Saturday, September 02, 2006

Organized Gang Warfare in the Late Republic

December 9, 1998

His exploits caused the forum to be soaked with blood, and led to armed conflict in the streets as a part of daily life in ancient Rome. To a Republican government that was already outdated, Clodius helped deliver the final deathblow. His actions showed the flaws of the Roman Republic, and ultimately necessitated the rise of dictators such as Pompey and Caesar who could restore order.

Mob violence had always played an important role in the Republic. In the late Republic it was much more evident. Demagogues such as the Gracchi and Saturninus based their power on the support of the Roman Proletariat, which was politically emasculated but physically a force to deal with. However, the organized gangs that Clodius and his opponent Milo used were unprecedented. We can see the significance of these gangs by looking briefly at the history of Clodius himself, the nature of the coalition he assembled, and at the reign of violence he brought to the city of Rome, and its effects.

Born Publius Pulcher Claudius, Clodius changed his last name to make it less respectable. Clodius’s early political career is known only in fragments. Surprisingly he, like many of the young nobles who would later join him, was from an optimate family (Rome’s conservative party) (Huzar 25). Clodius’s father was one of Sulla’s patrician officers and was killed at the Colline Gate in 82 BCE (Weigal 93), leaving Clodius to be raised by his older brother Appius Pulcher Claudius (Gruen 59). In 70 BCE Clodius joined his brother-in-law Lucullus (Weigal 93) as an officer in Lucullus’s army against Mithridates. Here, Clodius started a mutiny from the headquarters of the army. Declaring himself the “soldier’s friend”, Clodius successfully encouraged the soldiers to rebel by contrasting Lucullus’s tightness with the spoils to Pompey’s generosity. Lucullus was unable to continue the war on account of his brother-in-law, and Clodius soon found himself unwelcome (Kahn 115). Clodius transferred to the army of his other brother in law, and had many adventures (such as joining the Syrian army against the Arabs, or being captured by pirates) before returning to Rome in 65 BCE (Weigal 93).

Clodius became the leader of what Cicero described as a “gang of young incorrigibles” (as qouted in Huzar 24). These youths from powerful families were involved in drinking and playing dice. They seemed almost to desire that their actions would shock respectable Rome. Among Clodius’s gang were Mark Antony and Curio, who would later become rising political stars on their own.

Although Clodius and his company loved to shock their fellow citizens, Clodius was unprepared for the backlash that followed his most outrageous stunt. Clodius disguised himself as a woman and attended the Bona Dea (good goddess) festival. For a man to attend this fextival was a sacrilege that the Romans were terrified would upset the Pax Deorum. When Clodius was found out, he was attacked by a mob of furious women and barely made his escape. Since Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximus at the time, the festival had been held at his house. It was rumored that Clodius was having an affair with Caesar’s wife. Caesar divorced his wife because of this, but appears to have held no grudge against Clodius (Ward 205-209).

Clodius was brought to trial for his sacrilege, but insisted he was innocent since he had been in Interama on the day in question, fifty miles away from Rome. Cicero destroyed Clodius’s alibi by revealing that Clodius had visited him on that same day. Clodius was acquitted, but he never forgave Cicero (Weigal 95).

Desirous of increased political power, Clodius wanted to get elected into the Tribune of Plebs. However, since he was a patrician, he was ineligible. With the help of Julius Caesar, acting as Pontifex Maximus, Clodius arranged to have himself adopted into a Plebeian family (Kahn 203). Clodius was elected as a Tribune, just as he desired. Clodius made it clear he was out to get Cicero from his new position of power. During the Catiline conspiracy, Cicero as Consul had put to death Roman citizens without a trial. Clodius hoped to condemn him for this. Without waiting to see what Clodius would do to him, Cicero fled into voluntary exile (Furhmann 94-96).

As a Tribune, Clodius worked to increase his power base. He succeeded in passing two bills, one of which reconstituted the collegia, previously outlawed in 64 BCE, and allowed the formation of new collegia. The second bill provided free grain to all citizens, dramatically increasing Clodius’s support with the urban poor. Despite optimate criticism, Clodius opened up the temple of Castor to registration in the new collegia (Kahn214, 215).

“Despite his adventurism and the instability of the coalition he assembled, Clodius represented Caesar’s most effective ally,” (Kahn 214). However, regardless of how useful Clodius was, Caesar was soon to regret the support he had lent to him. “Whilst it is true that each of the triumvirate at various times hoped to use Clodius for his own ends, the fact remains that the tribune’s program was of his own construction to suit his own ambition for dominance,” (Shotter 71). Once Caesar left for Gaul, Clodius was unleashed.

