Part II of III: Ancient Rome, Clodius, Cicero, and the Populares Label

Part I of this project established that widespread poverty in ancient Rome was a sustainability issue. Different leaders with different motives enacted different measures to counter poverty, and in this portion of the project the focus will be to examine and evaluate the success of the Roman elite as it pertained to enacting policies that benefited its citizenry. The rivalry between Clodius and Cicero, both of whom laid claim to the populares label which roughly translates to populist in the present, is to serve as the particular case study by which judgment will be rendered on the extent to which Roman elites fulfilled their duties to its people. For it is indeed leaders and their inner circle of influential voices that ultimately rally voters, make policy, sell the policy, and repeat this cycle so as to retain their power. As such, again with direct reference to Clodius and Cicero, the rise of the populist, the chess game he plays once in a position of power, whether the populous is merely a means to the end of retaining power, and what this all means for aristocrat and plebeian alike shall be considered in some depth.

So it is with Clodius and his rise to power where we will begin. Historians have long questioned how Clodius, a relative outsider, exerted so much influence upon the likes of polished politicians in Caesar and Pompey, and the gamesmanship displayed by Clodius once in a position of power as tribune will be considered shortly, but before we can examine what he did as tribune we must appreciate the groundwork he laid to get there. Classical scholar A.W. Lintott at the University of Oxford urges historians to appreciate this very fact. “Some years must have been devoted to the groundwork,” speculates Lintott, “and it seems probable that Clodius began to interest himself in the organization of tribes [so as to influence elections]” (Lintott 159). In addition, Clodius shrewdly realized that in order to persuade a plebeian one must think like a plebeian. In the words of classicist Erich Gruen at UC-Berkeley, “He could pose as a true champion of the plebs against the false populares who had only rammed through a military command for Caesar and the ratification of Pompey’s eastern arrangements,” and from Lintott once again, “he had singled them [plebs] out for his patronage … and among his techniques of mob violence were forms of popular justice rooted in ancient Italian tradition” (Gruen 124, Lintott 167).

It seems all too obvious, but it is worth emphasizing: to get the masses in one’s corner, speaking their language and offering them policy gains is imperative to building a loyal coalition. Clodius realized this prior to seizing power, so that, once he was tribune, he could use his popular support to strong-arm political rivals that did not have the backing of the urban plebs they had neglected. Of course, parallels can also easily be drawn between the rise of Clodius and the rise of Trumpism in the present. Clodius would represent the populist left, undoubtedly, but the lesson still stands that large factions of the lower class long for a champion that understands them when they are consistently ignored and will embrace those that speak their language.

So as has been alluded, once in power, Clodius’ popularity afforded him the opportunity to show little regard for the triumvirs’ wishes. Out of Gruen, “Clodius went his own way, exploited the weaknesses of the triumvirs and the helplessness of their enemies, and sought to establish himself as the hero of the populace” (Gruen 130). Lintott cheekily describes him as, “independent to the point of unscrupulousness, using his connexions without being bound by them, and at the same time he could show some sympathy for the underdog … he was a revolutionary and a maverick … he did not try to overthrow the constitution from outside by military force, but to control it from the inside by using violence to distort its workings” (Lintott 158 – 169).

This is the genius behind the tactics of Clodius: he calculated that while the insurgent falters because he lacks legitimacy (and thus, the government can always label such a man an enemy of the State), if this man can get a seat at the table, and an esteemed one at that, suddenly the insurgent can hold true to what made him popular and he has legitimacy. He maintained good relations with some of the Senate’s most venerable members by, according to W.M.F. Rundell at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, “playing on widespread resentment of the triumvirs’ power and exploiting the polarizations it created” (Rundell 319). Thusly, Clodius found himself in the brilliant and improbable position whereby he was both heralded by a populace that appreciated his reforms and a Senate that appreciated his ability to undermine an unpopular triumvirs that had consolidated too much power for their liking.

