From the Deccan Times
A history of husbands and missing wives
August 27th, 2010
Umberto Eco, New York Times
I recently came across an online encyclopedia of women, a great many of whom have been unjustly forgotten by most historians. There is one exception: In his 1690 book, The History of Women Philosophers, French scholar Gilles Menage wrote about Diotima the Socratic, Arete the Cyrenaic, Nicarete the Megarian, Hipparchia the Cynic, Theodora the Peripatetic, Leontium the Epicurean and Themistoclea the Pythagorean, about whom we know very little. And it’s only right that many of these women should be saved from oblivion.
Still, what’s really missing is an encyclopedia of wives. It is often said that behind every great man there stands a great woman, from Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora (the former actress) all the way to Barack and Michelle Obama. It’s curious that the opposite is never said: We don’t talk about “the man behind” the great Elizabeth I of England, for instance, or her contemporary long-reigning, widowed counterpart. But generally wives are seldom, if ever, given their due attention.
In the histories of classical antiquity onward, more space has been devoted to mistresses than to wives. Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, who were married to the composers Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler are exceptions, but these women caused a stir for their extra- and post-marital affairs. Basically, the only wife who is always mentioned for simply being a wife is Xanthippe, who was married to Socrates — and even then, it is only to say bad things about her.
I recently read a text by the 20th-century Italian writer Pitigrilli, who crammed his stories with erudite quotations — though often getting the names wrong — and with anecdotes that he found goodness knows where. At one point Pitigrilli invokes Saint Paul’s stern warning, “Melius nubere quam uri,” or, “Better to marry than burn with great desire” — good advice, incidentally, for Roman Catholic priests. Pitigrilli also observes that most of the greats, including Plato, Lucretius, Virgil and Horace, were bachelors. But that’s not entirely the case.
It may hold true for Plato, who, according to Diogenes Laertius, wrote epigrams for very good-looking young men. On the other hand, Plato did take two women as pupils, Lastenia and Axiotea, and he is said to have remarked that a virtuous man should take a wife. Perhaps he was wary because of Socrates’ unhappy marriage to Xanthippe.
Plato’s famous pupil, Aristotle, married Pythias, after whose death he took up with Herpyllis, who was either his wife or concubine. Regardless, Aristotle lived with Herpyllis as man and wife, and he remembered her with affection in his will. She bore him a son, Nicomachus — for whom, some historians believe, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is named.
Horace had neither wives nor children, but judging by his writing, I suspect that he permitted himself a few romantic escapades. As for Virgil, he seems to have been too shy to declare himself to a woman, though it is rumored that he had a relationship with the wife of Varius Rufus. Ovid, by contrast, married three times.
Regarding Lucretius, the ancient sources tell us almost nothing. A brief mention in Saint Jerome’s writing would have us believe that Lucretius committed suicide because a love potion had driven him mad — though the saint certainly had an interest in declaring an atheist such as Lucretius to be crazy. On the basis of that account, others embroidered on the story, adding the mysterious Lucilla, who may have been Lucretius’ wife or mistress. In this version she was a woman in love who asked a witch to make her the potion, while others have said that Lucretius concocted the potion himself; either way, Lucilla doesn’t come out looking very good. That is, unless Julius Pomponius Laetus, a 15th-century Italian humanist, was right when he said that Lucretius killed himself because he was unhappily in love with someone else entirely.
Centuries later, Dante dreamed about Beatrice but married Gemma Donati — even though he never mentioned the latter in his writing. Everyone thinks that Descartes was a bachelor, as he died very young after a highly colorful life. But he did keep a companion for a few years — a maid named Helena Jans van der Strom whom he met in Holland. Officially, he only recognised Helena as a housemaid. But contrary to certain slanderous rumors, he did recognise the daughter she bore him, Francine, who died at age five. According to some sources, Descartes also had other love affairs.
In short, apart from churchmen, who were presumably celibate, and more or less openly homosexual men such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, Immanuel Kant is one of the only great thinkers in history we are truly certain was a bachelor — the historical record is quite clear on this point.
Surprisingly enough, even Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was married; in fact, it seems he was also something of a womaniser, with an illegitimate child in the picture. Then there was Karl Marx, who was deeply attached to his wife, Jenny von Westphalen.
But the question remains: What influence did Gemma have over Dante, or Helena over Descartes, not to mention the enormous number of wives about whom the historical says even less? What if all of Aristotle’s works were really written by Herpyllis? We shall never know. History, written by husbands, has condemned wives to anonymity.
* Umberto Eco’s most recent book is
On Ugliness. He is also the author of international bestsellers Baudolino, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, among others.