Clodia (c. 94–post 45 BCE)

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Clodia (c. 94–post 45 bce)

Roman aristocratic matron who influenced politics and patronized literature and the arts during the Roman Republic. Name variations: Claudia; Clodia Metelli; possibly Lesbia. Pronunciation: CLO-di-a. Born Claudia, probably in Rome, around 94 bce; date and place of death unknown, probably after 45 bce; daughter of Appius Claudius Pulcher (consul in 79 bce) and a mother whose name is not known for certain, but who may have been Metella; married Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer (consul in 60 bce), sometime before 62 bce (died 59 bce); no evidence for remarriage; lovers: possibly the poet Gaius Valerius Catullus and Marcus Caelius Rufus; children: possibly Metella.

Independence, leisure, and the enjoyment of life characterize the opportunities available to women from aristocratic families during the Late Roman Republic (133–43 bce). Much as Roman women were enjoying their increasing freedom, however, Roman men were becoming alarmed at the growing power these women wielded, especially over the men in their family. Unfortunately, only the men's writings and points of view have been preserved, with the result that some of Rome's most colorful women are seen in an almost completely negative light. Such is the case with Clodia, a fiercely independent woman who was, for a while, at the center of political debate in Rome. Although the sources are sparse and scattered, sometimes merely conjectured, and often heavily biased, there is still enough material to piece together an outline of a life lived fully, passionately, and well.

Clodia was born around 94 bce, one of six children of Appius Claudius Pulcher (consul in 79 bce) and perhaps the sole child of his first wife, who may have been Metella. The Claudian family was an old and respected aristocratic dynasty and the Metellan clan was one of the most powerful in Rome during the last century of the Republic. So Clodia should have been born to all the advantages of the powerful and wealthy upper class. Yet her father may have left the household penniless when he died in 76, since one of her elder brothers complained that he had to give away one of his sisters in marriage without a dowry because the family could not afford it. Clodia's name sounds like the name of a lower-class, plebeian woman, but her original name was Claudia (according to the Roman custom of naming girls after their father's family, or middle name). She probably changed it to Clodia when her youngest brother changed his from Publius Claudius Pulcher to Publius Clodius Pulcher, hereafter referred to as Clodius.

In 62 bce, Clodia enters the historical record where she is mentioned as married to her cousin, Quintus Metellus Celer, the future consul of 60 bce. She had probably been married for some years already, since women were usually married early, or at least before the age of 18. At this point, we can distinguish her from her two sisters, who were also called Claudia or Clodia, by observing the Roman practice of placing the husband's name after the wife's: Clodia Metelli. The consul of 63, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 bce), Rome's greatest leader and orator, mentions in a letter to Metellus that he has spoken with Clodia about Metellus' brother, Nepos, who was making political trouble for him. Cicero hoped Clodia could assuage Nepos and encourage him to drop his attack. Thus, Clodia was already involved with the politics of the day, though it was as an influential background player.

Shortly thereafter, Clodia became embroiled in the revolutionary political machinations of her brother, Clodius, which were opposed by her husband. Clodius, an ambitious politician, is best known for his demagoguery during the late 60s and most of the 50s. Though born into an aristocratic family, he recognized that he could gain power faster by being elected tribune and appealing to the lower classes as well as to those who felt disenfranchised. Yet patricians could not become tribunes, for the tribunate was designed to allow the plebeians access to magistracies. Thus, Clodius contrived to have himself adopted by a plebeian family. He had already provoked citywide scandal by sneaking into a religious ceremony restricted to women, but he had an ally in Julius Caesar, who helped enable his adoption. Metellus, a fiercely conservative, sometimes snobbish aristocrat, could not sanction Clodius' populist activities and opposed Clodius' transference to the plebeian class. Forced to make a choice between her husband or her brother, Clodia preferred to support her brother and thus placed a strain on her marriage. In another letter, Cicero alleges that Clodius and Clodia were having an incestuous relationship, a rumor that the gossip mills at Rome probably encouraged to account for her support. It does seem certain that Clodius committed incest with another sister, Clodia Luculli , so perhaps that tainted the perception of Clodia Metelli's relationship with her brother. Whatever the facts, when Clodia's husband Metellus died suddenly in 59 bce, she was suspected of poisoning him.

When a Roman woman lost her husband, she was expected to marry again soon. There is no evidence that Clodia did so. In fact, what we know about her life suggests that she prized her independence more than her good reputation according to traditional conservative expectations. In the early to mid-50s, she continued to support her brother's revolutionary schemes and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, hosting sumptuous banquets, giving lavish parties at her resort on the Italian coast, and entertaining young men of artistic and literary talent.

Everything we know about Clodia suggests a woman motivated by the love of pleasure and the love of sway.


There is a tradition that Clodia was the lover of the lyric poet Catullus. In several of his poems, Catullus calls his girlfriend "Lesbia," a sophisticated reference to the greatest woman poet in the ancient world, Sappho , who had lived on the isle Lesbos. One ancient writer actually claimed that Lesbia was Clodia. Which Clodia is not mentioned, however, and it may as well be Clodia Luculli as Clodia Metelli. Perhaps we can never know for sure, but there is a certain joie de vivre and independence in Catullus' Lesbia that suits Clodia Metelli:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and pay no attention to gossip of wrinkled old men.
Suns may rise and suns may set,
but for us, when once the brief light goes down,
there will be one everlasting night for sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
a thousand more, add a hundred,
another thousand, and another hundred.
Then, when we've kissed many thousands of times,
we'll forget the number, so even we don't know it,
and so no wicked person can cast the evil eye upon it,
when he knows the number of our multitudinous kisses.

