‘She has quite the ‘tude!’. So said one of my year ten pupils when I was teaching Pliny’s letter about Arria as a set text back in 2015. They thought she ‘rocked’. I seem to remember, ‘she’s sassy’ was another complement paid. She was feisty, even a little rebellious. It is not difficult to see how she speaks to us today. But she also impressed her fellow Romans, even the rather hard-to-impress Pliny the Younger. I hope you will also agree she is a fitting contribution for International Women’s Day. In the letter to his correspondent Nepos, Arria is described as ‘heroic’ as he opens his account. He then proceeds to explain.
Arria was capable of great restraint, care, and selflessness. When both her husband and son were very ill, her son, described by Pliny as an impressive youth, tragically died. Wishing to spare her ailing husband the grief and anguish of knowing, Arria answered her husband’s concerned questions as if the boy were still alive, breaking down only when she had left his room and where he could not see her grief. In this action, Arria showed not only restraint in her emotion, a Stoic quality much admired by the Romans, but also loyalty in putting her husband’s health first. If this seems extreme, I think we can all relate to perhaps being strategically economical with the truth of a situation, if we felt they were not ready/well enough to hear it. The wonderful film, Good Bye, Lenin, tells a charmingly comparable story. Wishing to spare his weakened mother the news of the fall of the DDR (German Democratic Republic), he strives to create the illusion that all is as it was before she fell ill, fearing the shock might cause her to relapse. Arria is as relatable now as she was praiseworthy then.
Arria is then celebrated for her great determination. When her husband, Caecina Paetus, was arrested and taken back to Rome for joining Scribonianus’ conspiracy against the emperor Claudius, Arria remained undeterred when her plea to be taken along with her husband in order to care for him was refused. Behind the ship that transported him back to Rome, she followed in a fishing vessel that she hired. Arria’s assertiveness did not stop there. When back in Rome, she was angered at the response of Scribonianus’ wife to her husband’s arrest. When the latter gave evidence against her husband and the conspirators, disgusted that she could betray her husband, Arria asked her how she could even think about surviving her husband, if she loved him as much as she herself loved her Paetus. Pliny praises Arria’s stance as noble, and in no way affected by passion. The theme is simply – defending a loved one faced with a serious charge or crisis. She was not going to give up on her husband so easily.
Ultimately, Arria is praised for her courage – her restraint in dealing with her son’s death, her lack of fear in standing by Paetus, and finally her death. Paetus was condemned to death for his part in the conspiracy. Romans were offered the choice – noble suicide, or shameful execution with the infamy of being a traitor. With her husband hesitating, Arria led by example, plunging the dagger into herself, with the simple statement, ‘Paetus, it does not hurt!’ (‘Paete, non dolet’). This courageous and honourable action would speak particularly to a Roman. Surely, this seems dramatic and somewhat remote to us now? But there is a message that shines through to us today without entailing the dramatic, honourable, and brave end of Arria - it is the courage in belief. Arria did not quail when faced with the wrath of the imperial court and she did note reject what we can deduce were Paetus’ own loyalties as a husband when he was in trouble. Her response is complex – if he were a traitor, why did she stand firm? Maybe she believed in the conspiracy. Or maybe, she simply believed that her duty to Paetus as, in her opinion, a good husband did not cease and should not be obliterated by the charge against him.
Arria was clearly, brave, dutiful, loyal, and proud, and for that she still fascinates and impresses today’s audiences.
(For a beautiful statue of Arria and Paetus, please follow this link to the Louvre website: