Text #9512"Publius Clodius Pulcher", in .
Publius Clodius Pulcher (c. December 93 BC – 52 BC, on January 18 of the pre-Julian calendar) was a Roman politician known for his popularist tactics. As tribune, he pushed through an ambitious legislative program, including a grain dole, but is chiefly remembered for his feud with Cicero and Milo, whose supporters murdered him in the street.
A Roman nobilis of the patrician gens Claudia, and a senator of eccentric, mercurial and arrogant character, Clodius became a major, if disruptive, force in Roman politics during the rise of the First Triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar (60–53 BC). He passed numerous laws in the tradition of the populares (the Leges Clodiae), and has been called “one of the most innovative urban politicians in Western history.”
Born as Publius Claudius Pulcher in 93 BC, the youngest son of Appius Claudius, he became known as Publius Clodius after his controversial adoption into the plebeian family of Fonteii in 59 BC.
He was sibling of two brothers and apparently five sisters (some historians think four). The identity of his mother’s family continues to be one of the most disputed issues of 1st century BC Roman social history. Most likely she was:
- a Servilia of the patrician Caepiones, daughter of Q. Servilius Caepio; or
- a Caecilia Metella, sister of Q. Metellus Celer pater.
It is certain that he was close enough by maternal bloodline to be called frater of some notable figures of the time:
- Q. Metellus Celer (consul 60 BC), the husband of his elder full sister;
- Q. Metellus Nepos (consul 57 BC);
- Mucia Tertia, the wife, successively, of Pompeius Magnus (c. 80–62 BC) and M. Aemilius Scaurus (praetor 56 BC), and mother of their children; and
- Mucia’s brothers P. Scaevola the pontifex (c. 92–61/60 BC) and Q. Scaevola the augur, tribune of plebs in 54 BC (born c. 90 BC).
It appears that his father married twice and that among his numerous Claudian brothers and sisters, Clodius was a full sibling of only the two youngest girls, Claudia Metelli and Claudia Luculli. At various times he was accused of incestuous relations with all his sisters, both of whom were known as Clodia in consequence of his transfer to plebeian status in 59 BC. Claudia Metelli is usually identified as Lesbia, to whom the poet Catullus dedicated many of his poems, but the evidence is not conclusive.
There is reason to believe that Clodius married twice; Cicero refers to a certain Natta as his brother-in-law, although he does not mention his gentile name; in a passage of uncertain genuineness, Servius calls him Pinarius Natta. The surname is known from the Pinaria gens, but otherwise not among the Fulvii, notwithstanding which many scholars have inferred the existence of a Lucius Fulvius Natta. But Drumann provides reasons to believe that Clodius was married once before Fulvia, and that his first wife was Pinaria; in which case his brother-in-law was Lucius Pinarius Natta. In 62 BC Cicero refers to Natta as a stepson of Murena.
Between 68 and 67 BC, Clodius was a Legatus. In 62 BC or later he married Fulvia of Tusculum, daughter of Sempronia the formidable principal heiress of the plebeian high noble family of Semproni Tuditani, which had died out in the male line with her father (70s BC). Fulvia bore him at least one son and one daughter who survived to adulthood, and following his death she married C. Scribonius Curio, tribune of plebs in 50 BC, and then Marcus Antonius the Triumvir (47–40 BC), also producing children by both of those important politicians.
Their daughter Claudia (c. 57 BC or c. 55 BC – aft. 36 BC) was wed to the young Caesar heir for political reasons in 43 BC or 42 BC, when she was barely of age, and soon divorced in 40 BC after the imperious Fulvia joined with the consul Lucius Antonius in stirring up the Perusine War in 41.
His homonymous son, Publius Claudius Pulcher (born c. 62–59 BC – aft. 31 BC), turned out badly: a lethargic nonentity who only rose to the praetorship after 31 BC under the Second Triumvirs and died amid scandals of luxurious excess and an obsessive attachment to a common prostitute. An inscription of ownership on an expensive Egyptian alabaster vase once owned by the son has survived to attest the latter’s short official career, and includes an unusual triple filiation which confirms the literary evidence to the effect that Clodius’ own filiation was: Ap. f. Ap. n. (son of Appius cos.79, grandson of Appius cos.143).
