- Marilyn B. Skinner
During the final decades of the Roman Republic, Clodia, usually designated “Clodia Metelli” to differentiate her from her two like-named sisters, was one of its most prominent and politically involved noblewomen. Eldest of the six children of Ap. Claudius Pulcher, consul in 79 bce, she may have been a product of an earlier marriage and thus a step-sister to her five siblings. Her union with her first cousin Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer resulted in just one known child, their daughter Metella. Like her youngest brother P. Clodius Pulcher, who adopted a radical populist stance, she may have affected the nonelite spelling and pronunciation of the family name “Claudius” to court the goodwill of the masses. In 60 bce, Clodia used her privileges as a consul’s wife to further her brother’s aims, thereby putting herself at odds with her staunchly conservative husband. Through his consular powers, Metellus was able to thwart Clodius’s efforts to seek the office of tribune, but his sudden death in early 59 bce led to rumors that his wife had poisoned him. As a widow, Clodia became openly known as her brother’s ally; this implicated her indirectly in his battles with political enemies, including the orator M. Tullius Cicero, and triggered a campaign of obscene slander accusing brother and sister of incest. When Clodius’s former associate M. Caelius Rufus was prosecuted on charges of criminal violence in 56 bce, Clodia appeared as a prosecution witness. Speaking for the defence, Cicero launched a malicious personal attack upon her in which he claimed she had engineered the trial to punish Caelius, her former lover, for abandoning her. Writing at about the same time, the poet C. Valerius Catullus drew an unflattering representation of his literary mistress “Lesbia,” whose real name, according to the later author Apuleius, was “Clodia.” Even though these two accounts may appear to corroborate each other, serious methodological considerations nevertheless dissuade historians from taking Cicero’s and Catullus’s allegations of immoral conduct as credible testimony about the same woman. We hear no more of Clodia until 45 bce, when Cicero, in ongoing correspondence with his friend T. Pomponius Atticus, expresses interest in purchasing her well-known riverfront gardens. No offer, however, was ever made. A final mention of her occurs in another letter to Atticus written in April 44, where Cicero seems to link her name with that of Cleopatra VII, the queen of Egypt, who had left Rome in a hurry after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Clodia’s date of death is not known.
- Roman History and Historiography
Updated in this version
Text rewritten to reflect current scholarship.
Born in the early 90s bce, Clodia was, according to a widely accepted reconstruction, the eldest of the six children (three brothers and three sisters) of Ap. Claudius Pulcher (2) and possibly a half-sister to her siblings.1 Like her youngest brother, the radical tribune P. Clodius Pulcher, she adopted the nonelite spelling and pronunciation of her family name, arguably in sympathy with his popularis (see optimates, populares) stance.2 Marriage to her first cousin Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer produced one daughter, Metella. To differentiate Clodia from her like-named sisters, authorities use the Roman practice of attaching the husband’s name in the genitive (possessive) case: she is thus commonly known as Clodia Metelli. While husband and wife seem on good terms in 62 bce (discussed further in Cicero’s Evidence), during Metellus’s consulship two years later they are reported to be quarreling violently over his opposition to Clodius’s political aims. After her husband’s sudden death in spring 59 Clodia became publicly known as a supporter of her brother. Earlier allegations of incest between him and a younger sister were attached to her and by 57 she and Clodius are tarred with the same brush not only in political invective but also at popular demonstrations (Cic. QFr. 2.3.2). In April 56 Cicero, speaking for the defence in the trial of M. Caelius Rufus, responded to Clodia’s involvement as a prosecution witness with a vicious character assassination, the archetype for many ancient (see Sall. Cat. 25 on Sempronia) and modern portrayals of dissolute Roman noblewomen. The poet Catullus (1)’s scathing depiction of his pseudonymous mistress “Lesbia,” thought to be Clodia Metelli (as explained in Catullus and the “Lesbia” Question), has been taken as confirmation of Cicero’s accusations. In letters of 45 bce to his friend T. Pomponius Atticus, Cicero expressed interest in purchasing Clodia’s riverside gardens (Att. 12.38a2), but made no actual offer. She is last mentioned in April 44 (Att. 14.8.1), in the context of events following the death of Julius Caesar (2). Her own date of death is unknown.
