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Tullia’s World extract

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Issue number: 2021:1


from Tullia's World

by Kerstin Ekman

introduced and translated by Linda Schenck

Since her most recent novel, published in 2011, Kerstin Ekman has written one book of a more biographical nature, one somewhat more personal book describing the changes in a plot of untended land over two decades, and articles spanning the spectrum from botany to current events. Spring 2020 saw the publication of Tullia’s World, in which Ekman combines thoughts about the half of humanity that has interested her most throughout her now sixty-one-year writing career with a fascinating attempt to recreate the life of Roman women, and specifically one woman: When I was a child, my papa told me I was born the same year that Hitler took over after Hindenburg. I had no idea what year it was, or how to write it, but from his tone of voice I knew it hadn’t been a good year. If Tullia had been told when she was born, her papa would have said who the consul was at the time.

Tullia was the only daughter of Cicero and his wife Terentia. She lived from 79 to 45 BCE, and survived her first husband, a miscarriage and the birth of her one living child, a son. What is known specifically about her comes from her father’s letters. As ever a devoted scholar, Ekman has thoroughly explored the sources, such as they are, on women in ancient Rome. And her brilliant imagination does the rest.

She writes that she heard a voice murmuring to her. That voice has remained with her and become Tullia’s. This narrative is interwoven with personal reflections on being a woman, then and now. Today as in ancient Rome, every woman has both her biological sex and her initial social standing. Ekman writes that as a young woman studying at the gymnasium in provincial Sweden she plowed through the ‘battlefields and imperial ledgers’ described by Horace and Virgil in her Latin texts, but noted the conspicuous absence of women´s ‘history underlying this history,’ and its whispers urged her to find her way there. Her oeuvre has explored this hidden history of women’s lives and work from many angles, in relation to which Tullia’s World is a logical continuation, and the highly impressive result of the mind of a woman with a lifetime’s perspective. She interweaves her many themes, ranging from feminism to pacifism to destruction of the forests and climate change. There are also a number of thought-provokingly chosen illustrations, one of which is included here. I have tried in these few excerpts to give the flavor of the book, which deserves an international audience. It is my hope that readers will be able to look forward to the book in its entirety in English in due course.

Kerstin Ekman standing by tree
Kerstin Ekman. Photo: Bodil Bergqvist


from Tullias värld

Leda, Danaë, Silvia and Europa

It is difficult to locate a description of childbirth in Roman literature. The bards preferred to describe the begetting of children. The objective was penetration of that inviting cleft, and the idea of describing that penetration was enticing. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid describes how the lovely Queen Leda lay supinely press’d/whilst the soft snowy swan sate hov’ring oer her breast[1].Jupiter penetrated her in the shape of a swan (a mute swan perhaps?). I ask myself quite how wonderful it would be for a woman to be mounted by an enormous bird with a hard beak and fluttering wings. Zeus, king of the gods, made it easier on Danaë, with his ejaculation in the form of golden rain. He was at his most brutal, in contrast, when, assuming the shape of a bull, he began by riding Europa around on his back and then went on to mate with her. It is difficult for me as a woman to imagine anything more horrifying and painful. But the bards enjoyed these Greek myths and rendered them faithfully. The question is, did they believe them?

I know the Romans inherited swarms of power-drunk, bloodthirsty, randy, capricious and bitterly facetious gods they transported from Greece. Their hair was black and thick with heavy curls, their mouths red as gashes, and their bodies fleshcolored, okra and rust, all of them larger than human bodies. Examining the foot of the statue of a god, the big toe alone is enough to indicate that it is a body far beyond one’s own measurements. Their sexual organs rested restrainedly in whorls of black marble. The Greek sculptors hewed and chiseled forth a divine super-humanity. The Romans purchased and transported these gods across the sea, copying them in both marble and words.

And yet I wonder – how could the Romans, trained as they were in Greek philosophy with its Socratic method of questioning and its Aristotelian sharp-edged thinking, integrate this plethora of gods into what we mean, theologically, by “belief”? Belief is faith. They did not have faith in their gods; their belief did not include concepts such as mercy and forgiveness, and certainly not grace.

