Patriarchy Past and Present: The Case of Cicero’s Clodia

One of the ongoing questions in the study of classics is what relevance the ancient world has to us today. Sometimes I feel a little odd, as a leftie, a feminist and even as a young woman, for studying what if often seen as a bastion of the colonial, elite white male tradition. My Greek teacher likes to point out that Australia seems to have a particular distrust of classics as something associated with the imperialist system. And many would argue that the subject is still heavily dominated by men writing about the concerns of men.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean that classics isn’t relevant, however. Apart from the huge influence that Greek and Roman history has had on the West’s legal, philosophical and scientific systems (I could go on), you can also find some direct parallels to social values and ideologies still held today. This semester I’ve noticed this especially by studying Cicero’s Pro Caelio.

As a feminist, studying the Pro Caelio is as rage-inducing as it is fascinating – mainly because, to put it bluntly, it’s blatantly and unapologetically misogynistic. It is, after all, a product of its times. And in the Roman world, being a woman wasn’t exactly the greatest thing to be, unless you happened to be very wealthy and in exceptional circumstances.Even then, you weren’t safe.

For some context on the speech before I continue talking about Clodia, my three sentence summary of the speech would be something like this: Caelius, a young man, has just entered public life, but is brought to trial for generally stirring up trouble. This is a non-issue though, Cicero argues, because boys will be boys, and they still turn into perfectly good statesmen even if they stray a little in their youth. So Caelius can’t be punished for this even if it were true (because that would be an attack on the whole institution of growing up as a Roman, gasp!) – and besides, the whole charge has just been made up by a rich woman called Clodia who acts like a prostitute and refuses to be a Proper Roman Matron.

clodia metelli

What makes Cicero’s extensive attack on Clodia most interesting is that the sort of arguments he uses against her are exactly the same arguments used by the patriarchy today: that she’s a slut, and that the only way she can wield any sort of power is through her sexuality.

Let’s start with the first parallel: that Clodia is a slut, and that this is why all the generally good, but slightly naive young men are being led astray and victimised. Right at the very start of the speech, Cicero makes it clear what the real issue is: that ‘woman’s passions must be checked’ (Cic. Cael. 1), because then this whole court case wouldn’t need to be happening. He implies that she sleeps with her brother, (Cael. 32), that she can have her pick of any young man in Rome (Cael. 36), that she lives a life of debauchery, lust and luxury that could not possibly be spoken of in decent company; where even slaves are privy to her most guarded secrets – servi! servi inquam! (Cael. 57). He openly calls her a meretrix (prostitute) with increasing frequency as the speech progresses.

Most importantly though, Clodia is a ruiner of men’s lives. Cicero basically tells us that anyone who falls for her charms or becomes entangled with her can’t be blamed for anything, because what else do you expect from a woman who consciously refuses to act like a virtuous wife? (Cael. 38, 42, 47, and especially 49). If a woman acts like a slut, then she’s only getting what comes to her, and the men who were involved with her can never, ever be blamed.

Sound familiar? While it’s sometimes more carefully veiled in our own society, those same ideas still ring true. Were that girl flirting with too many people in that bar, or wearing a top that was too revealing, or a skirt that was too short? Well, men can’t be blamed if they make unwanted advances on her. Was she drinking too much at a party? Well, then it’s her own fault that she woke up next to a stranger, was assaulted, was raped. She shouldn’t have been drinking or wearing those clothes or making out with someone. Sadly, these sorts of ideas still pervade our media and our way of thinking, as you can see in the recent Stubenville rape case. Victim blaming galore, and then a huge outcry at the lives of young men being ruined.

The second parallel between Cicero’s portrayal of Clodia and the way patriarchy views women in our own society is in the way Clodia exerts her influence and power, which is (you guessed it!) through her sexuality. Women had no claim to legitimate power in Roman society, save for their position in the household. Clodia however, can exert huge influence with her sexuality, so much that she can turn decent men into subservient slaves (Cael. 67). Unlike Agrippina the Younger though, Clodia’s seductions and liaisons have no ulterior motive of acquiring power – she seems to see her promiscuity and the havoc it causes as a goal in itself. And so it happens that Cicero incredulously asks whether the jury expects Caelius’ youth to be sacrificed just to satisfy the ‘wanton whims of a woman’ (Cael. 70) used to getting her way through her sexuality.