As the only contemporary source for Clodia’s activities, Cicero, though demonstrably biased and sometimes untruthful, can still be helpful to scholars provided his motives are taken into account. The obvious purpose of his assault upon her in the oration For Caelius is to discredit her testimony as a material witness. Casting her as a “Palatine Medea,” he therefore accuses her of engineering the entire prosecution as revenge for being jilted. That strategy presupposes an affair with Caelius, a possibility that not all historians accept.3 From Cicero’s description of her thronged house and retinue, we may plausibly infer that Clodia was highly visible in society and had many persons of lesser rank (see cliens) dependent upon her. Although moneylending was financially acceptable for wealthy women, her professed loan of funds to the defendant is twisted into proof of a sinister intimacy (Cael. 31). When suggesting that she spends her riches immoderately, using them to buy the services of cash-strapped young men, the orator appeals to long-standing masculine prejudice against independent women of means. Because the word of a prostitute would have no value in court, he insinuates that Clodia’s lifestyle is comparable to that of a meretrix (“courtesan”) in its blatant shamelessness (Cael. 38) Hints that she poisoned her husband (Cael. 59–60) are not taken seriously by most historians, as murder charges were an invective stock-in-trade. The allegation that she repeatedly acts against the wishes of her male kin (Cael. 68) contradicts her probable function at the trial as a surrogate for her brothers, who may have been trying to dispose of Caelius since his previous ties to them had become embarrassing.4
Because his reasons for mentioning her differ, references to Clodia in Cicero’s correspondence are, on the other hand, varied in tone and content. In a conciliatory epistle from early 62 bce (Fam. 5.2.6), he tells Metellus Celer that he had asked “Claudia, your wife” to intercede on his behalf with Metellus’s aggrieved brother Nepos. Cicero’s use of “Claudia,” the traditional spelling of her name, may indicate respect for the nobility of her family. He expects Celer to approve of his discretion, implying that he is not aware of any marital tensions. In 60, however, he expresses frank antipathy to her (Att. 2.1.5), characterizing her as seditiosa (“insubordinate”) for opposing her husband’s interference with her brother’s plans to stand for tribune. Once Clodius, in the following year, had become technically eligible for that office, Cicero repeatedly asks Atticus to find out through Clodia what his intentions are (Att. 2.12.2, 2.14.1, 2.22.5). She is facetiously termed Boōpos (“ox-eyed”), the Homeric epithet for Hera, seemingly referring to her large brown eyes but perhaps also to disagreements with her now-deceased husband and to supposed fraternal incest. That code name is coupled with “Athenio,” applied to Clodius’s scribe and legislative aide, Sex. Cloelius: in military imagery, she is said to “sound the charge” for Clodius’s plotting while Cloelius “bears the flag.” In speeches delivered during 57–56 bce, Cicero makes obscene jokes about the pair and in the oration For Caelius she is said to be responsible for Cloelius’s recent acquittal on a charge of criminal violence (Cael. 78). After that, we find no secure mention of Clodia until May 45, when Cicero is mulling over the desirability of her garden property. In his remarks to Atticus, he reveals his familiarity with the site; at the same time, he expresses doubts that its owner is willing to sell, as she is fond of it and so rich that she does not need the money. She turns up once more in a letter to Atticus written a year later: after commenting sardonically on Cleopatra VII’s abrupt departure from Rome, Cicero asks his correspondent in the next sentence what Clodia has done. In his mind the two women seem to be associated, but we can only speculate about the connection.
