Publius Clodius

Describe And Discuss The Aims And Methods Of Publius Clodius.

The final decades of the Roman Republic were a time of intense political activity and violence, and one of the most actively violent of its politicians was Publius Claudius Pulcher, or Clodius, as he preferred to be called. From his emergence by the early 60’s B.C. until his violent murder in 52 B.C. he was not only at the heart of Roman politics but did much to help its corruption into chaos and disorder. He only held the office of Tribune of the Plebs, never rising to the highest office of the Republic, yet remained a very important force in politics. How such a man was able to maintain such importance is a very interesting question because it goes to the heart of why the Republic was, by this time, failing.

As fascinating as the methods Clodius used to maintain his power in Rome were the motives he had for acting in the way that he did. To many, Clodius seems to be little more than a thug, not holding any great political convictions or aims other than his own advancement. Others see him as a tool, although there is disagreement over who exactly in whose interests he was working.

Clodius is often linked to the members of the ‘first triumvirate’, Pompey, Caesar and Crassus. He cannot have been an agent of this group for much of his career, as it was only in operation as an effective unit for two relatively short periods. The group worked together for specific aims during Caesar's Consulship in 59 B.C. and was later revived for a time at Lucca, but for most of the career of Clodius the three ‘triumvirs’ were independent or actively opposed to each other. However, it was during the Consulship of Caesar in 59 B.C. that the triumvirate allowed Clodius to transfer from the Patrician family he was born into to a Plebeian family, making him eligible for a term as Tribune of the Plebs. This was an enormous help to him and would suggest that the triumvirate had placed him in that position because they felt they could control him. On the other hand, he may have been allowed to become Tribune to fulfil a relatively simply function. Caesar may have wanted to place Clodius, a noted member of the ‘Populares’ faction and something of an opponent of Pompey at this time, in a position of power to check the activity of his Optimate enemies and his fellow triumvir Pompey while he was away in Gaul. The Triumvirs also could have anticipated, correctly, that Clodius would use his position to remove Cicero and Cato, two men who were causing embarrassment to the Triumvirate.

However, though he might have been deemed useful in the short term, Clodius was not in any long term relationship with the Triumvirate, especially since it was not itself a long-term entity. It has been suggested that he was working for Caesar, at least temporarily, that perhaps he was an agent of Caesar's who went out of control once Caesar left for Gaul. As well as attacking Caesar's enemies, as Tribune he helped to block attempts to invalidate all of Caesar's consular legislation. However, it is just as likely that he did not want Caesar around, and an invalidation of his laws would have returned him to Rome from his Proconsular province of Gaul.

More plausible is the possibility that Clodius was working for the more wealthy member of the first Triumvirate - Marcus Crassus. A link between the two men, and the possible foundation for a political relationship between the them, comes in the beginning of the part of Clodius’ career which we know in detail. Clodius had caused a scandal when he was caught at a sacred religious ceremony in honour of the goddess Bona Dea. It was illegal for a man to witness this ceremony, and Clodius was tried on a religious charge, incestus, by a special commission. His conviction had seemed a virtual certainty when Cicero had destroyed his alibi in court, but he was saved at the last minute by a colossal and very open bribery of the jury by Crassus.This could indicate two things for an examination of the motives behind Clodius’ career. Firstly, it is possible that there was already a political relationship between the two men, and by buying Clodius out of trouble Crassus was honouring his side of the relationship. Secondly, it may have left Clodius very grateful, and feeling indebted to Crassus. The notion of Clodius being motivated by gratitude may seem strange, but he showed himself to be capable of at least negative long term feelings in his hatred of Cicero and Pompey for their parts in the trial, something which continued for many years.

Another connection between Crassus and Clodius comes later, in the 50’s. Clodius was by this time hugely popular with the urban Plebs and had gained control of gangs of thugs with which he was attacking Pompey, making him at one time a virtual prisoner in his own home and causing him to fear for his life. Pompey made the interesting ascertain in the Senate that these gangs part of a plot against his life, and were being funded by Crassus.Such a relationship would not be very unlikely, as they had common goals and enemies, an important factor in the formation of co-operation in Roman politics. Crassus was a fairly consistent enemy of Pompey, and with the triumvirate effectively over after 59 B.C. and Caesar having left for Gaul, he would have enjoyed the sight of Pompey being harassed by Clodius’ gangs. Crassus was also no friend of Cicero, and would not have opposed his exile. Crassus could easily afford to finance Clodius’ groups and avoided implication in political violence by letting Clodius lead them.