He took part in the Third Mithridatic War under his father’s brother-in-law, Lucullus. However, considering himself treated with insufficient respect, he stirred up a revolt. His brother-in-law, Q. Marcius Rex, governor of Cilicia, gave him the command of his fleet, but he was captured by pirates. On his release he repaired to Syria, where he nearly lost his life during a mutiny he was accused of instigating.
A curious incident took place during his time in pirate hands which was to have later consequences. The pirates sought a good ransom price from Ptolemy of Cyprus, a nominal ally of Rome who was then involved in negotiations for a potential marriage to a daughter of Mithradates VI of Pontus. Ptolemy sent a fairly trivial sum which so amused the pirates that they released Clodius without taking any money. He had evidently been overestimating his worth, and this transaction filled him with hatred for the Cypriot ruler.
Returning to Rome in 66 BC, Clodius was in serious need of protection from his brother-in-law because of the treason he had committed in Lucullus’ army, and his alleged incestuous relations with Lucullus’ wife, which Lucullus had discovered upon his return the same year, prompting him to divorce her. Turning 27 in the year of his return (and already having exceeded the normal age for a first marriage, which was 20–26, owing to his extended service in the east), Clodius wed Fulvia the daughter of Sempronia of the Tuditani that year or the next. At about the same time, Lucullus’ very close relative (probably nephew) L. Licinius Murena became Sempronia’s third husband. He also collusively prosecuted Catiline in 65 on a charge of extortion from his African command, and so helped secure his acquittal.
In 64 BC, Clodius went to Gaul on Lucius Murena’s command staff. He returned to Rome with his commander in 63 in time for the elections at which Murena secured his family’s first consulate, mainly with the help of Lucullus’ army veterans and the consul Cicero, Clodius almost certainly having assisted as well. Catiline’s defeat at the same elections was the signal to begin his attempt at a violent coup d’état, with the aim of slaughtering most of the nobility, especially the plebeian nobles and senators, and setting up a small patrician-dominated oligarchy. Although Clodius was still patrician and it later suited Cicero to portray him as a participant in the Catilinarian conspiracy, Clodius was not involved. On the contrary, he maintained his protective closeness to Murena and the cause of the optimates, rendering Cicero every assistance. As the great drama of the detection and arrest of the conspirators unfolded, Clodius appears to have joined the many other equestrian and noble youths who clustered about the consul as an informal but potent and intimidating bodyguard. In the same year, one of Clodius’ sisters (presumably Lucullus’ former wife, since the other two were still married to Marcius Rex and Metellus Celer, respectively) attempted to persuade Cicero to divorce his wife Terentia and marry her instead. This made Terentia furious with the Claudia in question, and by association with the wider family.
The rites of Bona Dea (“The Good Goddess”) were held in December, at the house of Rome’s leading magistrate. In 62, they were held in Julius Caesar’s grace and favour house in the Regia, loaned to him as pontifex maximus. They were hosted by his wife, Pompeia, and his mother Aurelia, and were supervised by the Vestal Virgins. This was a cult from which men were excluded, so completely that they were not permitted to know or even speak the goddess’s name – hence the euphemism “Good Goddess”. Clodius intruded on the rites, disguised as a woman and apparently intent on finding and seducing Pompeia; but he was discovered. The ensuing scandal dragged on for months, during which Pompey returned from the east, Caesar divorced his wife, and most public business was suspended. Lucullus was determined to use the opportunity to destroy Clodius’ political career, and eventually brought him to trial on the capital charge of incestum. Three Corneli Lentuli prosecuted. Lucullus had numerous household slaves testify to Clodius’ incest with his sister Clodia; Terentia, who had hosted the previous year’s rites, almost certainly pressed Cicero to testify against Clodius in revenge for the latter’s unsuccessful but still damaging prosecution in 73 of her half-sister, the Vestal Fabia, on a charge of incestum with Catiline. Caesar’s mother Aurelia and sister Julia testified to Clodius’ offense. Caesar did his best to help Clodius by claiming he knew nothing. When asked why, if he knew nothing, he had divorced his wife, Caesar made the famous response that Caesar’s wife had to be beyond suspicion. Clodius perjured himself with a fabricated alibi that he was not in Rome on the day of the rites, which Cicero was in a position to refute, though he was uncertain whether he should do so. Eventually national and domestic politics forced his hand. He was most eager to forge a détente between Lucullus and Pompey, who were at loggerheads over the settlement of the eastern provinces, and wished to do Lucullus a favour in this matter, while at home Terentia demanded that he give his testimony and ensure the destruction of her subversive rival’s brother and lover. Cicero did so, but Crassus decided the outcome of the trial by bribery of the jurors en masse to secure Clodius’ acquittal.
