Behind Lesbia's Door

Book Details

Author  Gaetano Catelli
Publisher  Gaetano Catelli
Publication Date   August 21, 2012
ISBN  0615654800
Pages  206

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Clodia (“the Beautiful”) Metelli’s lineage is comparable to a current British Royal: “By the reckoning of the imperial biographer Suetonius, the patrician Claudii amassed during the lifetime of the Republic a total of twenty-eight consulships, five dictatorships, seven censorships, six triumphs, and two ovations” (Skinner). Wiseman summarizes: “[M]ulier nobilis [noble-woman] is putting it mildly: This daughter of the patrician Claudii was not merely a member of an ornamental social élite, but at the heart of the ruling class of the Roman Republic.”

Clodia is also the object of a lifelong obsession of the greatest love poet of ancient Rome, the emotionally volatile Gaius “the Puppy” Catullus, whose term of endearment for his inamorata is Lesbia – an allusion to the poetess Sappho of the Isle of Lesbos. And, during the final decades of his life, the Golden Age of Roman literature’s greatest writer of prose, conservative stalwart Marcus Tullius “Chick-Pea” Cicero, also, is preoccupied with Clodia – in his censorious (and envious) fashion.

In addition to her activities as poetess, playwright, and patroness of younger men of various talents (Austin), Clodia is involved in radical politics, via promoting the career of her youngest brother, Clodius “Pretty-Boy” Pulcher, an effete demagogue who is not above employing his mob of plebeian followers to influence political outcomes. According to Cicero, Clodia has enjoyed a ‘special relationship’ with her pretty little brother since their youth.

Even by the standards of ancient Rome, Clodia is controversial; and the controversy continues to the present day. In contradiction to the testimonia of both Cicero and Catullus, Skinner, the leading authority on Clodia, writes: “[T]he Clodia of history turns out to be the direct antithesis of the Clodia of myth”; and, “It is hard to think of her as the victim of unruly passions; she seems, on the contrary, firmly in control of her own life.”

Based upon the extant record, it does appear that Clodia is not the “victim” of anyone or anything. Rather, it seems that her cuckold-husband, “Swifty” Celer – a military commander and Consul of the Roman Empire; Catullus the febrile “New Poet”; the tall, temperamental russet-haired Caelius; and Cicero, the great orator and former Consul (driven into exile for a time by Clodia’s brother Clodius), in one way or another, are her victims.

At all events, the irreducible fact is that however much either or both of Cicero and Catullus may be exaggerating the sensational elements of Clodia’s conduct, no other woman of the ancient West has inspired so much rousing prose and arousing poetry, by two authors who know her personally.

Catullus begins Carmen 5, the first in which he addresses Clodia as Lesbia:

Let’s live and let’s love, my Lesbia / and prize the prattle of all the / prudish prunes at a penny!

Alas, Catullus: Be careful what you wish for. “Rusty” Caelius, Catullus’s boyhood friend as well as Cicero’s prodigal former protege, eventually supersedes Catullus in Lesbia’s affections, concurrently with her husband’s mysterious death. Three years later, Clodia is in the Roman Forum accusing Caelius of having attempted to poison her.

Following the (likely guilty) Caelius’s acquittal due to his counsel Cicero’s blistering attack on Clodia’s morals, Catullus composes Song-poem 67 (the central focus of this work), “The Door”. It might candidly be subtitled “And That’s Not All!” Unsure himself what to believe, with gleeful malice the jilted Catullus’s song-poem puts in the ‘mouth’ of a talkative front door (of Clodia’s original marital home in Catullus’s native Verona) the shocking slave-girl gossip emanating from within, both regarding the true nature of Clodia’s marriage to Celer the cuckolded Consul, and the real reason Clodia has accused Caelius of trying to poison her.

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