Pulcher and the Dictator Fiasco

Pulcher Recalled to Rome

     The Romans had their hands full late into 249 BCE. Publius Claudius Pulcher had been recalled to Rome after his disaster at the Battle of Drepana and Lucius Junius Pullus was taken prisoner by Carthalo in northwestern Sicily. This was after he tried to make something happen in spite of the loss of his fleet from a third storm. The Carthaginians were now in control of the sea and the besieged city of Lilybaeum was holding out well. 
     It was likely a combination of all these reasons (plus some sort of charge of sacrilege or impiety for throwing the sacred chickens into the sea) that Pulcher was recalled back to Rome. Carthage was known for punishing incompetent generals, sometimes with capital punishment such as crucifixion. Rome, however, rarely punished her generals for failure on campaign. Take for instance Gaius Terentius Varro. Even in Livy’s hostile accounts of him, Varro is not punished even for the failure at the Battle of Cannae against Hannibal.

     In that very hour there was such courage in the hearts of the citizens that when the consul was returning from that defeat for which he himself had been chiefly responsible, a crowd of all sorts and conditions went out to meet him on the way, and gave him thanks because he had not despaired of the state; whereas, had he been the commander of the Carthaginians, there was no punishment he would not have been compelled to suffer. (Livy 22.61)1

     With this in mind, we should look at Pulcher being recalled and tried in Rome more from his temperament and impiety, not from actually failing at the Battle of Drepana per se. And, even though Roman generals were not physically punished, it was not unheard of for them to stand trial, though it was rare. In Pulchers case, we have a very interesting source that provides some detail on his trial. The source is known as the Scholia Bobiensia, which is a fragmentary late antique commentary on some of Cicero’s speeches and it just happens to include this episode. I will relate it in full here.

     He was charged with treason by Pullius and Fundanius, tribunes of the plebs. When an assembly was held to vote on the case, and the centuries were summoned, there was a sudden storm and the assembly was abandoned. Afterwards the tribunes intervened to prevent the same accusers from charging the same man with treason twice during that one year of office. Therefore the charge was changed, and the same accusers proposed that he should be fined; the people found him guilty, and he was fined 120,000 asses. (Scholia Bobiensia)2

     Interestingly, for what it’s worth, Valerius Maximus also includes the storm incident (and emphasizes that Pulcher insulted the Roman religion and its customs.) (8.1.4)3 Ironically, it was bad weather that saved Pulcher from a much more severe punishment seeing that bad weather was the worst enemy of Rome lately. The 120,000 asses appears to be calculated from losing 120 ships (which he didn’t really, only about 93 directly from the battle), and would have been a large sum of money during this era of the Republic. Cicero’s book On the Nature of the Gods also seconds that the charge was treason. (2.3.8)4 This was likely because he had placed the Roman Republic itself in peril by forsaking the ancient customs. Polybius, our most reliable source, hints at Pulcher being lucky in his trial while also being fined. Pulcher “acted rashly and inconsiderately and done all a single man could to bring a great disaster on Rome. He was accordingly brought to trial afterwards, condemned to a heavy fine, and narrowly escaped with his life.” (1.52)5

Lucius Junius Pullus

     While Pulcher barely survived the wrath of the people, many accounts also lump Lucius Junius Pullus, who had lost the fleet due to a storm, with the accounts of Pulcher. Most accounts such as Cicero’s On Divination and his On the Nature of the Gods tell that Pullus committed suicide rather than face trial for not following the auspices. I feel that Pullus just seems to be added to Pulcher’s account. His actions and command for some time after the storm do not seem to fit in with a person going to commit suicide. (It’s also hard to see a evidence for those attempting to bring him to a potential trial.) Lastly, if he was indeed taken as a prisoner by the Carthaginians, it would be odd of him to take his own life rather than risk a trial. He would have had to have killed himself after a prisoner exchange, which seems to have occurred soon after. (Livy 19)6 If the Romans were willing to ransom him, why would they then try him for treason? Instead, he may have just fallen out of the political arena and unfortunately would be remembered as Pulcher’s colleague making him guilty by association.

A Dictator Debacle

     It’s unclear whether this event occurred before or after Pulcher’s miraculous trial. If it happened afterwards then he was clearly spiting the Roman people for bring him to trial. If it happened before his trial, it may have been what pushed the tribunes over the edge and prompted them to bring Pulcher to trial. Either way, Pulcher certainly wasn’t doing himself any favors at home in Rome.

Publius Claudius Pulcher was recalled to Rome after his impiety before the Battle of Drepana.

     Since he was recalled back to Rome (if not also standing trial) and Lucius Junius Pullus likely being taken captive by Carthage, Rome had no legitimate consuls in office. This obviously was not good and something had to be done. At this point the Senate ordered Publius Claudius Pulcher to nominate another prominent individual to act as dictator for the Roman Republic. The dictator was a rare office of the Roman Republic used in emergencies and had vast and unequalled executive authority. The only real check on a dictator’s power was his time in office. He could only hold the office for as long as the emergency situation lasted or for six months, whichever was shorter.
     Pulcher complied with the order and nominated a man by the name of Marcus Claudius Glicia. The problem here was that many scholars believe that this man was a subordinate of Publius Claudius Pulcher (both in the Claudii gens) and some have argued that he was likely a freedman (i.e. former slave) of Pulcher’s family. Livy describes Claudius Glicia as “a man of the lowest kind.” (Livy 19)7 He is indeed listed on the Fasti Capitloini as a dictator and is also listed as a scribe.8 Some have interpreted this as Claudius Glicia being Pulcher’s secretary or something of the sort. The Fasti Capiolini also explicitly states that he had promoted no one to the position of Master of the Horse (this was essentially the dictator’s right-hand man and second-in-command.)
     The reason for this absence was because Claudius Glicia was forced to abdicate his position by the Roman Senate, which had had enough of Pulcher’s mockery of Roman customs. In his place a former two time consul, Aulus Atilius Calatinus was nominated and assumed the position of dictator. As his Master of the Horse he promoted Lucius Caecilius Metellus, the victor of the Battle of Panormus. Calatinus became the first dictator to lead Roman forces outside of Italy proper though Zonaras relates that “they accomplished nothing worthy of remembrance” while in Sicily. (8.15) 9
     Both Pulcher and Pullus fell out of the political scene in Rome. The Republic was sighing in relief as 249 BCE came to a close so that business could go on without Pulcher’s antics, a fleet to worry about, and two consuls would command like usual. When we return, we will take a look at what the next year had in store with the First Punic War.

  1. Livy. The History of Rome. Translated by Benjamin Foster. 1929.
  2. Scholia Bobiensia. Translation found at www.attalus.org
  3. Valerius Maximus. Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilium. Latin Translation found at penelope.uchicago.edu
  4. Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum). Translated by H. Rackham. 1933.
  5. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  6. Livy. Periochae. Translated by Jona Lendering. Latin and English translation found at Livius.org.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Fasti Capitolini. Attalus.org.
  9. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.