BMCR 2000.03.18

The Patrician Tribune: Publius Clodius Pulcher

, The Patrician Tribune: Publius Clodius Pulcher. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xii, 365.

Although the politics of the Late Roman Republic have been studied with unremitting intensity and numerous biographies have appeared in recent years dealing with most of the leading figures, there has until now been no full modern biographical treatment of that most intriguing and tantalizing of the protagonists, Publius Clodius Pulcher. Much attention has of course been devoted to him, and several recent monographs have dealt with Clodian themes.1 Nonetheless, there has been a real gap, which Jeffrey Tatum has now admirably filled. His book is lucidly organized and elegantly and economically written. Throughout T. deploys a thorough command of the vast scholarly literature, sound judgement and good sense. This is one of the best biographies of a Late Republican politician.

T. has prepared the ground for his book by a long series of articles (his bibliography lists seventeen published since 1986). These studies enable him to deal more succinctly than would otherwise have been necessary with various thorny problems, but occasionally a somewhat fuller resumé of the issues would have been desirable, as, for example, on the date of the marriage of Pompey’s son to the daughter of Appius Claudius Pulcher, which in T.’s view took place as an immediate consequence of the Conference of Luca and so sheds light on that meeting and its significance for Clodius and his family.2

A biographer working on this period necessarily operates under certain constraints. In the first place, there are the requirements of the biographical form itself: in his opening chapter T. judiciously reviews various aspects of the Roman political and social system; thereafter he operates mainly in narrative mode, working his way through Clodius’ career and, where appropriate, interweaving thematic digressions. Secondly, there are the restrictions of the source material. Contemporary testimony is abundant, but overwhelmingly dominated by one witness, Cicero. The problem is particularly acute for Clodius: his voice is lost to us, and the bulk of what we know about him comes from the speeches and letters of his bitterest enemy. T. acknowledges the difficulty at the outset (pp. 39-40) and responds to it resourcefully and sensitively throughout.

In view of these limitations on our knowledge, T.’s refusal to offer the reader a portrait of the complete Clodius (p. 41) is prudent. However, T.’s focus does sometimes seem rather too narrowly political, and he could perhaps have done somewhat more to evoke Clodius’ part in the fast-living world of Late Republican aristocratic society. One instance is T.’s brief treatment of the allegations of incest between Clodius and his three sisters (p. 42). Of course, the truth of these claims is unrecoverable. However, such discourse does, as T. admits, seem to have been more widespread about Clodius than about any of his contemporaries, and it would have been worthwhile to set out the evidence and explore its significance. The talk was rather more than idle gossip: at the Bona Dea trial Lucullus testified under oath that he had found proof of Clodius’ incestuous relationship with his ex-wife and produced slave girls’ evidence in support (Cic. Mil. 73; Plut. Cic. 29). It is hard to resist the conclusion that there must at least have been something unusual about Clodius’ behaviour towards his sisters to set the tongues wagging. Another topic to which I would like to have seen more space devoted is Clodius’ considerable wealth. T. alludes to his estates in Italy and his investments elsewhere only in passing (pp. 144, 218, 224). A propos of the dispute over Cicero’s house, T. includes a good discussion of Clodius’ Palatine property and of the symbolic significance of the aristocratic house in Late Republican society (pp. 159-62). However, Clodius’ acquisition in 53 of Scaurus’ magnificent Palatine house for the princely sum of HS 14,800,000 (Plin. Nat. 36.103) was an important element in his continued self-promotion and deserves more than the glancing mention which T. accords it (pp. 161, 224, 322 n. 32).

The old view that in politics Clodius operated as the instrument of others was exploded over thirty years ago by the classic articles of Gruen and Lintott.3 T. accepts the modern consensus that Clodius was always his own man but insists throughout on the accommodations that he, like all other players on the political scene, had constantly to make towards others’ interests and concerns, and stresses in particular his success in maintaining good relations with senatorial conservatives. For the most part this is a welcome corrective, particularly T.’s insistence that dominance of the urban plebs can never have been an end in itself for Clodius and that their support alone would not have sufficed for his wider ambitions. However, at times T. does seem to me to go rather too far in minimizing both Clodius’ radicalism and his irresponsibility.

