The Infamy of 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 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 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.

Featured image: ‘Lesbia and Her Sparrow’, by Sir Edward John Poynter. Image source: Wikipedia

Primary Sources

  1. Catullus, Poems
  2. Cicero, De Caelio
  3. Cicero, Letters to Atticus

Secondary Sources

  1. Hejduk, Julia Dyson. Clodia: A Sourcebook . Norman: U of Oklahoma, 2008.
  2. Skinner, Marilyn. Clodia Metelli: The Tribune's Sister. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  3. Wiseman, T. P. Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal . Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

By Miriam K amil

Wicked Women of Rome: Clodia Metelli, the Medea of the Palatine

Clodia Metelli is probably the most famous Roman villainess of the mid-first century B.C. Think of her as a cross between Cruella De Vil and Lucrezia Borgia. Like the bitches and witches of ancient poetry, Clodia had a reputation as a seductress, schemer, and murderer. No one had anything good to say about her. Cicero called her “the Medea of the Palatine.”

Cicero vilified Clodia in “Pro Caelio”

Yet I have always liked Clodia. We know very little about Clodia. What we know comes from ancient rumors, gossip, poetry, second-hand history, and professors’ hypotheses. The only primary source of her biography is Cicero’s character assassination of Clodia in his speech Pro Caelio, a defense of his former student Caelius, who was accused of vis (political violence) and involvement in a political murder.

Cicero does not address the charges against Caelius. Instead, he lavishes almost the entire speech on vilifying Clodia, who he claimed trumped up the charges as a revenge on her former lover. The speech is an invective–and this is an actual literary form in ancient Rome. But the charge against Caelius was grave–participating in the murder of an Alexandrian embassy that opposed the restoration of Ptolemy XII to the Egyptian throne–and does not quite seem like a lover’s revenge.

The ancient world was well-known for its sexism. Men held the political reins in the Roman republic, just as they do in our sagging chariot of a quasi-republic. The good women in Livy’s history tend to commit suicide to protect their virtue the most powerful in ancient history are the sexy villainesses. There was Cleopatra, the seductive queen who brought the Roman Republic down, if you look at it from a certain angle, and who was also the model for Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid there’s Livia, the emperor Augustus’s wife, a political strategist and reputed poisoner who, as a seductive young woman, so fascinated Augustus that he ordered her then-husband to divorce her so he could marry her.

I have read Cicero’s witty, polished oration Pro Caelio thrice, and admire Cicero’s elegant periodic sentences more each time. He embellishes his labyrinthine prose with with poetic figures of speech, alliteration, assonance, consonance, anaphora, hendiadys, asyndeton, chiasmus, the works. In Latin you read Cicero for the style as well as the content.

But during my recent rereading of the Latin, I found Cicero’s misogyny so brutal that I had to take frequent breaks. Perhaps it is painful because character assassination is such an integral part of our culture these days. Cicero does not need to prove his accusations against Clodia, he just has to put them out there.

All his accusations stem from sexuality. The speech is a nightmare of locker-room talk made public. He accuses Clodia of incest with her brother Clodius Pulcher and of poisoning her husband (the latter is a stock sexual joke in Roman comedy). Cicero plays with the sexual double standard: he says it was acceptable for Caelius, “barely out of adolescence” (he was actually 26 at the time of the trial), to play with a licentious life-style, but that Clodia, 36, was a perverted older woman who lured young men into her garden. According to R. G. Austin, the editor of the Oxford commentary on Pro Caelio, Caelius and Clodia had an affair for two years. And he says Cicero’s speech finished Clodia: that she is heard of no more afterwards.

I can well believe that, though Cicero provides no proof. What have sexual relationships with Caelius and other men have to do with a charge of vis? Fama volat (Rumor flies), as Virgil writes some years later.

Here’s what Cicero’s got against Clodia. He writes,

“Accusers discuss your orgies, affairs, adulteries, trips to Baiae (a resort), beach picnics, banquets, Bacchanalian revels, musical entertainments and band concerts, and boating parties.”

(I wonder: why would a woman with such a varied social and sexual life remain fixated on an ex-boyfriend who is in a lot of political trouble?)

After accusing Clodia of incest with her brother Clodius Pulcher, Cicero impersonates Clodius and pretends to chide her about Caelius, who, by the way, moved into her allegedly degenerate neighborhood after leaving home. Cicero glosses over that. Cicero has Clodius say,

“Why have you begun to make a great scene about such a small thing? You caught sight of a young man in the neighborhood. His beauty and height, his face and eyes struck you. You wanted to see him more often you were often in the same park you, a noble woman, wished to bind fast that son of a niggardly and tenacious father with your money. You could not. He kicked, spat, drove you away, and did not think your gifts were worth much. Confer yourself on another. You have gardens on the Tiber at that place where all the youth come prepared for swimming. Here you may choose new matches every day. Why do you care about this man who spurns you?”

I am humiliated just reading it. What must Clodia have felt?

There is conflict of interest here, not an issue they considered in ancient times. Caelius is an enemy of the man who prosecuted the case, and both Caelius and Cicero were enemies of Clodia’s brother, Clodius Pulcher.

By the way, some classicists (not so many nowadays) believe Clodia is the model for Lesbia, the charming but promiscuous girlfriend in Catullus’s poems. I do not, but I’ll write about that another time.

  • 1 Simon, Erika. «Altar der Göttermutter und ihres schiffes Salviae» in Helbig. Führer 24-25. 1175. M. (. )
  • 2 Vermaseren (above, note 1) 45-46.