Pompey and Caesar were both becoming unpopular, and Clodius saw this as a chance to switch his allegiance. Clodius picked apart some of Caesar’s legislation, but as the self-declared champion of the people, his primary target was Pompey. Pompey and Crassus were competing with each other. Clodius supported Crassus in this competition in return for interest-free loans from the richest man in Rome (Huzar 25). Clodius undermined Pompey’s treaties in the East, attacked him verbally, and even had his roughs assault Pompey in public. Soon, Pompey would not even leave his house because of Clodius (Gruen 99).

The worst insult of all concerned the son of Tigranes, who was a hostage Pompey had brought back from the East. He was kept captive in the house of Praetor Lucius Flavius. Clodius liberated the captive, and when Flavius tried to recapture him, a battle was fought outside the city gates. Clodius was ultimately successful, but not without heavy losses on both sides (Greenhalgh 11-13).

In retaliation, Pompey gave his support to Titus Annius Milo, an impoverished nobleman who would soon become Clodius’s worst enemy (Heaton 71). Milo formed his own gang to counteract that of Clodius, and thereafter, until the death of Clodius in 52 BCE, the streets of Rome were filled with blood as the two rival gangs battled each other for control.

Before proceeding further, it is worthwhile to examine the nature of Clodius’s support, as well as that of Milo’s. Clodius’s supporters were mostly the urban poor, recruited through the collegia and organized either by profession (guilds) or district (Lintott 193). Clodius’s gang consisted largely of slaves, but included a large number of freemen and urban poor. Of the latter, many were down and out, but many were also skilled men with trades who felt exploited by those who strived to maintain the status quo (Lintott 196-197). Clodius had several other gang leaders to help him keep his men organized. Their names are given to us by Cicero, but little other information remains of them (Lintott 83).

The tactics of Clodius were unique to his time. Outside of the city lay proconsular armies that could crush Clodius and his gang. However, as long as the law was observed and these armies could not enter Rome, Clodius was more than a force to be reckoned with. His gang was equivalent to a miniature army. Futhermore, Clodius was not interested in votes outside of the city of Rome, as both the Gracchi and Saturninus had been. Clodius “pursued urban political power as an end to itself,” (Lintott 196).

Under these circumstances, the only way Clodius could have been opposed was by a man like Milo. Milo’s gang consisted not of dedicated volunteers like that of Clodius, but mostly gladiators he had bought. His success against Clodius’s forces “showed that a small group of professionals could be as satisfactory as Clodius’s mass movement where violence alone was required” (Lintott 85). Also, whereas Clodius only relied on the City for support, Milo had men outside of Rome he could call in for support when he needed to.

Because the activities of these gangs were legally defensible if it could be proved that the other gang had struck first, they were largely immune to the courts, although gang leaders were occasionally brought to trial (Lintott 29).

With two rival gangs now in place, the violence increased dramatically. Sympathy turned against Clodius, and many began to wish taht Cicero was back in Rome to make trouble for him. When the question of Cicero’s recall was discussed in 57 BCE, Clodius and his forces attacked the assembly, killing many. Cicero’s brother, Quintus Cicero, escaped the slaughter only by hiding under a pile of corpses. The senate continued to deliberate the question of Cicero, and when Clodius tried to stop them, Milo retaliated in kind. By midsummer, Clodius’s forces were worn out, and the vote was Cicero’s recall (Heaton 72).

Cicero returned and attached himself to Milo for support against Clodius. Since Cicero returned a hero, he was able to convince the Senate to restore his house (which Clodius and his gang had destroyed) at public expense (Fuhrmann 96). Clodius and his company drove away the workers from Cicero’s house, and destroyed what was already there. Clodius also burned Quintus Cicero’s house, and then went to storm Milo’s property. After doing battle with Milo’s forces, Clodius succeeded in setting fire to his house, but not before losing many of his men (Gruen 294).

Often, Clodius attacked Cicero directly with his gang, doing battle with Cicero’s bodyguards. In one of these encounters, Clodius apparently got himself into a position were he was at the mercy of Cicero, but Cicero gave his bodyguard the signal to let Clodius go (Furhmann 119).

