Heterosexual love: Catullus and Lesbia

‘Lesbia’, the name by which Catullus addresses his famed mistress, has generally been supposed to have been the pseudonym of Claudia (Clodia) Metelli, one of the three sisters of the tribune P. Clodius Pulcher; the identification was made by Apuleius (Apol. 10). This Claudia, who like her sisters changed her nomen to Clodia to show her political support for her brother Publius, was married to Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer (cos. 60). After Metellus died in March 59 (Cicero hints that Clodia may have poisoned him: Cael. 60), Clodia is supposed to have had affairs with both Catullus and M. Caelius Rufus (Catullus 58 and 100 may have been addressed to this Caelius). Caelius had been a political friend of Clodius, but partly at the instigation of Clodia he was prosecuted in April 56 for political violence, when Cicero defended him. In this speech Cicero reports salacious details of the relationship between Clodia and Caelius to undermine the case that he owed Clodia money and had attempted to poison her: Clodia was in court as a witness.

Cicero’s defence concentrates on a character assassination of Clodia as an ageing prostitute and possible husband-killer, who had been engaged in an incestuous relationship with her brother (Cael. 59-60). Such rumours were already in circulation: at Milo’s trial in February earlier in the same year Pompey’s supporters had shouted obscene chants about the relationship between Clodius and Clodia (Cic. Quint. 2.32: doc. 12.69). Clodia’s younger sister had been divorced by L. Licinius Lucullus in 62 for adultery, and he accused her in court in 61 of incest with her brother. In February 54, writing to Lentulus Spinther (cos. 57), Cicero hints that the eldest sister, married to Q. Marcius Rex, had had a similar relationship with her brother: Clodius in gate-crashing the celebration of the Bona Dea cult had treated the goddess with as little respect as he had shown to his three sisters (Cic. Fam. 1.9.15).


Catullus’ ‘Lesbia’ is pictured not as a lady of senatorial rank but as an hetaera (a cultured Greek prostitute), a familiar literary character. Thirteen of Catullus’ 116 poems refer to her, moving from passion to disillusionment, rhapsodising over their love, comparing her to other women, describing their quarrels, criticising her unfaithfulness, and attacking her in abusive language: poem 79 even suggests an incestuous relationship with ‘pretty [pulcher] Lesbius’, obviously her brother Clodius Pulcher. Other love poems are addressed to an unspecified girl (puella) and to a woman named Ipsitilla (32), as well as to young boys such as Camerius and Juventius. Rather than inflamed by a single grand passion, Catullus is an inventive and elegant poet adapting and refining Hellenistic models of love poetry, full of allusions and well-schooled in Greek models. His Lesbia, rather than the protagonist of a genuine relationship, is probably a poetic construct, a composite of hostile stereotypes of Roman women -beautiful, frivolous, luxurious, ambitious, and unchaste.

Catullus was one of the ‘neoteric’, or ‘new’ poets in Rome, rebelling against traditional standards of morality and austerity: others in the poetic circle included Cornelius Gallus, C. Licinius Macer Calvus, and Helvius Cinna. Many of Catullus’ works invert social norms, presenting behaviour that was strongly condemned by traditional morality. In poem 7 Catullus addresses Lesbia, asking ‘how many kissings of you, Lesbia, will be enough and to spare?’. He answers his own question: as many as the grains of Libyan sand that lie on silphium-bearing Cyrene, or as many as the stars in the silent night that see men’s clandestine loves - only these would be enough for ‘your infatuated Catullus’ (Cat. 7: doc. 7.47). This poem would have shocked the Roman readership, portraying the male lover as uncontrolled and impassioned, with Catullus taking the subordinate, almost effeminate, role. Similarly, the couplet, ‘I hate and love. Why I do so perhaps you will ask. I do not know, but I feel it to be so, and I am in torment’, presents the reality of disillusioned romance, but in a way that diminishes the masculinity of the author (Cat. 85: doc. 7.48).

The name Lesbia might have been intended to reflect that of Sappho of Lesbos (whose famous poem Catullus adapts in poem 51), but it could also refer to the Greek verb lesbiazein (Latin: fellare; to perform oral sex), and it is possible that Sappho, being seen as shameless in Roman eyes, was a model for the Lesbia portrayed by Catullus. In one of his poems of disenchantment Catullus, addressing Caelius, depicts his ‘Lesbia whom Catullus alone loved more than himself and all his own’ performing oral sex in the street-corners and alley-ways of Rome with the descendants of ‘high-minded Remus’ (Cat. 58: doc. 7.51). Catullus’ sarcasm about the hypocritical morality of his peers helps to underwrite the picture of his ‘beloved’ Lesbia as, in reality, a degraded street whore.

