Suetonius on the reign of Claudius
These are the Suetonius set-texts on the reign of
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Suetonius, you will remember, treats his
subjects thematically, not annalistically.
Excerpts from Chapters 1-25|
12. But in adding to his own dignity he was modest and unassuming, refraining from taking the forename Imperator, refusing excessive honours, and passing over the betrothal of his daughter and the birthday of a grandson in silence and with merely private ceremonies. He recalled no one from exile except with the approval of the senate... When the tribunes of the commons appeared before him as he sat upon the tribunal, he apologised to them because for lack of room he could not hear them unless they stood up.
By such conduct he won so much love and devotion in a short time, that when it was reported that he had been waylaid and killed on a journey to Ostia, the people were horror stricken...
15. But in hearing and deciding cases he showed strange inconsistency of temper, for he was now careful and shrewd, sometimes hasty and inconsiderate, occasionally silly and like a crazy man.
16. He also assumed the censorship, which had long been discontinued, ever since the term of Plancus and Paulus, but in this office too he was variable, and both his theory and his practice were inconsistent.
18. Once, when there was a scarcity of grain because of long-continued droughts, he was stopped in the middle of the Forum by a mob and so pelted with abuse and at the same time with pieces of bread, that he was barely able to make his escape to the Palace by a back door; and after this experience he resorted to every possible means to bring grain to Rome, even in the winter season.
20. The public works which he completed were great and essential rather than numerous; they were in particular the following: [the Aqua Claudia]; also the draining of Lake Fucinus and the harbour at Ostia...
25. When certain men were exposing their sick and worn out slaves on the Island of Aesculapius because of the trouble of treating them, Claudius decreed that all such slaves were free, and that if they recovered, they should not return to the control of their master; but if anyone preferred to kill such a slave rather than to abandon him, he was liable to the charge of murder.
In Chapters 26-42, however, Suetonoius
proceeds to treat Claudius's character and the nature of his reign,
25. ... But these and other acts, and in fact almost the whole conduct of his reign, were dictated not so much by his own judgment as
by that of his wives and freedmen, since he nearly always acted in accordance with their interests and desires.
The marriage of Claudius to Agrippina
While still a quite young, he was engaged to be married twice: first to Aemilia Lepida, great-granddaughter of Augustus, and second to Livia Medullina, who was also known as Camilla and came from the long-established family of Camillus the dictator. Because Aemilia’s parents had offended Augustus, he broke off the engagement; Livia died from some illness on the actual day of the wedding.
Next he married Plautia Urgulanilla, whose father had held a triumph, and after her, he married Aelia Paetina, an ex-consul’s daughter. He divorced Paetina because of some trivial complaints. He also divorced Urgulanilla but because of some immoral scandal and the fact that she was suspected of murder.
After that he married Valeria Messalina, daughter of his cousin Messala Barbatus. Then he found out that, besides committing all sort of other criminal acts, she had even married Gaius Silius, with a contract signed by witnesses. Claudius had her killed. He then announced to a meeting of the praetorian guard that he would remain unmarried, since his marriages always ended badly, and if he broke his vow and got married again, he would let them kill him.
However, he could not stop himself from arranging another marriage even considering Aelia Paetina again, He thought about marrying Lollia Paulina, who had been married to Caius Caesar. But it was Agrippina, the daughter of his brother, Germanicus whose charms appealed most to him. She, as his neice, took every opportunity to kiss him and please him in whatever way she could. At the next meeting of the senate he bribed some senators to propose that he should be forced to marry Agrippina for the good of the state; it was also proposed that the right to arrange such marriages (up to that time considered incestuous) should be granted to others. He barely waited a day before he celebrated the marriage; but no one could be found to follow his example except a freedman, and a senior centurion whose wedding he and Agrippina both attended.
Claudius as emperor: wives, freedmen and executions
I have already explained how much his freedmen and wives controlled Claudius; he behaved towards them more like a slave than an emperor. He gave them honours, army comands, and freedom from penalties and punishments, depending on what each wanted or was interested in at the time. Most of the time he had no knowledge of what he was doing. I will not list each small detail one by one, such as recalling his gifts, cancelling his decisions, issuing new privileges in place of old ones, or even openly changing the wording of the ones he had given.
He had executed his father-in-law Appius Silanus and the two Julias, one the daughter of Drusus, the other the daughter of Germanicus. They were accused of a crime without any evidence and they were given no chance to defend themselves. He also executed Gnaeus Pompeius, the husband of his elder daughter, Antonia, and Lucius Silanus who was engaged to his younger daughter, Octavia. Pompey was stabbed to death while in bed with his young male lover. Silanus was forced to give up his praetorship four days before the 1st of January and then to commit suicide on the day when Claudius and Agrippina were married.
