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date: 20 January 2021


  • 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.

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