Around 249 BCE, a man named Publius Claudius Pulcher (not to be confused with the much later Publius Clodius Pulcher associated with Julius Caesar) led a Roman fleet against Carthaginian forces anchored at Drepanum during the First Punic War (264-241 BCE). Reportedly commanding 123 ships, Publius Claudius succeeded in cornering the opposing Carthaginian fleet, leaving the Roman commander with the decision of choosing between settling in for a slow blockade or, contrastingly, risking a full-out assault against the enemy. He opted for the second course of action, but this, unfortunately, turned out to be a horrific mistake. Of all the ships under Publius Claudius’ command, only 30 survived the disastrous assault, including the admiral’s own flagship. When Publius Claudius returned to Rome, he was promptly slapped with a huge fine and was even accused of treason. He evidently survived the trial, for he is known to have lived for a few more years after the notorious incident. Curiously, he would not be the last member of his immediate family to cause a scandal and be charged with treason.
Sometime after Publius Claudius Pulcher’s death, an incident occurred that would unfortunately make the sister of the late admiral become the talk of the Roman Republic. As told by the Roman scholar, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), Publius Claudius’ sister was one day traveling in a carriage through the streets of Rome when she became thoroughly annoyed at the slow traffic in the city. In a fit of ancient road rage aimed at the citizens clogging the roadway, she allegedly shouted, “If only my brother were alive to lose another fleet! That would thin out the population a little” (The Twelve Caesars, Tiberius, sec. 2). Her comments were loud enough to be overheard by nearby pedestrians, and as a result, angry gossip soon swept the city about the rude and untimely exclamation. According to Suetonius, the sister was consequently tried for treason because of what she shouted. The result of the trial, however, was not mentioned.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Head Vestal Passes, by Henri Motte in 1885, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the NYPL Collections).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.