The Misadventures of Publius Clodius Pulcher

(Painting of Julius Caesar by Clara Grosch c. 1892, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)



The Odd, but Awesome, Story of Julius Caesar’s Popular Hooligan of the People

On a fateful night in 62 BCE, women of the highest caliber in Rome met together for an evening of festivities. No men were invited to this house party, for this was no ordinary party, and the location was definitely not the average mundane home.

No, this was the festival of the Bona Dea, the Good Goddess, now only remembered as Fauna. The goddess had powers in the field of fertility and fruitfulness, and was well-honored by the Romans. The celebration took place in the palace of the highest priest of Rome, the pontifex maximus, and was hosted by his mother, Aurelia, and the Vestal Virgins, a sisterhood of full-time priestesses of the hearth goddess, Vesta. The pontifex maximus’ wife, Pompeia, was also in attendance. This festival, however, was more than a sacred ceremony. It was also a time for the women of Rome to relax and enjoy each other’s company away from their bothersome husbands and fathers.


(Illustration of Pompeia, published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) (“Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”) [Public domain], via Creative Commons)

As the women began to gather for the celebration, the night’s air filled with the palpable static of anticipation. The women could sip plentiful wine and sway to the sweet melodies of songs performed by the best female musicians. One of these musicians, veiled, and armed with a harp, weaved through the crowds, while the celebrants chatted and indulged in food and drink, provided by the hosts.

The harpist had successfully slipped into the festival grounds, and sought out the pontifex maximus’ wife, Pompeia, or, possibly, one of the Vestal Virgins present at the Bona Dea celebration. One of the people present, likely a servant of the pontifex maximus’ mother, Aurelia, spotted the meandering harpist. She walked over and began a conversation, or perhaps asked for the harpist to play a tune. Nevertheless, the harpist was caught. Maybe, the musician’s veil was too thin, or the costume too poor of a disguise. Perhaps, the harpist’s artificially high-pitched voice was not convincing. Whatever the cause, the servant sounded the alarm—a man had infiltrated the sacred women-only celebration of the Bona Dea. Thus, an embarrassing scandal was born for the new pontifex maximus, the up-and-coming politician and military leader, Julius Caesar.

The harpist was no mere young man attempting to discover what women did behind closed doors. He was none other than Publius Clodius Pulcher, a flamboyant patrician beloved by the masses for his antics against the snobbiest of senators. The type of man he was is easily illustrated by his name, Clodius, which he changed from the more prim and proper, Claudius, to show his distaste for tradition, and a willingness to start new trends. Clodius was also a notorious ladies’ man, and a rumor descended on Rome like an avalanche claiming that his purpose for being at the Bona Dea festival was to seduce Caesar’s second wife, Pompeia. Ceasar was not unfamiliar with marriage drama. During the reign of the dictator Sulla (lived 138-78 BCE), he was ordered to divorce his late wife Cornelia, but audaciously he refused to bend to the strongman. Now, however, Julius Caesar quickly separated himself from Pompeia, claiming he could not be married to a woman whose name was stained by such a scandal.

Even though Caesar was harsh toward Pompeia, he was surprisingly lenient to the man who snuck into his home and ruined the reputation of his wife. He pressed no charges against Clodius, and instead took the rogue patrician into his services. Unfortunately for the counter-culture patrician, he would not escape the courtroom so easily. No, one of the greatest rhetoricians and orators of Rome decided to prosecute Clodius for sacriledge—the Bona Dea, after all, was a sacred event dedicated to a goddess, hosted in the home of the highest priest of Rome, and the Vestal Virgins were also in attendance. Though Publius Clodius Pulcher escaped the wrath of Caesar, now he had to face the formidable words of the silver tongued Cicero.


(Cicero discovering the tomb of Archimedes, painted by Martin Knoller (1725–1804), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


The prosecution believed the case of Clodius to be so obviously sacrilegious that they rushed into the trial with little preparation. Their eagerness to go to trial made Cicero and his partners sloppy in their gathering of evidence. As a result, Cicero and the prosecution could only watch as the trial slipped out of their control due to human greed winning out over what little evidence the prosecution put forward. Simply put, Clodius was basically able to bribe his way to freedom. Cicero, however, was still able to use one of his most powerful tools—his words. The cuts and jabs of Cicero’s fiery court dialogue humiliated and infuriated Clodius. Though Publius Clodius Pulcher left the trial a free man, his reputation as a patrician was at an all-time low. At the end of the trial, Clodius and Cicero had an intense mutual hate of each other.

Caesar, ever an alliance maker, saw the great potential in the vagabond who caused the end of his five-year marriage with Pompeia. Clodius, like Caesar, was a hero of the masses. The future dictator of Rome believed that the flamboyant and unpredictable Clodius could be a counterbalance to the two great conservative powerhouses in Rome: Cicero and Cato.

By 59 BCE, Clodius had become a well-used asset of Julius Caesar. In the previous two years, Caesar had spent time as a government official in Spain honing his military skill against hostile tribes, gaining ample glory and loot in the process. In Spain, Caesar was able to pay off his incredible debt (accumulated through his heavy spending to entertain the masses) and the Roman Senate even planned a triumph parade for Caesar, one of Rome’s highest honors. Julius Caesar, however, sacrificed the triumph parade to be elected as a consul of Rome alongside Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus. The other consul, Bibulus, however, was in the camp of Cicero and Cato, and was no way an ally of Caesar.

