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.
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 abc-clio.com, 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 : http://dictynna.revues.org/269