And so! From the opening of the Purgatorio, I bring you an anecdote.
For whatever crazy Dante reason, Cato of Utica is charged with guarding the shores of Purgatory. At first he thinks Virgil and Dante are escapees from hell, so Virgil explains their situation, concluding,
"We do not break the Laws: this man lives yet,
and I am of that Round not ruled by Minos,
with your own Marcia, whose chaste eyes seem set
in endless prayers to you. O blessed breast
to hold her yet your own! for love of her
grant us permission to pursue our quest
across your seven kingdoms. When I go
back to her side I shall bear thanks of you
if you will let me speak your name below." (Canto I, ll. 76-84)
To which Cato replies rather brusquely:
"Marcia was so pleasing in my eyes
there on the other side," he answered then
"that all she asked, I did. Now that she lies
beyond the evil river, no word or prayer
of hers may move me. Such was the Decree
pronounced upon us when I rose from there.
But if, as you have said, a Heavenly Dame
orders your way, there is no need to flatter:
you need but ask it of me in her name." (85-93)
I'm resisting a Brady Bunch joke here because, to be honest, I never watched that show, so it'd seem like too cheap a shot. Instead, let's find out who Marcia was. Ciardi has the goods:
The story of Marcia and of Cato is an extraordinary one. She was the daughter of the consul Philippus and became Cato's second wife, bearing his three children. In 56 B.C., in an unusual transaction approved by her father, Cato released her in order that she might marry his friend Hortensius. (Hence line 87: "that all she asked I did.") After the death of Hortensius, Cato took her back.
In Il Convivio, IV, 28, Dante presents the newly widowed Marcia praying to be taken back in order that she may die the wife of Cato, and that it may be said of her that she was not cast forth from his love. Dante treats that return as an allegory of the return of the strayed soul to God (that it may die "married" to God, and that God's love for it be manifest to all time). Virgil describes Marcia as still praying to Cato. (p. 190, note to l. 78)
I sort of expect Dante to romanticize things, but it sounds like Ciardi might be airbrushing this story a little himself. According to Wikipedia, that bastion of accuracy,
Hortensius was an admirer and friend of Cato’s, and he was eager to be more closely related to Cato and his family. ...[A]n alliance with Cato seems to be the chief reason for Hortensius, nearing 60 years old, to request to be married to Cato’s daughter Porcia, who was only about 20 years old at the time. However, because Porcia was already married to M. Calpurnius Bibulus and the age difference was so great, Cato refused to give his consent. Hortensius immediately suggested that he marry Marcia instead because she had already borne Cato his heirs. Due to Hortensius' ardor, Cato acquiesced, but only on the condition that Marcia's father, L. Marcius Philippus, approve as well. With Phillipus' consent obtained, Cato divorced Marcia, thereby placing her under her father's charge. Hortensius promptly married Marcia, and she bore him an heir. After Hortensius' death in 50 BC, she also inherited much of Hortensius' considerable wealth.
At the outbreak of the civil war in 49, Marcia and her children moved back into Cato’s household. Plutarch asserts that Cato remarried Marcia after Hortensius's death, whereas Appian's histories relate that Cato merely reestablished her in his own household.
Well that's... significantly less romantic than I'd hoped. Facts are always ruining Dante's great stories. (From the way Ciardi put it, I was sort of imagining that Marcia'd married Cato out of, whatever, family reasons, duty, but then cultivated this burning and reciprocal passion for his good friend Hortensius, and Cato, let's say, pulled a Francisco d'Anconia -- oh, yeah, I went there -- and stepped aside out of love for the two of them, then remarried Marcia after Hortensius' death so she wouldn't be lonely/poor. Yeah... no.)
Additional exciting Marcia facts:
--Marie Hamilton* suggests that "during the Middle Ages... Marcia was proverbial for virtue" (362), possibly because in Lucan's Pharsalia "on the occasion of her return to Cato she asks permission to share his anxieties and sorrows" (364).
--This, then, would be why she gets a mention in Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women:
Penalopee, and Marcia Catoun--Way, way more about Marcia as the figure of an obedient woman here. This article is actually super-interesting, but this post is already sort of out of control.
Mak of your wyfhod no comparisoun.
*Chaucer's "Marcia Catoun." Modern Philology, Vol. 30, No. 4 (May, 1933), pp. 361-364. The University of Chicago Press.