Catullus and the “Lesbia” Question
From internal evidence, some of Catullus’s poetic activity at Rome can be dated to the mid-50s bce. The dominant figure in his shorter verse is a woman he calls “Lesbia” in honor of Sappho of Lesbos. Nobly born but duplicitous and wanton, she embodies the moral collapse of aristocratic Roman society. Apuleius’s testimony that Clodia was her real name (Apol. 10) poses a historical puzzle: which one of the three sisters was she? All bore the same family name, and at least one other sister affected the variant spelling. Lesbia is portrayed as married at the time of the affair: in poem 68b the speaker reflects that he can make no claim on her because she was not given to him in wedlock by her father and bestows upon him affection taken (dempta, l. 146) from her husband. Clodia Metelli’s two sisters were already widowed in 60 bce, when Catullus is usually said to have arrived in Rome and begun the adulterous relationship. Assuming that she was Lesbia, however, scholars chose that date arbitrarily, in the absence of other indications, to allow time for her involvement with Catullus before she became Caelius’s lover in the following year. Arguments for Lesbia’s identity based upon the standard chronology of the poet’s life are therefore circular.
By following an alternative scenario in which Catullus starts to write and circulate poetry only in the later months of 56 bce, the question becomes even more complicated, because any of the sisters, even Clodia Metelli, might have remarried by then.5 However, there is no way to tell how closely details of Catullus’s poems mirror actual events. It is not legitimate to posit that the poetry was composed at the same time as the liaison was going on, nor that it accurately reflects real circumstances. Indeed, the author may have modelled a fictive beloved upon someone already widely known in order to give her symbolic presence more power.
Catullus’s poem 79, on the other hand, appears to offer a deliberate clue as to who Lesbia was. She is there said to fancy someone named “Lesbius,” who is described as pulcher (“pretty”). Connotations of effeminacy conveyed by this adjective replicate Cicero’s derogatory puns on P. Clodius Pulcher’s cognomen (see names, personal, roman), while the coupling of “Lesbius” with “Lesbia” hints at criminal sexual conduct between paternal relatives. With its intertextual echoes of Ciceronian invective, the epigram must date from the period after Clodius’s tribunate, when his control of the urban masses was at its height. Because at that time he was so closely linked in the public imagination with just one sister, the widow of Metellus, it is reasonable to suppose that the poem points to her.
Even if Lesbia was meant to be Clodia Metelli, though, the ostensible similarities between Catullus’s depiction and Cicero’s account of her in the oration For Caelius do not allow historians to conflate them into a supposedly realistic portrait of the same woman. Both literary creations draw upon widely circulating female stereotypes. Each is a trope designed to accomplish rhetorical objectives having little to do with historical truth. In the end, almost nothing is known about Clodia except that she was wealthy and independent, had striking dark eyes, and was prepared to risk a great deal, including her marriage and reputation, for her youngest brother.
- Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Clodia 66.”
- Alexander, Michael C. The Case for the Prosecution in the Ciceronian Era. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.
- Damon, Cynthia. “Sex. Cloelius, Scriba.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 94 (1992): 227–250.
- Hillard, Thomas W. “Republican Politics, Women and the Evidence.” Helios 16 (1989): 165–182.
- Wiseman, T. P. “Clodia: Pleasure and Sway.” In Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal. Edited by T. P. Wiseman, 15–53. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
1. D. R. Shackleton Bailey, “Brothers or Cousins?” American Journal of Ancient History 2 (1977): 148–150.
2. Andrew M. Riggsby, “Clodius/Claudius,” Historia 51 (2002): 117–123.
3. Wilfried Stroh, Taxis und Taktik: Die advokatische Dispositionskunst in Ciceros Gerichtsreden (Stuttgart: de Gruyter, 1975), 272–275, 296–298.
4. Marilyn B. Skinner, Clodia Metelli: The Tribune’s Sister (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 111–112.
5. T. P. Wiseman, Catullan Questions (Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1969), 50–60.