Exiled By A Lovelorn Crossdresser

On his way out of town

Cato the Younger’s exile from Rome began with a cross-dressing aristocrat who had a crush on Julius Caesar’s wife.

In 62 BC, Publius Clodius figured that the best way to get close to Pompeia — Mrs. Caesar — was to dress as a female lute player and worm his way into the Good Goddess ceremony. This religious rite was only attended by women and was being hosted by Caesar’s wife.

Clodius was found out when he spoke to a maid in a deep baritone voice and was eventually caught hiding under a bed. Caesar divorced his wife, asserting that “Caesar’s wife must be above reproach.”

Which she was.

Clodius was hauled into court on charges of “sacrilege and sexual immorality.” Cicero got involved in the case because his wife believed he was having an affair with Clodius’s sister. In order to defend himself, Cicero had to testify that he had seen Clodius in Rome on the day of his offense, which destroyed the alibi Clodius had offered — that he was out of town on the day of his cross-dressing.

Clodius was acquitted, thanks to bribes paid to the jurors by Rome’s rich crime lord Crassus. But his reputation, and with it his political future, was ruined. Instead of the many others Clodius could have blamed for the debacle — well, really just himself — he set the whole thing at Cicero’s feet, despite the fact that Cicero’s involvement in the whole sordid mess was insignificant.

I sure hope Clodius doesn’t find his way to any kind of political power any time soon.

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this week’s episode of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast):

https://play.acast.com/s/historys-trainwrecks/032-stubborn-nags-of-ancient-rome-part-viii

***

Like everything else in the late Republic, the trial of Clodius was just a placeholder for the ongoing battle between the autocrats — Caesar and his triumvirate — and the conservatives, represented by Cicero and Cato the Younger.

Clodius became a hero to the young, pleasure-seeking, norm-defying masses of Rome, and the stick in the mud conservatives, despite being right in this case, were once more held up as austere, out of touch, and no fun at all. Clodius was a new Catiline: a shunned aristocratic hedonist who became a hero to the downtrodden by opposing the very class of Romans he had been born into.

If you’ve been paying attention, this scenario keeps repeating, and it causes lots of damage to the Republic. The popular upstart invariably fails. The conservatives, under threat, discover some brief flexibility that makes them offer some concessions to the upstart’s followers, and things go back to the way they were, but with each side in the struggle between the elites and the people feeling like they lost something. The underlying issues causing this unrest got papered over instead of permanently resolved. This disturbing pattern was becoming an accepted fact of life, along with political corruption and the increasing desperation of the down and out in Roman society. It wasn’t great, but one might think the Republic could have sputtered on for another century or two, lurching from uprising to lukewarm resolution over and over again.

This time was different, because there was a guy out there waiting to exploit the situation.

Julius Caesar, as was his way, sat back quietly and helped events along without getting personally involved. Divorcing his wife made him look like a victim and above the whole unseemly episode, but Clodius’s acquittal at trial had Caesar’s fingerprints all over it. Now that the First Triumvirate was a thing, Crassus paid bribes on Caesar’s orders.

The situation put Clodius in Caesar’s debt, and Clodius commanded the love of the people. Always a crafty fellow, Caesar loved more than anything else an opportunity to be the puppet-master of surrogates, so that if things went downhill, he could claim no direct involvement.

He was also setting himself up for a time where he would need to call in all the favors he was owed. Caesar had learned that there was nothing to be gained in playing the role of Catiline in Rome’s ongoing passion play. Neither was there an advantage in playing Cicero’s part of defender of ancient republican virtues. The smart move was to let the pressure cooker keep boiling, and quietly keep adding fuel to the fire. When it exploded, he would be the only man left standing, someone who would be seen as above the fray, untainted by corruption or norm-defying populism. He would be a viable third alternative — the sole voice of reason and calm amid the storm he had helped rage.

In the Clodius affair, Caesar’s wife was above reproach. Her husband was not.

***

Like Catiline, whose path Clodius was now on, there was a lot more to the man than just an empty-headed, pleasure-seeking libertine. He was talented and charismatic, and he had the most powerful men of Rome secretly in his corner. He could also be tunnel-visioned in pursuit of vengeance.

Cicero and the conservatives were now his number one targets.

***

Cato and Clodius crossed paths when Clodius, in an attempt to salvage his reputation, launched a campaign against corrupt priests and priestesses. Most of the religious figures Clodius went after were “close friends or family of his accusers and adversaries.” One priestess was Cicero’s sister in law.

Clodius, being a clever fellow (and getting strategic advice from that master strategist, Caesar), intended to point out that Rome’s religious norms, which he had been accused of violating, weren’t all that sacrosanct anyway. As an added perk, he would heap public shame and legal consequences on people who were near and dear to his sworn enemies. He may have believed that his success in this campaign would shame his enemies, restore his reputation, and get his career back on track.