Clodius ran for Aedile in 56 BCE. Although Milo as a tribune tried to postpone the elections, he was unsuccessful. Clodius attempted to bring Milo to trial for using gladiators to defend himself, even though Clodius was guilty of this as well. Pompey tried to speak in Milo’s defense, but he was constantly interrupted by personal abuse from Clodius. Clodius acted like a cheerleader with the crowd, shouting out, “Who is starving the people to death? Who wanted to be sent to Alexandria? Who is the dissolute general? Who scratches his head with one finger?” After each question the crowd would shout out “Pompeius!” Clodius than asked, “Whom do you want to go to Alexandria?” and the crowd replied, “Crassus!” Pompey was forced to listen to these insults until Milo and his men rushed forward chasing Clodius off the rostra (Seager 119).

Clodius continued his hostility toward Pompey, even going to the extent of plotting against his life. Pompey was irritated by Clodius, and summoned more men from the country for his defense. The Senate did not like Clodius, but they like Pompey even less, and so Clodius was allowed to continue his antics (Heaton 76).

Clodius’s positions were always changing though, making it hard for both his friends and enemies to know where he stood. “Clodius’s explosive political strands were combined with dramatic transfers of allegiance” (Gruen 59). By 54 BCE, Clodius shifted his alliance back to the Triumvirs, and reconciled himself to Pompey. The reasons for this drastic change of position are not clear. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Pompey’s son married Clodius’s niece (the daughter of Appius Claudius) (Rawson 139).

Despite his reconciliation to Pompey, Clodius and Milo remained bitter enemies. This had the effect of straining Pompey’s relationship with Milo. Milo asked Pompey for more support, but Pompey promised him nothing, and increasingly began to distance himself from Milo (Gruen 150). Pompey also claimed to have reconciled Cicero to Clodius, but the fact that relationships remained poor between the two cast doubts on the validity of this reconciliation (Rawson 136).

Also in 54 BCE, one of Caesar’s henchmen, Publius Vatinius was put on trial for violence through the collegia and corruption. Cicero had by this point submitted to the Triumvirs in return for their protection, and agreed to defend Vatinius. Clodius also came to Vatinius’s aid, ascending the tribunal and scattering the lots for jurors. Vatinius was acquitted (Heaton 80).

In 53 BCE, Clodius decided to become a candidate for praetorship. In the same year, Milo ran for consul, feeling that the current chaos Rome was in would allow him to win despite his unorthodox methods. Clodius was terrified of the idea of his enemy obtaining the most powerful political position in Rome, and supported Hypsaeus as an opponent candidate to Milo. Clodius used all the violence and murder for which he was famous to try and stop Milo. Pompey may have even helped Clodius gather rustics and slaves from the Apennines. Clodius openly declared that Milo was going to be killed.

Milo had already demonstrated he was able to play the same game, however. The two gangs continually fought it out in the streets of Rome, with elections being postponed repeatedly until it was necessary to appoint an interregna (Gruen 300).

In one of these battles in the Forum, Mark Antony, having long since left Clodius’s gang, attacked his former leader with a sword. Clodius escaped only by barricading himself in the stairs of a nearby bookstore. Why Mark Antony did this is a mystery. Since Antony was without question Caesar’s man at this point, it is hypothesized that Caesar, realizing that Clodius had once again gotten out of control, ordered his death. However it was unlike Caesar to order an execution in the Forum in broad daylight. Another possibility is that Antony was acting on his own impulse in what he thought was Caesar’s best interest. A third possibility is that Antony had a personal vendetta against Clodius. Clodius had accused Antony of having an affair with Clodius’s wife Fulvia (who would in fact later marry Mark Antony, after the death of both Clodius and her second husband Curio), and if this is true, then perhaps Antony wanted Clodius out of the way. In any case, Antony was soon to see what good luck it was to fail, for if he had been responsible for the death of Clodius, it would certainly have ended his political career (Huzar 37).

On January 18, 52 BCE, Clodius and Milo met on the Appian Way, and Clodius was killed as a result. Exactly how it happened was never quite clear. Cicero claimed that Clodius was waiting in ambush for Milo, and when Milo and his escort passed through, Clodius and his roughs attacked them. In the course of the fight, Clodius was wounded and carried by some of his men into a nearby inn. Cicero claims that Milo, once he realized what happened to Clodius, was unsure of what to do. However, when realizing that he would be blamed for the murder either way, he sent his men into the inn to drag Clodius out. When they went into the inn, Clodius was already dead from his wounds, and so Milo was saved from his guilt.