Lesbia is having an affair with Catullus while she is married, she argues with her husband, and she is accused of committing incest with her brother, who is called pulcher, "pretty," which could refer to Clodia's brother, Publius Clodius Pulcher. The evidence is circumstantial, and, intentionally so, for it was a great social embarrassment for a married Roman woman to have an affair. It was also illegal, though it happened. Catullus maintains propriety by giving his lover a pseudonym, but it seems a thin veneer.

The relationship between Lesbia and Catullus was passionate and tempestuous. Finally, Lesbia left him and took other lovers. One lover mentioned by Catullus is a certain Rufus. The name is intriguing because, in the early to mid-50s, Clodia was the lover of Marcus Caelius Rufus. The evidence for this comes from a courtroom speech by Cicero in defense of Caelius in the year 56. After the few notes about Clodia in Cicero's private correspondence, the speech for Caelius provides most of our information about her. It also illustrates the difficulties of writing about ancient women, since the source is intentionally biased. Clodia appeared for the prosecution, and Cicero, appearing for the defense, attacked her vehemently. She and Caelius had been lovers, but he jilted her, and she is represented as a jealous, vindictive, and scorned woman. Cicero gives a negative interpretation of her character and actions. Clodia's independence, rare for a woman in a traditional patriarchal society, is made to seem like an attempt to gain control over men. Her patronage of young men with artistic talent and her grand parties are made to look like shameless and decadent living. Accusations of incest with her brother are relayed as jokes that men make at a woman's expense. She is called a two-bit whore, virtually accused of poisoning her husband, and likened to husband-slaying Clytemnestra and the witch, the mythological mistress of poisons, Medea.

This portrait has influenced perceptions of Clodia for centuries, and it still affects our views of her today. But due weight must be given to the nature of Cicero's attack as a source for Clodia's activities. It was customary in Roman judicial speeches to attack an opponent's character, and character assassination was considered most likely to influence a jury. Yet Cicero and Clodia appeared to be on tolerably good terms just a couple of years after the speech; so it seems that Clodia did not carry a grudge on this matter (the same as men who were ruthlessly attacked in court, yet maintained their friendship with the author of the attack). What Cicero said was meant to play upon Roman attitudes toward women in order to win the case.

Clodia was caught up in the political machinations of her brother throughout the 50s, although her support began to wane by the end of the decade. In 59, she was part of Clodius' close circle of confidants, but in the next couple of years she confided in people sympathetic to Clodius' enemies. Clodius was becoming wild and reckless, a political firebrand, a liability. His ambitions may have offended his sister, who seems to retire quietly from history.

The last mention of Clodia comes in the mid-40s bce. Once again, it is Cicero who provides the information. Cicero was looking to purchase some property upon which he might dedicate a shrine to his recently deceased daughter, Tullia . He considers asking Clodia about her house by the Tiber River. In private correspondence, he assumes she will not sell, for she does not need the money and she likes the place. If she does want to sell, he says, she will want cash on the spot. Clodia probably did not need the money, but she was known for a certain amount of financial savvy.

Clodia did not sell her house and gardens to Cicero. She may have had a daughter, but aside from an obscure reference to the girl in the early 40s, nothing is known about her except that she was married and divorced young. No grandchildren are mentioned, and we hear of no descendants under the Roman Empire.

Clodia has been called the "first political strategist" among women at Rome, and Richard Bauman in Women and Politics in Ancient Rome sums up her life:

Clodia is known to have been beautiful and she is generally assumed to have been intelligent, educated and witty. There is no need to quarrel with that assessment, but the point is that those qualities are only peripheral to her consequence. Determination, at times bordering on ruthlessness, a profound understanding of politics and politicians and consummate skill in manipulating them, and indifference to, and even contempt for, the traditional curbs on women's political mobility … these are the marks of the great feminine political strategist.

Clodia's "consequence" may be understood in various ways. Her political influence was not long lasting; nor was that of most men. She survives as one of a very few of the countless Roman women who were mentioned by contemporary male writers. As such, she provides a window onto the lives of other ancient Roman women. She also provides a warning. Clodia was politically active and independent, as were many Roman women of the late Republic. Most of the comments about her come from a man who often needed to oppose her in public, though he may have privately gotten along with her. Once the biases of the sources are considered, Clodia emerges as an intelligent woman who knew how to gain power and possessions to make her life pleasant. She appears as a woman who lived her life as fully as possible within a male-dominated society. Clodia fought for and maintained her ability to live beyond the constraints.


(All original sources are in Latin. The following are English translations, often presented parallel to the Latin text.)

Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris. Translated by F. W. Cornish, et al. 2nd ed., revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Cicero: Pro Caelio, De Provinciis Consularibus, Pro Balbo. Translated by R. Gardner. Loeb Classical Library, Cicero, Vol. 13. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Cicero's Letters to Atticus. 7 vols. Edited and Translated by D.R. Shackleton Bailey. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, Vols. 3–9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965–70.

Cicero's Letters to His Friends. Translated by D.R. Shackleton Bailey. American Philological Association Classical Resources Series, no. 1. Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1988 (without Latin text).

suggested reading:

Bauman, Richard A. Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. London: Routledge, 1992.

Skinner, Marilyn B. "Clodia Metelli," in Transactions of the American Philological Association. Vol. 113, 1983, pp. 273–287.

Wiseman, T.P. Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

——. "Clodia: Some Imaginary Lives," in Arion. New series, Vol. 2, 1975, pp. 96–115.

Robert W. Cape , Jr. , Visiting Assistant Professor of Foreign Languages and Classics, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York