Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Biblical Queens Roamin' Into Roman History (So-Called)

For full article, see:

Biblica 82 (2001) 477-495

From Jezebel to Esther:
Fashioning Images of Queenship in the Hebrew Bible
II. The Two Faces of Queenship
Casting an Esther as a Jezebel carried, potentially, dangerous connotations. The hostility of biblical narrators to queens who, like Jezebel, usurp the role of kings in a manner that highlights the limitations of kingly power and the breakdown of male authority within the home is undisguised. It finds an amplified echo in the annals of the early Roman monarchy (6th century BCE) which chart the career of two queens, Tanaquil and Tullia, who bear curious similarities to the biblical female monarchs. Because Roman authors are considerably more expansive than biblical narrators they provide valuable insights into the process that molded queenly images in antiquity.
In the hindsight of several centuries, the history of early Rome emerges in the pages of the historian Livy (57-14 BCE) as a family narrative dominated by the ambitions of its female members and punctuated by their sense of honor and shame9. Of these, Tullia, like Jezebel, is a daughter of a king (Servius Tullius). Her husband, Tarquinius (Superbus), is likewise a son of a monarch (Tarquinius Priscus) who, however, had designated another man, a non-relative, as his successor. To win the stakes in the complicated game of succession

the couple embarks on a career of crimes, including the murder of their first respective spouses and the killing of Tullia’s father, the reigning ruler. Although apparently a match made in heaven, Livy shows no hesitation in casting Tullia as the moving spirit behind the rocky ride to the throne of Rome.
Echoing what Jezebel might have said to Ahab, had the text been recorded and transmitted in full, Tullia addresses her husband as follows:
If you are the man I thought I was marrying, then show yourself to be a man and a king. If not ... you have compounded a crime with cowardice. What is the matter with you? You are not from Corinth or from Tarquinii, like your father, nor is it necessary for you to make yourself a king in a foreign land. The gods of your family, your ancestors, the image of your father, the royal palace, its throne and the very name Tarquinius make and proclaim you king. Why else, if your spirit is too mean to (undertake) this, do you deceive the city? Why do you allow yourself to be looked upon as a prince? Depart to Taquinii or Corinth where you can sink once more into oblivion...10.
Focusing on the interaction between the family and the state as two social entities Livy shows how the privileging of the family interest at the expense of public duty generates chaos11. Tullia and Tarquinius base their claim to the kingship on kinship alone, thus reversing and subverting the principle of merit and of inclusion on which the Roman royal succession had been established from the start. Jezebel ‘vindicates’ the king who is also her husband, thereby undermining the foundations of the royal system of dispensing justice.
In Livy’s landscape of early Rome the palace is the focus and the symbol of the couple’s unbridled ambitions. From the seclusion of their domestic space Tullia and Tarquinius launch their criminal activities. When Tarquinius appears in the curia (= senate house) with an armed bodyguard, Tullia burst on the scene and hails him as king. Her action and gesture constitute a double transgression. Not only does she violate the physical boundaries of males’ space by intruding into male business in the forum, but she also crosses the frontiers of male authority by being the first to confer royalty on a man in public.
Responding to censure, not the least from her own husband, Tullia

