The etymology website etymonline.com defines “pulchritude” as (n.) – “beauty,” c. 1400, from Latin pulchritudo “beauty, excellence, attractiveness”.
The word has fallen out of everyday usage, and the website indicates origin unknown. Possibly, the term comes down to us from an individual, who may have been the greatest maniac if not the dumbest man, in Roman antiquity. Either that, or a man so bull-headedly determined to get what he wanted, that he deserves to be remembered as one of the great Meatheads, of history.
In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival, strictly forbidden to Roman men. So stringent was this line of demarcation that only women were permitted even to know the name of the deity, to whom the festival was dedicated. For everyone else she was simply the “Good Goddess”. The Bona Dea.
The first of two annual festivals of the Bona Dea was held during the winter, at the Aventine Temple. The second rite took place every May, hosted by the wife of the current Pontifex Maximus and attended by an elite group of Roman matrons, female attendants and vestal virgins.
Eighteen years before the end of the Republic, the Pontifex Maximus was Julius Caesar. Scandal broke out on this day in 62BC, when the aforementioned meathead, the politician Publius Clodius Pulcher, dressed as a woman and sneaked into the festival for the Bona Dea, bent on seducing Caesar’s wife, Pompeia.
I’m not even sure how that was supposed to work but, of all the women in Rome, this guy set his sights on the wife of Julius Caesar.
Apparently, ol’ Pulcher was insufficiently pulchritudinous. He was found out and thrown out. Thus vitiated, the rites of the Bona Dea were rendered null and void, necessitating repetition by the Vestals. Meanwhile, the desecration of such rites carried a sentence of death. The legal wrangling went on for two years.
In the end, Clodius was acquitted, a fact which Cicero put down to fixed juries and back-room dealings. Pulcher’s populist politics would one day transform Clodius into “One of the most innovative urban politicians in Western history”. His transvestite dalliance with the Bona Dea provided arch-rival Cicero with verbal ammunition, for years.
The verdict of the ages was quite unfair to Pompeia. Nothing more substantial than gossip and rumor ever implicated her in the Bona Dea scandal.
Her husband, one of the most ambitious politicians of the era, divorced her anyway, claiming that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”.