Cicero may have been a pompous self-important ass, but he was also the world’s greatest rhetoricians, and the incandescent brilliance of his forensic oratory is often both mesmerising and amusing.
I was lead to the Pro Caelio while contemplating Catullus’ Poem 58 (surely one of everyone’s favourites!):
Caelius, our Lesbia, Lesbia herself,
That Lesbia, whom Catullus loved
More than himself and all his friends,
Now on street-corners and down back-alleys
Jerks off the grandsons of great-hearted Remus.
Now if we follow tradition in identifying Lesbia with Clodia, then it seems reasonable to identify Caelius here with the Caelius Rufus of the Pro Caelio (though some have denied it), who also had an affair with Clodia, which is largely the subject of Cicero’s speech. So what light, I wondered, might the Pro Caelio shed on this mysterious woman? – And how does this match Catullus’ portrayal? And how did Roman society work anyway in the late Republic? Who knew who, and what side was everyone on?
Cicero is defending Caelius Rufus on two charges: a) that during his affair with Clodia, he borrowed gold off her in order to pay some slaves to murder a certain Dio of Alexandria; and b) that he attempted to procure poison in order to murder Clodia. Roman society had no concept of state prosecution; all cases were private matters and therefore prosecution tended to be politically motivated (by which I probably mean, helpful to prosecutor’s / defender’s reputation; beneficial in establishing the right political connexions – least of all any concept of public service). Cicero maintains that these charges are nonsense (he certainly makes a masterly case, but then he would make it seem that way), and that in fact the prosecution, instigated by the Clodii faction (the notorious Publius Clodius himself is one of the prosecutors), was only brought about because Caelius Rufus has been prosecuting them over some other matters (against his advice, Cicero adds, no doubt because in defending Caelius he doesn’t want to alienate those he’s defending him against, who are probably also at times useful friends and allies). Anyway, he makes his case, which includes a great farcical scene in a bath-house, and wins.
It’s only in the latter part of the speech that he actually gets to these issues however; a lot of the early part of the case is basically concerned with the character of young Caelius Rufus, whom the prosecution seemed to have characterised as something of a skirt-chasing hell-raiser; to which Cicero responds that there’s nothing wrong with this – in moderation; – we were all a bit like this when we were young; and anyhow, Caelius is just a nice boy who’s been led astray by an evil woman – which leads him to his extended character assassination of Clodia.
He starts upon Clodia (as he says) gently, in order to build her character in his audience’s mind (not, of course, that they wouldn’t have known her anyway). First he brings in one of her famous dead ancestors, to wonder why it is she was acquainted with this Caelius Rufus at all since he wasn’t related to their family, and has him bang on about the historic virtuousness of the Claudii and the Metelli (into which latter family she’d married; – they were serious aristocracy the Metelli, not of course that the Claudii weren’t) (“Was it for this that I broke the treaty which was concluded with Pyrrhus, that you should every day make new treaties of most disgraceful love?” moans her ancestor). Then he takes on the guise of her younger brother for much the same effect, before coming out with this quiet breath-takingly brazen piece of rhetorical imputation:
I am not saying anything now against that woman [Clodia]: but if there were a woman totally unlike her, who made herself common to everybody; who had always some one or other openly avowed as her lover; to whose gardens, to whose house, to whose baths the lusts of every one had free access as of their own right; a woman who even kept young men, and made up for the parsimony of their fathers by her liberality; if she lived, being a widow, with freedom, being a lascivious woman, with wantonness, being a rich woman, extravagantly, and being a lustful woman, after the fashion of prostitutes; am I to think any one an adulterer who might happen to salute her with a little too much freedom?
Later on in the speech, once Cicero feels the audience knows their woman, he’s quite happy to call her a whore and a prostitute without any such formalities of deceit, as if this was what everyone knew all along.
Let’s put it slightly differently however: she was a woman who used her beauty to sleep with young men she fancied, until she got bored of them and dumped them. Isn’t this exactly the arc of Catullus’ poetry about her / his relationship with women in general? Usually, it seems to me, Catullus is frustrated in love. But still I don’t think we should take Catullus’ poems in the manner of a verbatim account, just as we shouldn’t believe Cicero when he suggests Caelius Rufus was an innocent dupe whom Clodia was leading astray; I’m sure they both knew perfectly well what kind of person she was from the beginning; and so I’m inclined to read Catullus’ poem as written by a lover pretending to commiserate with another lover about a revelation of the true nature of the woman they both love when in fact both of them were perfectly aware of this in the first place, laden at the same time with a feigned vituperative bitterness.
Catullus also wrote a poem about Cicero (poem 49), which is open to almost any interpretation:
Most eloquent of the grandsons of Romulus
As many as are or ever were, Marcus Tullius,
And as many as there ever shall be,
The greatest thanks to you gives Catullus,
The worst poet of all –
As much the worst poet of all,
As you are the best patron of all.
Again, we sense some sarcasm in this poem. No doubt Catullus doesn’t believe himself the worst poet of all (that was more like Cicero’s crown, with his famous epic about his own consulship and how he defeated Catiline); but what is implied about Cicero’s patronage? What does the poem really mean? And is the any significance in him talking of the grandsons of Romulus (Romuli nepotum) here and the grandsons of Remus (Remi nepotes) in the poem? Is there a connexion between the two poems? Are they even connected to the Pro Caelio? Cicero was certainly a patron to Caelius Rufus. And he wasn’t a grandson of Romulus – both Cicero and Catullus were outsiders in Roman society.
In the end, Catullus just drives you mad.
(I know you want to ask: does Cicero go on at all about Catiline in the Pro Caelio? Yes; yes he does. But it’s not his fault. You see, the prosecutors – I imagine, for a laugh, because they knew Cicero would be defending the case – alleged that Caelius was a great friend of Catiline’s and a party to his conspiracy).