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.

6 thoughts on “Wicked Women of Rome: Clodia Metelli, the Medea of the Palatine”

  1. The problem with many ancient figures is that, as you said, we know so little. Clodia may very well have been innocent (or partly innocent) of Cicero’s charges against her; then again all the charges against her may have been completely true with more unvoiced. We will never know. And while Cicero is a master orator, there would have been a prosecution to counter, although yes, how much stock they’d put in redeeming her character would only depend on how much it helped their case against Caelius.

    Your post reminded me of a book about Hypatia, a Hellenistic female mathematician and philosopher who lived in Alexandria during the 4th and 5th centuries. The book focussed only on the persecution she experienced but fails to mention that we have historical evidence that there are many men who admired her. I guess my point is that if Clodia was very different than how she was painted I would think we might have evidence of it.

    On a slightly different note, I’ve been reading The Divine Comedy and many of Clodia’s excesses as mentioned by Cicero turned up as circles in Hell or Purgatory. It’s interesting to me that gluttony, for Dante (and perhaps his contemporaries) is seen as worse than carnal sins. In any case, it’s certainly a different world.

    I’ve just realized that I read Pro Caelio a long time ago and the speech about Clodia did not stand out for me. I’ll have to dig it out and see what I think with your post in mind. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  2. Yes, Cicero is brilliant and skillful and can use his mesmerizing words to sway the iudices (“gentlemen of the jury”) either way. That’s why he studied Greek rhetoric and became the best! Classics was such a male-dominated field until relatively recently that scholars did not question her guilt. We’ll never know: we know too little. But now that women are in classics, at least we can read the speech more than one way. It is fascinating. But the attack is very ugly. It doesn’t matter if Caelius went to “beach picnics,” etc., but it condemns Clodia for the same.

    Yes, Hypatia and other women got a raw deal in the ancient world!

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    1. Hypatia didn’t get a raw deal because she was a woman but because she was a pagan who refused to acknowledge the truth of christianity. She may have got an even more raw deal because of christian misogyny, but she wouldn’t have been much better treated if she was a man.
      There was a film – not-very-good – about her a few years ago, where she was played by Rachel Weisz and depicted as – well, as someone like Rachel Weisz – where the real Hypatia was middle-aged or older – a respected senior academic, or the equivalent,

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      1. She was a brilliant mathematician and scholar, even accepted in philosophical circles (rare for a woman), in a period when the Bishop (later St. Cyril ) was determined limit women’s influence and purge intellectuals. He set a mob of Christians on the pagan “witch.” But, yes, it was a time of pagan purge, so I don’t disagree with you: men and women were at risk..

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  3. Kat, I admire you so much for reading that Latin. It sounds like a gruesome speech, full of non sequiturs.
    Speaking of which, the previous commenter mentions Dante’s Circle of Hell. What does Dante have to do with Cicero’s speech?

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  4. Thank you, I adore Cicero, but this speech does not hold up to scrutiny. As for Dante… I didn’t address the issue, because it doesn’t apply, but I adore Dante and kudos to her for reading The Inferno!

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