Clodia Metelli, vindictively referred to as the “Medea of the Palatine” by Cicero, like most Roman matronas was a woman in a man’s world. The prevalent consensus in modern historiography has her placed as a subject not only presented through men’s writing, but also through their tendentious intents. Thus, the question is how do the few sources that exist actually depict Clodia as a Roman woman, and what is their credibility?
Clodia was instrumentally assailed by Cicero in his Pro Caelio for his own political gains against Claudius, her brother, as well as his own vindictive volition against her which is also found in his letters to Atticus. It is however essential to understand Cicero’s repudiation of Clodia’s case against Caelius as first a means of wining the litigation, and second to undermine Clodia’s family which played a role in his own exile and harm to his own familia. In his brief account of Terentia’s jealousy at the hands of Cicero and Clodia’s supposed affair. Although Catullus’ poems to Lesbia, believed to be a pseudonym for Clodia, have been largely dismissed by modern scholars because of their sheer uncertainty, if true, besides their use in referring to her promiscuity in regards to the Pro Caelio, they might aid in conveying her independence as a noblewoman. It seems that Clodia’s pudicitia was insistently brought to question in Cicero’s defense of Caelius, which seems to have trickled down to the modern consensus of Clodia as a woman. Although it is debatable whether these sources are bona fide, their singularity forces the question of how to effectively derive an image of Clodia out of them? Before this becomes relevant it is necessary to first understand the sources and their intent.
Cicero’s grisly representation of Clodia in his Pro Caelio was directed as an attack not just at Clodia, but rather Claudius whom Cicero considered his political opponent. In other words, although Cicero refers to Clodia as “shameless” and a woman “devoted to a life of prostitution”, this is believed to have meant to bring shame to Claudius with whom he had previously expressed contempt towards. In one of his letters to Atticus in 59 B.C, he clearly expresses derision for Claudis for his appeal towards the position of tribuneship, in fact to such an extent that he later mentions that he wishes for Clodius to engage in a “spectacle” with the triumvirs in hopes of undermining his position. This seems to have pushed some scholars such as Crownover to even call Claudius as Cicero’s bitter enemy. This of course mainly due to the fact that when Claudius had served as tribune it was his law in regards to exile that had served to condemn Cicero to banishment from Rome in 58 B.C.17
However, it seems that this was not solely directed at Claudius, but also his greater family, as Cicero had developed hatred for his brothers, Appius and Publius, due to their business altercation in earlier years. The point of Cicero’s animosity towards Clodia and her family is to understand that the Pro Caelio was ultimately, as some scholars infer, a biased legal skirmish meant to undermine the political position of Clodius through his sister, as a means of attacking the very much esteemed social issue of a woman’s pudicitia. It is for this reason why Cicero does not fail to bring to light the “debaucheries” and “adulteries” that Clodia supposedly engaged in through the use of his adept oratory skills. Yet, the case might be even more personal to Cicero himself.
The fact that Clodia’s virtue as a Roman matrona is attacked is indicative of Cicero’s desire to win the case for Caelius and secondly also might imply that he did so for personal reasons, outside the public sphere. Before engaging in attacking Clodia’s pudicita he first brings to light the fact that if she did not know that Caelio wished to poison her, how could she have given him the denari to purchase it? As Dorey suggests, this was part of Cicero’s tactic to destroy the reliability of Clodia’s claims, from where he commenced to attack her virtue. This ultimately conveys what really compelled him to describe her in the “fashion of a prostitute”. However, modern historiography has taken Plutarch’s account into consideration as one of the reasons why Cicero used such language. It is in his belief that Terentia, Cicero’s wife, was grossly jealous of Clodia and Claudius as she thought she might have been engaged in an affair with Cicero. Although Crownover argues that this might as well have been the case, Dorey brilliantly points out that the bitter animosity from Terentia was not probably due to jealousy but her contempt of Clodius for exiling her husband, and Clodia own monetary “ravaging” of the Ciceroian household. Whatever the case may be, Plutarch’s account seems questionable as there is no such mention of this even in Cicero’s letters to Atticus, but only that he felt Clodia to be a “shrew”. The importance of understanding Cicero’s more personal intent and wish to win is to show that perhaps the Pro Coelia in conjugation with the Letters to Atticus and Plutarch’s account are largely unsettled, and I dare say, dubious. The same can be said, as the modern consensus suggests, of Catullus’ poems to Lesbia.
Catullus’ poems for Lesbia, although cannot be used as historical sources because of their sheer uncertainty as to whether they really refer to Clodia might serve to show, at least in form, Clodia’s independence as a woman. Lesbia ultimately connected to Claudius through the minute detail of Lesbius Pulcher in Catullus’ 79th poem cannot, in regards to Claudius , be enough for this source to be taken seriously. However, its ultimate importance serves to show that if it does indeed refer to Clodia, then Catullus conveys her as an independent woman free of the normal marriage relations at the time.
Griffith interestingly brings up the point that Catullus who describes Clodia’s eyes in his poems, might have a connection to Cicero’s Letters to Atticus where he incessantly refers to Clodia as the “ox-eyed lady” as an allusion to sexual impurity. The importance of this lies in the fact that historiography cannot simply justify Cicero’s account in his Pro Caelio as somewhat authentic with Lesbia/Clodia’s supposed promiscuity depicted in the poems. In fact, scholars have repudiated them because of their lack of clarity under artistic license, which brings up the point of the representation of Clodia in the few sources that exist. Can there be a clear and historical image of Clodia amidt the bias?
A proper representation of Clodia as a woman is extremely difficult to formulate due to the tendentious nature of Cicero’s sources, but also that of the relative fruitlessness of Catullus’ poems and Plutarch’s account. It seems that even modern scholars tend to agree that the Pro Caelio is not particularly clear, and even in the words of Skinner produces “a caricature” of Clodia as woman. However, Cicero’s letters seem to be the most credible account due to the fact that they were never meant for the public, thus their congeniality might be the most truthful accounts that exist. Yet, despite the lack of sources what is the most salient thing that can be derived about the Roman matrona, even through Cicero?
The most important thing that can be learned from the sources available is that Clodia was the representation of an independent woman, with moderate agency in the political life of her brother, but also within her domestic sphere. Skinner refers to it as the increase of autonomy, outside the confines of familial roles- something perhaps present amid women towards the end of the Republic. Whether this is true or not, the important concept remains that it isn’t just the supposed representation of Clodia’s sexual freedom that formulates this consensus but rather her importance as a woman in regards to Roman politics. For instance, Cicero ultimately used her, to attack the political career of her brother for his own ends which really conveys the indirect importance of women in this particular sphere.
Cicero’s attack of Clodia was inherently driven by his antipathy towards her and her brother both politically and personally, but also by his desire to win the case for Caelius. There is corroborating evidence for this in his letters to Atticus and there might be a connection to Plutarch’s account, all the while Catullus’ poems seem almost superfluous due to their ambivalence. Despite the bias found in the sources, it is clear that Clodia was a relatively independent matrona, yet still a woman in a man’s world.
By Milad Doroudian
Feature Written in 2014.