Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.50
Marilyn B. Skinner, Clodia Metelli: The Tribune's Sister. Women in Antiquity. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xvii, 195. ISBN 9780195375015. $27.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Ellie Glendinning, University of Nottingham (email@example.com)
Clodia Metelli is one of the most enigmatic female figures from ancient Rome. She was connected to some of the most influential men of the late Republic, and achieved a reputation as a formidable character in this turbulent part of Rome’s history that has survived to the present day to excite the imaginations of both classical scholars and popular writers. Skinner’s book represents the first full-length biography of Clodia in the English language.1 Alongside an evaluation of the evidence available on Clodia, Skinner also offers an analysis of the key male figures and major political events surrounding her life.
The introduction sets the scene with some initial consideration of women in the late Republic, Clodia’s family and the two key contributors to her damaged reputation, Cicero and Catullus. Skinner justifies why she (rightly) focuses not solely on Clodia, but also considers the expectations of Roman society at this time, her family and relationships with the leading men of the day. As she makes clear, the primary focus of this book “will be on standard political history, although we will approach it from a new perspective: how Clodia herself might have experienced it” (p.5). Of course as the ‘might’ suggests, to a certain extent Skinner’s observations will be conjecture; this is one of the major limitations of trying to construct a biography for any ancient figure, particularly a woman. Nevertheless, her comments and evaluation throughout are perceptive and she attempts as far as possible to remain grounded in what we know about Clodia and the society in which she lived.
Chapter 1, ‘Cicero as a Biographical Source’, begins with the famous orator because, as Skinner points out, he is the only contemporary source that gives us any details about Clodia. Dismissing Plutarch’s remarks about her, Skinner draws attention to the fact that the picture painted of her by Cicero is twofold: we have the debauched, ridiculed figure of his Pro Caelio alongside the more controlled, influential Clodia of his letters. Skinner gives some background information on Cicero and then discusses his association with the rich widow Caerellia, who features in letters from 46 to 44 BC. Here Cicero can treat a woman not part of his family as someone he can do business with in a perfectly amicable fashion: the point of all this is to show that Cicero’s feelings towards Clodia were not due to her sex, nor even her wealth and position, but because he hated her brother, Publius Clodius. However, as Skinner goes on to demonstrate in chapter 2, this is not the only reason why Clodia might have been vilified by Cicero.
Chapter 2, ‘The Gens Claudia’, sets out to show the obligations imposed on highborn women by their families, giving examples of both female and male members of the Claudian gens to examine how they were portrayed by ancient writers. Beginning with the Pro Caelio itself, Skinner explores how Clodia was upbraided by Cicero via the mouthpiece of her own ancestors. Other accounts of her ancestors, such as the famous decemvir, Appius Claudius Caecus and Quinta Claudia, from writers such as Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, indicate that the Claudians were portrayed either as bravely upholding traditional laws and standards of conduct against the mob or as callous advocates in the class war against the plebs. Such ambivalent attitudes towards the gens, Skinner argues, although left to us in sources postdating Clodia’s lifetime, would certainly also have been entrenched in the minds of Clodia’s contemporaries and therefore might account for some of the bad feeling towards Clodia herself. The discussion here might have benefited from linking this to the idea of Cicero’s hatred of Clodius/Clodia (expressed in chapter 1).
Chapter 3, ‘Women and Wealth’, considers the financial and legal position of elite married women. Considering patria potestas and cum manu vs. sine manu marriage, with the latter being much more common in the late Republic, Skinner reasons that in Clodia’s day women were more self-sufficient in economic matters once they were made legally independent on the death of their fathers. She also considers such topics as elite women known for their extravagant displays of wealth, including Aemilia, wife of Scipio Africanus, and the issues surrounding the Lex Oppia and Lex Voconia, which limited such displays and a woman’s right to be a sole heir to large estates. Cicero himself also makes reference to the use of money by two women in his speeches, Caecilia in the Pro Roscio Amerino and Sassia in the Pro Cluentio. Skinner maintains that women who used their wealth for the good of the family, particularly their male relatives, were looked upon favourably, whereas those who did not consider the interests of their male kin were judged more harshly. Cicero judged Clodia to be in this latter group.
Chapter 4, ‘The Claudii Pulchri’, discusses Clodia’s immediate family, beginning with what evidence is available about her grandparents and parents. Her father, consul in 79, died in 76 and was not in Rome for much of Clodia’s youth; her mother cannot be identified with any certainty, although it is very likely that she died when Clodia was young; it is also possible that Clodia was an older half-sister to her siblings. The two most frequently mentioned in the sources are Appius Claudius Pulcher, the eldest of the brothers, and of course Clodius, her youngest brother. After discussing Appius’ career and known character, Skinner focuses on Clodia’s dealings with Clodius, primarily in the period 60 to 56 BC. What emerges from this analysis is that Clodia often acted more astutely than her sibling, “attempting to turn his self-destructive resentment into more productive channels” (p.73).
