As a child Claudius was afflicted with various illnesses that left him physically weak and unsightly. According to Suetonius he had several disagreeable traits which included: an uncontrolled and horrible laugh that was exacerbated by stress, an excessive slobbering and drooling along with a frequently runny nose, a stammer and a persistent nervous tic of the head. His family found him embarrassing and his constant drooling disgusting. They did their best to hide him away but since he wasn’t a risk or a threat they let him live.
So he spends his life sequestered in a library and reads everything he can get his hands on, and then quietly, while his family is killing each other, he writes. He writes a twenty volume book called Tyrrhenica on the history of the Etruscans. He writes an eight volume book on the history of Carthage. He writes a forty-one volume history of Rome. He writes a book about the art of dice playing and on the defense of Cicero. He had theories on linguistics and attempted to reform the Latin alphabet. Yet, despite his increasing literary accomplishments, he remains the family idiot. Whether through a sense of self preservation or the unfortunate havoc stress wreaks on his body, he is rarely able to string a single thread of coherent words together in the presence of his family.
Claudius survives the reign of his maternal grand-uncle, Octavian (Augustus) and then his uncle Tiberius and then, against all odds, the reign of his nephew Caligula. He claims he survives by his cunning wit hidden behind a mask of stupidity...but Suetonius has his doubts: “Instead of keeping quiet about his stupidity, Claudius explained, in a number of short speeches, that it had been a mere mask assumed for the benefit of Gaius, and that he owed his life and throne to it. Nobody, however, believed him, and soon a book was published entitled 'The Fools Rise to Power'; the thesis being that no one would act the fool unless he were a fool already.” 1
Under Caligula things got a little crazy. Everything became hectic and erratic as the citizenry fought to survive in the harrowing chaos of Caligula’s journey to madness. As Caligula rebirths himself as a God, Claudius is one of the first to prostrate himself in awe at his overwhelming majesty. When Caligula names his horse his first citizen and then a senator and then attempts to give him a consulship, the court looks on with masks of approval hiding their increasing panic. Caligula toys with suppressing Homer, Virgil and Livy and attempts to abolish the legal profession as a whole. He has a spat with Neptune which involves him rallying his troops and declaring war on the sea.
You would think by comparison Claudius would get a raving review. An emperor with a tendency towards republicanism? What’s not to love? And it seems the people did love him. He was chosen by the Knights twice as the head of the deputation to the Consuls. When he would appear in the theater the "entire Equestrian Order would rise and take off their cloaks as a mark of honor." 2 Yet he is often described as a coward and Suetonius seems to relish the anecdote of his coming to power:
“When the assassins of Gaius (Caligula) shut everyone out, pretending that he wished to be alone, Claudius went off with the rest and retired to a room called the Hermaeum; but presently heard about the murder and slipped away in alarm to a near-by balcony, where he hid trembling behind the door curtains. A guardsman, wandering vaguely though the Palace, noticed a pair of feet beneath the curtain, pulled their owner out for identification and recognized him. Claudius dropped on the floor and clasped the soldier’s knees, but found himself acclaimed Emperor.” 3
Slowly his domestic life begins to fall apart. As Livia ruled the caesars before him, Claudius finds himself ruled by his third wife Messalina. She flagrantly carried on affairs beneath his roof and within their matrimonial bed, and at one point while Claudius is away on a trip to Ostia, she marries her lover Silius, publicly celebrating the “full solemnities” of their marriage.
Claudius, who had surrounded himself with a staff of freedmen, seems to hesitate about the best course of action to take, much to the chagrin of…everyone. His staff are overcome with fear that Claudius will continue to make a mockery of the station of emperor, and as Claudius tries to decide what legal authority Silius now enjoys, the freedmen come up with a plot to oust/murder Messalina. Their biggest obstacle is Claudius’ propensity to forgive Messalina one flagrant indiscretion after another…and getting married to your lover in a public celebration while your husband is away on vacation seems unforgivable. Messalina, begins to realize the severity of her position and pulls out all the stops, making a public profession of regret. She puts on sack cloth and ashes and runs out to meet her husband’s chariot, wringing her hands in grief.
It seems evident that whatever fervor Claudius momentarily had in his breast is beginning to subside when he sends a message to the now imprisoned “poor woman” telling her she must be present the next day to plead her case. The freedmen are not willing to risk Claudius’ penchant for clemency, and Narcissus bursts into the room and orders the centurion and tribune in attendance to carry out the execution.