T.’s careful examination of the meagre evidence for Clodius’ political career before the Bona Dea affair of 62 B.C. leads to the plausible conclusion that, apart from the Nisibis mutiny, he had followed a fairly conventional path (p. 61). He is surely right to insist that before the scandal and the ensuing trial it had not occurred to Clodius to seek plebeian status and the tribunate, and that it was dolor at his humiliation which impelled him to this extreme step (pp. 87 ff.). T. also argues cogently that Clodius’ involvement with the diuisores in 63, luridly interpreted by Cicero at har. resp. 42, was just electoral assistance for Murena and did not anticipate his later organization of the urban pleb s (p. 58). Rather less convincing is T.’s handling of Clodius’ prosecution of Catiline in 65 (pp. 53-5). He rejects Cicero’s charge of praeuaricatio, following Gruen and others, and takes the episode as a typical case of a young man launching a prosecution to enhance his reputation. However, Clodius proved a singularly ineffective prosecutor, and, if the charge of collusion is rejected, it is hard to see why he allowed the defence the jurors they wanted (Cic. Att. 1.2.1). Another problem of the early career on which T. does not convince is the service under Pompey reported by Dio 38.15.6. T. suggests that this may have been a brief period of secondment during his service under Q. Marcius Rex in 67 (pp. 50, 265-6). However, this involves rejecting Dio’s characterization of the service under Pompey as ἐπὶ πολὺν χρόνον; the supposed secondment seems improbable, and there would in any case be hardly time for it in a crowded period which also included Clodius’ capture by pirates and intervention in Antioch. If there is any substance in Dio’s notice, Clodius may well have transferred to Pompey’s command on Marcius’ departure, returning to Rome in time for the prosecution of Catiline; pace T., this need not have impaired his relationship with Marcius.

T. (pp. 62-86) gives a sober account of the Bona Dea episode and its aftermath, passing up the opportunity of titillating his readers with the farcical Plutarchan details of the goings-on on the fateful night but rightly concluding that Caesar’s womenfolk were correct in identifying Clodius as the intruder.4 T. does not believe that he was engaged in an affair with Caesar’s wife. However, the case against her is rather stronger than T. allows: Caesar skilfully avoided a breach with Clodius, but his divorce of Pompeia must at least show that he did not feel certain that she was innocent of complicity with the intruder.

How did Clodius’ trial come about? T. correctly maintains that the violation of the ritual was not a trivial matter in Roman eyes but nonetheless insists that it was only because of private animosities that criminal proceedings ensued. The instauration of the rite was, as T. observes, enough to restore the pax deorum, and the fact that Caesar, the injured party, took no action does seem to have raised the possibility that the affair might be hushed up: a month or more elapsed before it was brought up in the senate, and then only by the relatively obscure Q. Cornificius. However, once Cornificius had spoken, the genie was out of the bottle. The senate could then hardly have avoided referring the violation to the Vestals and the pontifices, and the college had no alternative but to declare it nefas (Cic. Att. 1.13.3). T. holds that, when the matter came back to the senate, no further action need have been taken (pp. 72-3). This is surely mistaken. After the pontifical declaration, the senate surely had no choice but to arrange for criminal proceedings to be initiated against the alleged intruder. Bitter as the ensuing conflict was, the Clodian side did not dispute the propriety of the trial but only the composition of the tribunal.

A lucid account of the manoeuvrings before and after Clodius’ adoption is followed by two chapters on his tribunate in 58. The four laws with which Clodius opened his tribunate and laid the foundations for his influence with the urban plebs are thoroughly analysed. T.’s treatment is admirable in detail, but his conclusion prompts surprise: overall, we are told, the legislative package suggested balance and made it clear that (Clodius) was no revolutionary in any sense of the word (p. 136). Provoked as it was by Bibulus’ conduct in the previous year, it seems unlikely that conservatives would have regarded the measure on obnuntiation as prudent and timely and the two most important laws, abolishing the charge for the corn dole and the recently instituted controls on collegia, were much more radical than T.’s judgement implies. T. may also go too far in downplaying the extent to which Clodius was planning for violence when instituting his new collegia and organizing his supporters (pp. 143-4). It is, of course, difficult to discern the truth behind Cicero’s sensational allegations, and T. may well be right to protest at the common assumption that Cicero’s references to centuriati and decuriati show that the new collegia were given a form of paramilitary organization. However, I suspect that there was rather more to Cicero’s tale of arms being taken into the temple of Castor and the steps of the temple being torn down ( Dom. 54; Sest. than the mere use of the temple as a rallying point for demonstrations.

One of the most puzzling episodes in Clodius’ career is his quarrel with Pompey in the summer of 58. T. concedes that Clodius here showed overconfidence, but seeks to rationalize his conduct as aimed at a rapprochement with the boni, arguing that it enabled him to maintain his popularis posture in a manner less offensive to the senatorial establishment than during the exiling of Cicero (pp. 166-8). However it is to be accounted for, the attack on Pompey was a disastrous miscalculation, for it set in train the process which led inevitably, for all Clodius’ violent opposition, to Cicero’s recall. Clodius’ action may have been no more than a reckless aristocratic caprice.