He had thirty-five senators and more than three hundred Roman knights killed with such ease, that when a centurion reported that an ex-consul had been executed according to his instructions, he replied that he had given never given the order. Despite this he confirmed the order, since his freedmen said that the soldiers had done their duty because they had hurried to avenge their emperor without waiting to be told.
Surely it is too much to believe that he himself signed the contract for the dowry in the marriage of Messalina and Silius just because the freedmen persuaded him that the marriage was really a fake, arranged so that they could transfer to another a certain danger which the omens said was threatening the emperor himself.
30. He possessed majesty and dignity of appearance, but only when he was standing still or sitting, and especially when he was lying down; for he was tall but not slender, with an attractive face, becoming white hair, and a full neck. But when he walked, his weak knees gave way under him and he had many disagreeable traits both in his lighter moments and when he was engaged in business; his laughter was unseemly and his anger still more disgusting, for he would foam at the mouth and trickle at the nose; he stammered besides and his head was very shaky at all times.
33. He was eager for food and drink at all times and in all places... He hardly ever left the dining-room until he was stuffed and soaked; then he went to sleep at once, lying on his back with his mouth open, and a feather was put down his throat to relieve his stomach... He was immoderate in his passion for women, but wholly free from unnatural vice. He was greatly devoted to gaming, even publishing a book on the art...
34. That he was of a cruel and bloodthirsty disposition was shown in matters great and small...
35. But there was nothing for which he was so notorious as timidity and suspicion...
38. He did not even keep quiet about his own stupidity, but in certain brief speeches he declared that he had purposely feigned it under Caligula, because otherwise he could not have escaped alive and attained his present station. But he convinced no one, and within a short time a book was published, the title of which was "The Elevation of Fools" and its thesis was that no one feigned folly.
39. Among other things men have marvelled at his absent-mindedness and blindness. When he had put Messalina to death, he asked shortly after taking his place at the table why the empress did not come. He caused many of those whom he had condemned to death to be summoned the very next day to consult with him or game with him, and sent a messenger to upbraid them for sleepy-heads when they delayed to appear. When he was planning his unlawful marriage with Agrippina, in every speech that he made he constantly called her his daughter and nursling, born and brought up in his arms...
Finally, in Chapters 43-46, Suetonius describes Claudius's last days and death:
The murder of Claudius
Towards the end of his life he was clearly showing that he regretted his marriage to Agrippina and his adoption of Nero. When once his freedmen praised him for his guilty verdict in a trial of a woman charged with adultery, he claimed that it was his fate that all his wives had turned out to be unfaithful, but would not go unpunished.
Soon after that Claudius had a meeting with Britannicus, where he held him tightly and urged him to grow up and hear his father’s explanation of his actions. Claudius added in Greek, "The one who wounded you will heal the wound." He declared his intention of allowing Britannicus to wear the toga of adulthood, because, although he was too young, he was still tall enough. In addition, he gave as a reason - "so that the Roman people may finally have a true Caesar."
Soon afterwards he also made his will and sealed it with all the magistrates as witnesses. However, Agrippina stopped him from going further with his plans. For her own conscience and quite a few informers were now accusing her of many crimes.
There is general agreement that Claudius was poisoned, but a lot of argument about when it happened and who poisoned him. One version is that it was his food-taster, the eunuch Halotus, during a feast with the priests in the Citadel. Another view is that Agrippina herself did it at a family dinner when she gave him poisoned mushrooms, his favourite food. There are differences in the stories of what happened afterwards.
Many say that the minute he swallowed the poison, he was unable to speak; then that he was in the greatest pain throughout the night until dawn when he died. Several writers claim that to begin with he became unconscious, then vomited up everything he had eaten. He was now poisoned again, possibly with a bowl of soup, with the excuse that he was worn out and needed food to help him recover; alternatively it was administered by injection as an enema, as if he were suffering from too much food and needed to have his stomach emptied.
His death was kept secret until everything was arranged for his successor. As if he were still ill and prayers were being said for his recovery, some actors were brought in, to keep up the pretence that he had asked to be entertained. He died on 13th of October in the consulship of Asinius Marcellus and Acilius Aviola, 64 years old and in the fourteenth year of his reign. His funeral was held with a solemn procession and he was made a god. Nero took no notice of this honour and then abolished it, but it was later re-established by Vespasian