By Laurens Dragstra and Taco Groenewegen
If people call Dutch politician Geert Wilders a ‘people’s tribune’, this is unlikely to be meant as a compliment. The word is often used to describe agitators, demagogues and populists, people who are driven by resentment and claim that they – and they alone – represent the true ‘will of the people’. In the past, other Dutch politicians have been called people’s tribunes as well, for instance Abraham Kuyper, the founder of the Anti-revolutionary Party (ARP), one of the predecessors of today’s Christian Democratic Party (CDA). But the term is not always used pejoratively. Pieter Jelles Troelstra, founder of the Social Democratic Workers Party – today’s Labour Party – called himself a people’s tribune (“and not a regent”) to explain why he did not want to become a government minister. In this context, a people’s tribune is someone who looks after the needs and interests of the people. Here, the term has merely positive connotations.
In this essay, we will explore the roots of the office of people’s tribune. This will take us back in time to the Roman Republic, where the office originates. Although the Republic (509-27 BCE) perished more than 2.000 years ago, it still manages to generate considerable interest among scholars and the general public alike. The same is true for its constitution. Political theorists such as Machiavelli and the American Founding Fathers drew much inspiration from it. The French abbot Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836), who provided a theoretical base for the French Revolution, obviously knew his Roman constitutional law well, since he proposed to introduce the office of people’s tribune in the young French Republic as well.
There were many different magistrates in the Roman Republic, for instance consuls, quaestors and praetors. These magistrates were elected annually and usually held their offices together with one or more colleagues. The ten people’s tribunes (tribuni plebis) were also elected each year. One of the most flamboyant among them was a certain Publius Clodius Pulcher, who lived in the first century BCE. In the next few paragraphs, we will use the story of Clodius’ life to illustrate how the office of people’s tribune developed and changed over the years. Our analysis makes clear that this office and the powers that were part of it gave people’s tribunes possibilities to go either way: they could choose to become agitators, demagogues and populists, or opt to act in the best interests of the people. Anything in between was also an option. The choice was theirs.
2. Clodius’ background
Publius Clodius Pulcher (ca. 93-52 BCE) was born into an illustrious and powerful patrician family that had settled in Rome in the late sixth century BCE: the gens Claudia. Strictly speaking, his name was Publius Claudius Pulcher, but he himself used the name Clodius because it sounded more ‘vulgar’. The Claudian clan had many branches and sub-branches. After the downfall of the Republic, one of these branches would provide the new Roman Empire with several emperors, among them Tiberius (14-37), Claudius (41-58) and Nero (54-68). Clodius was a scion from a different branch of the family, the branch that several centuries ago had started using the nickname (cognomen) ‘Pulcher’, which roughly means ‘pretty boy’. The Claudii Pulchri were not just known for their good looks, but also for their haughtiness. In 249 BCE, another Publius Claudius commanded the Roman fleet during the First Punic War against Carthage. When prior to an important naval battle the holy chickens refused to eat, which was considered a bad omen, Publius threw them overboard, exclaiming “If they don’t want to eat, let them drink!” In the ensuing battle, the Roman fleet was completely destroyed.
In Clodius’ own days, some 200 years later, the Claudii Pulchri’s reputation had hardly improved. His sisters were known as loose women. This was especially true for Clodius’ sister Clodia Metelli. She was married to a consul, but – if we are to trust our sources – led a rather licentious life. Clodius’ own private life was colourful as well, to say the least. When still at the start of his political career, Clodius was the lover of a woman named Pompeia, who at that moment was Gaius Julius Caesar’s wife. In 62 BCE, the annual Bona Dea festival was celebrated at Caesar’s house (he was the pontifex maximus and served as praetor that year). Only women were allowed to attend this festival, so in order to clandestinely meet his mistress Pompeia, Clodius had dressed up as a female slave and had thus managed to get into Caesar’s house. Unfortunately, he stumbled upon another female slave, who – thinking that he was a woman as well – struck up a conversation. Of course, Clodius’ masculine voice gave him away and the woman sounded the alarm. His action led to a great scandal in Rome. Clodius was prosecuted for sacrilege, but ultimately acquitted. Caesar divorced Pompeia, not because he believed that she and Clodius were having an affair, but because he believed that Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion.