Cicero and Clodia Metelli

Cicero similarly throws doubt on the reputation of Lesbia’s alter ego, Clodia Metelli. She had been personally involved in the decision to bring the prosecution for political violence against Caelius Rufus: the Clodii and Caelius had ended up in different camps over the question of the deposed Ptolemy XII of Egypt, and Caelius was accused by them of involvement in the murder of an Alexandrian envoy. Cicero presents Clodia as Caelius’ ageing mistress and ex-lover, and his forensic aim is to convince jurors that the 26-year old Caelius was just a naive, pleasure-loving young man, entrapped by the experienced seductress: Caelius was to be a correspondent of Cicero between 51 and 49, when Cicero was in his province, and became praetor in 48.

In one of his typically ironic comments, Cicero presents himself as surprised that Clodia is supporting the prosecution, since she has generally been considered to be a ‘friend’ to everyone. He even conjures up her ancestor, App. Claudius Caecus (cens. 312), to speak as a representative of traditional Roman values and ask how a woman of such consular lineage could have come to know Caelius (who was neither a relative or a connection) so well as to lend him money and fear attempts of poison on his part? (Cic. Cael. 32-49: doc. 7.52). The prosecution had itself provided evidence of their intimacy, with the accounts of ‘debauchery, love-affairs, adultery, Baiae, beach resorts, dinner-parties, revels, singing, music, boat-trips’; even more damning is that this information is being put forward with Clodia’s approval, with her conduct showing that she is ‘not only a prostitute, but one who is wanton and shameless’. Caelius was acquitted, and Clodia’s reputation never recovered. She was not heard of after this year, but in 54 the Clodii brought another unsuccessful prosecution against Caelius, who was again being ‘vigorously attacked by the Clodian family’ (Cic. Quint. 2.12).

Amaena and Acme

Catullus had no compunction about attacking his enemies’ mistresses on the grounds of their appearance in order to target the enemies themselves. Mamurra, Caesar’s praefectus fabrum, was one of his pet hates, and when comparing the attractions of Mamurra’s girl-friend, Amaena, and Lesbia, Catullus explains that Amaena (who, he implies, has propositioned him) only needs to look at herself in a mirror to understand why Catullus is not going to spend 10,000 sesterces on her (Cat. 41). He describes her with some vindictiveness as ‘without a tiny nose, a pretty foot, black eyes, long fingers, or a dry mouth - or a tongue of minimal refinement’. And the provincials of Cisalpine Gaul think she can be compared to his Lesbia? ‘What a stupid and undiscriminating world!’ (Cat. 43: doc. 7.49).

In poem 45 (doc. 7.50) Catullus describes a love idyll between an unknown Roman, Septimius, and Acme, possibly a Greek freedwoman. The couple profess their devotion to each other: Septimius swears that if it is not true that he will keep loving Acme all his life, then ‘may I in Libya or parched India encounter on my own a green-eyed lion’. Acme responds that ‘the passion that burns in my tender marrow is far greater and fiercer than yours’. Love-sick Septimius prefers Acme to any (conquests in) Syria or Britain, and Acme takes her pleasures and desires in Septimius alone. ‘Who ever saw people more blessed and who ever saw a more auspicious love?’ asks Catullus. The neoteric poets contrasted the love affairs of their circle in Rome with the traditional ideology of Roman aristocrats: Caesar may conquer Britain, and Crassus Syria, but for the rebellious young writers these achievements are worthless compared to their relationship with their beloved.

The poet Sulpicia

A rare woman’s voice can be found in a handful of poems composed by Sulpicia, daughter (or granddaughter) of Ser. Sulpicius Rufus (cos. 51), and niece and ward of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus (cos. 31), the noted literary patron. Book three of the elegies of Tibullus contains 11 poems ascribed to Sulpicia, six written in the first person, which deal with her passionate love for Cerinthus, obviously a Greek pseudonym. She appears to have been one of the circle of poets associated with Messalla, and uses literary allusion and sophisticated devices to describe her erotic relationship with Cerinthus, who is clearly not her husband, describing her love to the reader who has no such similar experiences: ‘let those talk about my joy, who, it is said, have none of their own’. Venus, won over by Sulpicia’s poetic Muses, has brought Cerinthus to her and placed him in her arms, fulfilling her promises to the poet ([Tib.] 3.13: doc. 7.53).