Yet Clodius did not always operate in the interests of Crassus, especially if, as seems likely, he was in the pay of Pompey by 53 B.C. It is also possible that by trying to work out who Clodius was working for we are ascribing more detail to his motives than were the case. Clodius could just as easily be seen as having been working for his own ends, for the advancement of his popularity and career. He did not take the route to power in Rome which was taken by other important men of the time, such as Pompey and Caesar, that is of working his way up the offices of the Republic and advancing his career through successful foreign campaigns. Rather his tactics seem to lean more towards gaining the support of the people through populist legislation and becoming the leader of gangs and dominating Rome through violence. He therefore would not have worked to further someone else’s career or through a sense of gratitude to them - he was not that sort of politician. It is very possible that he worked with Crassus for several years and they both benefited hugely from this, but it was a pact born of mutual advantage, not the sharing of political ideals, something apparently alien to most Roman politicians anyway. Later, it seems likely that he was financed by Pompey, someone he was attacking just years earlier. Pompey wanted him to prevent the election of Milo, which he feared would give the senate too much freedom of action, and Clodius was more than willing to oblige, using Pompey’s money to maintain the gangs and being something of an enemy of Milo by this time anyway.

Rather than talking of Clodius trying to further his own career it is possible to speculate that he had even fewer principles than this. Through much of what we know of Clodius, including the manner of his death and the admittedly biased view we have of him from Cicero, that he was little more than an unprincipled thug, a gang leader motivated by bitterness and a wish for the adoration of the crowds. He had shown by his legislation as a tribune that he was quite willing to put the interests of his popularity before the interests of the state. His ‘corn dole’, the practice he revived of giving free corn to the urban citizenry, may have increased his personal popularity but became enormously expensive - by 56 B.C. this policy alone took up 20% of the state’s expenditure, as well as increasing the demoralisation of the people.

Another one of his first acts as Tribune was to reorganise the urban guilds system, or the collegia. These had been used earlier by Cataline to attack his opponents, but during his Consulship in 64 B.C. the Senate had passed a ruling banning all of the guilds except those which contributed to the public welfare. Clodius revived these and even introduced some new ones, and armed them so they could become his own private army. This was popular with the people but contributed greatly to the spiralling increase of political violence which was to culminate with another civil war. Many of his actions seem to not be motivated by working in someone else’s interests or even for furthering his own career, but done through such motives as bitter revenge. Clodius turned violently on Pompey when the latter made subtle moves to have Cicero returned from exile, despite having little against Pompey, and even having been a member of Pompey’s group of political supporters until 62 B.C. It is also hard to see what political advantage he could have gained from the destruction of Cicero’s house, and that of his Cicero’s brother when he succeeded in returning from exile.

In answering the question, Clodius’ methods were violence and playing his opponents off against each other and his aims showed little evidence of principles and loyalty. He might be motivated in negative ways by such things as revenge against Cicero, but probably did not have a coherent plan for advancing the career of himself or any other. We see his perfidious nature in our first real glimpse of him, during the campaign against the command in the East of Lucullus, organised by Crassus and Pompey. Clodius was the brother-in-law of Lucullus, and was sent to the East in order to spread disaffection among the already demoralised army of his relation.

His use of the gangs was very successful, enabling him to influence politics even when he was not in office. He was able to use the mobs under his control to make Pompey practically withdraw from political life, prevent elections taking place and even for a time prevent the assembly sitting long enough to recall Cicero. That he was able for so long to remain at the heart of Roman political life through such blatantly violent means showed how the Republic had by this time deep problems which needed solutions, not least the issue of the Senate being able to physically defend itself. Clodius took routes to power and influence which only one hundred years earlier would have seemed totally beyond acceptable boundaries. However, by the 50’s B.C. the Roman Republic was so far down the road to collapse that he was able to maintain his position for several years, his career only ending when he as killed by chance in a fight with the rival gangs organised by Milo. Had this not occurred, Clodius could have sustained this position for some time, remaining at the centre of Roman political life through brute force and the acclaim of the urban Plebs.


Frank Burr Marsh, A History of the Roman World From 146 to 30 B.C., Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1971

Lily Ross Taylor, Party Politics In The Age Of Caesar, University Of California Press, 1975

David Shotter, The Fall of the Roman Republic, Routledge, 1994

Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1974

1 comment:

  1. Really helpful article, thanks a heap for this.
    The sourcing is great too, thanks.