A few months later, Clodius had himself adopted by a certain Publius Fonteius. Adoption was quite common in Roman society, but in this case Fonteius was actually younger than his adoptive son. Even many years later, there was still much doubt whether correct procedure had been followed. However this may be, the adoption had changed Clodius social status. He had been born into a patrician family, which made him a member of Rome’s original nobility. The adoption, however, had given him the status of a plebeian, a man of the common people. So why did Clodius covet this status? We will discuss this question in the next paragraph.
3. Origins of the office and powers of a people’s tribune
The office of people’s tribune was, according to tradition, created in 494 BCE. To be honest, the precise circumstances that led to this creation are clouded by the mists of history. The earliest sources that we can use are the works of Livius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, historians who lived centuries after the events they wrote about. Livius claims that the creation of the office of people’s tribune was the result of a class struggle between the patricians and the plebeians, that is, between Rome’s original nobility and the common people. Around the year 500 BCE, many plebeians had huge debts and were threatened with debt bondage (nexum). The plebeians demanded reforms, and when these were refused by the ruling class, the common people began to riot.
One of the year’s consuls was Appius Claudius, the founder of the gens Claudia and a distant ancestor of Clodius. He wanted to take a tough stance on the rioters, arguing that the stupid plebs would only understand violence. The other consul, one Publius Servilius, was more of a dove and proposed to make concessions. In the end, the people got a few promises, but these soon proved to be idle. Thereupon the plebeians decided to withdraw to a mountain outside Rome, leaving the city behind undefended. The patricians now had no choice but to give in. The plebeians were, among other concessions, granted the right to elect their own magistrates, the people’s tribunes.
The tribunes – there were two at first, and ultimately ten – were elected by the popular assembly known as the concilium plebis. In this assembly, only plebeians were allowed to vote. Furthermore, the office of people’s tribune was only open to plebeians. Initially, only talented young men from outside Rome’s closed aristocracy aspired to become people’s tribune. At that time, the tribuneship was the only office that could be held by a plebeian, as all the other offices had been monopolised by patricians. However, over the years, the plebeians, led by their tribunes, began to successfully challenge this monopoly. Gradually and one by one, the other offices – such as the consulship and the praetorship – were opened to them as well. Legislation was even passed which can be regarded as ‘affirmative action’ on behalf of plebeians. Laws (leges) adopted in 367 and 342 BCE stipulated that while both consuls could be plebeian, at least one of them should be a plebeian.
So from now on, a full-fledged political career was possible for patricians and plebeians alike. For plebeians, the tribuneship was no longer the office at the end of the line, but rather a stepping stone to other, more prestigious offices of the cursus honorum, the chain of public offices that were to be held successively. These developments also led to a change in the nature of the Roman nobility (nobilitas). In about two centuries, an exclusively patrician aristocracy was replaced with a mixed aristocracy comprising both patrician and plebeian families. Nevertheless, the office of people’s tribune remained open to plebeians only. This explains why Clodius had to acquire the social status of a plebeian if he wanted to run for the office of tribune. But why would he want that? To answer this question, we need to look at the powers of a people’s tribune.
The original duty of people’s tribunes was to protect the common people against abuses by patrician magistrates. To facilitate the exercise of this duty, the tribunes were declared inviolable or sacrosanct (sacrosanctus). If, for instance, a magistrate wanted to flog a member of the common people, the victim could call upon the aid (auxilium) of a tribune who could then physically protect this citizen. Because the tribune was sacrosanct, the magistrate could not continue with his actions. In many cases, however, physical interventions by tribunes were unnecessary: tribunes could simply veto (i.e. prohibit) acts by other magistrates, Senate decisions and even votes in the popular assembly. The power of veto – called intercessio in Latin – was the most important power that a people’s tribune had. Violation of a tribune’s rights and privileges had severe consequences. Perpetrators were declared outlaws and their property was confiscated.
The fact that a people’s tribune was physically inviolable resulted in a few other powers as well. A tribune could for instance arrest magistrates and throw them in prison. This only happened sporadically, but there was a famous incident which took place in the year 60 BCE. Metellus Celer – Clodia’s husband, so Clodius’ brother-in-law – was one of the consuls then. His political enemy Pompeius wanted the popular assembly to adopt a bill that arranged for a distribution of land among Pompeius’ veteran soldiers. The bill was vehemently opposed by Metellus and many others. One of Pompeius’ clients was a people’s tribune named Lucius Flavius. Flavius had Metellus Celer locked up to prevent him from campaigning against the bill any longer. But Metellus was no pushover and called a meeting of the Senate in prison. Now it was Flavius’ turn again: he took his tribune’s bench, used it to block the entrance to the prison and then took a seat on it. Because a tribune was sacrosanct, the senators were not allowed to remove him to gain access to the prison. Now Metellus had some of his supporters knock a hole in the prison wall, so that he could still communicate with the other senators. Flavius was nonplussed had to give in.
