleum for his wife. With his fabulous wealth he has had a chance to stay away from the most heated competition for glory during and after Caesar. This interpretation of his character and motivations makes much more sense to me. It still doesn’t fully answer a question about the importance of Caecilia for him. Caecilia Metella remains a mystery with too few bits of information to make even a guess.

Why this wasn´t scandalous for Romans?

One aspect that is quite alien in Roman political culture to us is clear and blatant nepotism. Fathers favour their own sons, their nephews, their cousins etc. One example of this are the praetorships of the year 208. During those times there were four praetors elected annually. Two of the praetors ruled the Roman provinces, of which there were only two at the time: Sicilia and Sardinia. One praetor presided the highest law cases within the city (praetor urbanus) and one praetor presided law cases between non-citizens and citizens (praetor peregrinus). Praetor urbanus was also in effect the most powerful magistrate after consuls and had the power to convene the senate when both consuls were absent from the city.

Being elected praetor was also the final step before consulship, which was the crown of political career. Of course not every praetor could reach consulship, because there were four praetors and only two consuls each year.

In the 208 two of the praetors were P. Licinius Varus and P. Licinius Crassus Dives. Licinii Vari and Licinii Crassi were closely related at those times to each other. In fact, our praetores here shared a common grandfather and their fathers were thus brothers.

For Romans cousins grabbing a half of available praetorships of the year was not scandalous nor a thing to avoid. There are numerous similar occurrances where close relatives have shared power and arranged positions for each other in the elections. Typical was also to aid daughters husband or his close relatives and vice versa.

Republican era Rome was a society where there were no social services nor public organisations to keep one alive. Survival depended on one´s ability to interact between different groups one belonged or was connected otherwise to.

If you were a low-born, you had to find more rich and powerful patrons to help you along. If you were a high-born, you had to be able to gather enough low-born supporters and to ally with other high-born. Annual magistrates decided the fate of socity in general and also being a magistrate was an ultimate way to ensure ones survival at least for a year. Arranging your allies into power next year was a way to prolong the survival for longer. And it was also one and only chance of doing so, when someone else was in power, anything might happen.

Roman society was very networked one. From lowest to highest level there were numerous networks and communities one belonged to: family, extended family, marriage arrangements, political movements, priestly collegiae, private and public religious cults, burial societies, census groups, voting tribes, street districts… One had to know whom to know and in general know a lot of people in order to survive.

In such a society it is only natural and understandable that you shared power with your friends and allies and arranged things in order them to follow after you in the highest places of society.

This was one of the challenges I faced when I started to reading about Roman history. How to understand how and why the Roman society worked as it did. It also is a continuous challenge when reading about Roman history. How to avoid judging, how to avoid being overtly righteous when encountering things that would considered scandalous should they happen in our society? It is so easy to judge Roman republic as a laughable excuse for a democracy. It is so easy to look downward and provide an explanation of past cultures being so uncivilized or underdeveloped that they didn’t know of better alternatives of setting up society. It is also easy to claim that they lacked learning or knowledge. For our culture it is so very natural to believe in progress and that in the future things are better than they were in the past.

Past is an alien culture always. It is easy to say and pretty easy even to understand in general level, but it is also one of the hardest challenges there are for us trying to understand a culture of more than 2000 years past. Roman culture had something in common with our own, but in general level there are more differences than similarities. These differences show both in superficial things, like clothes the Romans liked to wear, but also at very deep levels: sexual morals, mental settings and even as deep as in the emotions. Romans for example did not have similar concept of shame as we have. Our concept of shame becomes from judeo-christian culture. At every possible level of understanding and viewing the world, Romans were different from us. Not lower or higher, but simply different.

It takes years of practice to distance oneself from one´s own values, even to understand one´s values and reasons behind them. Only then one can start really understanding the Roman culture and society. Understanding of course doesn’t include liking or supporting, only understanding. This is also a great challenge for communicating anything about Roman history or culture: how to formulate ones thoughts into written or spoken form in order to create understanding instead of promoting a judgement? After all it is the duty of historian to do justice for the individuals and events of the past, not to judge them or use them as involuntary parts of a modern day argument.

I would like to suggest a method of teaching ancient culture and history. It revolves around this concept of understanding and reflecting cultural differences, as a starting point of learning about ancient cultures. For example making a short essay about how Roman concept of family or elections differ in our own concepts of them. Seeking first cultural differences and similarities could provide a fruitful and easy way into the very fascinating era and its cultures. For chronology and periodization there are plenty of time later on, first thing would be start understanding the cultural aspect. This approach should work very well at any level of education.

And even in wider pedagogical context: learning about cultural differences between our own and a past culture could help also to understand cultural differences of our own era!