1 The relocation during the 1990’s – whether permanent or merely temporary – of many items of sculpture from the Capitoline collections in the Museum of the Power Plant Montemartini has given a new visibility to several items as interesting for their cultural significance as for their artistry. One of these is a marble relief altar discovered on the bank of the Tiber below the Aventine under the papacy of Clement XI at some time between 1700 and 1721. The face of the altar bears a dedicatory inscription and a pictorial allusion to the arrival by ship at Rome of the goddess Cybele.1 (Figure 2). On the altar’s back face are two flutes, while the right side has a pedum and cymbal and the left a Phrygian cap, all unmistakably referring to Cybele’s Phrygian origins and her association with the myth of Attis.2

  • 3 Clearly the scene depicts the arrival of the goddess previously mentioned, although some of its fea (. )
  • 4 CIL VI 493, a marble plaque now in the Museo Archaeologico ad Theatro Romano of Verona bears almost (. )

2 The central image is a small ship with a curved stern plume and a volute prow. The goddess enthroned at the center should probably be imagined within the aedicula shell behind her. She is fully enveloped in a veil, chiton and himation with one hand resting on her knee and another raised with a tympanum.3 Around the capstan on the bow is wrapped a short pull whose other end falls lightly from the hand of a woman positioned obliquely to the front of the boat on a projecting square platform. She also has her head veiled and she wears a chiton wrapped closely over her breast and fastened in the manner of the goddess, but her mantle is loosely draped over the free arm. The dedicatory inscription names the goddess and, surprisingly, gives a name to the ship (CIL VI 492)4 navi salviae
salviae voto suscepto
claudia synthyche
d. d.
To the mother of the gods and the ship salvia
As in a vow made to Salvia
Claudia Syntyche
dedicates this gift

3 Although the event represented here is well known from a variety of sources, both historical and poetic, certain idiosyncrasies of the iconography and the inscription added to the otherwise unknown identity of the dedicator prompt questions concerning the altar’s particular association with time and place.

4 Sources leave no doubt as to the identity of the figure who tows the boat, no other than Claudia Quinta a celebrated woman of the Republican third century traditionally associated with the reception of the goddess. Among the many contexts in which she receives mention, the first extant instances are in two of Cicero’s orations. Readers familiar with his Pro Caelio may recall how the orator brings her on stage in a cameo appearance to bolster his case against the controversial Clodia Metelli as one of the accusers of his client M. Caelius Rufus. In a sensational prosopopoeia, he assumes the mask of Appius Claudius Censor, a figure summoned, as it were, ab inferis, and with this voice invokes the praiseworthy memory of the third century ancestress, Claudia Quinta, in the name of familial honor, as an index of reproach to her descendent (Pro Caelio 14.34):5

«Nonne te, si nostrae imagines viriles non commovebant, ne progenies quidem mea, Q. illa Claudia, aemulam domesticae laudis in gloria muliebri esse admonebat. »

(«Is it possible, if the images of our manly ancestors exercised no influence upon you, that not even that offspring of mine, that Quinta Claudia could not exhort you to rivalry in the womanly glory of domestic praise. »)

  • 6 P. MacKendrick. The Speeches of Cicero: Context, Law, Rhetoric London. 1995: 259-288. For interpret (. )
  • 7 E.W.Leach «Gendering Clodius» Classical World 94(2001):335-359 discusses this oration.

5 This evocation has its larger context in Cicero’s immediate political warfare with the Clodii, the moment of the oration, April of 56 B.C, being the high point of his active contentions with Clodia’s brother P. Clodius Pulcher who had engineered his exile and then continued to attack both his supporters and his property after his return.6 A month after the pro Caelio, within the religious argument of the de Haruspicum Responsis, he once again flourishes Claudia Quinta’s illustrious reputation in the face of present day Claudians. Although the target in this instance is P. Clodius himself, who has allegedly desecrated the Ludi Megalenses by the introduction of a band of slaves, Cicero does not spare an insinuating allusion to Clodia in comparison with her virtuous ancestress.7 (de Haruspicum Responsis 13.27):

«femina autem quae matronarum castissima putabatur, Quinta Claudia, cuius priscam illam severitatem [sacrificii] mirifice tua soror existimatur imitata.»

(«. that woman who, however, was considered the most upright of matrons, Quinta Claudia, whose old-fashioned austerity your sister Claudia is deemed quite amazingly to have imitated.»)

  • 8 E.S. Gruen. Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy. Leiden, 1990: 5-33, analyzes the cultural an (. )
  • 9 J. Gérard, «Légende et politique autour de la mère des dieux», REL 58(1980)153-175 comments on the (. )

6 In both passages the allusion to Claudia Quinta’s famous virtue involves her role in receiving the goddess Cybele, Magna Mater, when she arrived at Rome by ship from her seat in Asia Minor during the critical year 204 of the Hannibalic War as a magical presence to secure Roman victory by driving the invader from the land. Roman sources concerning the importation differ on several points: about the location from which the goddess traveled, whether from Pergamon (Varro LL 6.15) or directly from Mt. Ida (Ovid Fasti 4.180-372) or from Pessinus in Galatia (Livy AUC 29. 10-14),8 and also the shape in which she arrived, either as a sacred black stone, a meteorite, or else in her own form with mural crown and lions, and even the place of her ceremonial disembarkation, whether at Ostia or at Rome.9 As both the Sibylline Books and Delphic Apollo had recommended, the goddess’ image and her cult were subsequently installed in a temple of the Palatine, whose dedication in 191 was marked, and thereafter celebrated, by the Megalesian games under the supervision of the curule aedile.

  • 10 Valerius Maximus. Facta et Dicta Memorabilia (1.8.11): . quod Quintae Claudiae statua in vestibulo (. )
  • 11 Leen, Anne, «Claudia Oppugnatrix: the Domus Motif in Cicero’s Pro Caelio», CJ 96(200-2001):141-164.