A final important power of people’s tribunes was the right to introduce bills in the popular assembly. Other magistrates had that power too, but people’s tribunes seem to have made greater use of it, especially in case of important legislative and social reforms. Clodius certainly used his power to table bills enthusiastically.
4. Further developments
In the Late Republic, there were people’s tribunes in all shapes and sizes. For many young men of the plebeian aristocracy, the office of tribune was a normal, non-compulsory step in the cursus honorum. It should be clear that most of these aristocratic tribunes were hardly raving revolutionaries. On the contrary, conservative politicians could use ‘their’ people’s tribunes to veto bills by more progressive colleagues. Tribunes could veto decisions by any other magistrate, so they could block decisions and proposals of fellow tribunes as well. To sum up, in the Middle and Late Republic – 287-133 and 133-27 BCE respectively – the college of ten people’s tribunes had a heterogeneous character. Some of them were genuine reformers, others career politicians or strawmen of the conservative nobility. Nevertheless, these people’s tribunes – and more generally speaking all Roman politicians – had at least one thing in common: they held their offices and exercised their duties for many reasons and motivations, but always to foster their own position in the Roman political landscape as well.
An important development in the office of people’s tribune took place in 133 BCE. The tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (ca. 164-133 BCE), himself a member of an aristocratic family, turned out to be a leading reformer. In his days, Rome had been the master of most of Italy for about a century and a half. A lot of Italian land was formally Roman territory, but it had never been distributed fairly among Rome’s citizens. Gracchus now devised a plan to redistribute it among poor and dispossessed Romans. This was not an entirely selfless measure: once these citizens had become propertied again, they could serve in the Roman legions, which were desperately short on manpower. Of course, the tribune’s bill would further his own political career as well.
Gracchus’ plan was extremely unpopular among Rome’s conservative nobility (which had occupied most of this land and would be evicted if the bill was adopted), and his proposal for a lex Sempronia agraria was vetoed by a fellow tribune named Marcus Octavius. Octavius once again demonstrated the most effective way to neutralise the actions of a tribune: simply use another tribune. But now Gracchus did something truly extraordinary: he tabled a proposal in the popular assembly to strip Octavius of his office. Apparently Octavius did not attempt to block this proposal with another veto: the people voted and Octavius was removed from office.
Were Gracchus’ actions against his sacrosanct colleague even legal? That is a fair question. Gracchus defended his deeds by arguing that the people are sovereign. They can elect magistrates in office and, as a consequence, can remove them again too, especially if these magistrates abuse their powers and act against the people’s interests, for instance by disproportionate use of the power of veto. In any case, Gracchus’ action had created a precedent and contributed to the opinion of later tribunes that the sovereign Roman people could in principle take every decision it wanted. A simple majority of votes was sufficient, as the Romans did not have a written constitution which required a qualified majority to amend it.
Another crucial development in the Late Republic was that ever more frequently magistrates – and not just people’s tribunes – bypassed the Senate in the legislative process. Quite different from modern Senates, the Roman Senate had no legislative powers. It was a policy-making and advisory body, and most of its members were former magistrates. There were no senatorial elections; former magistrates and other influential Romans were enrolled in the Senate for life by magistrates called censors. When asked, senators would give advisory opinions about bills before these were tabled in the popular assembly. For a long time, these opinions were very authoritative. But in the last one hundred years of the Republic, magistrates were ever more often prepared to ignore negative senatorial opinions or to skip discussion in this august college altogether. Bypassing the Senate was not unconstitutional. It cannot, for instance, be compared to bypassing the Council of State in the Dutch legislative process, which would be in violation of the Constitution. However, magistrates who skipped discussion in the Senate were clearly breaking with tradition.