Their gods, like the dead, were partial to blood. They drank blood. Therefore, it was sacrificed to them. The bards were at hand with gloriously beautiful interpretations of the myths – like Ovid’s image of Leda resting under the wings of the swan and Rhea Silvia mercifully falling asleep before being violated by the god of war.

The history of art abounds with portrayals of such mythical rapes. The most compassionate are the reclining young beauties waiting for the divine discharge to fall into their laps like a golden shower, as in the works of Rembrandt, Titian and others. Rembrandt’s Danaë rests upon splendid silken sheets and down bolsters, with the little god of love peering out from under the canopy. When the golden rain begins to fall, a man in a beret also peers at the event. A voyeur? Possibly the artist himself. He doesn’t want to paint a rape. Danaë has kicked off her tiny satin slippers in anticipation of the divine pleasure. She is, of course, young, though she has a tummy we wouldn’t approve of in a contemporary beauty.

In the rooms of museums, where the myths of antiquity are alive and well, we can see young women abducted and raped. They have bulging bosoms, and ample thighs and bottoms. They may be suffering, or at least flinging distressed gazes, and their mouths are open as if they are crying out. But woman, seen through the eyes of the perpetrator, possesses no dignity. She is flesh and subservience. In a Rubens painting, two mounted soldiers are abducting naked Sabine women, and one of the soldier’s horses has a little cupid hovering over its mane. There may still be men who take pleasure in viewing these works of art. We know there are young men who watch videos of gangbangs lustfully.

The most disgusting of the endless images of Europa and the bull is the statue by Carl Milles that ornaments the Halmstad town square. It presents the playfulness of perversion with squirting Tritons, and Europa dances, her cleft dangerously close to the sharp horns of the bull. It was sculpted in 1926, but has ancient origins. Numerous Roman images use the same motif, and are equally playful as Milles’ sculpture. But there is one classical painting that demonstrates the assault of the beast and the vulnerability of the woman with ruthless clarity.

Image of woman being mounted by a bull in the clasical style
The rape of Europa, from a poster for the Bal des Quat'Zarts (ENSBA, Paris, 1929)

The City Under Us

There was no longer the scent of flowers and fruit. The smell was known as odor, as it had always been called in the woods. But now it had changed. In the city, it was dense and full-bodied. Especially in the mornings, when, at her father’s behest, the doorman let all those known as clientelae into the atrium. Bodies. Woolen togas. They smelled, and stood tightly packed. Talking, bowing, and bearing gifts. Papa looked pleased, particularly when they complimented Tulliola. He had started calling her that when she was little and he carried her in his arms. Later, when they moved toward the tablinum, he would hand her over to the girl who was her nursemaid.

Papa, all his followers, and those who were dependent on him would now speak of what they could do for each other. Mama explained that to Tullia when she was big enough to understand why it was good to let all those people in. In Mama’s rooms there was a different smell. Not flowers and fruit, but something Mama rubbed into her skin. Pleasing but potent.

Of everything that happened around her in a house full of slaves and a huge farm with even more people who worked in the stables and out in the fields, she came to understand that she was a well-bred girl. She was the daughter of a man of equites, the ancient estate of the nobility. This was only the second highest estate.

The patricians had the finest ancestry. But a man from the nobility could stand for one of the posts from which you could advance. The finest thing of all was to be elected senator.

She would be taught, and if she eventually had a brother then a tutor from Greece, a paedagogus, would be imported. Greece was the seat of all learning. He would be a slave, of course. But there were different categories of slaves. The gifted ones, who had managed to achieve book learning, were expensive, as were the beautiful ones.

A really good teaching slave cost a pretty penny. Tullia’s father had a slave who wrote down everything his dominus dictated. Under him, this slave had other slaves who softened the writing sheets with pumice stones, the surface of papyrus being somewhat rough. After the sheets had been inscribed, they could be rolled onto poles and tied with a cord; then they were referred to as books, libri. The word liber means the bark on trees, which was what was originally available to write on.

Years and words. But the scents were stronger than all the words. In her sedan chair Terentia had the curtains pulled to ward off the smell of fire. She owned two tall, wooden houses. They might burn, but probably not collapse as the insulae tended to do. That was the word used for rental accommodation in which people lived in tiny rooms in overcrowded slums. Terentia’s houses were sturdily built.

