Publius Clodius Pulcher

The Roman politician Publius Clodius Pulcher (died 52 B.C.) was one of the leading demagogues in the 1st century B.C. As tribune, he wielded nearly as much power as Julius Caesar or Pompey.

Clodius came from one of the most distinguished of Roman families, the Claudii, which later included Roman emperors. His early career showed signs of the turmoil that was a major feature of his later life. In 68 B.C. he preached mutiny to the troops of the aristocratic general Lucullus in Asia Minor. Clodius was also accused of collusion with the revolutionary noble Catiline in 64, although this was disputed. By these acts he established a reputation as an opponent of the entrenched aristocracy and also built a future power base for himself. In 64-63 he served on the staff of Lucius Murena in Transalpine Gaul but was accused of lining his own pockets at the expense of the provincials.

In 62 Clodius became a source of public scandal when, disguised as a woman, he invaded the exclusively female sacred rites dedicated to Bona Dea (the Good Goddess). Clodius was charged with sacrilege, and although Cicero demolished the alibis of Clodius, the latter managed to win acquittal by the extensive use of bribery. This produced a lifelong enmity between Clodius and Cicero.

In this period when Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus were struggling against the conservatives in the Senate, Clodius's talent as a political organizer and goon became increasingly useful. He was advancing through the usual progression of Roman offices, being quaestor in 61, but he soon saw that his talents and connections could best be used as tribune, a representative of the people. Unfortunately, as an aristocrat he was ineligible for this office. However, Caesar also favored Clodius for tribune and in 59 arranged for Clodius's adoption into a plebeian family, at which time his name was changed from the patrician Claudius to the plebeian Clodius. Thus Clodius was elected tribune for the year 58.


Tribune and Power Broker

As tribune, Clodius rapidly set to work to aid his and his patrons' interests. To curry favor with the people he instituted distribution of free corn. To strengthen his operating base he arranged for the legalization of guilds, which had been prohibited 6 years earlier. From these guilds Clodius could draw gangs of toughs to terrorize Rome. Finally, to hamstring the oligarchic senatorial officials Clodius introduced a law which limited the power of the censors to expel members of the Senate and another which restrained magistrates from using religious omens to block public business, a device much used against Caesar the previous year.

Clodius also settled private grudges. He struck at Cicero by means of a law which outlawed any official who had condemned to death a Roman official without trial. Cicero had done this in the case of supporters of Catiline and was forced to go into exile. Clodius tore down the house of Cicero on the Palatine hill, purchased the property himself, and dedicated a part of it as a shrine to liberty. Clodius also removed Cato, another senator dangerous to him, by securing him a special commission to organize Cyprus as a Roman province.

Clodius now emerged as one of the most powerful men in Rome. Caesar had departed for Gaul, and Clodius's gangs spread terror through the city, so that as prominent a person as Pompey was forced to spend the last period of Clodius's tribunate at home for fear of his life. But Clodius by his attacks united his enemies against him. T. Annius Milo, another demagogic politician of the type of Clodius, began to organize gangs with the support of Pompey and the Senate, and the return of Cicero was engineered.

In 56 Clodius was elected curile aedile, and he used this office to continue his attacks on Cicero, accusing him of sacrilege when Cicero repossessed his property on the Palatine. When Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus renewed their alliance at the conference of Luca, they agreed that Clodius must be controlled.

Clodius was aiming to be praetor when, in 52, his gang met that of Milo on the Appian Way, and in the ensuing brawl Clodius was killed. At his funeral in the forum his supporters started a fire which burned down the senate house.


Further Reading on Publius Clodius Pulcher

Much information on Clodius comes from the writings of his enemy Cicero. Information also appears in Dio Cassius's history of Rome and in the accounts of the lives of Pompey, Cicero, and Lucullus in Plutarch's Lives. The best modern account of Clodius and his times is H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero (1959). For the political activity of the period see L. R. Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar (1949).

Additional Biography Sources

Beesly, Edward Spencer, Catiline, Clodius, and Tiberius, Tustin, Calif.: American Reprint Service, 1985.