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.

The translations from the Latin are mine.