“Now for the first time she saw her situation as it was, and took hold of the steel. In her agitation, she was applying it without result to her throat and again to her breast, when the tribune ran her through.” 4
By far his biggest mistake was his marriage to his fourth wife and power hungry niece Agrippina. He has to massage the red tape a little because while you may get away with anything in the bedroom, on paper incestuous relationships were frowned upon. Also he did himself no favors and made it sound super awkward and gross by referring to her in speeches as “my daughter and foster-child, born and bred in my lap, so to speak.” …yuck. And then he adopts her son, Nero..and things do not bode well for our hero.
From the beginning Nero’s fate as a demonic tyrant seemed to be pretty much a given. When his horoscope was read to include many ominous predictions, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero’s father said: “that any child of himself and Agrippina was bound to have a detestable nature and become a public danger.” Yes and yes. And before long, after a dinner presumably of mushrooms (read:poison) Claudius loses the power of his speech and after suffering much pain dies shortly before dawn.
Which brings us to Seneca.
The Apocolocyntosis is a twelve page Menippean satire that seems to follow Claudius into the afterlife as he navigates his way between heaven and hell. I say “seems to” because…I actually have no idea what this is about.
Part of this lack of understanding is based on the “how” and “why” of it’s existence. At face value it seems like it was commissioned by Agrippina in that genre of post-dictator-funerary-bashing. Even though Agrippina and Nero had made a show of their grief and mourning and had quickly deified their “victim”, it was still popularly believed that they had also commissioned his murder. Seneca’s brother has a witty little comment that everyone loves to quote about Claudius being dragged to heaven on a hook.
Ok. So Agrippina and Nero murder Claudius and deify him to shore up their legitimacy (and also to assuage the populace who apparently loved him). Then they commission Nero’s tutor to write a bit of ironic defamation to further bolster the credibility of the seventeen year old, who had all the tell tale signs of insanity bequeathed to him by his predecessors. (Suetonius’ short history on Nero reads like the worst version of “America’s Got Talent." Nero thought he had an incredible voice and would give endless recitals during which pregnant women were forced to give birth rather than leave and men would jump out of the window to their death, taking the chance that hell would be a step up…)
While the authorship is pretty much undisputed, it’s hard to rationalize the same Seneca that gave us Consolatio ad Polybium filled with flatteries of Claudius and his powerful freedmen.
One theory is that it’s an attack on the deification of Claudius specifically because Agrippina sponsored it….and yet there’s nothing really definitive or specific to her. No literary attack that would serve to curb her authority or undermine her power over Nero. The satire also doesn’t mention the presumed death by poisoning. It could also be read as a defense of the perpetrators by quickly glossing over the circumstances of his death and emphasizing the deserved ridicule of the court buffoon. …so is it an attack or defense?
A short recap of the Apocolocyntosis is as follows: Claudius limps onto set, a Quasimodo that leaves Hercules terrified despite his success with other ‘monsters’. He starts mumbling and drooling and eventually manages to quote Homer and Virgil to the gods’ satisfaction. The gods then bring the case of Claudius to the heavenly courts; should he be deified? The prosecution says nay. They can’t let all the riffraff in can they? If all mortals are deified doesn’t that make a mockery of deification? (The title “Apocolocyntosis” pretty much means either “deification of a pumpkin head" or something to that effect.)
The defense says yay. “Whereas the Divine Claudius is related by blood to both the Divine Augustus and equally to the Divine Augusta, his grandmother, whom he personally had declared a goddess, and whereas he is far superior intellectually to all other mortals, and whereas it is in the interest of the state that there should be someone who can “swallow boiling turnips” with Romulus, I hereby propose that the Divine Claudius be a god from this day forth…”6
Everything seems to be going forward in favor of Claudius, when who should rise against our hero but his own grand-uncle the deified Augustus! As usual it is his family that is disgusted and pained by his existence. He makes his case with anecdotes about his janus nature, incapable of shooing a fly but quick to murder off members of his family.