Sometimes there was an iron-like odor that quickly went rotten. At those times the streets reeked of blood that had run red before it went rancid and ran thickly out into the Cloaca maxima, the large, stone drainage system under the city. Insignificant people were thrown into the brownish-yellow river know as Tiberis after their execution. Once upon a time a god had lived there. The most distinguished of the dead were not tossed to the god in the water. They were burned on funeral pyres at the Forum Romanum, and at such times there was the stench of fatty smoke. At times of unrest there was blood on the paving stones in the Forum, the blood of sacrificed beasts and of executed people. If the slave girls hadn’t constantly gossiped, the young Tullia would not have known so much about the city. Her father wanted to build a house of brick, and line it with marble. He would have to speak and write a great deal to make that happen. Like so many others, he longed to escape the close atmosphere of the city for his country farm, referred to as a villa when they were in residence. Not least in the summer when the cobblestones were so hot that they burned your feet if you walked them barefoot. As many people did. [...]

Virgil praised Augustus. What else could he have done? He was entirely dependent on him and firmly convinced of his pax romana, the peace that was to follow upon the destructive wars that marked the era of the republics in which Tullia lived. But he also rendered the most exquisite description of the forests that were torn down during the Roman Empire and the springs that were left to dry out or were transformed into waste ditches.

When Caesar, in his exemplary, concise and precise prose, described Gaul, which he turned into a province of Rome, there is no mention of forests except when the trees served as materials of war and hiding places for tribal warriors. No purling springs. The warships the gods of the sea carried along the waves were made of felled oak forest. [...]

Rome was a city of a million; we know nothing about most of the people who crowded its roads and lived in its houses. The ones who mopped up the blood on the streets and carried the wood for the funeral pyres were slaves. But many of Rome’s inhabitants, the shopkeepers and petty goods hawkers, painters and barbers, coachmen and bricklayers, were Roman citizens, which was significant. The women bought, sold and saved money of their own. They purchased buildings and rented out the rooms. Because, unlike the women of noble descent, they did not need to hold labor in contempt, they could sew clothing and produce cosmetics, particularly good business if you could cultivate customers among the girls who sold themselves. Most of the women had learned their numbers from the price signs the shopkeepers put on crates and baskets, and they knew what the text on the shop signs said. But not many could write. They did not write our history. They lived it.

Words Build the World

Men were often careless, particularly if they'd had too much undiluted wine. Still, they were masters of the world. Then as now. But there is not a single being on God’s green and now quite sullied earth who was not borne forth by a woman. Men squirt their sperm, but women give birth.

Giving birth was even the destiny of Tullia Ciceronis.

Who Was Tullia?

Was she simply a socialite or was she a woman with a mind of her own? If the latter, where did she begin to develop it? Reading books alone may not bring wisdom, but it is a factor. Tullia had not read the bards who made their way to Brundisium twenty years after she made that journey. They had not yet written anything widely known and disseminated, and her papa was no lover of poetry. Horace and Virgil were some ten years her younger. It is true that she had access to her father’s papers. His orations and philosophical works were hers to peruse. In his letters to her mother he always included greetings to Tulliola and her brother.

I suppose we will have to assume that Tullia was cautious enough not to let her reading carry her as far as scholarship. It was like dancing and singing. Carried out too intensively or too well, it lost its dignity. Moreover, her point of departure was different from the one her brother would have. Sons were filled with Greek science and literature, like huge stuffed capons. It was the education of the higher world, the cultured world. No girl was ever sent across the sea to partake of it. A puella docta, a girl with book learning, was just as undesirable as an ignorant one, a puella stulta. The bards portrayed the speech of garrulous girls as delightful and charming. Cynthia, of course, did not speak politely when giving her Propertius an earful for his misconduct. We have no real idea of how cultivated women like Tullia spoke. Nor how they wrote.

Surely, though, Tullia must have made use of the wax tablets she had scratched on since childhood. Delivered by slaves, they were used for message writing, the Roman equivalent of our emails and text messages, and they were equally easy to delete as well. She must have written letters to her farther when he was in Greece. But there is not a single extant epistle from Tullia to her beloved and sorely missed papa. From Terentia, then? No, not even from her.