When it was all over Clodius’ politics had been transformed and became more deeply personal than ever before. He clung to Crassus as his chief benefactor, and was grateful to Caesar for his attempt to help him. He even appears to have borne no serious grudge against the leading princes who had engineered his prosecution, owing to the wrongs he had done them. But he had risked interfering with Lucullus’ army in the east directly in the interests of Pompey, who had not lifted a finger to help him, despite being locked in serious political dispute with the Luculli brothers. And he had assisted Cicero against Catiline.
If the Republic must be destroyed by someone, Cicero fulminates against Clodius in mock resignation, let it at least be destroyed by a real man (Latin vir). Clodius’ transvestitism in the Bona Dea incident was to supply Cicero with invective ammunition for years. Like other popularist politicians of his time, as embodied by Caesar and Antony, Clodius was accused of exerting a sexual magnetism that was attractive to both women and men and enhanced his political charisma: “The sexual power of Clodius, his suspected ability to win the wife of Caesar, might be read as indicating the potency of his political influence.”
Eleanor Winsor Leach claimed, in her Lacanian analysis “Gendering Clodius”, that the frequency and intensity of Cicero’s word plays on the cognomen Pulcher (“handsome, lovely”) show a certain fascination masquerading under rebuke. Leach calls Cicero’s description of Clodius’ attire when he intruded on the rites amounts to a verbal striptease, as the privative Latin preposition a (“from”) deprives the future tribune of his garments and props one by one:
“Publius Clodius, out from his saffron dress, from his headdress, from his Cinderella slippers and his purple ribbons, from his breast band, from his dereliction, from his lust, is suddenly rendered a democrat.”
Cicero’s accusations of sexual profligacy against Clodius, including the attempt to seduce Caesar’s wife into adultery and incestuous relations with his sisters, fail to enlarge in scope over time, as Clodius’ marriage to the formidable Fulvia appears to have been an enduring model of fidelity until death cut it short. At the same time, even devotion to one’s wife could be construed by the upholders of traditional values as undermining one’s manhood, since it implied dependence on a woman.
On his return from Sicily (where he had been quæstor between 61 BC and 60 BC), Clodius sought to hold a tribunate of plebs, with the stated intention to get revenge on his bitter enemy, Cicero. However, in order to be elected as a tribune, he had to renounce his patrician rank, since that magistracy was not permitted to patricians. In 59 BC, during Caesar’s first consulship, Clodius was able to enact a transfer to plebeian status by getting himself adopted by a certain P. Fonteius that was much younger than him. The process violated almost every proper form of adoption in Rome, which was a serious business involving clan and family rituals and inheritance rights. On 16 November, Clodius took office as tribune of the plebs and began preparations for his destruction of Cicero and an extensive populist legislative program in order to bind as much of the community as possible to his policies as beneficiaries.
Nonetheless the legality of Clodius’ transfer, and therefore all his acts and laws, remained contentious for many years. Most seriously, in order to be permitted to adopt a fellow citizen from another clan and its rites into his own, a Roman citizen was required to be at least middle-aged (beyond adulescentia, i.e. 30 or older) and able to prove that he had tried but failed to produce children. In this case Clodius himself turned 34 in 59 BC and Fonteius, his adoptor, was even younger, something entirely illegal and unprecedented. Furthermore, once an adoption was made, the adoptee took his place within the adopting family with full rights and duties as the adopter’s eldest son. This included changing his name to that of the adopter, to which an additional cognomen was normally appended, in order to indicate either the clan or the family of his birth.
Instead, Clodius violated this essential convention and simply gave a plebeian spelling to his clan name, from Claudius to Clodius turning the act of adoption to an open farce. In this way, he emphasized that his sole interest in the enactment of this public socio-religious farce was to obtain a semblance of technical permission to hold the key plebeian magistracy, with its extensive legislative powers and protective sacrosanctity.