In the Late Republic, the popular assembly was turned more and more into an alternative Senate. Decisions which had previously been the prerogative of the Senate were now taken over by the assembly, such as the appointment of commanders for foreign military expeditions. Such decisions could provoke outrage, as is demonstrated by the case of the well-known dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BCE). The Senate gave him command of a potentially lucrative war in the East, but then a people’s tribune tabled a proposal to give command of the war to Sulla’s political rival Gaius Marius (157-86 BCE). Marius was subsequently appointed by the popular assembly. A furious Sulla would not forget this betrayal. When a few years later he had seized power in Rome, he crippled the tribuneship. Tribunes were now no longer allowed to table bills in the popular assembly and they could also no longer run for other, higher offices after their term of office had expired. This made the tribuneship very unattractive. After Sulla’s death, many of these reforms were quickly reversed.
All of this makes clear that in the Late Republic, people’s tribunes and the popular assembly could together wield tremendous power. The popular assembly could take any decision it wanted, and a simple majority of votes was sufficient. Tribunes therefore did their utmost to get as many of their supporters as possible to the place where the assembly was held, usually on the Forum Romanum. And their political opponents did the same: they made sure their ‘own’ people’s tribunes were there as well to veto decisions that were against their interests. Of course they too mobilised their supporters to vote in the assembly. It should not come as a surprise that, in the highly polarised climate of the Late Republic, this could lead to political violence. Pushing and shoving were common, but sometimes people were killed and wounded in the fighting. It is in this potentially violent climate that we must place the start of Clodius’ political career as people’s tribune.
5. Clodius as tribune and later career
On 10 December of the year 59 BCE, Publius Clodius Pulcher took up the office of people’s tribune. He was in his early thirties. Less than a month later, he and an armed gang of slaves occupied the Temple of Castor and Pollux on the Forum Romanum. This action was politically motivated, as the large open space in front of the temple was often used as a meeting place for the popular assembly. The presiding magistrate would lead the meeting from the stairs of the temple. With his action, the freshly elected people’s tribune gave a clear signal: this is my turf now.
Clodius began using the popular assembly for legislative activities as well, regulating the grain dole among other things. And then it was time for revenge. His victim was the famous orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), who had antagonised Clodius by testifying against him in the Bona Dea trial mentioned above. Cicero had been consul in 63 BCE. In this capacity he had managed to foil a conspiracy by a senator named Catilina. Some of Catilina’s supporters had been arrested in Rome and the question had arisen what to do with them. Supported by the (majority of the) Senate, Cicero had had them executed.
Cicero justified his actions by referring to a Senate decision – a senatus consultum – that had been taken before the arrests and that had charged him to defend the Republic. However, an important principle of Roman constitutional law was that every citizen had the right to challenge the (threat of) exercise of power by a magistrate (coercitio) by appealing to the people (the right of provocatio). In the Late Republic, this basically meant that there was a ban on executing citizens without a trial. There had been no such trial in the case of Catilina’s supporters. The Senate had decided on the fate of the conspirators, but the Senate was no court. The popular assembly or a court established by a statute (quaestio) had never been involved in this case.
Clodius now tried to have a bill passed in the assembly that threatened anyone who had cooperated in the killing of Roman citizens without a trial with banishment and loss of property. It was clear to everyone that the bill was specifically aimed at Cicero. Realising that he could not escape a conviction, the famous orator went into voluntary exile. And even then Clodius did not leave his enemy alone. The tribune had the assembly adopt another bill that stipulated that all of Cicero’s possessions were confiscated and that formalised his exile. Cicero’s house was razed to the ground and in its place an altar dedicated to Libertas was erected, the personification of Liberty.
After sixteen months in exile, Cicero was allowed to return to Rome after the Senate and popular assembly had decided to rehabilitate him. By that time, Clodius had made himself a lot of powerful enemies. Among these enemies was the most effective weapon against a people’s tribune gone rogue: another people’s tribune gone rogue. This tribune’s name was Titus Annius Milo (died 48 BCE). During the 50s BCE, armed gangs led by Clodius and Milo would constantly fight each other in the streets of Rome while their leaders would try to win high offices and to have the other put on trial for instigating violence. The conflict culminated in some kind of Battle of Beverwijk. On 18 January 52 BCE, Clodius, Milo and their supporters met on Via Appia outside Rome. Ironically, this road had been built in 312 BCE by a distant ancestor of Clodius, Appius Claudius Caecus. In the ensuing fight, Clodius was wounded. He fled into a tavern, but was dragged out by Milo’s men and killed. Clodius’ supporters were furious and decided to give their hero a memorable send-off. They took his body to the Senate House – the Curia Hostilia -, made a gigantic pyre of all the wooden benches and then cremated the infamous tribune. The Curia was burned down in the process.