Cato took up the defense of Cicero’s sister-in-law and won, which was a huge embarrassment for Clodius and ruined his careful plans.

Now he was mad at Cato too.

I sure hope Clodius doesn’t find his way to any kind of political power any time soon.

***

His first step was formally abandoning the upper-class Roman society he had been born into. Clodius arranged to be adopted by a twenty year-old plebeian so he could run for Tribune of the Plebs.

The word tribunus means “a protector or champion of the people,” a definition that must have sent a tingle up the spine of the aspiring populist. At this point in history, the Tribunes had the power to “block or veto any legislation, decrees, or actions by the Senate or from any magistrate and fellow tribune” that they “considered contrary to the interests” of the people. The office was originally designed to protect the people from arbitrary punishment, but by Clodius’s time, the tribunes had enormous power.

Clodius knew he would never be consul. Tribune was the next best thing.

Phase one was paying back those favors I mentioned earlier — Clodius upended Cato’s plan to have Julius Caesar wander through the countryside when his consulship was over and instead supported his assignment to Gaul, where military glory was back on the table. Phase two was giving something to the people his office was created to protect, so Clodius made the grain dole free.

Check and check.

With all that out of the way, Clodius was perfectly positioned to go after his enemies, who were, coincidentally enough, the same guys standing in the way of Julius Caesar and the First Triumvirate. Between Cicero and Cato, Clodius saw Cato as the bigger threat. Caesar had no doubt informed his protégé that Cicero was malleable and could be persuaded by flattery. The great orator also had constant money problems, and could be sidelined by a timely loan.

Cato the Younger was immovable, so Clodius moved him. Literally.

***

Like Catiline, Clodius had spent a lot of his lifetime collecting grievances that he one day intended to repay in full. With interest.

I sure hope he doesn’t find his way to any kind of political power — oh. Wait. He’s Tribune of the Plebs now.

I guess it’s revenge time for Clodius.

It seems like every aspiring Roman populist had a “I was captured by pirates when I was young and had to get home somehow” story. Julius Caesar’s pirate adventure involved him becoming friends with the pirates even while daily reminding them that he would kill them all after his ransom was paid. He got ransomed, raised a fleet, came back, and killed them all. When he was twenty years old.

Clodius was captured by pirates on his way home from the Mithridatic wars. His tale was less heroic — the story going around was that he “allowed himself to be ravished in return for his release.” The closest Roman ally the pirates could extort for Clodius’s release was Ptolemy, king of Cyprus.

Instead of the huge sum the pirates (and Clodius) thought he was worth, Ptolemy offered a much lower amount. The pirates accepted, and Clodius went home, believing that the king had insulted his honor by not paying full price for his release and promising — wait for it — revenge.

This old injury combined with his new ones and Clodius, always a “kill two birds with one stone” kind of fellow, devised a way to stick it to Ptolemy and solve his (and the Triumvirate’s) Cato problem.

Clodius accused Ptolemy of being a “state sponsor of piracy,” just so the king knew what this whole thing was really about, and annexed Cyprus for Rome. All he needed to do now was appoint an esteemed Roman to “inform the Cypriots personally that their independence was over and to take possession of the king’s treasury with a minimum of graft.”

Cato the Younger was just the man for the job. Clodius said that “he regarded Cato as the purest man of all the Romans,” which was far closer to the truth than the paper-thin piracy pretext Clodius had used for the annexation. He said that “though many were soliciting the commission to Cyprus and the court of Ptolemy and begging to be sent upon it, he thought Cato alone worthy of it and gladly offered him this favor.”

Clodius was a master of mixing truth and lies. A new province was a plum assignment, if you were the kind of Roman willing to drain the territory’s wealth into your own pocket. On the other hand, responsible governance, like the kind Cato the Elder had done in Sardinia a hundred years before, could burnish your reputation and pave the way for future advancement.

Everyone did want the Cyprus assignment. And Cato was a man of unimpeachable character and integrity. But he was also smart enough to see through the ruse. Cato called his nomination to the post “a snare and an insult, not a favor,” and he turned it down.

But Clodius had real power now, and he showed he wasn’t afraid to use it. He told Cato, “If you don’t think it’s a favor, you shall make the voyage as a punishment!” He got the people’s assembly to vote on a bill making Cato “the sole commissioner responsible for the annexation” and provisioned “no ships, no assistants, and no clerks to help administer the province — only two attendants, one of them a spy planted by Clodius.”

Under these terms, Cato was going to be in Cyprus for a long time. This end result doesn’t seem to be very important to Clodius, who was more interested in sticking it to Ptolemy, but it was of supreme importance to the Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, who really needed Cato out of the way for a while.