*As tribune Clodius introduced a law threatening exile to anyone who executed a Roman citizen without a trial. Cicero, having executed members of the Catiline conspiracy four years before without formal trial, and having had a public falling-out with Clodius, was clearly the intended target of the law. **Cicero argued that the *senatus consultum ultimum indemnified him from punishment, and he attempted to gain the support of the senators and consuls, especially of Pompey. When help was not forthcoming, Cicero went into exile. He arrived at Thessalonica, Greece on May 29, 58 BC. The day Cicero left Italy into exile, Clodius proposed another law which forbade Cicero approaching within 400 miles (640 km) of Italy and confiscated his property. The bill was passed forthwith, and Cicero’s house on the Palatine was destroyed by Clodius’ supporters, as were his villas in Tusculum and Formiae. Cicero’s property was confiscated by order of Clodius, his mall on the Palatine burned down, and its site put up for auction. Clodius had a temple of Libertas(Liberty) built on the site of Cicero’s house so that if by any chance Cicero returned he would not be able to take the site back, and he also tried to sell Cicero’s other property, but there were no takers.
Clodius became exhilarated with his power and importance and wasted no time enacting a substantial legislative programme. The Leges Clodiae included setting up a regular dole of free grain, which used to be distributed monthly at variously and heavily discounted prices, but was now to be given away at no charge, thereby increasing Clodius’ political status. Clodius also abolished the right of taking the omens on a fixed day and (if they were declared unfavourable) of preventing the assembly of the comitia, possessed by every magistrate by the terms of the Lex Aelia et Fufia. He also prevented the censors from excluding any citizen from the Senate or inflicting any punishment upon him unless he had been publicly tried and convicted.
He had noticed that violence and physical force had become the main means of maintaining dominance in Roman politics. Therefore, he abolished the restrictions on establishing new collegia, the old social and political clubs or guilds of workmen, and had them set up through his agents. These guilds were essentially organized and trained as gangs of thugs, and Clodius used them to control the streets of Rome, by driving off the supporters of his political opponents. These men were attacking any politician who dared to confront their patron, by means of various forms of harassment, including accosting and beating in the streets, loud booing, showering with filth at the games, besieging houses by throwing rocks or even weapons and, at times, even attempting to burn them. Thus the opposition to Clodius was muted and he became the “king of the Roman streets”.
Out of personal hatred for the Lagid king Ptolemy of Cyprus, younger brother of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes, he passed a bill terminating his kingship and annexing Cyprus to the Empire. Complying to the wishes of the triumvirate, he cleverly selected Cato the Younger to be sent to Cyprus with a special grant of praetorian command rights to take possession of the island and the royal treasures, and preside over the administrative incorporation of Cyprus into the Roman province of Cilicia. This measure was planned both to remove Cato, potentially a serious and difficult opponent, from the City for some time (in the event he was away for more than two years), and to turn him into an advocate for the legitimacy of Clodius’ adoption and tribunate, which it also effected, later causing a great deal of friction between Cato and Clodius’ bitterest enemies, especially Cicero.
However, Clodius good relationship to the triumvirate deteriorated when Pompeius criticized his policies and started contemplating to recall Cicero from exile. Then an infuriated Clodius turned against Pompeius, starting to harass him, reputedly with the secret approval of Crassus. When Pompeius discussed, with one of the tribunes, the possibility of recalling Cicero, Clodius culminated his harassment by organizing an attempt to assassinate him in August 58 BC. Then his gangs set up a blockade of his house, forcing Pompeius to stay at home until the end of that year, to avoid the attacks. Clodius, frustrated by that, turned against Caesar, declaring illegal his consular legislation during the year 59. However, this act set the final motion for the recall of Cicero: when Clodius vetoed a relate bill, that was supported by eight tribunes, Caesar finally gave his agreement for a renewed attempt on passing the bill right after the expiration of Clodius’ term, in December 58. In January 57, one of the new tribunes tried to pass the bill, but his attempt was met by the usual violence and failed, making clear that the domination of the streets and public spaces of Romes by the gangs of Clodius had to be faced with similar violent methods. Pompeius approved for the tribunes T. Annius Milo and P. Sestius to raise their own street gangs in order to oppose Clodius’ thugs, with some gladiator trainers and ex-gladiators as leaders and trainers. Street fighting continued through the first half of 57 but eventually Clodius lost the battle and the bill about Cicero passed.
Clodius subsequently attacked the workmen who were rebuilding Cicero’s house at public cost, assaulted Cicero himself in the street, and set fire to the house of Cicero’s younger brother Q. Tullius Cicero.