Chapter 5, ‘The Metelli’, considers the expected general behaviour between spouses in this period, in order to assess how Clodia might have interacted with her husband up until his death in 59. Clodia married Quintus Metellus Celer (her cousin) in c.82. Skinner charts his political career and his falling out with Cicero in 62 over Cicero’s treatment of his brother Nepos (the two later reconciled). Clodia (here still ‘Claudia’) emerges in Cicero’s letters as someone he looks to as an intermediary between himself and Nepos. However, by 60, as Skinner points out, Cicero already displays his hatred for Clodia as he sees her as siding with Clodius against her husband. By 45, on the other hand, he wants to buy some land from Clodia. In this later correspondence, Cicero also provides us with information about Clodia’s daughter Metella and her relationship with Dolabella; later evidence also suggests an association with the poet Ticida. As Skinner notes, though, nothing is known about the relationship between mother and daughter.
Chapter 6, ‘Palatine Medea’, focuses on Cicero’s portrayal of Clodia in the Pro Caelio. Well aware of Cicero’s prejudices and the issues surrounding the genre of this source material for what it can tell us about Clodia, Skinner nevertheless analyses the speech and attempts “to read between the lines and see whether, used with very great caution, it might after all harbour some realistic details about Clodia’s life” (p.97). After discussing the evidence for Marcus Caelius Rufus’ life and career, she moves on to how Cicero depicts Clodia. He had to show her as a lustful figure and sexually involved with Caelius to discredit any evidence she may have offered, and to portray her as being involved in the trial for highly personal reasons, and without the backing of her family. However, as Skinner points out, the fact that Clodia did not hesitate to appear in court suggests that the affair had either been kept secret or never happened, and that her family did support her behind the scenes. Ending with Cicero’s desire to purchase her land in 45 as expressed in his letters, Skinner postulates that the two had now reconciled – although it could just be that business was business irrespective of previous dealings between the two. From this period on we see Clodia as a wealthy widow who travels and is in charge of her own affairs. One final reference to her in a letter from April 44 seems to connect her to Cleopatra’s stay in Rome that year; Skinner’s idea that the Egyptian queen stayed with Clodia is an interesting one, although can only remain speculation, as she herself admits.
Chapter 7, ‘Lesbia’, explores Clodia/Lesbia in the poetry of Catullus. After some discussion of female authors and poets, Skinner demonstrates how Cicero had portrayed Clodia in the Pro Caelio as a poetess associated with mime acts and the theatre, all in an attempt to discredit her by association with disreputable pastimes for an elite female. She then moves on to review the evidence for Catullus’ life and career. While not coming down firmly on either side of the debate surrounding the identification of Lesbia with Clodia Metelli, Skinner offers some persuasive arguments that poem 79 can only be this Clodia and not one of her sisters, and that the Caelius Rufus from the trial features in 69, 71 and 77. What is more interesting, however, is Skinner’s discussion of the Lesbia poems in terms of their relationship with how Cicero presented her in his speech and that consequently (surmising that the speech came before the poems), it is likely that Catullus relied on her public profile from the trial in order to produce an effective picture of a shrewish noblewoman acting as a debauched whore. As Skinner puts it, “whether Catullus actually loved the flesh-and-blood Clodia Metelli is beside the point” (and will probably remain unanswered); “it is for what he made of Cicero’s Clodia that we remember him” (p.149).
The book is well-presented and well-written, with an image in each chapter, easily accessible sections and sub-sections within the chapters. Non-classicists less familiar with the ancient world and its writers will welcome the list of abbreviations and various maps of Rome at the start, and all readers will benefit from the genealogies of Clodia’s rather complex family. References to most of the ancient material occur helpfully within the text itself, while footnotes provide further clarification on some points and references to modern scholarship. The bibliography is thorough, and the index locorum will assist with following up ancient references. I noticed only a few minor typographical errors.
To those who have studied Clodia in some detail before, there is little new here in the way of source material or evidence about her. However, Skinner effectively brings together what is available and her discussion of the Pro Caelio and Catullus’ poetry in the final two chapters in particular provides a detailed and useful starting point for anyone wishing to study Clodia. As an early volume in the Women in antiquity series, it has set the tone for future biographies of other key women.2 Furthermore, for anyone studying women in general in the late Republic, this book offers useful information about topics such as marriage and the expectations of elite females in this period. It also offers someone studying the period in general an overview of some of the key players, including Cicero and Clodius. Finally, with the study of any female figure from ancient Rome, we are at the mercy of male perspectives and often only witness snapshots of these figures when they feature in bigger political and historical events. As Skinner comments in her conclusion (‘A Woman in a Man’s World’), “Clodia Metelli as the historical record presents her was a product of the rivalries and aspirations of the men surrounding her. She is still what those men made of her” (p.150).
1. See also F. Mainzer Clodia: Politik und Liebe auf dem Palatin (Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1931); G. Agnelotti Clodia: La nemica di Cicerone (Atheneum, 1991). The other major recent book on Clodia is J. D. Hejduk’s Clodia: A Sourcebook (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008) (acknowledged by Skinner): BMCR 2008.09.41.
2. It is the second of only two volumes produced so far: the first is D. W. Roller’s Cleopatra: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 2010): BMCR 2010.09.40.