Ancient biographies are carefully constructed in a way that emphasizes the information that the author sees as most important. The style and technique in which a biography is written can largely impact the moral or meaningful information that the audience finds significant. The life of Claudia the Vestal Virgin, as portrayed in Roman Women, a collection edited by Augusto Fraschetti and the story by John Scheid, largely focuses on the roles of women in society. More specifically, the text focuses on the roles of Vestal Virgins and the matrons, and how they positions they held emphasized the importance of purity and virtue. Other stories of women in ancient history, such as that of Saint Perpetua in The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, give rise to different issues, such as loyalty and commitment, gender and family, and faith and religion. By changing the style, form, and technique used to describe Claudia’s life to a style more similar to Saint Perpetua’s, it would be possible to highlight different aspects of her existence.
The Story of Claudia the Vestal VirginEdit
The story of Claudia the Vestal Virgin gives a brief insight of the values of Roman society. claudia quinta was a matron in Rome who serves as an important female figure in Roman mythology. Towards the end of the Second Punic War, it was determined that it was necessary to move the cult of Cybele from Asia Minor to Rome. Also known as the Great Mother of Pessinus, the cult of Cybele was a goddess that assumed the role of the protector in war times. An oracle claimed “the goddess must be welcomed to the city by its more virtuous man (p.23).” The matrons of the city, including Quinta Claudia, went with Publiuos Scipio, the cities most virtuous man, and greeted the goddess. The ship with the goddess, however, hit a sand bar and was stranded at see. According to Ovid, Quinta Claudia dressed offensively and talked inappropriately, leading to the conclusion that she was an adulterer. She prayed to the Great Mother to help her publically prove her innocence. After she prayed, she stood up and grabbed the rope of the ship, pulling it in to shore effortlessly. By accomplishing this task, Quinta Claudia proved her chastity to the city.
As the myth was passed down from generation to generation, Quinta Claudia, a matron, soon became known as Claudia the Vestal Virgin. Being a Vestal Virgin was highly prestigious, as there were only six women who held this position in ancient Roman society. These six women were selected when they were between the ages of six and ten to dedicate thirty years of their life to the goddess of the hearth, Vesta. Vestal Virgins were committed to a life of chastity, and if at anytime the virtue of a Vestal were questioned, there would be catastrophic results. One way in which a Vestal’s chastity would be questioned is if the sacred flame of Vesta, which the Vestals dedicated their life to protecting, went out. If it went out due to carelessness, a vestal may be punished with a beating. However, if the flame went out by itself, the Vestal responsible for the flame was assumed to have broken their chastity and would be buried alive (p.29). Vestal Virgins based their existence upon their abstinence from sexual relationships, similar to matrons, which abstained from physical relationships with all men except for their husbands. Because both Vestal Virgins and matrons were defined by modesty and abstinence, it is clear to see how Quinta Claudia, a matron was confused with Claudia the Vestal Virgin. In addition, by changing Quinta Claudia from a matron to a Vestal Virgin, the myths made her existence seem more important.
The life of Claudia the Vestal Virgin is presented as a collection of different, emotionless stories from a variety of ancient writers. By choosing to focus on the role of the Vestal Virgins and the story of the goddess Cybele, the author creates a reoccurring theme of purity and virtue in ancient Roman society. Since the author uses words such as “imagination” and “myth” in describing the story of Claudia, it is doubtful that she existed. This puts limitations on the psychological depths that the author could explore. It’s possible to imagine what Quinta Claudia may have been thinking, but she comes across as a two dimensional individual, that is, the audience knows nothing about her other than her duty to be a faithful wife and mother.