In 56 BC, while curule aedile, he impeached Milo for public violence while defending his house against the attacks of Clodius’ gang, and also charged him with keeping armed bands in his service. Judicial proceedings were hindered by violent outbreaks, and the matter was finally dropped.
In the elections of 53 BC, when Milo was a candidate for the consulship and Clodius for the praetorship, violent clashes erupted in the streets of Rome between the gangs of Clodius and Milo, twice delaying the election.
On January 18, 52 BC, Clodius was returning to Rome by way of the Appian Way from a visit to some of his holdings in the hinterlands. Clodius was travelling lightly with a band of 30 armed slaves and, uncommonly for him, without his wife. By chance, Milo was travelling the other way with his wife as well as an escort which included gladiators, and the two groups passed each other. The encounter between the two groups passed without incident until the last pair at the back of each train began a scuffle. It is then believed that Clodius turned back and was wounded by a javelin thrown by one of the gladiators in Milo’s party. He was brought to a nearby inn for his wounds, while his slaves were killed or driven off.
Milo made the decision that a live political enemy was more dangerous than a dead one and ordered that his gladiators kill the injured Clodius. The body was later discovered by a passing Roman citizen and sent back to Rome. There, Clodius’ wife and two tribunes rallied his supporters to use the Curia as Clodius’ funeral pyre, which resulted in the destruction of the Curia Hostilia. This action and the need to restore order in Rome are cited as the key reasons for the Senate’s appointment of Pompey as Consul without colleague.
The later trial of Milo would become famous for Cicero’s defense of the accused Milo with his famous speech “Pro Milone” which would ultimately fail to save Milo from exile on account of Cicero’s never delivering the speech, having been scared off from the Forum, by the armed guard introduced by Pompey. Additionally, in the presence of these soldiers, the jurors were affected to decide according to Pompey’s wishes.
Cicero numerous Letters (ad Atticum, ad Familiares, ad Quintum fratrem); de domo sua ad pontifices, de haruspicum responso, pro M. Caelio, pro P. Sestio, de provincis consularibus, In L. Pisonem, pro T. Milone.
Stangl, Thomas: Ciceronis Orationum Scholiastae: Asconius. Scholia Bobiensia. Scholia Pseudoasconii Sangallensia. Scholia Cluniacensia et recentiora Ambrosiana ac Vaticana. Scholia Lugdunensia sive Gronoviana et eorum excerpta Lugdunensia (Vienna, 1912; reprinted Georg Olms, Hildesheim, 1964)
Asconius. Caesar Giarratano (ed.) Q. Asconii Pediani Commentarii, (Rome, 1920; reprinted Adolf M. Hakkert, Amsterdam, 1967)
Plutarch Roman Lives of: Lucullus, Pompeius, Cicero, Caesar, Cato
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Billows, Richard A.: Julius Caesar: The Colossus of Rome (Routledge, 2009), ISBN 0-203-41276-1
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White, H: Cicero, Clodius and Milo (New York, 1900)
Lintott, Andrew W.: “P. Clodius Pulcher – Felix Catilina?”, Greece & Rome, n.s.14 (1967), 157-69
—: Violence in Republican Rome (Oxford University Press, 1968)
Moreau, Philippe: Clodiana religio. Un procès politique en 61 av. J.-C. (Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1982) ISBN 2-251-33103-4
Tatum, W. Jeffrey. The Patrician Tribune: P. Clodius Pulcher. Studies in the History of Greece and Rome (University of North Carolina Press, 1999) hardcover ISBN 0-8078-2480-1
Stanisław Stabryła, “P. Clodius Pulcher: a Politician or a Terrorist,” in Jerzy Styka (ed), Violence and Aggression in the Ancient World (Kraków, Ksiegarnia Akademicka, 2006) (Classica Cracoviensia, 10),
Wilfried Nippel: Publius Clodius Pulcher – “der Achill der Straße”. In: Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, Elke Stein-Hölkeskamp (Hrsg.): Von Romulus zu Augustus. Große Gestalten der römischen Republik. Beck, München 2000. S. 279–291. ISBN 3-406-46697-4
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A recent scholarly work, the 1999 biography by W. Jeffrey Tatum, has tried to counteract a largely hostile tradition based on the invective of his opponent Cicero and to present a more balanced picture of Clodius’ politics.