Woman: Man's Equal Part 6

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PORTIA.

Like Lucretia, Portia was a Roman matron of n.o.ble lineage, and still n.o.bler powers of mind. The daughter of Cato and wife of Brutus, it was her ambition to prove herself worthy of such a sire and such a husband; and, after the pagan fashion of the time, she subjected herself to an exceedingly painful physical ordeal, in order to test her powers of endurance. Having established the fact beyond a doubt that she was fully equal to her husband in fort.i.tude and strength of character, she became his confidant and counselor, sharing his trials and misfortunes as readily as she had shared his prosperity. The ambition of Brutus, together with the jealous rivalries of the time, effected his ruin; and, finding his case hopelessly desperate, he caused himself to be mortally wounded, and expired shortly after. Portia had been so fondly attached to her husband that her friends feared she would determine not to survive him, and in consequence took measures to prevent her from taking her own life; but she foiled all their prudent forethought by swallowing a handful of live coals. Faithful to her husband to the last, according to her idea of fidelity, one can but lament that she had not the knowledge of a purer faith than that of paganism. She was worthy of a better fate and brighter age.

ZEn.o.bIA.

Lucretia and Portia adorned private life, and–except in the manner of their respective deaths–were model matrons, the equals of their husbands in integrity and understanding. Zen.o.bia takes a somewhat higher rank; though no more virtuous–that being impossible–she was called to exercise her talents in a different sphere. Though born in Asia, she claimed descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt. In her youth, notwithstanding the restraints put upon her s.e.x, she acquired a liberal education, and made herself mistress of the Latin, Greek, Egyptian, and Syriac literature.

She took an active part in the promotion of learning, and even compiled an epitome of Oriental history for her own use. Palmyra, “the gem of the desert,” was favored in possessing such a princess. As beautiful as she was accomplished, she might in these respects be compared to her famous ancestress, Cleopatra; but here the resemblance ended. She was as famous for her virtues as was Cleopatra for her vices.

Arrived at maturity, she united her destiny with that of Odenathus, a man who had risen from an obscure position to the highest rank in the land. An intrepid general, he had not only subdued the neighboring tribes of the desert, but had, in a measure, humbled the haughty Persian king, and avenged the cruelty practiced upon the unfortunate Valerian, which the dissensions among the Romans prevented them from doing themselves, and had made himself master of the dominion of the East. In Zen.o.bia he found a true helpmeet. She inured herself to hardships in order that she might accompany her husband in his hazardous undertakings, and a.s.sist him by her counsels or cheer him by her presence. To her prudence and fort.i.tude Odenathus owed much of his success, both as a general and a monarch; so that in a few years, from the small possessions adjoining Palmyra, he had extended his territory from the Euphrates to the frontiers of Bithynia. During the intervals between the wars in which he engaged from time to time, he spent much of his leisure in hunting or other wild sports; and in these active amus.e.m.e.nts his wife also accompanied him. She even marched, when the occasion required it, at the head of their troops. For years every thing went prosperously; then Odenathus was s.n.a.t.c.hed away by death, and the entire responsibility of the Government devolved upon Zen.o.bia alone. The Romans, now grown stronger than they had been for some time after the defeat of Valerian, disputed the right of the widow of Odenathus to a.s.sume the reins of government, and sent out generals to compel her to submit to the dictum of the Senate. One of these she met, and obliged to retreat with the loss of his army, his mortification at defeat being increased by the fact that he had been beaten by a woman.

By judicious tact, she attached both her subjects and her soldiers to her cause, and enlarged the borders of her dominion very considerably.

Even Egypt yielded to her prowess, and haughty Persia solicited an alliance with her. She was, in fact, as powerful as any of the Eastern potentates, if not the most powerful. No petty pa.s.sion or malice was allowed to mark her conduct in the treatment of her subjects. The good of her country was her princ.i.p.al object in government, and for the good of the State she would forgive, or at least not punish, a personal injury. And, though surrounding herself with all the splendors of royalty, she yet managed the financial affairs of her realm with economy.

But the prosperity of her kingdom, and her own success as a sovereign, only increased the envy and resentment of the Romans. Aurelian had gained the supreme power in Rome, and, once established in his authority, he determined to make good the old boast–once so true–that Rome was mistress of the world. Zen.o.bia was a powerful rival, and her he determined to humble. Finding her kingdom menaced by so powerful a foe, she set herself to defend it, and met the approaching enemy a hundred miles from her capital. Here the tide of fortune turned against the hitherto prosperous queen. In two successive battles she suffered defeat, and then she shut herself up in Palmyra, hoping to starve Aurelian into leaving her in peace; but his star was yet in the ascendant, the last obstacle was overcome, and Palmyra fell.