In The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, the first author of Perpetua’s life was Perpetua herself. Being that this is an example of an autobiography, the audience can see beyond her life as a martyr. By reading her diary, it is clear that her actions were driven by her faith and religious beliefs. Other topics that Perpetua repeatedly brings up are her relationship with her family, particularly her father, and her commitment to fellow Christians and to God. What makes Perpetua’s story interesting is how the audience is shown Perpetua’s own feelings from her diary, and then two accounts of her experiences by fellow martyrs. While unable to express Perpetua’s psychological reasoning, the audience is able to see her experience from the outside, further demonstrating her passion and desire for justice. What if the story of Claudia the Vestal Virgin was modeled this way? If provided with an autobiographical account of her life, the reader would know more about Claudia’s feelings towards herself and her role in society. For example, on page two section three of The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Perpetua states, “So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian.” This shows that she took pride in her spiritual self and in a way, it gives her a sense of purpose. It is her faith and religious beliefs that makes it possible for her to go on under the worst of circumstances. For Claudia, being known for committing adultery was a shameful position to be in. Since someone else told her story, the audience is limited to a flat, black and white account, that is, it lacks emotional depth.
More Examples of the Effects of Writing Style on ContextEdit
Another interesting line in The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity is on page four, section ten, and claims, “And I was striped naked, and I became a man.” This line is important because Perpetua is literally shattering her physical self at a point where one would think she would feel most feminine. By becoming a man, Perpetua seems to be finding a parallel between herself and God, establishing a newfound closeness. If Claudia the Vestal Virgin focused more on strengthening her relationship with her god, the emphasis on her virtue may have been explained by means of her faith instead of the shame of being accused of adultery.
In Perpetua’s account, when talking in regards to her father, she states on page three section five paragraph two, “This he said fatherly in his love, kissing my hands and groveling at my feet; and with tears he named me, not daughter, but lady.” This shows that her father respects her and is worried about her. This complex relationship between Perpetua and her father further demonstrates the depth of her faith. In the case the Claudia the matron, very little is known about her life aside from her incident with the arrival of Cybele’s cult. Other than one claim on page thirty in Roman Woman stating that Quinta Claudia was a mother and a wife, there is no discussion about her family. What did Quinta Claudia’s husband think of the accusations made against her? Was her family relieved and/or proud when she proved her innocence? Quinta Claudia’s life is simply a collection of different sources telling more or less the same story about the same aspect of her life. If her story was written in the style of The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, with an autobiography followed by two accounts told by people who shared her cause, the author would still be able to hear a somewhat generic account of why she is well known, but there would also be the added information of why she did it and what she was thinking.
Both The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity and the story of Claudia the Vestal Virgin portray two headstrong women who overcame the power of public at whatever the cost. Since the story of Perpetua was mainly told through the eyes of Perpetua, the audience is able to know her thoughts, feelings, and concerns. However, the story of Claudia the Vestal Virgin was a myth, and focused largely what Quinta Claudia/Claudia the Vestal Virgin is believed to have done, and her position as a woman in society. By changing the style and technique of the life of Claudia the Vestal Virgin to be more similar to The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, the author would create a more three dimensional character. It is also important to remember that if the style were changed, the audience would also lose a lot of the facts about Vestal Virgins in Roman society. Through thorough examination, it is easy to see that simply by changing the style and technique of an autobiography, it is possible to change the impression left on the reader.
Response: Claudia according to Perpetua by Adam MarguliesEdit
Ashley offers thoughtful insight into the style and substance of the secondary account of her subject, Quinta Claudia, and the autobiography of Perpetua. She organizes her paper clearly and gives a concise analysis of the two women's lives. However, Ashley's analysis could still dig a little deeper.
Ashley explains the differences between Perpetua's autobiography and the story of Claudia the Vestal Virgin. According to Ashley, since Perpetua's account is autobiographical, her introspection is therefore deeper, as she addresses hard to reach areas like family and faith. The account of Claudia, meanwhile, focuses on society, and she seems more driven by the need to clear her name rather than by her spiritual virtue. I would agree with Ashley that we would know more about Claudia's life if her account was autobiographical as was Perpetua's, or if it was focused more on herself rather than Vestal Virgins in society.
Still, Ashley might ask herself, taking the only information we have handy on Claudia's life, what if we transformed Perpetua from autobiographer to biographer? If Claudia was in fact driven by her desire to prove her purity so that she could save herself embarrassment or conform to society, and not because she was a devoted Christian, what would Perpetua think?