After the murder of Clodius, Milo was put on trial and only managed to escape a conviction by going into voluntary exile. His lawyer Cicero had been of little use: the orator had been so intimidated by the hordes of soldiers present at the trial to keep order that he did not dare give his closing speech. When Milo had already moved to his place of exile, the city of Massilia (present-day Marseilles), Cicero sent him the speech after all, ostensibly to do his client a favour. Milo cynically replied that he was happy that the orator had been unable to give his speech in Rome, “for he should not be eating such mullets in Massilia (…), if any such defence had been made”.
6. Concluding observations
In this essay, we have explored the historical roots of the term ‘people’s tribune’, a term that nowadays has mostly negative connotations. However, we have been able to conclude that many people’s tribunes in the Roman Republic contributed much to the protection and emancipation of the common people. And that was exactly why they were created in the first place. But there were a few rotten apples as well, and the protagonist of this essay is a prime example. A people’s tribune was a powerful magistrate, and figures such as Publius Clodius Pulcher – by using and abusing the powers of the office – greatly contributed to the political instability of the Late Republic. The powers of the tribune were, in a way, a factor in the downfall of the Republic.
Was this instability inevitable? Of course, much depended on who actually held the office of people’s tribune and on the presence of ‘checks and balances’. One of these ‘checks’ was the tradition to consult the Senate before sending a bill to the popular assembly. The fact that the power of veto could be used against other people’s tribunes as well was another. Consultation of the Senate ensured that there was a certain consensus among Rome’s senatorial elite before a bill was sent to the popular assembly, so that truly controversial bills would never become law. But when tribunes began bypassing the Senate and sending bills directly to the popular assembly, controversial bills were soon much more common. After Gracchus set a precedent for stripping a tribune of his office, the threat to use the power of veto soon became a less effective ‘check’ as well: a popular assembly that was inclined to vote in favour of a tribune’s bill would no doubt also be inclined to remove a tribune from office if he blocked that bill with his veto. This was something Gracchus’ colleague Octavius experienced firsthand.
One further development was the fact that politicians and their supporters were ever more often prepared to use force. Clodius only managed to get some of his proposals adopted by having bands of burly supporters intimidate political opponents. The only way to effectively counter this was to bring along your own group of thugs, which is exactly what Milo did. Of course we need to view all these developments in the context of the social and political circumstances of the Late Republic. The creation of an office like that of people’s tribune does not automatically lead to violence or the threat of violence. That it did go this way in the Late Republic, can be attributed to many factors. One element was the fact that Rome’s ruling institutions were seemingly incapable of finding solutions for the major problems in Roman society (poverty, unemployment, settling veterans in colonies, citizenship for non-Romans). And it was exactly this incapability (or even unwillingness) which led to people’s tribunes bypassing socially conservative institutions like the Senate or eliminating obstinate fellow tribunes.
 Sieyès’ Tribunat involved tribunes whose job was to translate the needs and wishes of the people into concrete bills, which were then sent to the legislative assembly for discussion and adoption.
 Cicero, De Natura Deorum, 2.7.
 See for instance Cicero, Pro Caelio, 31-36.
 Plutarchus, Caesar 10; Cassius Dio 37.45.2.
 Livius 2.23-2.33.
 Cassius Dio 37.50.1-2.
 Plutarchus wrote a biography of his life.
 Gracchus is often considered the first magistrate to bypass the Senate, but there is no direct evidence for this and there seems to be an earlier precedent, mentioned by Livius: the people’s tribune Gaius Valerius Tappo sent a bill straight to the popular assembly in 188 BCE. See Livius 38.36.
 The right to introduce bills was restored in 70 BCE, the right to run for higher offices in 75 BCE.
 Plutarchus, Cato Minor 33.
 See Cassius Dio 38.14-17 and 39.6; Plutarchus, Cicero 30-34; Appianus, Bellum Civile 2.15-16; Cicero, Letters, volume 1, nr. 20.
 Cassius Dio 40.48; Plutarchus, Cicero 35; Appianus, Bellum Civile 2.21.
 Cassius Dio 40.54.