7 Members of Cicero’s audiences need not have been specialists in Claudian family history to understand the orator’s references to Claudia’s preeminence since any Roman familiar with the Palatine Temple of the goddess should also have known Claudia Quinta from her statue standing within the vestibulum there. This image, according to the later account of Valerius Maximus, had a miraculous history (1.8.11) for it had twice survived untouched on its base amidst flames that consumed the temple.10 The first of these occurrences, in 111 B.C., long preceded Cicero’s speech. Within the context of the Pro Caelio these references to a publically conspicuous Claudia are interesting since Anne Leen, in a recent article about Cicero’s treatment of Clodia Metelli, argues that the orator framed his condemnation in terms of the culturally accepted code of domestic conduct for matrons by situating all her flagrant activities within the interior of the house.11 Contrastingly he has called forth Claudia Quinta’s virtue from the domestic into the public sphere not simply by her own initiative but rather by civic consensus.

  • 12 J. Gérard (above note 9), 153-175.
  • 13 Gérard (above note 9) 159 declares that Cicero’s omission of the miracle story indicates his ignora (. )
  • 14 The event was political from its origins. Gruen (above note 8) 27, explains the senatorial selectio (. )

8 Additionally Ciceronian readers may wonder about the action of Claudia’s towing the ship, even asking why Cicero makes no mention of this feature of Claudia Quinta’s story which is actually central to its telling in later sources.12 Two possible explanations for this discrepancy come to mind: the simpler being that this part of the legend had not yet developed13 the more devious that, even if it had developed, Cicero would scarcely have found it advantageous in his defamation to use a version of the story culminating in the miraculous vindication of a Claudian woman’s reputation, which is the shape of all post Ciceronian plot-lines from Livy onward. Livy himself implies the element of vindication in a pre-existing account (ut traditur) when he remarks that Claudia’s fama, which had previously been dubia was turned into a celebrated example of chastity thanks to her performance of the «religious office», seemingly that of receiving the goddess’ image from the hands of a young Scipio Nasica, deemed Rome’s optimus vir of the moment, and passing it into those of the other matrons who accompanied her (AUC 29. 14):14

«P. Cornelius cum omnibus matronis Ostiam obviam ire deae iussus isque eam de nave acciperet et in terram elatam traderet ferendam matronis. Postquam navis ad ostium amnis Tiberini accessit, sicut erat iussus, in salum nave evectus ab sacerdotibus deam accepit extulitque in terram. Matronae primores civitatis, inter quas unius Claudiae Quintae insigne est nomen, accepere cui dubia, ut traditur, antea fama clariorem ad posteros tam religioso ministerio pudicitiam fecit. Eae per manus, succedentes deinde aliae aliis, omni obviam effusa civitate, turibulis ante ianuas positis qua praeferabatur atque accenso ture precantibus ut volens propitiaque urbem Romanam iniret. »

(«P. Cornelius was ordered to proceed with all the matrons to meet the goddess at Ostia in order to receive her from the ship and hand her, transported to dry land, over to the matrons to be carried. After the ship had reached the mouth of the River Tiber, just as he was ordered, being carried on the ship in a sea-swell, he accepted the goddess and carried her to the land. The most distinguished matrons received her, among whom the name of Claudia Quinta stands out, whose reputation, previously rather shaky, as tradition has it, made her modesty celebrated unto future generations by her religious office. Through her hands, with others then succeeding her, and the citizenry streaming all around, and with her preferred form of incense burners placed before doorways and with the incense kindled by persons praying that she would enter the city of Rome in a willing and benevolent spirit. )

  • 15 Elaine Fantham, ed. Ovid Fasti Book IV, Cambridge 1998, pp. 153-154. Additionally she observes tha (. )
  • 16 To the contrary R.J. Littlewood, who discusses Ovid’s presentation of the entire festival, «Poetic (. )
  • 17 This and the following translations from the Fasti are taken from B.R. Nagle Roman Holidays. Bloomi (. )

9 Fantham declares that this narrative reflects the existence of an historical Claudia Quinta, noting with reference to Cicero’s de Haruspicum Responsis that she, like young Scipio Nasica may well have been chosen for her office, although perhaps not so much for her upstanding reputation as for the fact that a Claudian cousin, C. Claudius Nero, was censor in 204.15 This simple act of receiving the goddess Ovid in Fasti 4 transforms into a miracle of vindication. His account occurs in the April book of the Fasti, marking the beginning of the Ludi Megalenses festival with an account of Cybele’s election, her journey and her installation. By far the most detailed story of Claudia Quinta, it is also the best known, but worth recounting here since Clodia’s partisans may wish to see it as an Ovidian riposte to counter Ciceronian defamation.16 Not to imagine that Claudian chauvinism has overtaken Ovid, but sophisticated matrons always had the sympathy of the Ars Amatoria poet. Furthermore the language in which he tells Claudia’s story seems relevant not only to Cicero’s Clodia but Catullus’ Clodia/Lesbia as well. In Ovid’s story, the chastity of Claudia Quinta had been called into doubt for reasons that read like the template of late Republican defamation of socially conspicuous women (e.g. the clever-tongued Sempronia of Sallust Cat 25). This descendent of an aristocratic family had a way of changing her hair-styles and a tongue too sharp for censorious elders (Fasti 4. 305-312):17

Claudia Quinta genus Clauso referebat ab alto
(nec facies impar nobilitate fuit),
casta quidem, sed non et credita: rumor iniquus
laeserat, et falsi criminis acta rea est.
cultus et ornatis varie prodisse capillis
obfuit ad rigidos prompta que lingua senes.
conscia mens recti famae mendacia risit,
sed nos in vitium credula turba sumus.
(Claudia Quinta traced her descent to noble Clausus
[her beauty was a match for her high birth]
She was chaste, but no one believed it unfair gossip had hurt her
and she stood indicted on a false charge.
Her elegance and <the variations of her hairstyles> prejudiced
the inflexible old men, as did her quick retorts.
Her clear conscience laughed off rumor’s falsehoods, but we
are a bunch ready to believe the worst.»)

