Servilia’s Pearl

Fiona Forsyth

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The Roman historian Suetonius is clearly enjoying himself when he writes, “It is well known that he was keen on his love affairs and spent lavishly on them”.

 Suetonius is talking about Julius Caesar, and he goes on to list the noblewomen seduced by Rome’s favourite bald Dictator, as well as a couple of queens and one king. “But,” concludes the historian, “his favourite mistress was Servilia, mother of Marcus Brutus, for whom he bought a pearl worth six million sesterces…”

I read this as I was researching my novel The Third Daughter which is about Servilia’s youngest child. The pearl becomes quite important in the book and interested me because for the moment I am living in Qatar, where pearls are part of the country’s story, the main source of wealth before the discovery of oil and gas fields.

The next thing I noticed was that Servilia was the mother of Brutus, the man who would fifteen years later lead the conspiracy to kill Caesar fifteen years later. That must have made for some interesting tensions within the family.

And finally, I wondered why in 59 BCE in particular did Caesar spend such a sum of money on a present for Servilia? This was a busy year for him, and while buying a pearl doesn’t take up much time, he had so much on his plate he could be forgiven for putting jewellery-shopping at the bottom of his list. Caesar held the consulship, the highest office in the Roman Republic for the first time and was permanently engaged in political in-fighting, deal-brokering and planning his ten-year campaign in Gaul. He had been forced to make sacrifices to get his office, even giving up the chance of a prestigious triumphal procession so that he could stand in the election. His unofficial alliance, formed with Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus so that the three of them could push through measures to please themselves, was hated by traditionalists. While he was in office, he was constantly attacked by his fellow consul, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, who loathed him and declared any legislation put through by Caesar to be invalid. It was quite enough to keep him busy.

But Caesar was also actively looking for a wife – not that he was about to make an honest woman of Servilia. The man who famously said that his wife must be above suspicion was not going to marry his mistress, no matter that Servilia was beautiful, clever and well-born. Instead, a respectable marriage into a top family gained Caesar some much-needed support from the heart of the elite.

So maybe Caesar needed a special gift for Servilia, especially if he wanted to keep seeing her. It was a very generous present.  At the time a Roman legionary was paid nine hundred sesterces per year, so Caesar could have used the money to fund an entire legion with change to spare for some cavalry. Instead, he gave Servilia a pearl, knowing as he must have known, that the news would go around Rome like wildfire and would give his enemies one more piece of ammunition.

As is usually the case with Roman women, even rich and famous ones, Servilia stands silently on the side-lines. It is hard to imagine that she was pleased with Caesar’s new marriage, but she was an intelligent woman and from a family that had been at the top of Rome’s ladder for years. She would have known the score. All we can do is imagine her feelings and wonder if she was appeased by a pearl of unimaginable price.

Note: The pearl dissolved in vinegar by Cleopatra was said to be worth ten million sesterces – but that is another story.

Fiona Forsyth is the author of The Third Daughter, published by Sharpe Books.