Sunday, 17 August 2008

Clodius of the People: The Patrician Leader of the Plebs

Publius Clodius Pulcher, born 92BC, was the youngest of six children, son of Appius Claudius Pulcher, brother of the notoriously unprincipled Appius Claudius Pulcher and member of Rome's most influential and powerful patrician (aristocratic) family, the Claudii, renowned for their arrogance and outrageous behavior.  He is chiefly remembered for trespassing during the Bona Dea festival, disguised as a woman (a women's only event) in Julius Caesar's house (allegedly to have a fling with Pompeia, Caesar's wife at the time) and vilified by most historians who characterize him as a mobster, demagogue and violent opportunist.  To add insult to injury, he was pursued throughout his life by rumours of of incest with his sister Clodia, a lively and intelligent woman who enjoyed courting controversy and entertaining Rome's demimonde.  

In 59BC, at the age of 32 and in the midst of a most promising political career, he chose to give up his patrician rank and join the plebs via adoption into a plebeian family.  This would mean giving up all privileges of the patrician class and become one of the "common" citizens of Rome.  His request was granted by Julius Caesar and the following year Clodius (who had changed the aristocratic spelling of his family name 'Claudius' to the plebeian spelling) was elected tribune of the plebs by an overwhelming majority.  Once in office, Clodius immediately set on implementing a number of reforms for the benefit of the people, the most well known of which are the free corn dole, the restoration of the collegia (Roman clubs:  something between a guild and the modern trade union) which both free citizens and slaves could join and whose members became heavily involved in elections and political issues at the time , (the collegia had been banned by the Senate six years previously).  Clodius also intoduced a bill making it illegal to condem a Roman citizen  to death without a trial and also attempted to introduce voting rights for poor men and slaves.  We can imagine how unpopular these measures would have been to the Roman senatorial elite who were prepared to viciously defend their status and way of life.

Cicero and Cato, well-known optimates (conservatives) were of course great enemies of his and there was a bitter feud between the former and Clodius.  It is not surprising therefore that one of the first things Clodius did  when he rose to power was to send Cicero into exile and arrange for the demolition of Cicero's luxurious mansion on the Palatine hill.  The ultra-reactionary Cato was promptly sent off to annex Cyprus, where the local king Ptolemy of Cuprus committed suicide (upon news of Cato's arrival?).  Clodius was prepared to fight the conservatives and therefore organised the plebs into groups (what has been called street gangs by most historians), ready to defend their newly-acquired rights.  In 53BC, prior to another election where Clodius was running for Praetor and his enemy Milo for Consul, Milo's supporters organized armed gangs to fight Clodius's suporters.  A vicious steet fight ensued during which Clodius was wounded, and despite attempts of his people to save him, was sought out by Milo's men and hacked to death in the street.  

The end of Clodius was very much in accordance with his dramatic and stormy life.  His body was taken by his outraged and grief-stricken supporters to the Senate house, inside which a funeral pyre was built for him.  As the fire consumed the body of Clodius, it also laid waste to the ultimate symbol of patrician power - the Senate House, which been built by one of Cato's ancestors, was burned by revolting plebs.


Rosa Lichtenstein said...

Nice blog, Anna!

Heather's book is excellent, I agree.

What do you think of 'The Assassination Julius Caesar' by Michael Parenti?

Anna said...

Thank you Rosa and thank you for opting to read through my post (Lara at Lenin's Tomb seems to have been put off reading my post because of the industry I work in).

I loved Parenti's book! In fact it inspired me to write this post.

Sean Purdy said...

Great blog Anna. I know he's not an ancient historian, but all of Mike Davis' books make for "fascinating history" and are great reads.

Cheers, Sean

joe90 said...

anna mate,
don't listen to some of those bitter and twisted leftie's over on Lenin's Tomb.

I actually meant to say to Lara she was talking mince.

As a matter of fact, I would actually say it is a 'strength' and one of the noteworthy features about your estimable blog, the that fact of your backgound doesn't seem to be related to the subject of the blog.

Just in passing,
there was a bloke working on the oil-rigs who was some kind of acknowledged expert in some aspect of British-Roman archaelogy. I can't remember his name, though.

This is a great blog anna,
and I'm looking forward to reading through your archive.

all the best!

I think lenin did a quick review of the current Hadrian's Wall exhibition, on at the moment somewhere in the cultural backwater of London.

joe90 said...

I have just realised,
that some of the books I may have mentioned on Lenin's Tomb comments are actually on HF's Books I Love and Miscellaneous Books lists.

My apolgies if it seems I have been rude in not taking the opinions of FH into consideration when I made my book recommendations.

It's just that I can't see either of FH's book recommendation lists due to all the anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-malware and ad-blocking sofware I have installed on my PC.

It's a bit of a nightmare trying to work out what bit of security software is actually preventing FH's booklists from appearing - and still haven't managed to suss out what's blocking the Books I Love list!

all the best FH!

Anna said...

Joe90, thanks for all the support! I will update the Books sections with more book recommendations to reflect some new favorites in my ever-growing collection. No problem about the books you mentioned at L's T by the way.
I also went to the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum in London. I have to admit the best part was the books on sale in the museum shop which is on your way out of the exhibition. I found it a bit disappointing as I expected more after all the hype. However, the fact that I am more interested in the Late Republic rather than Hadrian's era (great though it was) may have quite a bit to do with influencing my opinion. It is worth going to but certainly not unmissable. There is an excellent bust of Augustus in his 30s there though which is worth starring at (even though I dislike the man and tend to agree with Neil Faulkner's assessment of him in his book Empire of the Eagles...

PS: Perhaps enabling Javascript will help you see the Books I Love list.