At de Domo Sua 54, Cicero accuses Clodius of giving an order to shut the tabernae – presumably the shops immediately around the Forum. Coming among such charges as enrolling slaves in his gangs and tearing down the stairs of the temple of Castor, the exact reference of the accusation is hard to pin down. Most scholars (Vanderbroeck 1987: 126-7; Pina Polo 1996: 132-3; Mouritsen 2001: 59; Morstein-Marx 2004: 129) interpret this and other instances of shutting the shops as a last-ditch attempt to gather a crowd for an otherwise badly-attended meeting, and use it as evidence that those politicians who resorted to it drew their support from shopkeepers and other members of the lower strata of society. This is indeed what Cicero implies at Dom. 89, but it would be wrong to take his invective at face value. If Clodius or someone like him wanted to gather a crowd of shopkeepers eager to support him, ordering the shops which provided their livelihoods to shut down would be a singularly ill-considered tactic. In this paper I reevaluate why a Roman politician would have chosen to shut the shops, considering not only the practical but also the symbolic implications of such an action.
I combine close analysis of the Ciceronian texts with other mentions of the tabernae and tabernarii in Livy, Sallust, and Asconius. These sources show that shutting the shops would not have helped gather a large and willing crowd. Those affected were not a uniform group. We must consider shopkeepers themselves, their employees, and their clients, and how each would have reacted to a forced closure. Some lost money when the shops were shut (Cic. Cat. 4.17); others could simply move on. Most were seriously inconvenienced and thus presumably unlikely to join the political demonstration, at least on the side of the man who forced them to shut up for the day. In any case, the numbers which could be drawn from the shops immediately around the Forum were not large enough to form the kind of crowd Clodius depended on. The practical effects of shutting the shops would actually therefore have been negative for a politician like Clodius. More important were the symbolic effects, which were successful in rousing a crowd. In Livy (3.27.2; 4.31.9; 9.7.7), shutting the shops appears as a feature of the iustitium, an institution which has much in common with and has sometimes been confused with Clodius’ decrees. Traditionally, a iustitium was a pause in all public business, usually declared so that attention could be focused on a military threat. In 133, Tiberius Gracchus declared a similar stoppage of public business as part of the struggles surrounding his agrarian bill (Plut. Ti.G.10.8; Dio 23.83.5-6). Whether or not this was technically a iustitium, it would have been understood in those terms. The politicians of the 50s who ordered the shops to be shut were alluding to the iustitium as a way to advertise the importance of their meetings and the threat that their opponents’ stubbornness posed to the res publica. At the same time,they were able to draw connections between themselves and the Gracchi.
Cicero’s rhetorical move picks up on the ‘popular’ connotations of shutting the shops,but diminishes its impact by reducing it to a desperate attempt to get people on the streets. When late Republican politicians decreed that the shops should be shut, they were not trying to gather warm bodies for a contio, but making a symbolic display claiming popular support against the intransigence of the senatorial elite. A fuller understanding of this political tactic not only helps us make sense of Clodius’ actions and his sources of support but also acts as corrective against the one-sided Ciceronian view of the conventions of Roman politics.