Mutinous army officer, political turncoat, gang leader, cross-dresser, pirate hostage, and zestful incest aficionado: Publius Clodius Pulcher jammed all that and much more into his forty-one-year lifespan. And the Roman public loved that bad boy for it.
From one of Rome’s most ancient and aristocratic families, the Claudii, he, his mom, and his three sisters (all named Clodia) were left nearly destitute at their father’s death.
As the Third Mithradatic War in Asia Minor heated up, the twenty-five-year-old joined the military, becoming minor brass under his brother-in-law, General Lucullus. He immediately got into a jam by inciting mutiny among the legionaries. Tossed out of the army, Clodius wheedled another brother-in-law into letting him take command of his fleet.
On this outing, Clodius was captured by pirates. The brigands demanded a ransom from the ruler of a nearby island, who sent a miserly sum. That tickled the pirates so much, they let Clodius go.
Back in Rome, Clodius faced an army treason charge brought by Lucullus. Making things even stickier, Clodius had also been doing the wild thing with his own little sister, Lucullus’s wife Clodia. When Lucullus discovered the adultery, he divorced her at the speed of light.
Expecting a death threat at any moment, Clodius hastily took shelter by marrying Fulvia, a ferociously active member of the influential Tuditani clan. They promptly set about making babies. By 62 B.C., bored with respectability, Clodius sought extracurricular diversion, hoping to find it with Pompeia, at that time the wife of Julius Caesar.
Things seemed to jell in December, when the all-nighter mystery rites of the Bona Dea goddess took place at Caesar’s home. Bona Dea, goddess of chastity and fertility, had superstrict rules. Absolutely no men allowed; even tomcats and baby boys were removed from the premises.
Clodius enjoyed complicated romances and a bit of transvestite fun as well; this seemed like a perfect time to try them out. The women at Caesar’s house had just sacrificed a sow and were having cocktails with the vestal virgins who ran the ceremonies when a commotion broke out. An alert servant heard a strangely deep voice coming from a person wearing female robes—and cross-dressing Clodius was busted. The Bona Dea ceremony was ruined, called off due to male sacrilege.
In the tumultuous aftermath, Caesar quickly divorced Pompeia, saying, “The wife of Caesar must be above suspicion.” Now that Pompeia was free of marital complications, Clodius lost interest.
Clodius thought it best to go hide out at his middle sister’s place. Sisterly incest was such a comfort, especially with the drop-dead-beautiful Clodia. His brother-in-law Lucullus was still peeved about his incest with little sister Clodia, and now brought him up on three counts of sexual immorality.
At his trial, the evidence was solidly stacked against Clodius. At the eleventh hour, however, his rich buddy Crassus bribed all the jurors and got Clodius acquitted. His wife Fulvia even stood by him.
As Clodius reveled in his reversals, up popped Cicero, his worst political foe. Not only was the man a social climber, he’d become a boorish neighbor over a property dispute. As if that weren’t hubris enough, Cicero had gone after the Cataline conspirators who’d plotted the overthrow of the government, and got some of them executed. Without due process, either.
Well, he, Clodius, was now the newly elected tribune and head of the plebeian party. And he (backed by the muscle of his own personal gang of thugs) wasn’t going to stand for it. He immediately used his shiny new legislative powers to push through a law that ordered exile for anyone who’d executed a Roman citizen without a trial—which meant Cicero, his sworn enemy. In 58 B.C. he waved a smirking goodbye to Cicero, headed to exile in northern Greece. He and Fulvia had a good laugh about it. Quick as lightning, he passed another law, prohibiting Cicero to approach within four hundred miles of Italy. More fun!
Sadly, it was downhill from there for Rome’s most popular rogue politico. Within two years, Clodius and his gang would be battling the rival gangs of another thuggish political aspirant named Milo.
In December of 53 B.C. Clodius’ string of lucky breaks ran out. He was murdered by Milo’s gang. Even after death, Clodius had maniacally devoted fans. To mourn him, the mob built his funeral pyre inside the Roman Senate house, then burned it to the ground!
If this tale of Clodius et al sounds like a novel of the American wild west, it should. This century of Roman history was plagued by lawlessness, civil war, the shift from a nominal republic to a de facto monarchy, and the protracted power struggles between the likes of Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony, Octavian, and many others. Colorful Clodius, a better lover than a fighter, was a mere bit player in the grander scheme of things.