Clodia Metelli

The Infamy of Clodia Metelli

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Clodia Metelli lived in the first century BC, a time when the Roman Republic was controlled by a handful of affluent families, whose quarrels would soon lead to civil war and the rise of an empire.  Clodia descended from one of these families, a branch of the Claudian line. 

Her given name was Claudia, according to the Roman naming custom that all girls were given the feminized version of their family name.  But she changed her name to Clodia in solidarity with her brother, the politician Publius Clodius Pulcher.  The simplified spelling was meant to appear less aristocratic and thus win Clodius the vote of the Roman people.

Although women were not permitted to vote or hold office in republican Rome, Clodia was involved in political dealings through her brother Clodius and, after she married, through her husband, another statesman Metellus Celer.  From this marriage she gained her second name, Metelli. 

Her husband and brother were frequently on opposing sides of political issues.  While Clodius was an advocate for the people, Metellus believed the aristocracy, not the people, should have power in Rome.  Defying her obligations as a wife, Clodia generally took the side of her brother in these disputes.

Lesbia weeping over a sparrow

Lesbia weeping over a sparrow by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1866). Image source: Wikiart

In 59 BC, Clodia’s husband Metellus died under mysterious circumstances.  She never remarried, but is said to have engaged in a number of affairs.  One of these affairs was with a man named Marcus Caelius Rufus, but the two fell out when Caelius became involved in some seedy political dealings.

In 56 BC, the state took Caelius to court for his crimes.  The charges were the attempted murder of Clodia Metelli and the successful assassination of an Egyptian ambassador.  Clodia would be a witness for the prosecution, testifying that she had knowledge of Caelius’ guilt. 

Cicero, the best orator of his time, was the lawyer for Caelius’ defense.  In his speech, Cicero played on sexist stereotypes to convince the jury that Clodia had coerced Caelius into having an affair and was only now making accusations because he had rejected her.  Cicero portrayed Clodia as promiscuous and dominant, everything a Roman woman should not be.  He even compared her to Medea, a mythical witch and murderess.  To spoil her reputation further, Cicero insinuated that Clodia was having an affair with her own brother and that she had killed her husband.  Cicero’s ad hominem arguments were successful; Caelius was acquitted.

Clodia’s reputation gained further notoriety from the poetry of Catullus, another man with whom she is said to have had an affair.  One of the greatest Roman poets of all time, Catullus wrote poems that alternately adored and defamed a woman named “Lesbia,” which was evidently a pseudonym for Clodia Metelli.

Cattulus at Lesbia’s

Cattulus at Lesbia’s by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema. Image source: Wikipedia

In the poems, “Lesbia” is the heartless tormentor of lovesick Catullus.  He writes:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love!
And let the mutterings of stuffy old men
Be worth no more than a penny!
(Catullus 5.1-3)

But after she breaks his heart, Catullus exposes her lechery in a poem to her other lover, Caelius:  

Caelius, our Lesbia, that Lesbia,
The very Lesbia whom Catullus loved
More than he loved himself and all his family,
Now on street corners and in alleyways
Pleasures the distinguished men of Rome.
(Catullus 58)

Poems like this have led people to believe that Clodia was promiscuous and immoral.  For many reasons, though, the poems of Catullus cannot be considered historical evidence about Clodia.  Firstly, being a poet and not a historian, Catullus had no obligation to the truth.  Moreover, his treatment of “Lesbia” appears to be the reaction of a rejected lover, and his high emotion undercuts the possibility of an accurate portrayal of his beloved. 

In Cicero’s malicious speech and in Catullus’ impassioned poems, we have a caricature of a person, rather than the real Clodia.  Recent historians, in their hunt for more unbiased depictions of her, have illuminated Cicero’s personal correspondence, which shows a mutual respect between the two aristocrats and belies his earlier depiction of her as debauched.

Clodia Metelli outlived her husband, who died mysteriously, her brother, who was murdered by a mob, and Cicero, who was executed during Rome’s chaotic transition from republic to empire.  In her life, she was victim to the malicious attitudes towards women at this time in history, but despite misleading reports of her licentiousness, her reputation lives on as someone who defied stereotype.  Clodia refused to be relegated to domestic life and was an active force in the politics of Rome.  The hostility and derision she endured at the hands of her contemporary statesmen is a testament to her defiance in the face of rampant misogyny.

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