When I was taking Ancient History A Level, back in 1972, what went wrong with the history of Athens in the fifth century BC (and what led to the defeat of Athensin the Peloponnesian War) was fairly straightforward. A new class of politicians arose. Gone were the wise counsels of the likes of Pericles. Instead there was a new breed of demagogues, such as Kleon and Kleophon. The men stirred up the people with false promises, manipulating the basest of popular instincts by a showy rhetoric, and so ensuring that the popular assembly voted for superficially attractive proposals that in the medium term proved disastrous.
Much the same, we learnt, went on in Rome in the first century BC. On the one hand, you had the sensible Cicero (even if it was hard not to think him rather pompous). On the other, there was the disreputable Clodius, speaking weasel words to the people, bribing them with free handouts, all in the pursuit of personal power.
It was only when I got to university that I was taught that there might be another side to this. The basic reason that we think that Pericles is such a model is that we have come to see the period so heavily through the eyes of Thucydides -- who had no doubt that Pericles was just what Athens needed (Thucydides' political sympathies were moderate oligarchy, and he had no qualms about supporting a leader whose career could be seen as about as close to elected dictatorship you could get under a radical democracy). There was another side to this. For a start, the attacks of the new breed of politicians were partly snobbish. It may have been satire for Aristophanes to brand them "sausage-sellers" and the like. But it seems fairly clear that they were of "newer money" than the blue-blooded Pericles. And besides, the closer you looked at Pericles' relationship with (and manipulation of) the Athenian people, the less difference there seemed between him and Kleon. "Was Pericles a demagogue?" was a standard essay topic. The answer usually a guarded yes.
And you could do a similar reconstruction job on Clodius if you started to peel away the Ciceronian prejudice (and Cicero, directly or indirectly, is almost our only source). From one point of view, Clodius may have been bribing the people with free handouts. From another, you could see free grain as an effective form of poor relief, advocated by a politician who actually noticed to needs of those less well off than himself.