Will the real Lesbia please stand up?

Classicists have finally worked out an identity for Catullus's lover Lesbia we can all believe in - Clodia Pulchra, wife of Pompey Junior.

'Lesbia and her Sparrow' by Edward John Poynter, 1907
'Lesbia and her Sparrow' by Edward John Poynter, 1907. Credit: VCG Wilson / Corbis / Getty Images.

When I studied Latin at school in the 1970s I fell in love with the poetry of Catullus. Not only did his short, racy, poems have an immediacy and wit that captivated me, many of them revolved around his passionate love for the married ‘Lesbia,’ whom he called his ‘girl’ (puella) and whose grief for a defunct sparrow (passer) invited salacious interpretations. Catullus’s infatuation turned, however, to furious self-pity when she began to betray him, as she had her husband: ‘Good luck to her with her adulterers’, ‘vivat valeatque moechis,’ he grouses.

The problem for Catullus was the more faithless Lesbia was, the greater his passion for her. In a famous couplet (poem 85, odi et amo) he sums up his predicament:

I hate, and I love; you may well ask how both these things I do;

I don’t know, but I feel it, and I’m being torn in two.

So who was this frustratingly inconstant Lesbia? An ancient author, Apuleius, states that ‘Lesbia’ (which means a ‘woman from Lesbos,’ a reference to the love-poet Sappho) was a pseudonym for a woman called Clodia. One partic­ularly notorious Clodia of the period (early 50s BC) was the wife of an aristocrat called Metellus (so ‘Clodia Metelli’), a woman whose brazen sexual impropriety, which included a tempestuous affair with a young nobleman called Caelius, was detailed in a law court speech of 56 BC (Pro Caelio) by the orator Cicero. The speech is full of cutting disparagement of Clodia’s misconduct, and it seemed inevitable that Catull­us’s flighty Lesbia should be identified with this scandalous woman; and scholars have so identified her for centuries.

I won’t have been the only student to have experienced perplexity, and a twinge of disappointment, to be taught that Catullus’s girl, his shining but flawed (and regrettably married) inamorata, should be imagined as a disreputable woman in her early forties, let alone one who had been publicly reviled as a ‘prostitute’ (meretrix) by Rome’s greatest orator. Moreover, there was a clear objection to the identification. The Latinist Peter Wiseman had scrutinised the likely dating of the poetry and noted (for example. in his book Catullus and his World, published in 1985) that in the period in which it was likely that Catullus was writing his poems, Clodia was no longer Metellus’s wife – since Metellus had died in 59 BC (it was rumoured that he had been poisoned by Clodia). Wiseman suggested the best candidate was one of Clodia’s younger married sisters (who were also called Clodia); but there was no way of deciding which one. The academic consensus persisted, and students of Catullus in the early twenty-first century continued to be taught (by me at Oxford, as well as others) that the safest identification was still Clodia Metelli.

In May 2010 an unusual lecturer visited Oxford from Delaware in the US. Physics professor and Catullus enthusiast J.D. Morgan began his talk with a series of images showing that in ancient times birds were the pets of choice for girls up to the age of around age sixteen. He proceeded to reiterate that references to Lesbia in Catullus’s poems told against her being other than a puella, a younger woman. And he concluded by revealing that, after trawling through evidence for ancient Clodias, he had uncovered a Clodia (‘Clodia Pulchra’) who would have been in her teens when Catullus was in his twenties, and married – to an army officer called Gnaeus Pompeius, the elder son of Pompey the Great. The crucial final step was provided to him by Latinist John Ramsey, who pointed out that the unusual adjective Catullus uses in a poem to describe Lesbia’s husband, fatuus (‘dunce’), is precisely the word used in a letter to Cicero, applied to none other than Gnaeus Pompeius.

There are times in the life of a scholar when a new hypothesis opens up new vistas of thought and possibility. For me, this was one such moment. Finally this was a Lesbia I could clearly envisage and believe in – a girl whom Catullus knew in her teens, when she took delight in a pet sparrow at whose death she cried; whose early marriage to an elite soldier who was often away on campaign gave her many chances to dally with other lovers; and a girlfriend who was, at first, ‘dearer than my eyes’ (‘carior oculis’) to the poet, and from whom he could request ‘a thousand kisses, then another hundred’ (‘basia mille deinde centum’) while advising her to ignore the ‘mutterings of censorious old men’ (‘rumores senum severiorum’).

‘Let us live and love, my Lesbia!’ (‘vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus’) exhorts Catullus in the first flush of this illicit affair. Let students of Catullus now recognise and celebrate Catullus’s love – and hate – for the captivating but maddeningly fickle young Clodia Pulchra, wife of Pompey Junior.


Armand D'Angour