10 The import of line 310 is even questionable. Did Claudia’s ready tongue answer back the elders directly, or did they simply disapprove of her quick wit, but the mention of rigidos senes as poles of social disapproval certainly recalls the reciprocal gaze mechanics of Catullus’ rumores senium severiorum in Poem 5, while the Roman «crowd so credulous of rumors» embraces the populace with an inclusiveness that scarcely spares either Cicero or the jurors of Caelius Rufus’ trial. Likewise reminiscent of Catullus is the smug interior sense of superiority that allows this target of scandal to laugh at famae mendacia. In this spirit Ovid’s Claudia stakes all on a public test. While navigating the Tiber upstream beneath the eyes of a vast spectatorial crowd of young and old, commons and dignitaries, the ship of the goddess sticks fast in reeds and mud, refusing to move further. To the assembled spectators this mischance looks like a portent. With absolute command of ritual theatricality, Claudia Quinta steps forth from the contingent of matrons, scoops water from the river and imprecates the sky. She has not, of course, forgotten to unbind the controversial hair (Fasti 4. 313-318):

haec ubi castarum processit ab agmine matrum
et manibus puram fluminis hausit aquam,
ter caput inrorat, ter tollit in aethera palmas
(quicumque aspiciunt, mente carere putant),
summisso que genu voltus in imagine divae
figit, et hos edit crine iacente sonos:
(When she advanced from the ranks of the chaste matrons
and scooped pure river water up in her hands,
she sprinkled her head three times, raised her hands three times
to heaven (the onlookers thought she was out of her senses),

11 So far no one understands her gesture, but with the by-standers regarding her as demented, she fixes her gaze upon the goddess and, dropping to one knee, utters a prayer in terms explicitly inviting divine vindication and public witness to her purity (Fasti 4. 319-326):

summisso que genu voltus in imagine divae
figit, et hos edit crine iacente sonos:
‘supplicis, alma, tuae, genetrix fecunda deorum,
accipe sub certa condicione preces.
casta negor: si tu damnas, meruisse fatebor
morte luam poenas iudice victa Dea
sed si crimen abest, tu nostrae pignora vitae
re dabis, et castas casta sequere manus’.
(And on bended knees she fixed her gaze upon the image
of the goddess, undid her hair and said:
‘Fertile mother of the gods, kindly heed the prayers
of your petitioner with this stipulation.
They say I’m not chaste: if you condemn me, I’ll admit I deserved it
I’ll pay with my life if convicted with a goddess as my judge.
But if the charge doesn’t stick, give proof of my honorable life
by action, and chastely follow my chaste hands.’

  • 18 Wiseman, T.P. «Satyrs in Rome?» in Historiography and Imagination: Eight Essays on Roman Culture. E (. )
  • 19 Gérard (above note 9) while noting, 161-162, that Livy would not characteristically have passed ove (. )

12 The rest is easy. Sounds of rejoicing acclaim her triumph. On the day following (343-345) she walks with joyous countenance ahead of the wagon carrying the deity who has verified her chastity. Temples and games now follow in due course. It is marvelous, says Ovid about his little drama, but the stage can bear witness (328). Wiseman plausibly takes this comment as evidence that the Republican repertoire must have included a fabula togata featuring Claudia Quinta.18 Consequently a reader may wonder whether Ovid’s heroine learned her gestures from the stage, or whether the stage itself might have imitated her self-conscious ritual presence. If, as Gérard suggests, the theater was Livy’s unnamed source, then Cicero surely did by-pass that tradition in constructing the ancient Claudia in complete moral opposition to Clodia Metelli.19

  • 20 Propertius. 4. 10. 51-52.
    vel tu, quae tardam movisti fune Cybeben,
    aClaudia, turritae rara ministra (. )
  • 21 Statius, Silvae 1.2. 245-246:
    Non Claudia talis
    respexit populos mota iam virgo carina.
  • 22 Littlewood (above note 16) 383, cites the second destructive fire of A.D. 3 and Augustus’ rebuildin (. )
  • 23 H.H.J. Brouwer «The Great Mother and the God Goddess: The History of an Identification», in M.B. de (. )
  • 24 Although it is difficult to ascertain what was the composition and nature of the pull shown on the (. )

13 Subsequent writers perpetuate the story with variations. The Claudia mentioned in Propertius’ Cornelia elegy 4.10.51-52, and thus in a version presumably prior to that of Livy, is already pulling the goddess’ ship with a rope.20 Propertius’ reference to her as a turritae rara ministra deae, sometimes interpreted to mean that she was a priestess of the goddess, might simply reflect the action which Livy calls her religiosum ministerium, or even be based upon a mistaken reading of the statue within the Palatine temple. Statius (Silvae 1.2.245-246) makes Claudia a virgo,21 but her specific Vestalization is a product of later sources that may well have confused her with two other Claudian woman of the Roman Republic. The more obvious of these (also mentioned by Cicero [pro Caelio 14.34] Livy [periochae 53] and Valerius Maximus [5.4.6]) is the Vestal Claudia who saved her father’s triumph by interposing her sacrosanct person against obstructive action of a hostile tribune.22 A second possibility, however, is suggested by Ovid’s mention in Fasti 5. 155-158 of the dedication of the Aventine temple to Bona Dea by a veteris Clausorum nominis heres, who, if not actually a Vestal, was at the time of the dedication a virgin (virgineo nullam corpore passa virum) and thus has been taken for a Vestal.23 All the same, the dedicated and publically responsible chastity of a Vestal is a different matter from that of a private individual and the point of vindication in Claudia Quinta’s story is her status as a Roman matron, a person of private identity upholding her individual, and family, reputation by performing in the public sphere. In some post-classical accounts the pull by which Claudia leads Magna Mater’s ship changes from the ship’s own rope to a piece of the matron’s personal clothing, either her girdle or her stola, both of course being symbols of chastity24. Gérard ascribes her sanctification to Claudian politics, enhancing its imperial standing through enhancement of its ancestors.