At this juncture one may question what sustainability issues are at play here, for, if anything, a Clodius (or several) in the literal and metaphorical sense serve as a refreshing check on elites that tend to serve their own interests at the expense of the masses. This conclusion is quite a fine one to draw, but in the same token it would be a conclusion drawn on only a partial account of the tale. Insurgents will always be challenged by elites in favor of the status quo, and in this example Cicero serves as Clodius’ main rival. It lies outside the scope of this paper to give the full account of the relationship between Cicero and Clodius, but suffice it to say they did not see eye to eye and considered each other staunch threats to their respective levels of influence. They both vied for the same urban plebs for support, and, while most historians would probably grant Clodius the victory in this bout, he did not underestimate Cicero’s potential to take his support away from him.

In one sense, healthy competition for support is the cornerstone of a finely-tuned republic, so one may say fair play to Clodius and Cicero for engaging in a debate of contrasting visions for the future of the republic, but when grudges of elites supersede the interests of the populace, as this one arguably did, it can became a sustainability issue in its own right. And if this is indeed the verdict, that vendettas took precedent over progress, then Roman elites ought to be rendered a harsh judgment with regard to its treatment of the people they were sworn to serve. The concluding portion of this paper shall now investigate further.

Dr. Catherine Tracy at Bishop’s University writes, “Cicero maintained throughout his career an awareness of the populous as a significant power without whose support he could not achieve his political goals” (Tracy 187). However, interestingly, after examining all the times Cicero used the word “popularis” in his extant works, the term with which Cicero self-identifies, he only used the word in a positive light 40% of the time (Tracy 186). Tracy speculates, “The importance of populism to Cicero is seen in his complicated attempts to justify his right to be called popularis and at the same time convince the senate that he was also safely pro-senate” (Tracy 187-8). Now the purpose in pointing this out is not to slander Cicero nor is it inherently undemocratic to identify as pro-senate as the vast majority of Roman elites surely would have done, but, that withstanding, the troublesome implication here is that a man who unequivocally did not hold populares values was nonetheless able to self-identify as one. “It is the positive use of popularis,” continues Tracy, “that is more obviously polemical in Cicero … though he might have preferred to achieve political preeminence without associating with popularis politics, the populus’s power over Cicero’s political career was always an important consideration for him” (Tracy 190-9).

The ramifications here can hardly be overstated. The entire populares platform rests on the case that the senate neglects common interests, and yet a man who believes in the superior judgment of senatorial elites can secure the label and to some degree run with it. Cicero was never going to offer the reforms grounded in the anti-senatorial ideology of Clodius because Cicero was fundamentally pro-senate, but in adopting the same label as Clodius in a political grudge match he was able to at the least proclaim he shared their namesake.

For now, we must part here, but in sum the chess matches played amongst the Roman elites fundamentally posed a sustainability issue for the republic at large. Similar chess matches are played today. Some enter the game with predominantly good intentions for the constituents they serve, but it does appear that the game often becomes the primary focus, and it is the masses that receive the scraps and fallout from the battle. The game, too, would ultimately swallow Clodius a mere few years after his climb to supremacy. One must surely be prudent when rendering judgments as not all actors are cut from the same cloth, but power does tend to corrupt, and self-interest tended to trump the service of the will of the people. Bearing this in mind, although not wholly imperfect, the Roman elite could have done better.

Works Cited

Gruen, Erich S. “P. Clodius: Instrument Or Independent Agent?” Phoenix 20.2 (1966): 120-30. JSTOR. Web.

Lintott, A. W. “P. Clodius Pulcher–‘Felix Catilina?’.” Greece & Rome 14.2 (1967): 157-69. JSTOR. Web.

Rundell, W. M. F. “Cicero and Clodius: The Question of Credibility.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 28.3 (1979): 301-28. JSTOR. Web.

Tracy, Catherine. “The People’s Consul: The Significance of Cicero’s use of the Term “Popularis”.” Illinois Classical Studies.33-34 (2009): 181-99. JSTOR. Web.

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