In his final two chapters T. carefully charts and subtly interprets the complex manoeuvrings in Clodius’ career after the tribunate, first the well documented period up to and immediately following Cicero’s recall and then the more obscure post-Luca phase.5 Controversial though he was, Clodius’ advance was assured: perhaps head of the poll for the aedileship, and, at the time of his death, certain to win a praetorship. Clodius showed renewed radicalism with his declaration that, as praetor, he would legislate for the registration of freedmen in the rural tribes. T. notes that it was unusual to announce legislative plans before election and for a praetor to promulgate a controversial law and recognizes that in the recent past freedman redistribution had been a popularis issue, taken up by Sulpicius Rufus and Manilius. Nonetheless, he inclines to downplay the importance of the proposal, making the interesting suggestion that in raising it Clodius was motivated as much by Claudian family tradition, going back to the censorship of Ap. Claudius Caecus, as by popularis ideology (pp. 236-8). However, although T. is right to stress Clodius’ wide electoral backing, this remained a very radical proposal: at least in Late Republican tradition, Caecus the censor was an intensely controversial figure, and latterly freedman redistribution, which would have greatly increased the voting power of all freedmen in the tribal assemblies and wealthy freedmen in the centuriate assembly, had always been a bitterly contentious issue.

T. closes with a brief discussion of Clodius’ importance (pp. 242-6). He intriguingly suggests that, had he lived, Clodius might have ended up with the boni on the Pompeian side in the civil war. He does not consider how Clodius’ career might have turned out if he had lived and Caesar and Pompey had not come to blows, but it is surely this contrafactual which needs to be posed to gauge the character and extent of his ambitions. In view of the breadth of his support, well demonstrated by T., he would surely have reached the consulship with ease. T.’s repeated stress on his rapport with the boni perhaps suggests that a mature Clodius might have put his tearaway past behind him and settled down among the principes ciuitatis. Yet this hardly seems a likely outcome. Clodius would surely have found a more tempting model in Caesar, who had maintained his popularis stance in his consulship and used it as a springboard to a great command and rivalry with Pompey. Would Clodius, as T. shows, a man of overweening arrogance and ambition, have set his sights any less high?

Clodius’ death provoked the crisis which led to Pompey’s sole consulship and thence to the tension between Pompey and Caesar of which the civil war was the eventual result. If Clodius had not had his fatal encounter with Milo on the Appian Way, events at Rome might have continued on much the same course as in the immediately preceding years. Both Caesar’s and Pompey’s commands would then have been due to expire in 49. Clodius, who would have been eligible for the consulship for that year, would have been excellently placed to exploit the situation for his own advantage.

Finally, a word about the book’s production. Although it is attractively presented, the use of endnotes rather than footnotes is a considerable inconvenience. A plan of the Forum and the adjacent area of the Palatine would have enhanced T.’s discussion of political activity and senators’ residences.

Much of the above has been taken up with points of disagreement, but for the most part these are matters of detail and emphasis. In concluding I must stress again how well T. has carried out his task. This book will take its place among the standard works which all students of the period must consult.6


1. Monographs: P. Moreau, Clodiana Religio. Un procès politique en 61 av. J.-C. (Paris, 1982); H. Benner, Die Politik des P. Clodius Pulcher (Stuttgart, 1987); P. J. J. Vanderbroeck, Popular Leadership and Collective Behavior in the Late Roman Republic (ca. 80-50 B.C.) (Amsterdam, 1987). Works which appeared too late for T. to use include J. Spielvogel, “P. Clodius Pulcher – eine politische Aufnahmeerscheingung der späten Republik?”, Hermes 125 (1997), 56-74, and F. Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor, 1998).

2. Pp. 215, 319 n. 240, citing T.’s earlier discussion at “The marriage of Pompey’s son to the daughter of Ap. Claudius Pulcher”, Klio 73 (1991), 122-9, but not setting out the evidence on the date of the marriage or mentioning alternative views, for which see especially T. W. Hillard, “P. Clodius Pulcher, 62-59 B.C.: Pompei adfinis et sodalis“, PBSR 50 (1982), 34-44.

3. E. S. Gruen, “P. Clodius: instrument or independent agent”, Phoenix 20 (1966), 120-30; A. W. Lintott, “P. Clodius Pulcher — Felix Catilina“, G 14 (1967), 157-69.

4. Clodius’ innocence was upheld by J. P. V. D. Balsdon, “Fabula Clodiana,” Historia 15 (1966), 65-73, implausibly arguing that his alibi that he had spent the night ninety miles away at Interamna was not incompatible with Cicero’s claim that Clodius had called upon him at Rome earlier in the day.

5. A small slip at p. 177 may be worth correcting. Cicero’s complaint at Att. 3.24 concerned not the allocation of provinces to the incoming consuls but the grant of supplies ( ornatio). In accordance with the lex Sempronia, the provinces had been allocated before the consuls entered office and would not have been subject to veto. See Balsdon, JRS 52 (1962), 139; Shackleton Bailey ad loc.

6. I am grateful to my colleague Andrew Drummond for his comments on an earlier draft of this review.