defends herself by appealing to another queenly model. She regards herself as a faithful imitator, if not an improved version of Tanaquil, her mother-in-law who had been instrumental in helping her own husband (Tarquinius Priscus) to become a king at Rome, and who had ensured the smooth transfer of power to a successor she herself had chosen (Servius Tullius, Tullia’s father).
Livy’s presentation of Tanaquil is ambiguous. In his words, she is ‘a woman of the most exalted birth and not of a character lightly to endure a humbler rank in her new [Roman] environment than the one she had enjoyed by birth’12. To save the monarchy Tanaquil alters the deliberative process reserved for the senate and the people of Rome. When her husband falls victim to an assassination plot, she encourages Servius to take the reigns into his hands:
To you, Servius, if you are a man, belongs this kingdom, not to those who by the hands of others have committed a dastardly crime. Arouse yourself and follow the guidance of the gods ... Now is the time ... Rise up to the occasion. We, too, although foreigners, ruled over Rome. Consider who you are and not where you were born. If your judgement is numb in so sudden a crisis then follow my council 13.
The fact that Livy leaves the ultimate tribute to Tanaquil in Tullia’s hands reflects a deep-seated uneasiness with the assumption of male power by women, laudable as their intentions and ultimate results might have been. Although Tanaquil’s resourcefulness saves the dynasty that she had created she also violates male norms by claiming a higher authority than the traditional mos maiorum (custom) would have allowed any woman, queens included. By setting herself and her late husband as models for Tullius to be imitated, Tanaquil also paves the way to Tullia.
As the biblical narrative recreates Jewish queenship in the scroll of Esther, the leading female character undergoes the same kind of transformation that underlies the Tanaquil-to-Tullia process, but in reverse. To begin with, Esther is not only Jewish but a woman with impeccable royal (Jewish) blood in her veins. Jezebel is constantly branded a foreigner in a manner that reflects not only her ethnicity but also her proclivities14. In the redactional history of the Hebrew Bible

the Deuteronomist antipathy to foreigners, and particularly to foreign queens, has been associated with a deep-seated fear of idolatry through contamination15. The elevation of foreigners to Rome’s throne, by contrast, reflects Rome’s greatness and her openness to strangers, while Tullia’s urging of her husband to seize the throne on the ground of his ‘nativeness’ is clearly misplaced.
The scroll depicts the decree of Ahasuerus-Haman ordering the elimination of the Jews as a writ of national emergency. The clash between Ahab and Naboth appears, at first, as carrying little import beyond the king’s petty desire to expand to plant vegetables. Yet behind the issue of the vineyard versus royal garden lurks the larger question of the legitimate scope of monarchical actions vis-à-vis the king’s subjects16. In the Esther scroll the queen reacts to a patriarchal call to action and only exercises her potential royal power to save her people, as Tanaquil does to save Rome from revolution. Jezebel, like Tullia, acts on her own initiative, subverting male standards of royal behavior.
Just how perilously close to each other are, nevertheless, constructs of royal women like Tanaquil and Tullia on the one hand, and Jezebel and Esther on the other, can be further gauged from the attitude of all the texts to the public appearance of queens. Roman and Jewish authors are unanimous in banning women from the public eye. Jezebel and Esther never appear in public. Tanaquil makes a single public appearance when there is no one else who can save the dynasty. Even then she remains standing at a window in the palace, shielded by its walls. Tullia’s venturing into the forum invokes censure by her husband, and by the historian Livy. But Tanaquil’s position near a top window, although emphasizing Tullia’s boldness in venturing outdoors, also signifies the female usurpation of male authority at home. Ultimately, both women embark on a course of action that contradicts male expectations of female royalty. Nevertheless Tanaquil garners praise while Tullia is condemned.
Jezebel’s sole ‘public’ appearance is made as a spectator standing at the window of the palace that another king is about to possess. Observing the approach of Jehu, she stands at the window as a visual

reminder of the legitimacy of her royal position and of his usurpation. Her words reinforce the image that her presence conveys: ‘Is it peace, Zimri, murderer of his master?’ (2 Kgs 9,30). Her words, like Tanaquil’s to Tullius, are filtered through space and the conventions of official language as she faces the successor of her dynasty and her ultimate executioner17.
Esther is never seen or heard addressing directly any man besides her husband and cousin/father. In fact, no biblical narrator or redactor ventured to place either queen, Jezebel or Esther, outside the confines of the palace itself. Both women use messengers to gather information and agents to convey their commands and their threats. Yet, like Tanaquil and Tullia, the two biblical queens were destined for vastly disparate ‘after-life’. In collective memory Jezebel became a stereotype of shrewish and detestable queens18. Esther’s adventures are still celebrated.


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