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The Bona Dea Scandal

A Notorious Incident at the Bona Dea Festival

Each year the Vestal Virgins, together with a select group of patrician ladies, conducted a secret rite to the Bona Dea. By tradition this ceremony was held in the home of the current Pontifex Maximus. In the year 62 BC, following the consulship of Cicero and the destruction of the Catilinarian conspiracy, the office of Pontifex Maximus (more a political than religious office) was held by Julius Caesar. Since all males, even male animals, were excluded from the event, Caesar absented himself for the evening and the ceremony was planned and hosted by his wife Pompeia.


From this point on, the story becomes partly fact, partly fiction, and partly speculation. Many have written of the scandal over the years and I give you what seems to me to be the common theory. -- J. Jahnige.

Since Pompeia was not the most stable of women, her mother-in-law Aurelia, Caesar's respected and noble mother, was actually in charge of the details. She noticed one woman who was heavily cloaked, tall, and with an affected tone in her voice. Aurelia prided herself on knowing every guest present but she could not recall this individual. She asked a servant girl to keep an eye on the unknown guest, who lost control of her affected voice and was discovered to be in fact a man. He escaped from the house without being definitively identified.

Rumors flew. No one in Rome doubted that the guilty man was Publius Clodius Pulcher: it was not unlike him to play wild pranks -- even with so sacred an event as the Bona Dea ceremony. One story suggested that Clodius and Pompeia were having an affair and that she herself had smuggled him into her house. This was a difficult accusation to squelch. An impiety certainly had occurred and conservative Romans were very upset. In response, Caesar divorced Pompeia, reputedly justifying himself -- in a quote of unknown origins -- by asserting that "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion." There was no proof at all, only gossip and suspicion, of Pompeia's involvement. But for Caesar it may have been a useful way to get rid of a wife whom he had married for political reasons that no longer mattered.

Clodius was actually brought to trial for the sacrilege in 61 BC (693 AUC). He offered an alibi defense, claiming that he had been out of town on the night in question. Cicero spoke against him and with his skillful oratory he demolished Clodius's alibi. Nevertheless, the jury -- thought to have been well bribed -- voted to acquit Clodius. Because of his prosecution, Cicero acquired a dangerous and powerful enemy: three years later (in 58 BC) Clodius was chiefly responsible for Cicero's exile from Rome.

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