Rome, 1st cent. A.D. (Pliny the Younger, Letters 3.16. A.D. 97/107. L)
Fannia was granddaughter of the famous Arria the Elder, a Stoic, who committed suicide when her husband, Caecina Paetus, was condemned to death in A.D. 42 by the emperor Tiberius. Her daughter, Arria the Younger, Fannia’s mother, stopped from doing as her mother had when her own husband, P. Clodius Thrasea Paetus, was condemned in 66, under Nero. She was later banished, by Domitian, but returned after his death and became a friend of Pliny. In this letter, Pliny is writing about events that happened more than a half century earlier.
Arria was by no means a political innocent and would certainly have shared the blame for her husband’s role in the conspiracy. Her choice of a glorious death over living in widowhood in greatly reduced circumstances (her husband’s property would have been confiscated), or possibly even exile, quickly earned her a place in the pantheon of Roman matrons.
I think I have noticed that the most celebrated words and deeds of the most illustrious men and women are not always the greatest. This opinion was confirmed yesterday when I spoke with Fannia. She is the granddaughter of the Arria who gave her husband not just consolation at his death but also an example. Fannia told me many things about her grandmother not so well known as that story but no less significant. I think you will be as impressed to read about them as I was when I heard them.
Caecina Paetus, Arria’s husband, and her son were mortally ill at the same time. The son died. He was a youth of great beauty and modest, and was dear to his parents not just because his was their son. Arria took care of the funeral without her husband’s even knowing of the death. But that’s not all. Whenever she entered his room, she pretended that their son was alive and improving. If he asked about the son’s health, she answered that he had rested well or that he had a good appetite. Then, when her tears were about to overflow, she would leave, and give herself to sorrow. Then she would pull herself together and go back in with a calm expression on her face, as if she had left her mourning outside the door. It was noble indeed when she took the dagger, plunged it into her breast, withdrew it, and uttered those famous words, “Paetus, it doesn’t hurt”.But when she did that, immortality was before her eyes. How much nobler it was, without the prospect of glory and fame, to hide her grief and act like a mother after her son had died.
Paetus was a partisan of Scribonianus in Illyria in the rising against Claudius; he was brought as a prisoner to Rome when Scribonianus was killed. When he was about to embark on the ship, Arria begged the soldier: ‘You will certainly allow a man of consular rank to have a few slaves to look after his food and clothing. Let me come along and I’ll do their jobs myself.’ But they refused. So she followed behind the huge ship in a tiny fishing boat.
At the imperial palace she met the wife of Scribonianus offering evidence to the prosecution, she said, ‘Am I to listen to you who could go on living after Scribonianus died in your arms?’ From that it is clear that her decision to die a noble death was not taken on the spur of the moment.
Then, too, when her son-in-law Thrasea was trying to dissuade her from her intent to die, he said, among other things, ‘Would you want your daughter to die with me if I were to die?’ She replied, ‘I would, if she lived as long and as happily with you as I have with Paetus.’ That made everyone all the more anxious for her and she was carefully watched. But she realized it and said, “You’re wasting your time. You can make me die painfully but you cannot stop me from dying.’ Having said which, she jumped up from her chair and ran to the wall, upon which she banged her head and fell down unconscious. When she came to she said, ‘I told you I would do it the hard way if you stopped me from doing it the easy way.’
Don’t you think that these words are greater than the famous “Paetus, it doesn’t hurt” to which they led? But that’s what everyone remembers, while no one mentions the other. Whence we can infer, as I said at the beginning of this letter, that the most famous acts are not necessarily the most noble. Farewell.