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Caesar’s Wife and the Politics of Destruction

Originally published at The Wall Street Journal

Senate Democrats wrote President Trump Wednesday asking him to withdraw Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination over unproven charges of sexual misconduct: “The standard of character and fitness for a position on the nation’s highest court must be higher than this.” That standard seems to be an unquestionably blameless past. If someone has said something that attaches blame to you, however unsubstantiated, you no longer meet the “higher standard.”

It’s reminiscent of the old saying that in a position of public trust, one must be “like Caesar’s wife, above reproach.” Yet no one is above reproach. Neither was Caesar’s wife.

Pompeia, Caesar’s Wife
Pompeia, Caesar’s Wife


The most common source for the Caesar’s wife story is Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.” It contains a different lesson from the one often attributed to it. Caesar’s second wife, Pompeia, was in charge of a rite for the goddess Bona Dea, a ceremony for women only, performed in Caesar’s house. Publius Clodius Pulcher, a beardless young nobleman who had designs on Pompeia, dressed as a woman and invaded the household intending to seduce or rape her. There was no evidence that Pompeia had any interest in Clodius, and after a maid discovered him, the women drove the intruder from the house. Some of Rome’s nobility attempted to punish Clodius, but they failed. He was popular and his family was powerful.

Then Caesar, eager not to offend Clodius’ relatives, divorced Pompeia. Thus, it was the woman who had been the victim of at least an unwanted seduction who was publicly punished simply because her husband insisted that Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion. Caesar married again and eventually gave Clodius a government post. 

The actual “Caesar’s wife” lesson is not that Pompeia was safe from criticism because she conducted herself beyond reproach. Rather, although totally innocent, she was the victim of an early case of ethics hypocrisy and double standards. Caesar’s wife was the first of many prominent victims of the standard falsely named for her. 

The professional ethicists who now inhabit universities and think tanks love to bring up the Caesar’s wife standard. They often call it “the appearance of impropriety,” and a lot of mischief has been done under its fuzzy banner.

Ethics groups have to raise money to keep going, so their need to find blame is perpetual. Their allies are the major media, who feed on scandal in an endless progression, as competition and internet ubiquity lower barriers to journalistic abuse. What special-interest groups and major media have achieved together is a challenge to the system of representative democracy the American Founders devised to fasten responsibility for major appointments in government on elected officials. 

Demanding that elected officials deliberate in the spirit of the Constitution and the laws, rather than relying on the hearsay and demands of special-interest groups, is the only sure power the sovereign people exercise to keep the country free.

Mr. Chapman is founder of Discovery Institute and author of “Politicians: The Worst Kind of People to Run the Government, Except for All the Others.”

Appeared in the September 28, 2018, print edition as '‘Like Caesar’s Wife’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think.'

Continue Reading at The Wall Street Journal

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Civic Leadership.