Clodius Disguised As A Woman, By Justus van Egmont (1601–1674) and Gerard Peemans (1637/39–1725)

This tapestry, titled Clodius Disguised As A Woman, was designed by Justus van Egmont (1601–1674) and woven by the workshop of Gerard Peemans (1637/39–1725) for a series of tapestries called The Story of Caesar and Cleopatra. The series commemorated scenes from the early military career of Julius Caesar, as well as events concerning Queen Cleopatra of Egypt after she became embroiled in the political quagmire of the Roman civil wars. This particular artwork, however, concerns an incident that occurred long before Caesar met Cleopatra, and even well before the civil war erupted between Caesar and his rivals. Instead of Cleopatra and the Roman Civil War, this scene concerns one of the strangest tales involving Publius Clodius Pulcher—the man who can easily rank as one of Caesar’s most flamboyant and peculiar partisans.

The scene is set on a fateful night in 62 BCE, when women of the highest caliber in Rome were meeting together for an evening of festivities. Men were not invited to this house party, for this was no ordinary banquet, and the location was definitely not the average mundane home. No, the occasion was the festival of the Bona Dea, the Good Goddess, later remembered as Fauna. The goddess was thought to have influence over fertility and fruitfulness, and therefore she was well-honored by the Roman women. The festival of the Bona Dea took place in the palace of the highest priest of Rome, the pontifex maximus—and at that time, the pontifex maximus was Julius Caesar. For that particular festival, the celebration would have been hosted by Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, alongside the Vestal Virgins, a sisterhood of full-time priestesses of the hearth goddess, Vesta. The pontifex maximus’ wife, Pompeia, was also in attendance. The festival, besides being sacred, also served as a time when Roman women could sip plentiful wine and sway to the sweet melodies of songs performed by the best female musicians, all the while enjoying a much needed break from their overbearing husbands and fathers. Yet, all was not as it seemed among the attendants of this girls-night-out. As the title of the artwork gives away, Publius Clodius Pulcher had infiltrated the crowd in disguise.

Wearing an unconvincing costume and allegedly wielding a harp, Clodius was inevitably outed by suspicious party-goers. Understandably, Clodius’ discovery at the women-only event quickly became sensationalized by gossipers and the incident erupted into a great scandal. As Clodius was a notorious womanizer, rumors descended on Rome like an avalanche, claiming that his purpose for being at the Bona Dea festival was to seduce the attendees at the festival, including Caesar’s wife, Pompeia. Sadly for Pompeia, once the rumors started to spread, Julius Caesar did not stand up for her, at all. Instead, Caesar quickly separated himself from Pompeia, claiming that he could not be married to a woman whose name was stained by such a scandal. Clodius, meanwhile, as was mentioned earlier, was recruited by Julius Caesar, and served the up-and-coming dictator as a loyal henchman until 52 BCE, when Clodius died in a gang fight against a rival troublemaker.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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