, and Shakespeare
's Dark Lady
(well, Shakespeare was also the lover of the Fair Lord
, Just like Catullus' Iuventius
, but that's another story and will be told at other times), Catullus
' Lesbia became famous for posterity, not so much for being a figure of many qualities, but for being the object of the love of a great poet. Like Beatrice
, Lesbia was married to another man, but while Dante idolized his love in the medieval tradition of courtly love, was blind to her faults, and in the courtly love tradition never actualized his love to her, Catullus was never blind to his love's failings, and like Shakespeare, snidely speaks of them. It is also worth mentioning that while Dante
refers to his love by her real name, both Shakespeare and Catullus never reveal her real name (though in Lesbia's case, quite a few Romans knew the secret of her identity). Furthermore, both the Dark Lady and Lesbia, betrayed their respective poetic lovers, and weren't very shy about it...
In modern eras the image of Lesbia was magnified in the imagination of historical novels writers (such as Thornton Wilder), and they gave her much space in their narrative, but the truth is we know very little of this woman. Moreover the poems about Lesbia compose a very little fraction of Catullus' poetry: out of 116 poems, Lesbia is explicitly mentioned in only 13, in 12 others Catullus speaks of "my girl", "girl", "my woman", "her" sometimes she is not even mentioned by name, and therefore, the determination that Lesbia is concerned is up for interpretation.
Lesbia's real name was Clodia and she was the sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher1 (Tribunus Plebis in 58 BCE, friend and ally to Gaius Iulius Caesar and bitter enemy of Marcus Tullius Cicero, to whom Catullus refers as Lesbius) and it seems that she was the wife of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer (consul in 60 BCE). She met Catullus in Gallia, when her husband served as governor of the province. Catullus chose the name Lesbia for her because of his admiration to Sappho the great poetess of Lesbos (one must remember that the phrase Lesbian did not mean at that time anything more than 'a resident of Lesbos' or at the most, allusions to poetically inclined women).
The cycle of Lesbia's poems are scattered throughout Catullus' collection of poems, and they express vividly and in a touching manner the turbulence of the love-hate relationships between Catullus and Lesbia. The poems referring to this affair are not chronologically arranged, and therefore the ups and downs of their relationships until their inevitable end can only be deduced.
For most of the time Catullus' love for Lesbia was one-sided, but he laid all his (false) hopes on the fact that she did not refrain from (false) promises and declarations of love towards him. The fact that she was already married did not stop him from his illusions. However, his love for her diminished as he was hurt by the fact that she preferred the group of empty headed dandy lovers (as he describes them), that used to surround her, over him. By this her image in his eyes deteriorated to that of a common street whore.
If the identification of Lesbia with Clodia, Metellus' wife is correct (let us not forget that she had two sisters of the same name cf. Roman Naming Method), than she was indeed an unusual Roman lady. She was the daughter of one of the most noble Roman families, and was very famous in Roman high society. She impressed even the reserved and conservative Cicero, in whose personal letters to his friend Atticus her unusual beauty is described. He even refers to her as 'The Cow Eyed' (Hera's epithet in the Homeric epis). Even though she was the sister of Cicero's sworn enemy (Publius Clodius Pulcher), he was connected with her at least by business ties. According to Plutarch there were rumors in Rome that she had plans to marry Cicero. However, in court Cicero presented her as a harlot, "A friend to all men" who is involved in unsavory sexual behavior. He publicly denounces her in very obvious hints as if she poisoned her husband and lived in incest with her brother (this is also hinted to in one of Catullus' poems). In Pro Caelio, the defense speech he made on behalf of Marcus Caelius Rufus, her disgrace is presented with infinite malice and wit. Caelius, who replaced Catullus as Clodia's lover was one of the many she grew tired of, but unlike Catullus, Caelius initiated his separation from her. Cicero, who describes her as a deadly vindictive and sex-crazed woman, whose every thought is given to hedonism and revelry, emphasizes that she was not nicknamed Clytaemnestra Quadrantaria (a Clytemnestra who charges a quarter of a penny for her virtue), and Palatina Medea (Medea of the Palatine hill), for nothing. These accusations were no doubt exaggerated, but Cicero did not invent them, but simply relied on rumors and gossip that has spread throughout Rome. However, from between the lines of these accusations we discover a remarkable figure: Clodia was apparently uncommonly beautiful and charismatic, educated and well-informed and an excellent conversationalist who danced superbly. In comparison to other Roman ladies of her class she was more liberated, and there is little wonder that young Catullus, of the provincial Verona, was captivated by her. In his eyes she was fairer than any of her sex, a woman whose beauty was beyond reach even when compared to that of famous beauties. He described her as a shining goddess, and in his time of the beginning of their relationship, when they were still meeting secretly in Catullus' friend Allius' home, he was completely mad about her. He describes his jealousy with her husband in deeply emotional lines. And yet he is willing to settle for the stolen moments he can spend with her. In at least one occasion they met in the presence of her husband, and she started to speak ill loudly about Catullus. Her often declarations of her love to him, and her promises that their love would be eternal (apparently she promised to marry him at some point), were marred by Catullus occasional doubts as to her sincerity.
It is difficult to ascertain when their love started to dissolve, it seems that at first it started off as a usual lovers' quarrel after which they inevitably made up, but gradually they grew further and further apart as Catullus became more and more aware of her affairs with other men. His love poems gradually become more and more disillusioned and more and more poisonous and for a long time he is torn between his love for her and his realization that she was just using him for fun. He grows slowly to hate her more and more, until all ties between them are gone.
It may be noted, that while we have Catullus' side of the story, we do not have Clodia's.
1 He was actually born to gens Claudia (cf. Roman Naming Method), one of the most aristocratic gentes of Rome, but because he wanted to be elected to the position of Tribunus Plebis he had to renounce his nobility, he did this by changing his (and his sisters') name from Claudius to Clodius.