Again, we can see parallels in our own society. There is still a strong view that women, particularly women with a high level of social visibility, are only worth anything or able to achieve anything through their sexiness. From sexist, objectifying advertising to quotes that Angelina Joelie’s recent double mastectomy was a sad day for fans to the sexually explicit invective against the Prime Minister (NSFW), women are still reduced to their sexuality as their only means of getting anywhere or being worth anything. Women might be able to vote, to work, to be politicians and hold legitimate positions of power in our society, but we still can’t escape the idea that women and sex go hand in hand.

There are far more parallels between the classical world and our own than just the Olympic games or the concept of the legal speech. In the case of Clodia those parallels are rather depressing, but looking at gender relations in the ancient world helps us to understand where our own values and ideas come from. And understanding where something comes from is the first step in changing those ideas into something more productive and suited to the times. Feminism and classics aren’t so incompatible after all.


9 thoughts on “Patriarchy Past and Present: The Case of Cicero’s Clodia

  1. Heh, I know what you mean about simultaneously studying the Classics and holding radical’ notions such as the idea that women are people or that ‘female’ is equal to the other genders…

    However, human societies are pretty complex, and even in the most patriarchal societies, women still manage to have at least a bit of power. In the Greco-Roman world, the obvious example of a woman who managed to make her literary mark is Sappho… who is now many people’s favorite ancient Greek poet, not because she’s a woman, but because she IS one of the best (and many ancient Greek men also thought she was one of the best).

    1. Oh, there are definitely a lot of exceptional women in Graeco-Roman history! But in the end, they are the absolute exceptions. It’s a little bit different in social history and when you look at lower class women, but when you look at the literary tradition, the rules that women need to follow (lest they be branded immoral) are so strict. And often women in the literary world aren’t even represented for themselves, but only to serve some narrative purpose! I’m doing research on that for a project this semester, it’s been so fascinating. 🙂

  2. Excellent parallels. Loved it. Found myself wanting to stand in court and have my say on behalf of Greco-Roman women. Thank you, Jo. You are right about classics being bound up with the idea of a ruling patriarchal elite in the colonies. If forward-thinking women like yourself don’t embrace and study the classics they will be even more entrenched in this prejudice. The opportunitites to even study the classics are terribly limited now – especially for women (some boys schools have more aqccess to studying the classics – particularly in the UK) Look forward to reading more of your ideas.

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, Annie. I agree – we definitely can do with more forward thinking women in Classics! Shake things up a little. 😀

  3. Interesting read. I am a PhD candidate in Classics and currently reading the Pro Caelio in my Latin course. Perhaps you have read it already, but I recommend looking at Marilyn Skinner’s biography, “Clodia Meteli: the Tribune’s Sister”. It attempts to uncover the “real” Clodia beneath the invective of Cicero’s oratory and examines what Cicero has to say about Clodia in his personal correspondence (mainly in his letters to his friend Atticus) which is much less openly hostile (in fact, years after the trial in 56 BCE we find out that Cicero is interested in purchasing Clodia’s garden estates and looks forward to dealing with her directly). It helps to show how little we can take from Cicero’s rhetorical speeches about his attitude towards women; he obviously has a very pointed rhetorical goal in his presentation of Clodia in the Pro Caelio, and while I would never argue that women “had it good” in late Republican Rome, I don’t think we can take this speech to be reflective of misogynistic Roman attitudes more generally. In fact, much of the sexual slander Cicero uses against Clodia he also aims at many of his political opponents who are men (e.g. Marc Antony, Clodia’s brother Clodius, etc.). Sexual invective was a powerful and persuasive rhetorical device for orators to use against men OR women. Anyways, just some food for thought. I love seeing that other women are also interested in the world of classics!

    1. Hi Samantha, and thanks for your comment! I agree, it’s really cool to find like-minded people in the world of Classics. (Do you have an profile? We should keep in touch!)

      I haven’t read that articular book of Marylin Skinner’s, but I am familiar with some of her other stuff. I definitely agree with you that there is a lot of rhetoric going on in the Pro Caelio, and I also think it’s likely that the overall view of women in the Roman Republic was not quite as bad as Cicero makes out. But the parallel to the modern world there stands as well, don’t you think? Vocal misogynists/MRAs etc still trot out terrible. misogynistic invective against women, even though they represent the extreme rather than everyday attitudes. You’ve got me thinking now! I’ve done quite a bit of research on imperial women as well, and yes, most often the rumours and slanders about them are used to make a point about a political system, or a man in their lives. I suppose that doesn’t happen anymore so blatantly. But we do still like to belittle men by calling them women or feminine or womanish!

      Sorry, those thoughts have gotten a bit disordered. I love thinking about stuff like this, if you can’t tell already. 😀

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