This story is found in Giovanni Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (De mulieribus claris). The same qualities of greatness of soul (magnitudo animi and munificentia animi) and moral character that make men great also serve the same purpose for women, as I have recounted in these pages many times before. It is right, then, for us to praise these virtues wherever we find them.
We do not know the name of the heroine of this story (the wife of the barbarian chieftain Orgiago), perhaps because, as Boccaccio believes, “the barbarian’s dislike of an unknown language has secreted it from our attention among the caves and mountains of Asia.” Or perhaps it is because her name has been covered up by the silt of time. We do not know. Some stories survive, and some do not.
Scipio Asiaticus defeated the forces of Antiochus, the king of Syria, at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 B.C. Following this victory, the consul Gnaeus Manlius Torquatus undertook further expeditions inside Asia Minor (what is now Turkey) to bring the multitude of peoples there under Roman control. Inside Asia Minor was a nation called the Galatians; there were actually the descendants of Thracian Celts who had migrated to Asia from Europe. (So is the history of the world the history of population movements!). Galatia itself was located roughly in the northern and central part of Asia Minor. Manlius wanted to subdue the Galatians because they had been allies of Antiochus.
But as happened to so many tribes and peoples, the Galatians could not contend with the power of the Roman army. The Latins were too organized, too disciplined, and simply too good. Gradually the Galatians were ground down, and became confined to their remote mountain redoubts, to prepare for a last stand. One day a large number of Galatians were captured; their custody was supervised by a Roman centurion. Among these captives was a beautiful Galatian who happened to be the wife of a local chief named Orgiago. The centurion was smitten by her and desired her on sight.
So he took her by force and had his way with her sexually, even though she resisted as best she could. This centurion forgot all his discipline and honor, debasing himself with criminal behavior. The wife of Orgiago was humiliated and in agony, but for the moment she kept her indignation in check to wait for the right time to avenge her violation.
The custom in those days was to ransom captives for money. The day came for the coins of ransom to be weighed and paid out the Romans. The centurion himself was present at this occasion, as was the wife of Orgiago. While the Roman accountants and attendants were absorbed in their financial tasks, she ordered a few of her servants to ambush the centurion and decapitate him. A melee ensued and the job was done. They carried the centurion’s head back to her, and she escaped with it back to her own people. There she told her husband what the centurion had done to her, and then presented him with the bloody head of the offender. This grisly trophy was laid at his feet.
Boccaccio says, Quonam acriorem hominem, animosiorem ducem, severiorem in male meritos imperatorem comperies? And this means, Where will you find a tougher man, a more spirited leader, or a commander more severe towards those who are worthless? And this is well said. The wife of Orgiago did not whine about her victimhood to others; nor did she seek to gain attention for herself by making some pathetic open display of her own personal tragedy. No. Instead she kept her honor and took action to right the wrong committed; and this is the mark of character, strength, and true feminine virtue. Boccaccio says,
So a woman’s honor is saved. So it is redeemed after having been lost. So is demonstrated the proof of a heart’s purity. Therefore those who are concerned with safeguarding their virtue should recognize that in order to show sincerity of heart, it is not enough to display tears or complaints about past wrongs. As much as one can, one must take action against the injustice with a suitably great deed. [De mulieribus claris, LXXIII]