  • 25 D’Ambra, Eve. «The Calculus of Venus: Nude Portraits of Roman Matrons», in N. Kampen, ed. Sexuality (. )
  • 26 Simon (above note 1) 1175.

14 Still one may ask what claim on this celebrated family history this latter-day Claudia the dedicator might have had that would justify her choice of Magna Mater and Navis Salvia for her vow. Erika Simon proposes a Claudian date for the altar, resting her argument upon a likeness between its putative statue base and those on which the personified Etruscan cities stand at the base of the Emperor Claudius’ throne in the Julio-Claudian ensemble of the theater at Caere displayed in the Vatican’s Museo Gregoriano. Although Simon suggests that our Claudia might be a person claiming descent from Claudia Quinta, her name Syntyche seems more likely to make her more immediately a dependent of the imperial Claudian family, whose freedpersons came to number in legions. The style of the figures in the relief carving is very similar to that paradigm of freedpersons’ art, the narrative panels of the Tomb of the Haterii. The use of statues in those reliefs also seem to me to present some productive analogies with the Claudia altar. On the tomb which emphasizes the attainment of an immortal afterlife the transformation of the deceased is signified by the form of a Venus statue, but the lower register shows also a statue of Hercules another guide to immortality. As iconographical symbols, however, these deities are shown in familiar postures the resting Heracles being the famous image by Lysippus on the Capitoline, and the Venus finds parallels in the very popular custom of representing deceased women on the model of the Capitoline Venus.25 Whether the Claudia figure on the altar might also have an existing model is uncertain. In accordance with her notion that the dedicator was a familial descendent of Claudia Quinta, Simon takes the platform for a statue base and thus proposes a reference to the attested Palatine statue of the heroine (Figure 3). She furthermore explains the veil and loosely draped cloak as the suffibulum of a Vestal.26 Given, however, the date of 111 B.C. as a terminus ante quem for this indestructible statue, her being dressed as a Vestal seems most unlikely. Cicero, Livy and Ovid are all quite explicit about Claudia’s status as a matron. Also the gesture of pulling the rope might be thought unusual in such a statue since chaste matrons are generally shown in the pudicitia pose, well-wrapped in their stolae. If indeed the figure does mean to represent a statue, and not simply a living person poised on a mole by the river bank, then its attitude would seem to have been influenced by literary information. On the other hand, the base may be thought to distance the present day Claudia, who is not a blood member of the Claudian gens' from pretentious identification with her legendary model while also asserting the continuity of the action that the story preserves.

  • 27 The first Salvia of the inscription, apparently in apposition with the dative navi, must be the nam (. )
  • 28 These include M. Beard, J. North, S. Price. Religions of Rome: Volume II, A Sourcebook. Cambridge. (. )
  • 29 CIL VI 494: matri . deum et . navi . salviae/ q. nunnius/telephus . mag/col . culto . eius/ D v S v(. )

15 Many scholars have taken this altar as evidence that the ship, under the name of Salvia, had acquired a cult of its own.27 and this would accord both with the place where the altar was stationed beside the river close to the initial disembarkation place of Magna Mater, and with the second Salviae of the inscription indicating that the actual vow has been directed to the ship itself.28Salvia, one may note, is not a very common word in Latin, although in the repertoire of nomenclature it is the gens name of the Othones. Coarelli cites CIL 494 as evidence either for such an institution or else for the elevation of Claudia herself to cult status under the name of Navisalvia.29 Does this imply that by making the vow, Claudia Syntyche means to re-enact the role of the aristocratic savior of the city? In this case the situation she salvages would seem most likely to be a commercial one, which also will fit with the Aventine station of the altar.

  • 30 J. Gérard (above not 9), 153-175.
  • 31 R. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, A. Nevill trans. From Les cultes orientaux dans le monde (. )
  • 32 I owe this refernce to Marilyn Skinner.

16 Certainly Claudia’s contribution in honor of Magna Mater must reflect her association with the Claudian family. CIL records three funerary inscriptions in the name of Claudia Syntyche, which might or might not refer to the same person. One (12015) is to a son named Ti. Antonius Syncleticus who died at the age of 16, another (15608) established by a Claudia herself in company with her husband «Paris» on behalf of the couple and their household familia and still another (15607) to a Claudia who lived 35 years by a husband named, Ti. Claudius Hermes. Should our Claudia be the wife of the Paris the actor, either the celebrated one, or any other by that name, this might explain the wealth that gave her an interest in shipping. Considering Paris’ connection with the Claudian family, Gérard’s suggestion that the legend of Claudia’s miracle is a matter of Claudian family propaganda, might also help to explain the choice.30 Even the insignia of Attis that occupy the three minor faces of the altar might be taken to carry Claudian associations in the light of Turcan’s information that the Emperor Claudius was the first of his family to elevate the goddess’ companion to cult status and assign him a celebration.31 Even closer to an explanation, however, is the special patronage that the Emperor Claudius granted to ship owners in his campaign to support the grain trade based in his new harbor at Ostia (Suetonius Divi Claudii 19). The inclusion of privileges to women seems to indicate their consequence in the economy of the first century as owners of ships.32 So it seems that Cicero, while he launched Caelius Rufus’ enemy Clodia upon a long-lasting career of infamy, at the same time contributed to the elevation of her Claudian ancestress to a no less notable plane of honor.

The Infamy of Clodia Metelli - History

Clodia: A Sourcebook. By JULIA DYSON HEJDUK. Norman: University of Oklahoma
Press, 2008. Pp. 288. Paper, $21.95. ISBN 978–0–8061–3907–4.