It was tough for Cato to argue against. He was a loyal Roman, and Cyprus, properly annexed, would be a huge boon to the Republic, both for its wealth and its strategic location in the Mediterranean. The assignment was a moral problem for Rome’s greatest moralist. Cato had warned the people in the East once that Rome would take what it wanted whenever it wanted, and this was a prime example. This time he would be the one doing the taking. In addition, every provincial governor at some point was accused of mismanagement-for-profit in the running of their territory. Cato the Elder had accused Scipio Africanus of it a century before, and Scipio had returned the favor and hauled Cato’s great grandfather before the Senate to answer for his own administration of Hispania. No matter how responsible and above-board Cato was in his annexation of Cyprus, it was inevitable that his reputation would be tarnished.

This assignment checked so many boxes–a rich territory for Rome, a strategic military outpost, Cato in exile (with the accompanying erosion of the reputation that was his strongest weapon) — that one has to assume it was Caesar’s clever hand pulling the strings. The final nail in Cato’s coffin was that his assignment was now a matter of law. Refusing it would be a crime.

When Cato finally did sail for Cyprus, he knew he had been beaten. Clodius was the tip of the Triumvirate’s spear. The revenge-minded tribune was the perfect vehicle for the three-headed monster to take out their opposition without getting their hands dirty. Exhausted from the struggle, and seeing the inevitable outcome, he told Cicero, “when Clodius comes for you, don’t put up a fight.”

Because Cato knew that Cicero was next.

***

Cicero did his best. He found a willing tribune to block everything Clodius intended to do. Clodius went to Cicero and promised no legal action against him if he would call off his opposition. Clodius even said he would end their feud and blame everything on Cicero’s wife.

Cato would never have fallen for it. Cicero was far more easily swayed by flattery, the promise of cooperation, and an opportunity to consider a young up-and-comer like Clodius as a kind of political protégé. He was also getting older and looking for a way — any way — to eliminate strife from his life. Cicero’s letters around this time were full of praise for Clodius that was more hopeful than realistic.

Clodius waited about five minutes before breaking his word. He passed a law “exiling anyone who executed a citizen without trial — or anyone who had ever done so.”

Now, who do we know who had ever done that?

Cicero, in his capacity as quasi-dictator of Rome during the Catiline Conspiracy, had ordered the execution of the rebel’s partners in crime. Even though he had sent it to the Senate to vote — over the objections of Clodius’s current puppet master — the executions could plausibly be pinned on him.

So he started packing his bags. But before he did, he tried to call in every favor and rely on every bit of glory he had ever gained. He even went to Caesar and Pompey, who pretended sympathy and said nice things, but ultimately, what could they do against the power of a tribune? The fact that the tribune was in their pocket and doing their bidding was probably not mentioned.

Cicero left Rome “on foot in the middle of the night.” Clodius passed “an edict of formal banishment, along with a law that made it a crime to offer shelter to Cicero within five hundred miles of Rome.” The tribune’s followers ransacked Cicero’s homes, looted his stuff for future sale, and burned down his mansion on the Palatine hill.

Check and check.

***

Cato, in the proud tradition of his family, handled the annexation of Cyprus responsibly and profitably. His credibility was so legendary that when he informed King Ptolemy that the jig was up and his country was now a Roman province, the king poisoned himself to death.

With no staff and no legions, Cato still managed to dispose of the king’s property and bring Cyprus firmly under Roman control, bringing back seven thousand talents of silver to Rome. It was an achievement that paralleled Pompey the Great’s track record in the East. Pompey had gotten a lot of money out of a huge territory, but in tiny Cyprus, “Cato had squeezed out far more money per inch.”

He sailed for home, having set the gold — I mean silver — standard for responsible provincial administration, confirmed all the good things everyone said about him, and prepared for the inevitable accusations of graft and corruption that would take him down a peg or two, to the delight of his enemies. He had made two copies of Cyprus’s financial records, like his great-grandfather had done when he governed Hispania, against future charges of malfeasance, but one copy was lost at sea and the other burned up in a fire.

He was caught in Clodius’s (and Caesar’s) trap, and he knew it.

***

A crowd waited on the banks of the Tiber river as Cato’s ship approached. Everyone had turned out — consuls and tribunes and senators and priests, and even Clodius himself. Applause broke out (although the tribune himself no doubt kept his hands at his sides) as the returning eminent statesman drew closer.

The crowd watched as Cato’s boat kept going, past the assembled dignitaries, downriver to a dock some distance away, where he “set straight to unloading his cargo.” He knew there was nothing about his triumph, or his return, to celebrate. Either for him or his enemies.

Rome braced itself. Cato was back.

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Historian

Historian

Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.