Cluentius, from Larinum in Molise, was accused in 66 BC by his mother of having poisoned his stepfather, Oppianicus the elder; Cluentius was very unpopular in Rome because of rumors that he had corrupted the judges in a process against this same Oppianicus; this unpopularity (Latin: invidia) reflected on the senators, suspected to buy and sell processes. The accusers were not saints either: Cluentius' mother, Sassia, had married three times. On the first occasion she had married Aulus Cluentius Habitus, the father of her son. The son was known as Aulus Cluentius Habitus Minor. At one point she had fallen in love with her daughter's husband. She forced the daughter to divorce the young man and then she married her former son-in-law. Cicero divides his action in two parts: in the first one, he defends Cluentius' reputation. He shows that Oppianicus' crimes were so enormous, that Cluentius had no need of corrupting the judges; actually, he ridicules Oppianicus because he was cheated by a mediator in bribes. The second part deals with the alleged poisoning, and is very brief, since Cicero considers the accusation as ludicrous.
During the turmoil of the civil war, the three sons of Oppianicus' mother in law are believed dead, and Oppianicus becomes the heir. Then it is discovered that one of them, M. Aurius, lives in Gaul, where he has been sold as a slave; his mother begs the relatives to rescue him, then dies. Oppianicus arranges for the murder of her son, and inherits 400,000 sesterces. A relative of the victim, A. Aurius, denounces him in Larinum; Oppianicus, taking advantage of the civil war, has him proscribed and killed. A. Aurius was, by the way, Sassia's husband; Oppianicus begins to woo her. She objects that she wouldn't marry a man with three sons; Oppianicus murders his children but one, and marries her. The paternal aunt of Cluentius was Oppianicus' ex-wife; Oppianicus kills her and, with the same poison, his own brother. His brother's wife is pregnant; Oppianicus poisons her before she bears, and inherits. Cn. Magius, Oppianicus' uncle, dies; in his will, he leaves everything to the son of which his sister is pregnant. Oppianicus, who is next in the line of succession, pays her a large sum, and she aborts. Then he goes to Rome, becomes intimate with a young dissolute, Asuvius, and kills him after he has signed a will in his favor.
Cicero was so successful that the young Cluentius was absolved of the charges. In the process the reputation of Sassia was completely destroyed. According to Quintilian, Cicero afterwards boasted that he had pulled the wool over the judges' eyes (se tenebras offudisse iudicibus in causa Cluenti gloriatus est, Institutio Oratoria 2.17.21; the context is in discussion of orators who say false things not because they are themselves unaware of the truth, but to deceive other people).
Cicero's spirited defence in Pro Cluentio presents an insight into the life in Larinum in 66 BC, and also provides an image of a ruthless woman which has lasted for more than two thousand years.
As for the literary aftermath, Oppianicus will extend its influence into the farthest future: for instance, queen Tamora and her blackamoor Aaron in Titus Andronicus out-Oppianicus Oppianicus; and Juliette, a novel of an author whose very name is contrary to modesty, is clearly under Oppianicus' spell. The Italian erudite Mario Praz has written a whole book, Romantic Agony, about Oppianical influences in 19th century literature.
- Latin Wikisource has original text related to this article: Pro Aulo Cluentio Habito
- Society for Ancient Languages — includes Latin and English texts of Pro Cluentio