Clodius the Cross-Dresser

By Martijn Icks

In December 62 BCE, Rome was gripped by a bizarre scandal. Publius Clodius Pulcher, a young man from a noble family, had been caught trespassing in the house of one of the most prominent and powerful men in the city: none other than Julius Caesar. He had been trying to sneak in at night time disguised as a woman, hoping to have a romantic encounter with Pompeia, Caesar’s wife, but had been recognized and thrown out.

By itself, this was already bad enough. What made it even worse, was that Clodius had tried to gain entrance  to the house as the religious festival of the goddess Bona Dea was being celebrated there. Only women were allowed to attend the festivities, which meant that Caesar and the other male inhabitants, including even male animals, had to vacate the premises for the night. In short, Clodius had not only attempted to commit adultery, but was also guilty of sacrilege. No wonder he became the talk of the town.

The Bona Dea scandal, as it is known among scholars of antiquity, nicely demonstrates how even in societies without modern mass media, public figures still run the risk of being caught up in scandals that can affect their reputation. We discussed the case of Clodius at the 2018 Scandalogy Conference in Bamberg, Germany. Many interesting questions were raised during this event. What triggers scandals and how are they sustained? What are the effects of a scandal on the people involved?

Bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero

As we suggested, many scandals do not erupt spontaneously, but are deliberately instigated by parties that have strategic goals. One of these goals may be the character assassination of a political or ideological rival. In such cases, character attackers hope to scandalize their audience and hence to put the target of their attacks in disgrace.

Does this apply to Clodius as well? It does not seem so. The Bona Dea scandal appears to have been entirely of his own making. At first, the consequences were relatively mild. Clodius was put on trial but was acquitted, quite possibly because he bribed the jury. Moreover, the scandal does not appear to have thwarted his political ambitions. The young man managed to become a tribune of the plebs and won the people’s love through free distributions of grain. For a while, he was a name to be reckoned with.

However, his failed attempt to seduce Caesar’s wife left Clodius vulnerable to character attacks. These came mainly from his arch enemy and political rival Marcus Tullius Cicero, a prominent statesman and the most celebrated orator of his time. Cicero saw the Bona Dea scandal as a handy stick to beat Clodius with, so he kept coming back to the event in his speeches, using it to mock and scorn his rival for years.

One might expect Cicero’s verbal attacks to focus on the sacrilege Clodius had committed, or on his attempt to seduce an honourable Roman noblewoman. While the orator did not ignore these aspects completely, they were not his chief interest. Perhaps surprisingly, what he kept coming back to was the female attire Clodius had disguised himself with to gain entry to Caesar’s house. Originally, this had been an amusing, but circumstantial detail, but the orator blew it out of all proportions. He suggested that Clodius had dressed himself up as a female cithara (a kind of lyre) player, taunting him:

“You truly are festive, you elegant, you alone city-bred whom a woman’s dress becomes, whom the tripping gait of a lyre player suits, you who can girlify your face, thin your voice and make your body smooth.” (In Clodium et Curionem fr. 21)

Female cithara player
Fresco of a female cithara player from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale

In a later speech, Cicero even went so far as to present Clodius as some kind of drag performer who frequently appeared in female clothing. In other words, he turned his rival’s one-time female disguise into a recurring habit.

As a skilled orator and politician, Cicero knew very well how to scandalize his audience, pulling just the right triggers to elicit the response he wanted. His caricature of Clodius as a cross-dresser may well have been very effective. Not only did it put the man’s masculinity into question, it also revealed his presumably depraved character.

Scandals, then, are powerful tools in the hands of character assassins. Even if they do not cause them directly, they stand a lot to gain by fanning the flames.


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