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Political violence during tribune of Clodius Pulcher

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

A print showing the fights in Rome
A print showing the fights in Rome

Political violence has existed in Rome for a long time. Often there were fights or scuffles between supporters of various candidates. However, 57 BCE took the violence to a new level.

In December 59 BCE Publius Clodius Pulcher became a people’s tribune. He managed to beat other candidates because of the populist promises he made and later put into practice. The most important of these was to provide free grain for city citizens. After gaining office, Clodius introduced a law according to which anyone who killed a Roman citizen without a court should be banished. This was aimed at Cicero. It was he in 63 BCE who as consul ordered the loss of some of his allies Catillins (including Lentulus Sura) who planned to overthrow the current government. Cicero sought support from members of the senate, but when he did not get it he voluntarily in 58 BCE went into exile. To emphasize his victory, Clodius demolished Cicero’s house and put a temple dedicated to Libertas in his place.

After getting rid of Cicero, Clodius’ position increased significantly. He created armed groups among his supporters; at the same time, his relationship with Pompey, Caesar and Crassus got worse. In August 58 BCE, Clodius’ people went to block Pompey’s house, which prevented him from leaving him for a long time. In this situation, voices calling for the dismissal of Cicero from exile began to grow louder.

In this situation, the new consuls for 57 BCE were Lentulus Spinther and Metellus Nepos. Lentulus was Caesar’s supporting candidate. He was also close with Pompey and Cicero (he worked with him against Catiline). In turn, Metellus was a rather disliked politician who gained office mainly because of Pompey’s support. At the beginning of the year, Cicero’s brother – Quintus – managed to convince Pompey and the other triumvirs to allow Cicero to return. Instead, he was supposed to refrain from open criticism from three politicians. Therefore, already at the first meeting of the Senate, Spinther submitted a proposal to cancel Cicero’s exile. It is worth noting that a year earlier, two tribunes (Ninnius and Culleo) tried to submit the same application, but then fell. But this time the project had Pompey’s support so the senate voted it without major problems. On January 23, 57 BCE, the application was presented to the People’s Assembly. He would probably have passed there if not for Clodius’s intervention. He did not intend to let his rival return. To this end, he brought a group of armed gladiators to the congregation, whom he received from his brother Appius Claudius (they were prepared for the funeral of their relative). Gladiators bloodily dispersed the assembly and prevented the approval of the project. Quintus Cicero himself barely escaped with his life.

In this situation, Pompey’s loyal people – Titus Milo and Publius Sestius – organized their own “gangs” that could resist Clodius. By the end of the year, both groups were to participate in bloody clashes. The brutality of these clashes only made Cicero popular. The people of Rome remembered how he had managed to stop Katilina and hoped that this time the former consul would restore order.

Under the influence of the latest events, Metellus Nepos – who has so far opposed the return of Cicero – decided to support the project. To investigate the situation, Lentulus submitted a project in which there was virtually nothing but thank you to everyone who worked for Cicero’s return. The project did not meet with too much opposition, which made him optimistic.

In July, the Senate again voted for Cicero’s return. Only Clodius, his brother and the tribunes Serranus and Rufus opposed the project. The comitia centuriata was convened again, but this time the assembly was protected by Milo’s people, which made Clodius unable to disperse it. This enabled Cicero to return to Rome.

During this period, Rome was struggling with famine. The grain distribution program introduced by Clodius heavily strained the reserves. Some people blamed Cicero for the crisis, saying that the grain ran out of crowds who came to greet him. Riots began during which on September 7, Metellus Nepos was attacked by supporters of Clodius. In addition, according to Cassius Dion, a furious crowd interrupted the Senators’ meeting in the Capitol and began to threaten them with death if they could not provide them with food. To calm the situation, Cicero suggested that Pompey should take over the function of praefectus annonae. It was the office to which the politician was appointed in the event of famine. Despite Clodius’s opposition, Pompey’s candidacy was supported by the senate and the people. The assumption of this office put Pompey over local officials and in practice gave him almost unlimited power.

After Pompey left Rome, Cicero and a group of supporters marched to Capitoline Hill and destroyed the plaque on which the reforms introduced by Clodius were written. He then announced that they were all unlawfully introduced and invalid. This was met with sharp opposition from Katon, who said that you could not simply erase the laws of the whole year. This forced Cicero to change tactics. He announced that the only order Clodius was opposed to was the destruction of his house and the erection of a temple on it.

Cicero received the consent of Caesar (who was Pontifex Maximus) and the senate to demolish the temple. However, Clodius did not intend to ignore this. He ordered his people to attack people working on building Cicero’s house. In addition, by his order, the house of Quintus which was nearby was set on fire. Only Milo’s people mastered the situation. In his letter to Attica of November 23, Cicero described how on November 11 a group of Armed Clodius’ armed men threw stones at him and attempted to attack Via Sacra. Cicero was forced to seek shelter in the home of one of his supporters. He could not leave safely until Clodius’s people were chased away. The next day they tried to set fire to Milo’s house. To counteract further attacks, Milo sent his people to protect Cicero’s home. These events show well the scale of violence in Rome during this period. Because of the unrest in the street, the election was postponed several times but eventually managed to be held.

Despite all the events of the previous year, Clodius was elected as an aedile, which shows the scale of support he enjoyed. His acquiring office prevented him from being sued by Milo. In turn, Clodius himself sued Milo and Sestius, who was defended by Cicero at the time. Both were acquitted. Of course, Clodius did not cease attacks on Cicero although they took a different form. Clodius, among others, accused Cicero of sacrilege which he was supposed to commit by destroying the temple he had erected.

The violence did not end at the end of the year. The fights between Milo and Clodius continued until the death of the latter and the exile of the first. The events of these years perfectly illustrate how weak the Republic was and why it was soon replaced by a new order.

Author: Kacper Walczak
  • Cassius Dio, Roman history
  • Kathryn Tempest, Cicero
  • Matthew Dillon, Lynda Garland, Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook
  • Paul Chrystal, Rome: Republic Into Empire

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