Claudius's relations with the Senate


The Primary Record

Here, for once, we really DO have access to some primary sources, and are not reliant on Tacitus and Suetonius.

In the 19th century, for example, archaeologists found a Papyrus (Berlin Papyrus BGU 611) which seems to be a record of a speech by Claudius in the senate, in which he criticises them for being too obsequious:

It ill befits the dignity of the Senate that the consul designate should repeat the phrases of the consuls word for word as his opinion, and that every one else should merely say 'I approve'

Meanwhile, the Lyon tablet (discovered in 1528) records another of his speeches – the one persuading Senators to allow the citizens of Gaul to become Senators. The speech reveals that Claudius did not know how to speak!  It is long and rambling – until at one point (as Claudius described the history of relations between Rome and Gaul) a senator shouts out:

It is time now, Tiberius Caesar Germanicus, to reveal to the senators where your speech is headed; for you have already come to the extreme limits of Gallia Narbonensis!

... but we get to the bottom of the tablet and Claudius still has yet to make a single valid point.

Nevertheless, orator or no, we thus have it from Claudius’s own mouth that he wanted the Senators to have their say in the acts of government.



Tacitus and Suetonius

Apart from the fact that you can’t believe a word they say, Tacitus and Suetonius allow the student to build a picture of the relations between emperor and senate.

Suetonius fairly much presents the picture we have already seen.  He does report that Claudius executed 35 senators ... but generally his picture is one of an emperor who attended the Senate regularly, sought its agreement for his acts of government, and extended its powers.

Tacitus, as we might expect, gives a much darker and more sinister portrayal. Claudius does consult the Senate ... on minor matters. But he holds trials in camera, executes senators who oppose him, and purges members he considers unsuitable. Yes, he does reprove the senators for excessive flattery and yes he does submit to them critical decisions such as his marriage and the succession ... but it is all a sham, and Tacitus cannot hide his scorn for the ‘sycophantic’ senators who ‘rush’ to decide what the emperor wants.  



Modern Interpretations

So – did Claudius make up with the Senate, or break up with them?

The English historian JB Bury (1930) took Claudius at face value:

Claudius set himself to restore the relations of cordiality which had subsisted between senate and Princeps under Augustus”.

Recent historians, however, tend to be more or less cynical about Claudius’s relations with the Senate.

For Vasily Rudich (1993), the problem was that the state was based on an ‘official fiction’ that the Senate was the nation’s government, with the princeps as partner – a fiction that bore no relation to the reality of an all-powerful emperor. He saw in Claudius’s relations with the senate, therefore, a mixture of kidology and force as he tried to preserve the illusion of partnership whilst getting on with the reality of rule:

Claudius managed to maintain a façade of decency in his relations with the Senate – as when he consulted it on the subject of his marriage – despite the series of persecutions.

Other modern historians agree. Michael Gagarin (2009) sees the involvement of the Senate as a ‘necessary pretence’. And Alisdair Gibson (2012) agrees; for him Claudius’s genius was that he managed to be ‘all things to all men’ – convincing the Senate about their continued importance while he convinced the army that he was their emperor.

Other modern historians do not even agree that Claudius had good relations with the Senate.
Barbara Levick (1990) – THE biographer of Claudius – believes that the accession of 'the usurper' in ad41, in direct defiance of the Senate's attempt to restore the Republic, ‘inflicted a deep wound on its authority and self-regard … Claudius’s dealings with the senate must be seen as worthy, even heroic efforts to cope with an unquenchable fire of resentment’
Catharine Edwards (2008) believes that ‘Claudius never enjoyed good relations’ with the Senate and Josiah Osgood (2011) blames Claudius himself – arguing that Claudius's lack of governmental experience or rhetorical education caused him to show an insensitivity to the feelings of the Senate which led to conflict.

Anthony Barratt (1996) would agree – he portrays a Senate seething with plots and conspiracies, and which Claudius had failed to quieten with purges and executions … until Agrippina improved Claudius’s relations with the senate.  






The following websites will help you complete the task:

You can read the summary-of-mentions sheet here.



Study the summary-of-mentions sheet.  Looking at the list of reported interactions between Claudius and the Senate, make FIVE key comments about Claudius's relations with the Senate? 

Then click the yellow pointer to compare the comments that my pupils made:

  •  Analysis of Claudius's relations with the Senate from the sources:
    • •  He certainly tried to make them think that they shared  a role in the government
    • •  He still controlled the government and continued to centralise it
    • •  He was genuinely interested in making good laws
    • •  He rejected flattery
    • •  He reduced opposition by executions and purges
    • •  He built up a party of supporters (Vipstanus, Vitellius, Eprius Marcellus, Pollio, Barea Soranus, Tarquinius).


The writers and historians who have considered this topic have suggested various theories:

  • Tacitus - Claudius manipulated a sycophantic Senate and executed any critics

  • Suetonius, Bury (1930) - Claudius genuinely tried to work with the Senate

  • Rudich (1993), Gagarin (2009), Gibson (2012) - Claudius pretended to work with the Senate

  • Levick (1990), Edwards (2008) - Claudius had poor relations with the Senate

  • Osgood (2011) - Claudius's poor political skills were to blame for the rift with the Senate

  • Barratt (1996) - even purges and executions failed to calm the senate ... until Agrippina

Judging from your own analysis of the sources, explain which you think best fits the facts?


Now write an answer to the following question:

'Claudius respected the Senate.'  How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?

In your answer you should:

•  give a brief account of Claudius's relarions with the Senate;

•  discuss whether Claudius tried to increase or decrease the power of the Senate;

•  show knowledge of the relevant sections of Tacitus and Suetonius;

•  consider how reliable you think these sources are.                                       [30]