Roman politician. Born c. 92 BCE, died 52 BCE.
Born into the reputable patrician gens Claudii, he was one of the most colourful Roman politicians in an era already well-populated with interesting individuals.
A young contemporary of Caesar and Cicero (who was his enemy), the first mention of P. Clodius Pulcher is in 70 BCE, as an officer in Lucullus' legion in Asia.
He returned to Rome, and became a political demagogue. In 69 BCE, we hear of him bringing charges against Catilina in the Senate, for plundering his province of Africa - but with Clodius apparently dropping the case after having received a bribe.
The most avidly discussed moment in Clodius' life, then as well as now, is the curious series of events that occurred on the night of the festival of Bona Dea, in 62 BCE. According to contemporary sources, Clodius was alleged to have surreptitiously entered the house of Caesar, where Caesar's wife, Pompeia, as priestess, was presiding over a rite of the goddess. Since men were forbidden to be present at the rite, Clodius was allegedly wearing women's clothes. Caesar's mother, so the story goes, found him out, and chased him off. The result was a trial for incestum, sacrilege.
Clodius initially tried to defend himself by saying that he was in Interamna, too far away to have committed the alleged crime. This alibi was punctured, with some glee, by Cicero, who bore witness that he'd met Clodius in Rome on the night in question.
Although the outcome of the trial appeared to be a foregone conclusion, Clodius, slippery as an eel, managed to escape conviction through hefty bribes in the right places. Caesar, in his typically egotistical style, divorced his wife, citing the rumours about her infidelity that had been caused by the Clodius case, and giving the quintessentially Caesarean explanation that people in Caesar's household "must be above suspicion".
Back in the political saddle, Clodius plotted revenge on Cicero. In 59 BCE he chose to be adopted into the plebs so that he might be elected plebeian tribune, an office he used (in 58 BCE, with the collusion of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey) to send Cicero into exile. His pleasure was brief, though - Cicero soon returned.
By 56 BCE, Clodius held the office of aedile, and had a considerable number of street thugs in his pay. These clashed regularly with the opposing street gangs in the pay of his enemy, Milo.
In 52 BCE, both Clodius and Milo were running for office (Clodius for praetor, Milo for consul). In a chance encounter between the two (and their sizeable entourages of goons) on the Via Appia, matters got out of hand, and Clodius was killed by Milo's thugs.
The plebeians, outraged at Clodius' death, rioted at his funeral. So great was the public furor that Milo had to abandon his hopes of a consulship, and Pompey was appointed sole consul.
The crime of which Clodius was accused in 62 BCE, incestum, sacrilege, is the cause of some later confusion. The "sacrilege" involved is the same sort of crime that applies to, for instance, illicit sex with Vestal virgins. Had Clodius been convicted, he would likely have been sentenced to death by being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock.
However, later Latin usage includes the crime of incest, that is, unlawful carnal relations between family members, in the concept of incestum - a usage that was not typical in Clodius' time. Later generations of classical writers, including the Greek Cassius Dio, failed to understand the subtle difference, and concluded (invented) the existence of an incestuous relationship between Clodius and his sister Clodia. As a result, the Clodius that appears in late classical writings is rather more perverse than the original seems to have been.
While we're on the subject of sex and Clodius' sister, it bears mentioning that Clodia is usually considered to be identical to "Lesbia", the married woman to whom Gaius Valerius Catullus wrote a great deal of his delightfully raunchy poetry. In fact, Clodius himself is probably the subject of Catullus' Carmen 79:
Lesbius est pulcer. quid ni? quem Lesbia malit
quam te cum tota gente, Catulle, tua.
sed tamen hic pulcer vendat cum gente Catullum,
si tria natorum suavia reppererit.
Lesbius is pretty. Why not? Since Lesbia likes him
more than you and all your people, Catullus.
But still let this pretty boy sell Catullus and all his people
if he should find three to acknowledge his birth.