We last left Cicero at the height of his powers during the tumultuous year 63 BCE, when as consul he took decisive action to expose and quell Catiline’s conspiracy. Now we skip ahead eleven years to see just how chaotic the political situation of the late Republic has become. In 52 BCE, a great political enemy of Cicero was murdered, Publius Clodius Pulcher (ca. 93-52 BCE). Clodius had been born a patrician of the prominent Claudian clan, but became so intense an enemy of Cicero that in 59 BCE, during the consulship of Julius Caesar, he had himself transferred out of the patrician class to the plebeian by a highly unusual adoption (Clodius reflects the popular pronunciation of Claudius). This was so he could then stand for the office of plebeian tribune (barred to patricians) and cultivate a popular following to use against Cicero.
As tribune, Clodius enacted a law that punished with exile anyone who had executed a Roman citizen without the due process of a trial. This was clearly aimed at Cicero, who had done so at the height of the Catilinarian conspiracy, though as we have seen, Cicero felt he had secured the authority of the Senate to act in this manner by the issuance of a senatus consultum ultimum and by holding extended deliberations to arrive at a consensus position. In the end, though, Cicero as consul was the only one responsible for the outcome. Cicero’s action was initially very popular in the moment, but the plebs was liable to certain overtures, as Clodius knew. Cicero was forced into exile in 58 BCE, and Clodius added insult to injury by passing a bill to confiscate his property, which was destroyed. Sensing his power in the moment, Clodius passed legislation in favor of the common people on a number of fronts, and most notably made the grain dole—grain had been made available to the people of Rome at deeply discounted prices—completely free. He also allowed for the deregulation of collegia (guilds or clubs), which meant that now armed gangs of thugs could roam Roman streets threatening anyone who opposed Clodius. The hurly burly of political violence was becoming the norm, but in the end it would cost Clodius his life.
Clodius’ actions were undertaken in the shadow of the First Triumvirate, an unofficial alliance between Pompey, Rome’s greatest general to date; Crassus, Rome’s richest man and a consummate political and financial schemer; and Julius Caesar, who at the time of his consulship seemed to be merely the cleverest popularis politician (after he went to Gaul as proconsul, the full scope of his military genius and ambition would finally become clear). This was a convergence of interests more than anything, and it would eventually fall apart after Crassus, eager to get some military glory for himself, got himself killed in 53 BCE at the battle of Carrhae fighting against the Parthians in the East. Initially, Clodius enjoyed the backing of Crassus, who seems to have secretly approved of Clodius’ political attacks on Pompey which culminated in a failed assassination attempt on Pompey in 58. He then turned on Caesar, using his political power to try to annul Caesar’s consular legislation. Having made himself master of the street violence in Rome, Clodius was able to frustrate and annoy these two powerful men for a time. But the triumvirs took action, first by recalling Cicero from exile and second by backing others like Milo, who now raised their own gangs of thugs to counter Clodius. In an age when so much of politics and legal proceedings occurred in the open Forum, gang violence was disrupting much of political life by taking factionalism to the streets on a daily basis.
The endemic violence was so bad by 53 BCE that the Romans were unable to hold elections (Milo was campaigning for consul, Clodius for praetor). Then in January of 52, an incident occurred as Milo and Clodius passed each other with their entourages outside of Rome that led to the death of Clodius. The resulting trial is extremely well documented, not just by Cicero’s speech (it’s actually a major revision of his original court speech), but also by a later commentary by Asconius Pedianus, who gives us a fuller account of the trial beyond Cicero’s distortedly partisan defense speech. In the end, Cicero was unable to secure the acquittal of Milo, who was forced to go off into exile at Marseilles. But the cause of the Clodians would later see some major defeats in subsequent trials to come.
For Tuesday 3/21: Read the introduction to Pro Milone and the commentary of Asconius in Cicero: Defence Speeches pp. 162-182. Be prepared to spot the differences between Cicero’s revised speech and the account Asconius gives us.
For Thursday 3/23: Read Cicero’s revised speech in defense of Milo, pp. 183-223. Note the violent tenor of the times to which he alludes—how does it differ from his first speech for Roscius?