“He was also angry with his wife and hung her up. Did he ever kill? You killed Messalina, whose great-great-uncle I was as well as yours. “I don’t know about it,” you say. God damn you! Not knowing about it is worse than killing her!” 7
This seems unfair. Right? I mean…after all the baseless fratricide and familial murder…this one actually seems kind of warranted.
“Do you now want to make this man a god? Look at his body- the gods were angry when it came into the world. In short, let him say three words one after the other and he can drag me off as his slave. Who’s going to worship him as a god? Who’ll believe in him? While you create such gods, no one will believe that you yourselves are gods.”8
Interestingly, this seems to be Claudius’ exact opinion about mere mortals deifying themselves. He believed such things should be left to the gods and at this point after suffering through the reign of Caligula, worshipping the emperors either deceased or living had lost its charm. But instead of the gods making this argument, it’s his old grand-uncle, once more thinking up ways to banish him to some nefarious nether region.
Augustus ends his argument thus: “I move that he be severely punished, that he be denied any immunity from trial, and that he be deported as soon as possible, leaving heaven within thirty days and Olympus within three.”
After a brief discussion the gods agree and in a shout-out to Seneca’s brother:
“Without delay, Mercury seized him, twisting his neck, and hauled him off from heaven to hell.” Not quite on a ‘hook’ but the same general sentiment. He has been found wanting in the Forum and will now be deposited in the river Styx.
As he makes his way to hell, he’s joined by Narcissus who had allegedly committed suicide after learning of the death of his master. As a faithful freedman he is here to usher Claudius into the underworld, which is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Messalina’s lovers, and leading the pack is lover number one, Gaius Silius. In the center of the crowd is the ballet dancer Mnester, Caligula’s muse and Messalina’s lover number two. The crowd makes up a list of secretaries and army officers and family members most of which in someway or other had their fates sealed by Messalina.
Claudius, momentarily being overwhelmed by the crowd, asks them how it is that they have gotten here, perhaps being unsure of where the ‘here’ is.
“Pedo Pompeius then spoke: ‘What do you mean, you cruel bastard? You ask how? Who else sent us here but you, you butcher of every friend you had? Let’s go into court. I’ll show you the bench down here.” 9
And once again Claudius faces a tribunal, but this time in hell, and this time more efficient. His indictment is read out: “Executed: 30 Senators, 221 Roman knights and others, and ‘to the number of the grains of sand and the specks of dust”. He is immediately found guilty and the verdict rendered:
“What thou hast wrought should thou suffer,
Straight would justice be done.”
They deliberate amongst themselves as to the proper punishment, some useless labor that he will toil aimlessly at for the rest of eternity. He loved playing dice, why not be forced to pick up dice and drop them into a bottomless cup for all eternity; perpetually left to hunt around for the fallen dice…this does have a nice ring to it. At the last minute Caligula shows up and claims Claudius as his slave. This seems fair. The council is given and Claudius is whisked away to spend the rest of eternity as the legal secretary/slave for his deranged nemesis.
After reading this through about six or seven times I think the general emotion I get from Seneca is rage. Rage and betrayal. After ‘surviving’ against all odds the psychotic breakdown of Caligula, after being the one stable support that Rome seemed to tether herself to under the whims of a crazed tyrant building houses for his horse while systematically murdering everyone…Claudius, the self professed idiot-savant…falls for literally the oldest trick in the book. He walks away from sense and sensibility and becomes blindly infatuated with one woman after another. After watching Livia work her tyrannical powers, you think he would have learned from the side lines. But he lets these women wreak tyranny and cause collateral damage. He removed his son Britannicus from the position of heir apparent and put Agrippina’s son in his place. And ultimately when he began to question this decision he was murdered. And maybe Seneca thinks rightfully so. The job of a leader is to lead the people.The job of a historian is to learn from past mistakes. Claudius did neither. I can almost see Seneca in 45 minutes of exasperation write out this tirade, dripping with frustration and anger. Picking up perpetually falling dice is too good of a punishment. He’s not Sisyphus. He can rot in hell with the man he was almost better than.
Seneca drops the mic.
1. Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. 1957. Book V. 38
2. Suetonius, Book V. 6
3. Suetonius, Book V. 10
5. Sullivan, J.P. Petronius: The Satyricon and Seneca: The Apocolocyntosis. pg 210
6. Sullivan, pg.227
7. Sullivan, pg 228
8. Sullivan, pg 229
9. Sullivan, pg 229