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A CJ Forum Online Exclusive: 2008.09.05

This book has everything about Clodia that you could possibly think of,
which is a good thing and a bad thing, but mostly good. It is aimed at a
wide audience, ranging from readers with little knowledge of Clodia and her
milieu, to teachers and scholars of the period. After an introduction, the
book is divided into two parts: I, Clodia (pp. 27–158), and II,
Clodia’s Legacy (pp. 159–230). A thorough glossary of names, places and
terminology follows, along with a good bibliography.

The author, Julia Dyson Hejduk (H.), begins with the question “Who was
Clodia?”. In a rapid survey of the scholarship, she gives the history of
the controversy and summarizes the evidence, concluding that Clodia Metelli
was most likely the Clodia of Catullus and Cicero. Included in the
introduction is a helpful discussion of themes in Roman love poetry
(including and after Catullus), translation issues and some basic material
on Roman civilization, manners and mores for the general reader.

Part I presents Clodia first in Cicero’s letters and speeches, primarily
the pro Caelio, and then in the poems of Catullus. The material cited from
Cicero, which includes a short introduction to the orator and his career,
is over 70 pages. The letters, which are well-chosen and beautifully
translated, focus on the relationship of Clodia Metelli and her infamous
brother Clodius to Cicero in the years 62–56, and on Cicero’s attempt
to buy property from Clodia in the year following the death of his daughter
in 45. Each letter is prefaced by a short paragraph setting the stage and
introducing the characters, so that the relevance to Clodia is clear. Most
are given in full, which is one reason why this section is so long H.
helpfully puts Clodia’s name in boldface when she is mentioned, so the
reader can hone in on the relevant section more easily. But although one
may wonder why so much seemingly irrelevant information has been included,
the overall impression is consistent with Cicero’s persona and offers
valuable insights into his (and his correspondents’) reactions to Clodia
and her behavior.

The second part of the Cicero section is almost entirely devoted to the pro
Caelio. This is an important speech and is particularly relevant for people
teaching courses in this area. It seems to me, however, that the inclusion
of the entire speech is a bit much, given that just about half of it (41
sections out of 80) concerns Clodia. That said, H. is right to point out
(p. 66) that this is a “long, complex and eminently rewarding exemplar of
Ciceronian rhetoric” thus the presentation of the whole text can be seen
as a plus, though many sections could be skipped by the reader who is
primarily interested in Clodia and her relationship with Caelius. Reading
the speech, selectively or in toto, is helped by the brief explanatory
headings for each section there are useful footnotes as well.

The rest of Part I is dedicated to the poems of Catullus that chronicle the
poet’s off-and-on, up-and-down love affair with “Lesbia,” his
pseudonym for Clodia. I found this part of the book the most satisfying,
due in large part to the careful selection of poems, “which includes all
the pieces specifically about Lesbia and a sampling of others [and]
attempts to give a sense of how the poet’s odd juxtapositions and
intratextual references enhance the meaning and richness of individual
poems” (p. 107). H.’s translations are excellent: elegant and charming,
rough and scurrilous, scandalous and witty. Moreover, they reflect well the
tones of anguish and joy, delight and despair, playfulness and solemnity
that mark Catullus’ work. The footnotes are full of pertinent information
and valuable scholarly references, and allow the reader to understand and
enjoy Catullus’ fascination with Lesbia/Clodia. The poems that are not
about Clodia help fill out the portrait of Catullus (including his varying
sexual choices) and reflect on his relationships with the other characters
who populate the work. The most interesting of these, of course, is Rufus
(poems 69 and 77), probably the M. Caelius Rufus of the pro Caelio.

Part II of the book is entitled “Clodia’s Legacy,” and it is here
that some might say “enough.” In this section H. includes selected
poems of the later elegiac Roman love poets Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid
(Amores), along with a few pertinent epigrams of Martial, with a view to
comparing their poetic mistresses and love affairs with those of Catullus.
H. proposes that “[t]o understand who Clodia is, it is important to
understand who she is not, and that can be best done by hearing the
continuation of the conversation Catullus began” (p. xv). This is a
provocative proposal and the addition of this section to the Sourcebook is,
to my mind, a good thing. Referring to her earlier suggestions about the
development of the genre (see Introduction pp. 9–15), H. demonstrates how
the poetic dialogue has changed the language and terminology of these
poems is different and the ways in which the poet relates to his mistress
have evolved.

To summarize: Clodia: A Sourcebook is not only a full and thorough
treatment of a famous Roman personage, a book that will be much used and
appreciated by anyone teaching the pro Caelio and/or Catullus at any level,
but also a stimulating study of the development of the poetic language of
love in the late Republic and early Empire of Rome. The translations—both
of the prose selections and the poetry—are excellent, striking the right
tone between formality and frivolity, and the footnotes and other
supplementary materials are very helpful. Though the book could have been
much shorter, it would not have been so satisfying. And that is a very good

University of Virginia

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ISBN 13: 9780195375015

Skinner, Marilyn B.

This specific ISBN edition is currently not available.

Clodia Metelli: The Tribune's Sister is the first full-length biography of a Roman aristocrat whose colorful life, as described by her contemporaries, has inspired numerous modern works of popular fiction, art, and poetry. Clodia, widow of the consul Metellus Celer, was one of several prominent females who made a mark on history during the last decades of the Roman Republic. As the eldest sister of the populist demagogue P. Clodius Pulcher, she used her wealth and position to advance her brother's political goals. For that she was brutally reviled by Clodius' enemy, the orator M. Tullius Cicero, in a speech painting her as a scheming, debauched whore. Clodia may also have been the alluring mistress celebrated in the love poetry of Catullus, whom he calls "Lesbia" in homage to Sappho and depicts as beautiful, witty, but also false and corrupt. From Cicero's letters, finally, we receive glimpses of a very different woman, a great lady at her leisure. This study examines Clodia in the contexts of her family background, the societal expectations for a woman of her rank, and the turbulent political climate in which she operated. It weighs the value of the several kinds of testimony about her and attempts to extract a picture as faithful to historical truth as possible. The manner in which Clodia was represented in writings of the period, and the motives of their authors in portraying her as they did, together shed considerable light on the role played by female figures in Roman fiction and historiography.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

Marilyn Skinner is Professor of Classics at the University of Arizona.