Sulpicia sees social conventions generally as of no importance: her love is of such a kind that to hide it from modesty would be more of a scandal than to proclaim it publicly, and ‘to wear a mask for scandal’s sake bores me: let me declare that I, a worthy woman, am linked with a worthy man’. Her poems may, like those of Catullus, have described the range of experiences from passion to disillusionment, and in two others she complains of Cerinthus’ lack of interest in her and her fear that he may be paying addresses to another woman. As an aristocratic woman writing poetry which purported to reflect her personal emotional experiences, Sulpicia was highly unusual, but she was not alone: one of Ovid’s poems from exile was written to a young poetess named Perilla, to whom he gave detailed literary advice and who may have been his step-daughter (Ovid Trist. 3,7).

Another amateur and unpublished poet presented his work as a graffito on the wall of the smaller theatre at Pompeii, c. 90-80. Tiburtinus, the writer, speaks of his lover’s eyes forcibly drawing him into the fire, and of tears which ‘cannot put out the flame’, but ‘burn the face and waste away the heart’. Another would-be poet similarly inscribed his passion nearby, begging that Venus’ flower be given to him, and asking leave to go to her: ‘da veniam ut veniam’ (‘give me permission that I may come’), a clever literary conceit (C/L I2 2540: doc. 7.54).

The folly of passion

There were wiser heads in Rome who rebuked the folly of romantic love and its ephemeral pleasures, such as the poet Lucretius who criticised the madness of love from the Epicurean standpoint, which saw tranquillity as the most important of life’s aims. In his On the Nature of the Universe, he devotes a passage to the idiotic ways in which the physical defects of mistresses are turned into charms in the imagination of their lovers, although at the end he does imply that long-term association with a woman and judicious behaviour on her part can bring about affection.

In Lucretius’ view, lovers consume their strength and waste their time at the whim of another; their wealth is converted into Babylonian brocades and their duties neglected. Perfumes, Sicyonian slippers, emeralds set in gold, sea-coloured garments (worn away through their constant absorption of ‘Venus’ perspiration), head-bands and turbans, banquets, entertainments, wine in abundance, wreaths of flowers - all these are provided in vain, since a taste of bitterness still causes the lover torment. Either a guilty consciousness that he is wasting his youth in debauchery, or a jibe from the mistress which ‘fixes in his passionate heart and glows there like fire’, or the belief that the girl is making eyes at another man spoils the pleasure and turns the love into heartbreak (Lucr. 4.1121-1140: doc. 7.55). Not all love is folly, however, and in his view it is possible for a woman ‘deficient in beauty’ to be loved, and by her conduct, compliant manners and freshness and neatness (no sea-coloured garments, presumably) she may persuade a man to become used to spending his life with her - after all, it is habit that produces love, just as drops of water finally wear away a stone (Lucr. 4.1278-1287). In this way even a philosopher can get used to having to live with a woman.

The satirist Lucilius had a similarly jaundiced view of the ways in which female beauty had been traditionally idealised by poets, and in book 17 of his Satires he appears to be parodying incidents and phraseology in the Odyssey, or the Homeric poems more generally, and their depiction of epic heroines. Surely, he addresses the reader, you are not so naive as to believe that the great heroines of epic, the ‘lovely-locked’ and ‘lovely-ankled’ girls of Homer could not have had sagging breasts; that Alcmena (mother of Hercules), the beloved of Zeus, could not have been knock-kneed or bow-legged; and Helen of Troy herself was not a -. Lucilius cannot bring himself to write the word, but points out that it would have to be two-syllables to fit his metre: he is, of course, thinking of the term adulteress (moecha). Even daughters of ‘noble sires’, the heroes of epic and myth, must have had a distinguishing mark, like a wart, mole, pock-mark, or projecting tooth (Lucil. 17.1567-1573: doc. 7.56). Luckily for aristocratic girls in Rome, family connections and property were of more importance than romantic inclinations, and even philosophers like Lucretius could become used to the company of women, given time.

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