Smearing Clodia

The Reviews

By  S. H. Pearson


      This critique was course-work that I submitted for graded credit in a required class.  Keep in mind that I was courting academic credit. 

     In the case of Marcus Caelius Rufus, Roman defense lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero excelled at winning an acquittal for his client. Smooth and eloquent, though he was, Cicero was not beyond reproach and neither was his client.

     In the case for Caelius there was both evidence and witnesses that never made it into court. Whether this was because of the tricky social pitfalls surrounding a widow’s bad reputation or the self-sullying stand of any witness on her behalf, posterity shall never know.

     Cicero knew his advantages in this case. He also knew the advantages of his privileged young client. First of all, Cicero had the advantage of knowing his client outside of court as he knew the poet Aulus Licinius Archias for whom he also argued a case and won. Cicero became his own character witness in both cases stating that his clients were good and honorable men. Being a well-known and respected litigator, Cicero’s opinion of these men was a fortuitous rhetorical tack.

     Secondly, the absence of crucial witnesses in plaintiff Clodia Metelli’s case made it easier for Cicero to go for her jugular. Thirdly, women in the ancient world were certainly little more than sexual commodities to be given in marriage and taken as brides or to be bought and sold in slavery.

     It was common knowledge that any woman who bucked the rigid system of social mores would be smeared, sullied and ruined for her liberties. Once her rule-breaking was exposed, anyone who may have theretofore been her consort would clamor for cover from the light of day – such was the case with the alleged household slaves who uncovered the plot to have her poisoned by her ex-lover, Caelius.

     Caelius was a young beautiful man who took up residence next to the recently-widowed, 36-year-old Clodia on a fashionable riverside strand. Clodia at 36 may have been considered middle-aged in Cicero’s time, but she was far from ready to lie down and die. Her late husband had left her with opulent surroundings. There was living left to do.

     Clodia came from a ranking family of good standing. It served Cicero’s agenda in court that as such a woman, all eyes had been upon her since her husband’s death.

     The situation that begat this case was almost predictable. An older woman is at liberty to take a young lover. After the rapid wild fires of his infatuation have burned themselves out, he is ready to move on to new territory, leaving the now fallen woman to acquire a new paramour. Cicero and his jury were familiar with this scenario and with the motive of the plaintiff to be scorned by it. This lent credence to Cicero’s argument.

     Cicero then proceeded to drag Clodia’s name through the crestfallen mire of female shame. He implied that she had sex with her own brother. He implied that she gave herself freely and cheaply for sex, that she was a loose, libidinous woman for all to see at her vacation residence in the notorious Baiae. It was implied that anyone who goes to Baiae goes there for one reason anyway.

     The jury received a picture painted of Clodia that was scarlet, wanton, bohemian, hedonist and, ironically, none other than Roman — for Cicero would be a fool indeed not to concede that Rome was synonymous with decadence and sensualism. Rome was known for its excess, debauchery and cruelty for sport and entertainment standing out from all of history – verily, from all the linear time of human existence such have been the trappings of Rome. So here Cicero stands before a jury of men and condemns a widow for her sexual dalliance with the boy next door.

     Cicero condemned Clodia whilst upholding Caelius and yet they were partners in the same “crime” so to speak. Caelius, however, was lauded as a bright, up and coming young lawyer from a good family. His moral blunder was rapidly excused by Cicero with “Everyone agrees that the young should be allowed to play around a little, and nature herself has been generous in supplying them with youthful passions…” [1]  Cicero continues that there are not enough hours in the day for him to cover everything that there is to say on the subjects of corruption, adultery, wantonness and extravagance as though these were somehow not Rome’s middle names.

     To list a few of the supposed gasps to good, upstanding Roman society, the prosecution listed orgies, love-affairs, adultery, Baiae, beach parties, dinner parties, carousing, singing, musical entertainments and pleasure-boats. Short of orgies, the rest reads almost normal when it comes to the privileged lives of the upper classes throughout all of human history. As for wine-fueled orgies, one might accept those as part of the worship service to the Roman god Bacchus.

     Cicero builds his case around one woman’s “reckless infatuation” with the boy next door – how she fell to her knees worshipping at the shrine of his pale beauty. She is condemned for her infatuation that sprouted and grew predictably in the fertile loam of her “pleasure-gardens” on the river. It is easy to understand how Clodia and her young paramour grew entangled.

     It is even easier to understand how an ambitious young lawyer like Caelius had a strong motive to rid himself of an older woman who was now enamored and clinging to him, threatening to ruin him socially and professionally. It is easy to understand also how Cicero felt a loyalty and fraternity to this young man, seeing as he was one of his own. Professionals stick together in a kind of fraternity throughout the world and have done so throughout history.

     On top of their profession, Caelius and Cicero were both men. Men would share an understanding of the pitfalls of illicit relationships with women and this was one such relationship.

     A good illustration comes to mind of how John Fitzgerald Kennedy during his Presidency began an acquaintance with a popular movie star. Kennedy met the woman through an introduction at the home of his brother-in-law. Before long the movie star began making a lot of phone calls to the President’s office and that of his younger brother, the Attorney General of the United States.  She became infatuated and perhaps she even fell in love.  This may have been her knell.  Shortly thereafter, the movie star was found dead in her home of a mysterious drug over-dose. Posterity will never know the real truth about that case either.

     Cicero won his case for Marcus Caelius Rufus not so much because Cicero was a brilliant litigator, but because the plaintiff was a woman. Women in Cicero’s time did not have a leg to stand on in court or outside of court. Today they are still stigmatized for having sex with men that are not their husbands either before or during their marriage. Clodia Metelli was a widow and she was dragged through the brambles in court for her joie de vivre in depraved Rome of all places.

     In conclusion, the analytical mind must pose this question. Why would a woman risk being laughed out of court by an all-male jury by bringing fabricated charges against a man of whom she was recently so fond?




[1] D. H. Berry, Cicero Defence Speeches (OxfordOxford University Press, 2000) 139.




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