"The book is well-presented and well-written, with an image in each chapter, easily accessible sections and sub-sections within the chapters. As an early volume in the Women in Antiquity series, it has set the tone for future biographies of other key women." --Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Skinner, one of the most sophisticated and accomplished classical scholars today, is the perfect person to write the first full-length biography of Clodia Metelli. This is a careful, impeccably documented biography that confronts directly the political context of Clodia's life, explores Roman attitudes toward wealthy, sexually adventuresome women and deals effectively with the primarily hostile sources for her life. Scholars and students alike will find this biography as interesting for its content as for a model of persuasive scholarship. Essential." --CHOICE


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.



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.

Cicero’s Evidence

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.

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"Skinner, one of the most sophisticated and accomplished classical scholars today, is the perfect person to write the first full-length biography of Clodia Metelli. This is a careful, impeccably documented biography that confronts directly the political context of Clodia's life, explores Roman
attitudes toward wealthy, sexually adventuresome women and deals effectively with the primarily hostile sources for her life. Scholars and students alike will find this biography as interesting for its content as for a model of persuasive scholarship. Essential." --CHOICE

About the Author

Who was Clodia Metelli?

Clodia Metelli (c 97 BCE – post 45 BCE) was a member of the ancient Roman aristocratic family the Claudii, whose name figured prominently in the early history and legends of Rome and who were notable consuls and senators from the third century onwards.

The Gens Claudii
There were many legends concerning the men and women of this ancient Patrician family, some of the stories praising their nobility and courage, while others told of their cruelty and arrogance.

At the time of the Roman war with Hannibal, a great statue of the Phrygian goddess Cybele was being towed into Rome accompanied by a group of the noblest Roman women in obedience to an oracle. The barge carrying the statue caught on a Tiber mudbank and was grounded, whereupon, Claudia prayed aloud that she would be able to shift it as evidence of her perfect chastity and was able to do so.

Conversely, another Claudia won great opprobrium when, her brother Claudius having recently lost a great sea battle, finding that the crowd was impeding her progress in her chariot, she cried out in frustration that she wished her brother would sink another fleet to thin the crowd out a little.

These stories would have shaped how people perceived the family and their expectations of them, providing a ready-made filter for how Clodia’s actions could be interpreted and compared.

Clodia’s Early Life and Marriage

Clodia was one of a large family of three sisters and three brothers. The most famous of her siblings was Publius Clodius Pulcher, a well known and controversial politician, a supporter of the Populares despite his noble birth. The name Clodia is a variation on the family name Claudia. In accordance with Roman naming customs all three sisters would have borne the single name of Claudia or Clodia. This adds to the confusion in reconstructing what we can say with any certainty about Clodia Metelli as it is not always clear which of the three sisters is being referred to in the sources.

At the age of fifteen, Clodia married twenty year old Quintus Metellus Celer, a man of aristocratic family. It is from him that she acquired her adult name of Clodia Metelli. As part of her dowry, Clodia brought a large, opulent house in the Palatine, the most expensive and distinguished district of Rome. The young couple lived there and Clodia bore one child, a daughter called Metella.

In the Late Roman Republic, advantageous marriage alliances were a vital strategic tool for achieving political success. Men arranged marriages for their sisters or daughters with families they wanted a connection with. While women could be seen as being thereby relegated to the status of political pawns, this system of family alliances also meant women were often important and powerful negotiators in the political game. Examples of such women include Servilia, the mother of Brutus and sister of Cato, Terentia wife of Cicero, and Fulvia who married Clodia’s brother Publius Clodius Pulcher and went on to marry Mark Anthony after Clodius’ murder.

Clodia certainly used her influence in this way. The great statesman and orator Cicero, who would later have a vital role in creating Clodia’s unsavoury reputation, reports that when he involuntarily fell out with her husband’s brother, he turned to Clodia to help him bring about a reconciliation. Cicero’s letters, documenting the complex political situation of the time, enable us to glimpse how Clodia acted behind the scenes, as her brother’s political ally.

Clodia’s Reputation

Throughout the centuries, Clodia Metelli has been famous as a great beauty and romantic inspiration and also vilified as promiscuous, hard hearted and depraved.

It is the work of two of the major surviving writers of the Late Republican era, Catullus and Cicero, from which later generations constructed Clodia’s romantic yet scurrilous reputation.

Gaius Valerius Catullus (c84-54 BCE) was a poet from Cisalpine Gaul who wrote a series of brilliant and passionate poems about an intense though tortured love affair, with a woman whom he calls Lesbia.

The poems, written in an intensely direct and personal style, describe the protagonist’s absolute infatuation with Lesbia and the deep bond and passion which existed between them. The name Lesbia refers to the poetess Sappho, from the island of Lesbos. It suggests the two connected on an intellectual and poetic as well as erotic level.

Many of the poems however are angry and vituperative in tone Catullus accuses Lesbia of cruelty and infidelity in tones that ranges from the violently crude to anguished pathos. According to traditional chronology, Catullus appears to have died young, leaving generations of readers to speculate that he died of a broken heart, brought on by Lesbia’s cruelty.

The second century CE writer Apuleius identifies Lesbia as a pseudonym for ‘Clodia’. While some have argued that this Clodia could as well be another of the three sisters, there is supporting evidence suggesting that this Clodia is indeed Clodia the wife of Metellus Celer. An example is that Catullus mentions Caelius as one of Lesbia’s other lovers and Cicero in the Pro Caelio acknowledges that his client Caelius had a relationship with Clodia Metelli.

