Antonius Creticus was a man who lived in the Roman Republic during the early-to-mid 1st century BCE, and he was heavily involved (but not necessarily prominent) in the Roman government and military. He had a mixed legacy, as he did not obtain the best results in the tasks appointed to him, such as a lackluster campaign against piracy that he conducted around 74 BCE. Yet, juxtaposed against his underperformance as an officer, he had a glowing reputation as a generous and kindly man. To his ancient Roman peers, however, Antonius Creticus might have seemed so easy-going and eager to please that it was to a fault, especially concerning his wife, to whom Antonius Creticus reportedly showed great deference. The woman in his life was a Roman elite named Julia, who ironically happened to hail from the clan of the Caesars that would eventually rule in Rome. Their personalities and relationship, including Antonius Creticus’ kind spirit and the dynamics of the marriage between him and his strong-willed wife, were perfectly illustrated in an ancient story concerning their household and a silver bowl.
Silver and other such pricey materials would have been seen as precious in the household of Antonius Creticus and Julia, for they reportedly possessed middling wealth and were far from the stereotypical visions of Roman lavishness. Nevertheless, they still were better off than many of their neighbors, and they had enough means to employ a household staff to help around the property. Antonius Creticus was also able to muster up some pocket money that he could spend at his digression, and in his sympathy toward his fellow Romans, it was reportedly not uncommon for him to give small loans or gifts to comrades in need. This tendency eventually led to the silver bowl incident, however, which momentarily threw the household of Antonius Creticus and Julia into chaos.
One day, as the story goes, a friend in need arrived at Antonius Creticus’ house and pleaded for some money. The friend’s story was evidently convincing, for Antonius decided to try to help the man get back on his feet financially. During the meeting between the men, a servant was asked to go fetch a fine silver bowl, and when this vessel was brought forth, Antonius Creticus handed it over to his friend so that the man in need could sell or trade the object and alleviate his monetary woes. The act of generosity was laudable, but Antonius had made a mistake in his spur-of-the-moment decision—he forgot to tell his wife. The hand-over of the silver bowl, and the chaotic debacle that it eventually caused, was recorded by the great biographer and essayist, Plutarch (c. 50-120), who wrote:
“Antonius surnamed Creticus…was not particularly well known or distinguished in the public domain, but was a fair and honorable man, and above all a generous one, as a single example of behavior should demonstrate. He was not well off, and so his wife tended to stop him displaying his kindness, but once, when one of his close friends came and asked him for money, although he did not have any actual money on him, he ordered a young slave to pour some water into a silver bowl and bring it to him…once the boy was out of the way on some other errand, he gave the bowl to his friend and told him it was his to dispose of. Later, when the house-slaves were being subjected to a thorough search, Antonius could see that his wife was angry and was prepared to examine each and every one of them under torture, so he confessed and asked her to forgive him” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Antony, chapter 1).
As told in the quote, Antonius’ wife Julia had not known that the silver bowl was given away as a gift to a friend in need. Therefore, when the item went missing from her house, her first assumption was that theft had occurred, and her prime suspects were the household servants and slaves. When pat-downs and searches did not uncover the silver bowl, Julia was about to resort to torture to uncover its fate. Antonius Creticus, thankfully, arrived on scene just in time to explain the situation to his fiery wife and beg forgiveness, sparing the household staff from Julia’s tortuous intentions. Curiously, ancient Romans would emphasize the begging forgiveness portion of the story’s end, as Antonius Creticus gained a reputation that he was a man who allowed himself to be dominated by his wife. These character components of having perhaps a too easy-going personality, and being deemed overly impressionable to the wiles of women, were thought by ancient Romans to be inherited traits in the family of Antonius Creticus. These features were pointed out in Antonius’ famous son, Mark Antony, whose brilliance as a military tactician was said to have been held back by a passive and lax personality, amplified by his love affair with Cleopatra.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Denarius (Coin) Portraying Caracalla and Plautilla, minted between 202–205, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Art Institute of Chicago).
- Roman Lives by Plutarch, translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World Classics), 1999, 2008.
- Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.