Tullia wrote and read. But what?

The Advent of War

By the time Tullia was twenty-seven it was high time for a second marriage. Between 51 and 50 BCE her father was governor of the Cilicia province, a post he had felt obliged to accept, given the uncertain political times. Today we would say that Cilicia was in southern Turkey; he therefore found himself very far from the family. Letters could take months to arrive. It remained to Tullia and her mother to find a suitable husband.

Thus it came to pass that she and Terentia, after due consideration and a certain amount of discreet negotiation concerning various eligible men, made their decision. Their choice fell on one Publios Cornelius Dolabella, recently divorced from his wife Fabia. That the divorce had been at his wife’s initiative ought possibly have raised a warning flag. But some people just don’t get along, and divorce was common in Rome. He was of good ancestry and considered wealthy. At least he lived as if he were. From his distance, Tullia’s papa may have been dubious, but he accepted congratulations on his daughter’s engagement. Dolabella was from one of the finest families (optimates) and he was known to be charming and gifted. The future seemed to be on his side. By the time Cicero had returned home the marriage was a fact, and he wrote to his friend Atticus that he found his son-in-law both intelligent and courteous. I imagine we will just have to accept those other things of which you are aware. But we will speak of this when we meet; it will be a long conversation.

Those other things – that Dolabella was a loose-living rake and a ladies’ man, that money ran through his fingers and his debts were piling up – Tullia would come to realize. He supported Pompey, until he changed his mind during the civil war and became a devoted follower of Caesar. Eventually he joined joined Caesar’s army. That could provide a modicum of security in a terribly uncertain time when no one know how far Caesar was going to go. When he was victorious in Spain and had conquered Sicily, would he be moving his legions toward Rome? Tullia’s father was extremely uncertain about which side he dared to be associated with. [...]

The weeks and months before Tullia was to give birth passed by. She must have been very concerned about miscarrying, because of that previous bouncy journey to Cumae and back, the time she had given birth prematurely. A pregnancy that is both painful and has an unhappy ending breeds fear. I can hear her whisper to her unborn child: Stay with me. That’s what we whisper. Today as in the past.

This time, however, Tullia carried her unborn child to term. During the difficult days just after the delivery, the death of her first child must have been high in her mind. With the downy head of her new son close by her cheek, she whispered: Stay here. Stay with me. You must be strong and stay with me. Stay, my darling.

She, however, was the one who proved not to be strong. For one month, she was able to keep the boy by her. She held him. But it is not certain that she managed to nurse him at the end. There were other women around her, their breasts taut with milk. She had been taken to the villa in Tusculum to recuperate. The boy did not suffer during her increasing weakness. By that time he was kicking and gurgling, and had been named Lentulus after his father.

Tullia did not stay by her son. She died in the bed where she held him in her arms for as long as she was able. We do not know if she died hemorrhaging or of a fever.

Tullia has been the fragile thread of my story. What we know about her is basically what her papa wrote about her in his letters which, to be honest, isn’t much. Although he was often crushingly sad to be separated from his family, we cannot say he described his beloved Tulliola in anything but the most general of phrases. He was inconsolable when she died, in February of the year 45 BCE. He wanted to give her a fine funeral and he would have built a temple in her honor if a sensible friend had not counseled against it.

  • [1] Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al, Book the Sixth (
Book cover of Tullias värld: Roman bust

Tullias värld

Albert Bonniers förlag, 2020

Rights: Eleonoora Kirk, Bonnier Rights.

We are grateful to Bonnier Rights for granting permission to publish this translated extract from Tullias värld.

Tullias värld is reviewed in SBR 2021:1.

Kerstin Ekman remains among the most prominent living Swedish authors. A number of extracts from and reviews of her works have appeared in SBR.

Linda Schenck is a native English speaker who has lived in Sweden for many years. Professionally, she worked as both a conference and court interpreter and a translator of both fiction and non-fiction. Today she devotes herself entirely to literary translation. In 2018, she received The Swedish Academy Award for translation of Swedish Literature.