Caesar, despite opposition from the Senate and Bibulus, quickly nullified the obstacles placed by his adversaries. Caesar, the astute politician and military genius, aligned himself with Pompey (another military genius) and Crassus (a monetary power-house). This First Triumvirate was able to outmaneuver the Senate. Caesar, however, was not finished with his master plan. Publius Clodius Pulcher demoted himself from the patrician class down to the plebeian rank by being adopted by a pleb. The masses, who loved their extravagant hooligan hero, quickly elected Clodius as Tribune of the Plebeians in late 59 BCE. As a tribune, Clodius gained power in Roman government, most importantly the right to veto.


(Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus, photographed by Diagram Lajard, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


In 58 BCE, Caesar left for Gaul to begin his lengthy Gallic War and needed a competent agent in Rome to keep his enemies, and his friends, in check. Clodius was well suited for this role. He quickly pounced against Caesar’s enemies. He exiled Cicero, his nemesis from the earlier sacrilege trial, from the city of Rome. That was not enough for Clodius, however, for he demolished Cicero’s home and in its place built a temple to Liberty. He removed Caesar’s other obstacle, Cato, by pressuring him into overseeing the annexation of Cyprus into the growing lands under Roman control—a position that required Cato to leave the city of Rome. Publius Clodius also passed a free grain bill that earned him the ire of the senate, but more importantly, caused him to be highly admired and loved by the masses. The bill doled out large quantities of free grain to an adoring population. The program also strained the republic’s treasury and logistic infrastructure—but Clodius did not consider that to be his problem.

With Caesar bogged down in Gaul, and the crowds of Rome singing praises of Clodius, the wild tribune began to think more about his own agenda than that of his benefactor beyond the Alps. Publius Clodius became less of a politician and started to act more like a gang leader. He began to attack the senators that opposed him, even looting and burning their homes. Senators were not his only targets—Clodius also attempted an assassination of Pompey, Caesar’s close ally in the First Triumvirate. The assassination failed, but Clodius was determined to weaken Pompey. He managed to put the old general under house arrest. In retaliation, Pompey helped bring Cicero back from exile in 57 BCE, hoping the brilliant statesman and speaker could check Clodius’ power. By now, Caesar was also losing his patience with the renegade rabble-rouser, but all the confusion and drama were keeping the senators in Rome from coalescing, and the First Triumvirate was still standing strong.


(Bust of Pompey the Great, photographed by Gunnar Bach Pedersen, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Clodius’ antics were becoming too atrocious even for the dramatic senators of Rome, and he was soon ejected from the Senate. Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, however, were still a force to be reckoned with. Pompey and Crassus were elected as consuls in 55 BCE, and from that position they gave themselves governances over portions of Rome. Caesar was given more time to campaign in Gaul, Pompey positioned himself in Spain and Crassus set himself in Syria to seek glory in battle against the Parthians.

Toward the end of the decade, each year saw the death of a person that was helping to keep the precarious First Triumvirate stable. In 54 BCE Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, Julia, died in childbirth, and her newborn daughter died shortly thereafter. Crassus, too, died under a rain of arrows while fighting against the Parthians in 53. Clodius, though no longer central to Caesar’s plans, died next in 52 BCE. His death fit remarkably well with the rest of his story.

On his way back to Rome along the Appian Way, Publius Clodius Pulcher happened to cross paths with another tribune named T. Annius Milo near the village of Bovillae. Both men happened to be gang leaders (and rivals, at that), and each had with them a retinue of armed guards. The two leaders exchanged insults, but after their rude remarks were exchanged, they prepared to go about their business. Though Clodius and Milo seemed willing to leave without a fight, the guards of the two gang leaders erupted into a brawl. Milo’s men won the bout, but Clodius won a glorious death, for he was debilitated by none other than a javelin thrown by a man trained as a gladiator.


(Gladiators from the Zliten Mosaic, c. 200 CE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Clodius was dragged away from the skirmish by his men to a nearby inn within the village of Bovillae to mend his wound caused by the gladiator’s ambitious javelin throw. Milo, however, quickly seized this moment to rid himself of a rival in both politics and gang warfare. Milo stormed the inn, seized Clodius, and left him murdered in the street. While the manner of Clodius’ death was extraordinary in its own right, the location, also, had eerie significance—near Bovillae, along the Appian Way, Clodius died near a shrine of none other than the Bona Dea, the very same Good Goddess from his scandal ten years prior.

The story does not end there. When the public learned that Clodius had been murdered along the Appian Way, the masses erupted in riot. The mourning supporters of Publius Clodius Pulcher burned the house of the Senate, and became such a threat that Pompey was appointed as a sole consul to regain order. When Milo was brought to Rome to stand trial for Clodius’ killing, none other than Cicero happily had T. Annius Milo acquitted. Though the great instigator of chaos and distractions in Rome was now dead, he had done his job well. Clodius had kept the Roman capital occupied and wary until 52 BCE, which for Caesar, ending his war in Gaul in 51, was impeccable timing.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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