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.
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.