Zen.o.bia, with some of her attendants, fled; but was overtaken and brought back a prisoner, destined to grace the triumph of her conqueror.

She who had for more than five years ruled a powerful nation so n.o.bly and so well, was henceforth to be subjected to the indignities of a captive.

With Zen.o.bia, fell the dominion of the East, and its once beautiful capital dwindled into insignificance.

HYPATIA.

Rather more than a century had pa.s.sed since the subjugation of Zen.o.bia and her Empire by pagan Rome, when Hypatia, the philosopher of Alexandria, attracted the attention of the then civilized world by her marvelous talents and varied accomplishments. The daughter of Theon, the celebrated mathematician of Alexandria, she possessed unusual facilities–for a woman–for acquiring knowledge; and especially for becoming acquainted with the abstruse sciences. Of these facilities she availed herself with commendable earnestness; and at an early age she had made herself mistress of both Geometry and Astronomy, as far as either science was then understood or taught in any of the schools. As is the case with less profound natures, the mind grew on what it fed upon; reasoning, and the elucidation of knotty mathematical problems, became her delight; and, by general consent, she ranked as one of the first philosophers of her time, if not indeed the very first.

It has often been a.s.serted that the possession of great mental power unfits the woman possessing it for the common amenities of life. That it does not necessarily do any thing of the kind, is sufficiently evidenced in the life of Hypatia. Though elevated to the very pinnacle of fame, in consequence of her mental attainments, she was nevertheless gentle and courteous in her manners, toward those by whom she was surrounded. She was very beautiful, yet without vanity; indeed, true strength of mind precludes the idea of vanity, for few but the mentally weak are vain; and she was as chaste as she was mentally strong and physically beautiful.

Convinced of her superior merits, the authorities of the School of Philosophy in which Plotinus and his successors had expounded their theories, importuned her to become preceptress therein; and, overcoming her natural diffidence, she consented. Thenceforth, instead of the frivolous adornments, considered too foolish to be worn by men, but quite fitting and becoming for women, she was arrayed in the cloak of the philosopher, and took her proper position as head of the most noted school in a city distinguished as the chief seat of learning of that age. As a public speaker–for her lectures were not altogether confined to her school–she was fluent. Her elocution may be said to have been faultless, and her manner of address pleasing; and these, combined with the very remarkable amount of information which she was capable of conveying in her lectures, drew crowds of warm admirers and enthusiastically devoted students to listen to her.

Was it possible that one so gifted, so beautiful and pure, could arouse malicious envy, or make an enemy by the exercise of talents G.o.d had given her?

Ah, yes! She knew more than Cyril–a professedly Christian bishop, who then filled the patriarchal chair. Thenceforth she was marked as his prey.

Allied to the State, the Church had lost its purity, and become the bitterest of persecutors; and Cyril was one of the bitterest of these.

The Jews had enjoyed a degree of liberty in Alexandria, which latterly had been denied them elsewhere; and this the haughty spirit of the arrogant bishop could not brook; and, a.s.suming that his power as an ecclesiastic was in consequence superior to the civil authority, he, after treating the Jews with most outrageous cruelty, banished them from the city. The Jews had been allowed to inhabit Alexandria from the time of its foundation, and had materially contributed to its prosperity; therefore, the civil authorities were not willing to see them suffer such indignities without raising their voice against the oppressive act.

Orestes, Prefect of the city, appealed to the emperor on their behalf.

He, trammeled with his Church connections, and yet not wishing to break with the prefect, declined to interfere in the matter, thus leaving them to settle the dispute by themselves; and soon the ecclesiastics and the citizens joined issue. Orestes, being attacked by a party of monks as he was peaceably pursuing his way through the streets in his carriage, was succored by the citizens, who came to his relief; and in the affray a monk was taken prisoner, whom the justly exasperated Orestes ordered to be executed. The sentence was carried into effect, and Cyril caused the name of the would-be murderer to be enrolled among the martyrs.

Hypatia was neither Jew nor Christian; but her love of truth and justice caused her to espouse the side of the persecuted victims of ecclesiastical tyranny. She had previously been the object of Cyril’s bitter hatred, because her mental attainments were superior to his own.

Now, that hatred was intensified to the highest degree of malignity. She had openly and boldly censured the conduct of the bishop, and was deemed the friend of Orestes; therefore she must die. Having committed no crime, she could not be brought before the civil tribunal for condemnation; therefore, as her death had been determined upon, _murder_ was the next resort.

