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Scandal with mysteries of Bona Dea

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Clodius Pulcher on the mysteries
Clodius Pulcher on the mysteries

At the beginning of May and December in Rome, an unusual mysterious feast in honour of Bona Dea (“Good Goddess”) was celebrated – an agrarian god, daughter of Faunus. The feast was worshipped only by women, due to the character of Bona Dea – a goddess who is a virgin and responsible for the fertility of women.

Although the goddess had a temple on Aventine, her feast was celebrated at the home of an important Roman family. All males had absolutely no access to the feast, including male animals. We do not know much about the celebrations, because there are no records on this subject. Already in antiquity, the festival was extremely mysterious and men practically knew nothing about it. Moreover, they should not have spoken or even known the name of the goddess.


In the winter of 62 BCE, in the honour of Bona Dea, in the house of the Pontifex Maximus – Regia – one of the earlier erected buildings on the Forum Romanum. In that office was Julius Caesar, who married Pompeia Sulla. This way Pompeia, together with Caesar’s mother Aurelia, was the hostess of the ceremonial. The house also guested Vestal Virgins, who were to supervise the entire rite.

During the holidays, to the house of Caesar and Pompeia sneaked in Publius Clodius Pulcher – a young Roman popular senator – dressed up as a woman. The purpose of his visit is not entirely clear. Most historians say that Clodius was in a sexual relationship with Pompeia, and his goal was to seduce Caesar’s wife. Some think that Clodius wanted only to make a joke. Regardless of the motive, finally, Clodius was discovered by Aurelia and barely managed to escape led by a slave.

The whole situation ended with a huge scandal that lasted for months. At that time business ceased and public opinion was focused on “interrupted mysteries”. The situation was so comfortable for the opponents of both populares that they decided to take the opportunity and end their political careers. Under the pretext of defending tradition and religion, Clodius was brought to trial and accused of profanation of the feast. Interestingly, however, most of the Roman elite treated the whole event in terms of humour. They laughed, saying that two ambitious female-female politicians: Caesar and Clodius competed with each other. Caesar was famous for seducing someone else’s wives, and now he was a victim.

One of his biggest enemies was Lucullus, an advocate of optimates who wanted to use the whole scandal to end the political career of Clodius and even prosecute him for incestum – the violation of Vestal’s purity. What’s more, he had numerous proofs suggesting that Clodius committed numerous incestuous relations with his own sister Clodia, and once Lucullus’ wife. Against Clodius was also Cicero, who was persuaded by his wife Terentia – last year’s housekeeper for mysteries of Bona Dea. Terentia wanted this way to get revenge on Clodius the latter in 73 CE accusation of her half-sister, vestal virgin – Fabia Vestal – of intercourse with Catiline. On the side of the prosecutors, there were also the mother and sister (we do not know which one) of Caesar, who gave evidence to the court.

Caesar initially claimed he did not know anything about the whole event. However, for the questions: “Why?” he decided to divorce Pompeii, trying to separate himself from the whole incident, he explained:

I thought my wife ought not even to be under suspicion

Plutarch, Caesar, 10

Clodius presented his alibi while being brought before the court. According to his version, he was outside Rome during the Mysteries. Cicero, his erstwhile ally, came against him with accusatory speech. The violent attacks of Cicero, delivered on this occasion, were the cause of Clodius’s persistent hatred for the speaker.

Ultimately, however, Clodius avoided responsibility by bribing the judges. It happened thanks to very rich Crassus – an ally of Caesar and Clodius – who guaranteed large bribes.


The whole scandal turned out to be – surprisingly – a trampoline for Clodius on the political scene. Using his crazy political ideas, including resigning from the patrician state in favour of plebeian, and supporting Caesar and Crassus, evolved him into an important player on the political scene. Having taken over the tribunate of the people, he was mainly a defender of the city’s poor. He carried out grain laws that provided free distribution of grain, which gave him enormous support from the Roman masses. His fiery speeches calling for the fight against the all-powerful patrician state created him as the leader of the poor, who supported all laws. With strong support, he also enforced the law by which the hated Cicero had to go into exile (the reason was condemning to death the conspirators of Catiline1). Cicero’s property was confiscated and his house on Palatine was burnt.

Clodius also created armed detachments of devoted people from the lowest layers that terrorized the city and the influential personalities of Rome. Thanks to this and the support given to him on commissions, he managed to take control of Rome.

Finally, in the year 58 BCE Roman elites succeeded in rebuilding their position and forming paramilitary units under the command of the Milon – tribune – who competed with the militants of Clodius on the streets of Rome. Clodius died in one of the clashes, which guaranteed a relative political calm in the Roman Republic to the civil war of Caesar and Pompey in 48 BCE.

  1. Clodius accused Cicero of issuing the death sentence to Roman citizens. Interestingly, after discovering and unmasking the conspiracy, Cicero was considered the hero of the country.
  • Sławomir Koper, Miłość i polityka. Kobiety świata antycznego, Warszawa 1997
  • La’akea K. Yoshida, Clodius Pulcher: Caesar’s Willing Puppet. The Bona Dea Affair and Its Effect on Cicero and the Fall of the Republic
  • Tadeusz Łoposzko, Trybunat Publiusza Klodiusza w świetle źródeł i historiografii, Warszawa 1974

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