Accepting this identification does not oblige us to take everything Catullus writes about Clodia literally. It was a feature of Roman elegiac poetry that the poet’s mistress be represented as cruel and capricious. It is also a one-sided and personal perspective on a relationship: Clodia’s version of events might be very different.

The Pro Caelio

In 59 BCE Clodia’s husband died. Clodia continued living in their mansion on the Palatine and remainined at the hub of social activity.

Around this time, she began a relationship with a young man named M Caelius Rufus, who also lived on the Palatine, in an apartment rented from Clodia’s brother. This relationship turned sour, in part at least, due to political differences.

At that time, the Republic was largely under the control of three men, the First Triumvirate of Crassus, who was enormously wealthy, Pompeius and Caesar, who eventually became Dictator of Rome. As the three struggled for power, the leading families of the Republic were forced to take sides. The Claudii supported Crassus but Caelius was an ally of Pompeius.

Clodia remained a staunch political ally of her younger brother, the radical Publius Clodius, even, according to Cicero, quarrelling with her husband on his behalf. Her notable loyalty to her controversial brother, whose own personal life had its fair share of scandal attached to it is likely to have been the cause of many of Cicero’s coarse gibes insinuating an incestuous relationship between them.

In 54 BCE Caelius was prosecuted on charges brought forward by the Claudii including violence against envoys from Alexandria and the attempted poisoning of Clodia herself.

Caelius was defended by Cicero, the most brilliant orator of the age, and someone with a bitter grudge against Clodia’s family. Clodius had once forced him out of Rome into political exile.

Cicero defended his client by ripping Clodia’s character to shreds, creating a portrait of a woman driven by insatiable lust, wildly promiscuous, wealthy and dissolute and accustomed to acting without the supervision of her male relatives. He strongly hints that she poisoned her own husband, and that she had committed incest with her brother. Young Caelius could hardly be blamed for entering into a liaison with a woman who was publicly available.

Cicero summed Clodia up in two devastating phrases: quadrantaria Clytemnestra and Palatina Medea. The first epithet refers to a quadrans, the small sum required for entry to the men’s baths where prostitutes often plied their trade and to Clytemnestra who murdered her husband. Palatina Medea referred to the exclusive district in which Clodia lived and to the mythological queen, a witch, who killed her children to avenge herself against her husband. The jurors were apparently convinced that the accusations against Caelius were the malicious invention of a woman deranged by scorn and Caelius was acquitted.

Murder of Clodius
In 52 BCE, Clodia’s brother, Publius was murdered on the Appian Way when he and his entourage ran into that of his political enemy Milo. We can guess that this must have been a devastating blow for Clodia, but there is no evidence testifying to her reaction or to whether she continued to take an interest in political affairs following her brother’s death.

Clodius’ wife Fulvia later married another prominent Populare, Mark Anthony and the marriage helped secure the loyalties of those who previously followed Clodius, suggesting that to some degree, women could inherit some of the political influence and connections of their men.

The final contemporary reference to Clodia occurs in Cicero’s letters of 45 BCE, just after the assassination of Julius Caesar, when Clodia would have been aged around fifty. In his letters to Atticus, Cicero expresses the hope that Clodia might sell him her house and gardens though Cicero worries that Clodia may demand cash up front. The past enmity between them is apparently forgotten, which suggests the effects of Cicero’s character demolition may not have been as devastating to Clodia or her reputation as later generations assume.

The Late Republic was an age in which robust invective and the flinging of unsubstantiated accusations were commonplace in both law and politics. While a good public reputation was an important concern, those in the limelight must have needed to develop a thick skin to survive in that climate and listeners must surely have learned to apply a pinch of salt to what was alleged.

It also appears to have been an age in which, before the strictures of Augustus, men and women of the upper classes married and divorced frequently, had relationships outside the marriages that had been made often with little concern for personal preference with relatively slim risk of adverse consequence, and in which the women were well educated, confident and used to managing their own affairs. From that perspective, Clodia seems to have been a flamboyant representative of a flamboyant age.

Cicero Selected Political Speeches Translated by Michael Grant, Penguin, 1973
Encyclopaedia of Women in the Ancient World by Joyce Salisbury, e-book, 2001

Clodia Metelli by Marilyn B Skinner, Transactions of the American Philological Association 1983

Clodia Metelli: The Tribune’s Sister by Marilyn B Skinner 2011

Ovid’s Sappho and Roman Women Love Poets by Judith P. Hallett, Dictynna 2009, URL :

Marilyn Skinner is Professor of Classics, University of Arizona

Clodia Metelli: The Tribune's Sister is the first full-length biography of a Roman aristocrat whose colorful life, as described by her contemporaries, has inspired numerous modern works of popular fiction, art, and poetry. Clodia, widow of the consul Metellus Celer, was one of several prominent females who made a mark on history during the last decades of the Roman Republic. As the eldest sister of the populist demagogue P. Clodius Pulcher, she used her

wealth and position to advance her brother's political goals. For that she was brutally reviled by Clodius' enemy, the orator M. Tullius Cicero, in a speech painting her as a scheming, debauched whore. Clodia may also have been the alluring mistress celebrated in the love poetry of Catullus, whom he calls

"Lesbia" in homage to Sappho and depicts as beautiful, witty, but also false and corrupt. From Cicero's letters, finally, we receive glimpses of a very different woman, a great lady at her leisure. This study examines Clodia in the contexts of her family background, the societal expectations for a woman of her rank, and the turbulent political climate in which she operated. It weighs the value of the several kinds of testimony about her and attempts to extract a picture as faithful to

historical truth as possible. The manner in which Clodia was represented in writings of the period, and the motives of their authors in portraying her as they did, together shed considerable light on the role played by female figures in Roman fiction and historiography.

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