The Death of Verginia

                                                                                              The Death of Verginia



Verginia slain by Her Father Verginius

This is the fourth in a series of stories about notable women of the Romen Republic. Verginia is more of a tragic victim in this story than a heroine, but her story sharply illustrates the conflicts between the classes in the early days of the Roman Republic, and the cultural assumptions of that age regarding women.

The year is 449 B.C. Rome at that time was ruled by a committee of ten men, called the Decemviri, who have been appointed to create laws for the state. Chief among the Decemviri is Appius Claudius, a lustful and corrupt man.

Verginia was the daughter of  Verginius, a brave plebeian soldier. Having gone off with the army, he left his daughter in the care of a nurse. When Appius Claudius sees Verginia in the market place he lusts for her and tries to seduce her, but she is adamant in her refusal. She is betrothed to Lucius Icilius.

Thinking to procure by foul means what he could not procure by fair, Appius Claudius persuades a  client, one Marcus Claudius, to proclaim that Verginia is not the daughter of Verginius at all but was born to one of his slave women and rightfully belongs to him. The citizens are sympathetic to Verginia and incensed at Appius Claudius’ corruption and they insist that no judgment be made in the matter until Verginius can be summoned home from the army. Appius Claudius sends word to Verginius’ commander to detain him at the camp, but Lucius Icilius’ messenger arrives first and Verginius arrives in Rome just before the matter is to be judged. The judge, of course, is none other than Appius Claudius!

Verginius tells the court: “It is not only my daughter who is not safe. Who will henceforth dare to leave their children in Rome if I am robbed of my child.”

Unable to control his lust for the beautiful Verginia, however, Appius Claudius rules in favor of Marcus Claudius and declares Verginia to be his slave.

When Verginius is permitted one last word with his daughter he tells her: “My child, there is no other way to free thee.” and plunges his dagger into her heart.

The people of Rome are enraged and they drive the Decemviri from power and re-establish the republic. The other nine Decemviri are banished from Rome but Appius Claudius is taken to prison where he commits suicide, or, in some versions, is murdered.

In his epic poem Punica, written in the first century A.D., the poet Silius Italicus mentions Verginia thus: “Beside her see Verginia; her bleeding breast still shows the wound—the sad record of maidenhood defended by the sword—and she still approves of her father’s hand that struck the piteous blow.”

Quotes are from Ab Urbe Condita by Titus Livius and Punica by Silius Italicus


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