Other stories were not quite as sympathetic to Milo. Some claimed that Milo initiated the battle. When Clodius was injured, Milo’s men went into the inn, killed the innkeeper, dragged Clodius out, stabbed him several times, and left his corpse on the road. Another version is that Clodius and Milo passed each other with their escort without incident. Then, one of Milo’s men managed to slip into Clodius’s gang, and after following Clodius for a while, stabbed him in the back (Kahn 280).

Clodius’s widow, Fulvia, sent runner throughout the city to alert the people of his death. That same night, a large crowd gathered outside of Clodius’s house, and Fulvia’s lamentation excited the crowd. After the multitudes were further riled up by two tribunes, Titus Munatius Plancus, and Quintus Pompeius Rufus, the city was soon to see how much the people valued their champion. A huge crowd carried Clodius’s body through the streets and into the Senate house, naked so as to show his wounds. Then, the whole Senate house was burned down as a funeral pyre for Clodius (Kahn 281).

Anarchy reigned in Rome following the death of Clodius. Many optimates were murdered, as well as any well dressed person foolish enough to be caught walking in the streets (Weigal 132-133). “The commoners ranged through the city beating and murdering all whom they suspected of sympathy with their hero’s murderer, and wreaked their fury on the rich, attacking especially those who wore fine clothes and gold rings” (Kahn 281). Milo was prudent enough to stay hidden for most of the ordeal, but when he was convinced to make a speech in his defense, a riot ensued. Milo escaped only by disguising himself as a slave. Lepidus’s house was besieged, and his family saved only by Milo’s gladiators. Clodius’s relative, Sextus Clodius, assumed leadership of the gang. He led them on an attack of Milo’s house, but they were driven off by arrows from Milo’s defenders.

The Senate, in desperation, decided to vote Pompey an unprecedented and illegal sole consulship, with power to raise troops and restore order. Because of the circumstances, even strict constitutionalists, such as Cato, approved the measure. Although other consuls were later appointed, Pompey was to retain this power in fact if not in name until the civil war with Caesar. In an effort to maintain order, Pompey implemented many laws that were thought by Caesar’s allies to be indirectly against Caesar, and this helped to hasten the civil war (Greenham 83).

Cicero undertook the defense of Milo. Despite Pompey’s soldiers, Cicero was so intimidated by the howling crowd that he probably would not have been able to deliver his speech even if the crowd had let him speak. There was often violence between the crowd and Pompey’s soldiers, and many of the crowd was killed. In the end, Milo was ultimately condemned and exiled (Heaton 81).

Clodius’s politics were far from orthodox, and the rules of his game were much different than the rules of Caesar and Pompey, but for a period of time it can be said that he was the most powerful man in Rome. That Clodius’s methods could be so successful demonstrates the frustration of the urban poor in Rome, and should be taken as a sign that the Republic was on its way out. Clodius hastened this departure. The anarchy he created in the city was only restored by giving Pompey sole power, which was one of the factors leading to civil war and Caesar’s eventual dictatorship. Also, the reign of violence he unleashed on the city of Rome caused both rich and poor to wish for law and order as opposed to freedom under the republic. Clodius is certainly one of history’s most colorful characters. He took mob violence to an extreme no one had done before him, and his effects on history remain visible.


Furhmann, Manfred. Cicero and the Roman Republic. Blackwell. Cambridge. 1990

Greenhalgh, Peter. Pompey: The Republican Prince. University of Missouri Press. Columbia. 1982

Gruen, Erich. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. University of California Press. Berkeley. 1974

Heaton, J.W. Mob Violence in the Late Roman Republic: 133-49 B.C. University of Illinois. Urbana. 1939.

Huzar, Eleanor. Mark Antony. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis. 1978

Kahn, Arthur. The Education of Julius Caesar. Shocken Books. New York. 1986.

Lintott, A.W. Violence in Republican Rome. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1968.

Rawson, Beryl. The Politics of Friendship: Pompey and Cicero. Sydney University Press. Forest Grove. 1978.

Seager, Robin. Pompey: A Political Biography. University of California Press. Berkeley. 1979.

Shotter, David. The Fall of the Roman Republic. Routledge. New York. 1994.

Ward, Allen. Marcus Crassus and the Late Republic. University of Missouri Press. Columbia. 1977.

Weigal, Arthur. The Life and Times of Mark Antony. Garden City Publishing Company. 1931

Professor's comments: Generally well done, if somewhat rough around the edges. The most serious flaw is the lack of adequate explanation at certain points (see comments throughout). [Editor's note: I have not duplicated margin comments throughout].
Grade: B

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