A Paelex in Livy, from my research on a word

Maximus Planudes
Jul 27 · 4 min read

I’m reading every use of the word paelex and trying to understand both the meaning of the word and any social situation it refers to. This brings me to Livy, who used the word twice in reference to Perseus of Macedonia. Briscoe speculates, based seemingly on the meaning of paelex, that Livy misunderstood his source. I think, however, that we may have misunderstood what a paelex is (or, better, can be) and what it means. I do not have all the evidence yet and don’t want to lay out all the arguments, but here is a start.

Both Plut. Aem. 8,11 and Liv. 39,53,3 probably look back to Polybius, so we will have to assume that Plutarch more or less represents Polybius well. Here is the Loeb of Plutarch.

And it is said that Perseus was not even a true-born son, but that Philip’s wife (ἡ συνοικοῦσα) took him at his birth from his mother, a certain sempstress, an Argive woman named Gnathaenion, and passed him off as her own.”

Note that according to this story, Perseus was not born of a concubine, but a supposititious child of an unknown father. The passage does not state it, but I suspect that this Argive ἀκεστρία was a servant of the queen.

Now Livy’s version (trans. Walsh, adapted)

For the common people of Macedionia reflected that though Demetrius was younger than Perseus, he was the offspring of the lawful mater familiae, whereas Perseus was born of a paelex; and while Perseus, born from a prostitute (ex volgato corpore) bore no marks to identify his father, Demetrius boasted a remarkable likeness to Philip

I’m not really interested in the truth of Perseus birth (see Briscoe on 32,21,24). I’m interested in the paelex. Here is Briscoe ad loc. (emph. mine)

It is quite possible that L. has misunderstood Polybius, taking ἡ συνοικοῦσα to mean someone other than a legitimate wife, and then, thinking, perhaps, that it was quite enough to accuse Perseus of not being Philip’s legitimate son without also having a concubine substitute someone else’s child, here omits the substitution but transfers what he took (not unreasonably) to be an indication of prostitution from the seamstress to the paelex. The latter must mean a regular concubine of Philip, and cannot refer to a prostitute

What if, however, the paelex IS the seamstress? What if Livy does not translate ἡ συνοικοῦσα with paelex? Instead, what if he only talks about the seamstress and does not mention the queen? Because Briscoe (and Walsh) understand paelex to mean concubine in the sense of royal concubines of eastern kings, they seem to assume that woman called paelex who gave birth to Perseus must be different than the so-called prostitute [edit. I now see that I misrepresent Briscoe: he sees only one figure, but assumes that (1) Livy wrongly calls a wife a paelex and (2) Livy wrongly ascribes prostitution to a royal concubine]. However, the Latin suggests that they are the same: both sentences describe Perseus’ mother and it seems natural to assume they refer to the same woman, the Argive sempstress Gnathaenion (whose real-life sexual behavior we have no way of knowing; I’ll assume she was not a prostitute. Again, not interested in the reality here, but it is verbal representation).

It is not necessarily wrong in every case to gloss paelex with concubine. The TLL (I.A.1.b 38,156 Baumgartner) locates this passage under the heading of women who have relationships with married men and in the subcategory of “eastern princes and Macedonians” (separate, apparently from I.A.1.a: Greeks and Romans — no comment on that!). But a paelex is often closely tied to the wife (possessive genitives, adjectives are frequently the wife and not the husband). The paelex can be a servant of the legitimate wife who attracts the husband’s attention or whom the husband has sex with. This is the part that I don’t want to lay out all the evidence for, both Greek, Roman, and Hebrew, but a careful reading of the passage from Caecilius’ Plocium (see Gellius 2,23) shows this meaning.

Unfortunately, the only other usage of paelex in Livy is also about Perseus, so it is difficult to control what Livy meant. It does give some support to my interpretation, however. Perseus is speaking about himself and he says the common Macedonians claim that he is subditum et paelice genitum, or in other words, “a suppositious child born from the servant of the queen”. This is not, of course, how the phrase is usually translated, but it does in fact respect one meaning of the word, a meaning unfortunately not represented in any dictionary. It does fit the story of Perseus we know from Plutarch and does not require us to assume that Livy misunderstood his source.

    Maximus Planudes

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    The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.