She was surrounded and seized by a mob in the interest of Cyril, as she was one day returning from her school, and hurried into the Caesarian church, where she was brutally murdered, every barbarity being practiced upon her which monks were capable of inventing, even to tearing her limb from limb, and afterward burning her; and Cyril, if indeed he did not sanction the murder by his actual presence while it was being committed, sanctioned the horrid deed by his protection of the perpetrators when the infuriated populace would have avenged her death.

Thus tragic was the end of one of the most highly gifted women the world has ever produced. She flourished in the reign of the Emperor Theodosius II, in the early part of the fifth century.

The record of the Famous Women of Antiquity might be lengthened out indefinitely: Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, so famous in Roman history; Octavia, the deeply injured wife of Mark Antony; Eudosia, the wife of Theodosius, with her equally famous sister-in-law, Pulcheria; the Aspasia of Pericles, who is represented by some writers as having composed many of the orations given to the world as those of her husband; the Aspasia of Cyrus, so famous for her gentle modesty and wise counsels; and Marianne, the last and most unfortunate princess of the ill.u.s.trious line of the Maccabees, and wife of the monster, Herod the Great. Each of these, to do justice to their merits, or to the transactions which rendered them famous, would require a biography. The mere mention of their names must suffice just here. Who has not read or heard of Sappho, the Greek poetess, concerning whose life and moral character there has been so much controversy–one cla.s.s of writers condemning in unstinted measure, as all and utterly vile; the other cla.s.s applauding her as being possessed of every virtue? Says one of the latter: “In Sappho, a warm and profound sensibility, virgin purity, feminine softness, and delicacy of sentiment and feeling, were combined with the native probity and simplicity of the Eolian character; and, although endued with a fine perception of the beautiful and brilliant, she preferred genuine conscious rect.i.tude to every other source of human enjoyment.” It is probable a medium between these two extremes would give the true character of this remarkable woman.

Many scores of names, besides those given, might be added to the list of eminent women; but the examples cited suffice to prove the a.s.sertion made–so far as the women of antiquity are concerned–that they were capable of an equal amount of mental effort with the men with whom they were contemporary; and that, where they arose to the supreme power, they governed as wisely and as well as the kings of the same period.

CHAPTER IX.

Eminent Women of Modern Times.

It now remains to be seen whether the women of modern times have been worthy of note, or what they have in any way accomplished.

COUNTESS OF MONTFORT.

In the troublous times about the middle of the fourteenth century, when every petty prince in Europe was trying to overreach his immediate neighbor and grasp his lands, and when ties of blood seemed only to intensify feuds, there arose two claimants for the princ.i.p.ality of Brittany. The Count of Montfort, half-brother of the last duke, and Charles of Blois, were the rivals; and each prosecuted his claim with vigor. The army of Charles laid siege to Nantz, in which Montfort happened to be, and from which he found it impossible to escape.

Here was a dilemma. The partisans of Montfort were without an efficient leader; and his chances of gaining what he claimed were exceedingly doubtful. In this crisis of his affairs, however, an unexpected diversion was made, which changed the current of fortune. His wife, Jane of Flanders, now Countess of Montfort, had hitherto limited her administrative abilities to the careful management of her domestic concerns; and, it is to be supposed, was not deemed capable of a thought beyond. The tidings of the virtual captivity of her husband roused in her a determination to defend what she considered to be his rights, since he was unable to defend them himself.

She was at the time residing at Rennes, the inhabitants of which she caused to be a.s.sembled, and made known the disaster which had befallen their sovereign. Her infant son she presented before them as the last of an ill.u.s.trious line, which must become extinct unless his father’s fortunes were retrieved; and she besought them to prove now, by actions, the attachment they had formerly professed for the count. Nor was her address in vain. The citizens, inspired by courage and eloquence, vowed they would fight under her standard alone, and live or die with her. The garrisons throughout Brittany followed the example of Rennes, and she found herself at the head of a respectable army; but, fearing that she was not sufficiently strong to cope with Charles, who was backed by the strength of France, she applied to Edward III, of England, for help.

Then, having put the affairs of the province in the best possible position, she established herself at Hennebonne, where she awaited the issue of events; having first sent her son to England, that he might be out of danger.

In the mean time, Charles of Blois was not inactive. Hennebonne was, of itself, too important a fortress to be overlooked; and, besides that, the heroic countess was there. If he could take the city and make prisoner its defender, his cause would be gained. With both the count and his wife in his power, he would be sure of the succession.

Accordingly, before the supplies which Edward was sending could reach Hennebonne, he laid siege to it; but did not find its capture so easy a matter as he had expected.

The besieged made frequent sallies, in which the enemy lost both men and reputation, though they were not compelled to raise the siege. On one of these occasions the return of the countess was intercepted, and she found it impossible to regain the fortress. Nothing daunted she commanded her men to disperse themselves over the country, while she made her own escape to Brest. As soon as was possible, she collected another and larger force, and, forcing her way through the enemy’s camp, made good her entrance into the city, to the great joy of her almost discouraged partisans.