Perpetua provides us with plenty of clues. Ashley supports her analysis with perhaps the most important of these clues, when Perpetua tells her father "So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian." To be fair, although Perpetua tells us clearly about her Christian motivation, she does not say whether she looks down upon those who are not driven by Christianity, or whether she forgives them and is able to look beyond Christianity to judge their character. Nevertheless, we can draw some conclusions. Perpetua would respect Claudia's motivation and strength of character. But either she would explain Claudia's motivation in terms of religious faith, or she would acknowledge Claudia's societal motivation without holding it in high esteem. After all, Perpetua is executed because she refuses to conform to society, no matter the embarrassment she experiences or causes her family.
If Perpetua could not explain Claudia's motivations to prove her purity through faith, she would most likely insert her own Christian commentary discussing how Claudia should hold herself accountable to God, not society. Perpetua, we must remember, may have recorded her own experiences to serve as spiritual instruction for later readers.
 For instance, Augustine constantly talks about how even those who claimed to be religious men were in fact self-motivated and not truly men of faith. Augustine would most likely consider Claudia's motives alone enough to make her unworthy of religious recognition. Of course, since we began Confessions after Project 1, Ashley could not use this for comparison.
Response by Powell Wright
It’s clear that the life of Claudia the Vestal Virgin would be similar to Perpetua’s autobiography if it were in the first-person perspective. Claudia’s feelings in such a crucial time in her life represent how big of a deal it is to become a Vestal, nonetheless a symbol of perfection. Despite all of the labels and responsibilities Claudia bears, John Scheid’s biography of her reveals almost none of her personality. Perpetua’s story shows fear, passion, and several emotional encounters that make it a classic in its time.
As stated within Claudia’s biography, “the most virtuous women, unlike young Scipio, was not selected by means of an institution, but by a miracle involving the intervention of the goddess herself” (Fraschetti 32). This sentence’s style is a good description of Claudia’s story; very little first-hand accounts, and more of a myth than anything. There is nothing wrong with this but you never get a real feel of who Claudia is. Her myth is literally described as “being created” by Cybele and Attis (Fraschetti 26). Since Claudia’s biography mostly surrounds the details of what a Vestal’s responsiblities are, there is almost nothing about Claudia’s personality within Scheid’s account.
On the other hand, Perpetua’s biography is in the first person, as she directly describes her feelings as she approaches her execution. Perpetua states, “I was grieved for my father's case because he would not rejoice at my passion out of all my kin; and I comforted him, saying: That shall be done at this tribunal, whatsoever God shall please; for know that we are not established in our own power, but in God's” (Halsall 3). This quote demonstrates Perpetua’s struggle, but more so how she maintained her beliefs and kept her faith in God. I feel as though this is a crucial part of Perpetua’s story Ashley Barnes may have neglected to analyze. Being executed for one’s beliefs is a common element in history and biography. Despite masses of people overcoming these persecutions, there is never a good way to understand their suffering in many accounts. The story of Perpetua and Felicity do however come close, if not successful to doing so.
In Claudia, the Vestal Virgin’s classic biography, we need to understand how she was feeling and thinking through her process of becoming “perfect”. Just like Perpetua, Claudia was very emotional towards her father and would likely have a similar account of her emotions towards every action he did. Additionally, there were two Claudia’s, one of Quinta, and another of Vestal. Both represent two different images of female sexuality and perfection, and therefore may have different personality and actions (Fraschetti 31). Perhaps we may be able to see a drastic shift of emotions for Claudia as her biography progresses. She may be able to start out as the 10 year old chosen to become a Vestal, in a big scary world, to becoming the goddess-like woman the story leaves her off as. Perpetua’s biography does something similar to this. She starts off her biography by praising God in a calm manner, but ends in a valiant and nearly hysterical call of, “O most valiant and blessed martyrs! O truly called and elected unto the glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ!” (Halsall 7). It is important to analyze how both of these women change through their journey. Claudia’s personality change has to be a main focus of her classic biography.