Subsequently, the re-enforcements expected from Edward not having yet arrived, it was thought the garrison would be obliged to capitulate, and negotiations were actually commenced. The countess, deeply mortified at the turn her affairs were taking, had mounted a high turret, and there remained, looking sadly out over the sea in the direction whence the long-expected, but now despaired of, supplies should have come. Perhaps there was still a slight hope in her heart that, even yet, the desired aid might be afforded. If so, that hope was destined to be realized. As she kept her position, gazing sorrowfully over the wide expanse of waters, she descried dark objects on the very verge of the horizon. The despairing look gave place to one of eager, hopeful watching. The objects increased in size as she strained the eye to determine what they really were. A favorable breeze was wafting them nearer, and presently they took a tangible form. “Sails! sails!” cried the delighted countess.

“Behold the succors–the English succors. No capitulation!” The opportune arrival of the re-enforcements sent by Edward had saved the garrison. Charles was obliged to raise the siege. He had neither taken the city nor captured the countess.

Edward’s six thousand gallant troops did the cause of the countess and her still besieged husband good service. They had not appeared upon the field at an earlier period in the struggle in consequence of contrary winds. But the delay itself had accomplished very much in bringing out the strong points in the character of the countess. She had proved to the world that she could not only collect an army, but do even more–efficiently command it.

Subsequently, the cause of Charles of Blois seemed to gain fresh strength, and his party greatly outnumbered that of Montfort, whose friends decreased as those of Charles increased. Edward again sent re-enforcements. The English fleet, having with them the countess, were met on the pa.s.sage to Brittany by the enemy, and an action ensued, in which the countess behaved with the utmost courage, charging the foe as valorously as any other officer among them. A storm put an end to the b.l.o.o.d.y conflict, and the fleet, without further adventure, reached the sh.o.r.es of Brittany. Thenceforth the dispute of the succession became inextricably mixed up in the quarrel between England and France, becoming indeed a part of it; and we trace the career of the heroic Countess of Montfort no further.

ANNE ASKEW.

In the preceding sketch, it has been shown what a woman could–did, in fact–do and dare, as an ardent patriot and loving wife. The fort.i.tude of Anne Askew was of a different stamp. She proved what she could endure for conscience’ sake. The Reformation produced many women such as she; but her simple story must suffice, here, for all.

She was a young lady of high family, and exercised a remarkable influence, for one so young, over the ladies at the Court of Henry VIII; and even stood in the relation of a friend to the queen–no great pa.s.sport to the favor of the monster Henry. Being possessed of considerable mental ability, she gave much of her attention to the study of the theological questions which were disturbing the peace of Europe at the time; and being also of an independent turn, and withal deeply pious, she dared to question Henry’s dogma concerning the “real presence” of the body of Christ in the Sacrament. Henry was furious that a woman should dare to hold any tenet other than he allowed, or dispute one which he had decreed must be believed. The infamous Bonner was commissioned to confer with her respecting her religious views; and, finding her firm in her determination not to yield to either his dictates or those of the king, he p.r.o.nounced her a heretic. His conduct in representing her as such was the more reprehensible, as, while refusing to give entire credence to the doctrine they wished to impose upon her, she told the bishop and wrote to the king that, “As to the Lord’s-supper, she believed as much as Christ himself had said of it, … and as much as the Catholic Church required.”

But the king, though professing to be a reformer, would brook nothing which did not accord precisely with his own dogmatic utterances. Her presuming to write to him, when she did not submit to his dictation, he chose to construe as a fresh insult to himself.

Her youth (she was but seventeen), her beauty, and her innocence were no protection. The rack, and then the stake, were all that remained, unless she could be prevailed on to recant. This she gently but firmly refused to do.

The king was determined to root out the heresy–if it existed there–from the court; and those who knew him, knew that there was no cruelty of which he would not be guilty to accomplish his end.

Wriothesley, the chancellor, waited on the unfortunate Miss Askew to examine her concerning the religious sentiments of the other ladies of the court; but, though bold in professing her own religious views, she was just as firm in refusing to implicate any of her former a.s.sociates.

Threatenings and promises were alike found useless. Then she was subjected to the most excruciating torture; but, though every limb was dislocated, the n.o.ble girl remained true to her friends and to her G.o.d.

So enraged was the chancellor at her fort.i.tude, that when the lieutenant of the tower refused to obey his order to screw the rack still more tightly, he seized the instrument himself, and wrenched it so violently as almost to tear the “body asunder.” But her constancy was unshaken.

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