Freedmen were men – usually Greeks – who had come to Rome. Rich Romans employed them as secretaries, accountants and doctors. After a time, these men gained their freedom and became ‘freedmen’, but they still tended to stay on as household officials. The Imperial household was no different … except that the emperor’s freedmen ran the Roman empire, not just the family estates.
The Primary Record
If there is one thing that has come down to us from the times, it is that Claudius’s freedmen were loathed with a passion.
But it is Tacitus and Suetonius who most condemn Claudius.
And Suetonius states outright:
Wholly enslaved to freedmen and his wives, he acted, not as a princeps, but as a servant.
The Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano (1934) rejected this view of Claudius. He portrayed Claudius as an energetic, centralising ruler. For Momigliano, the freedmen were Claudius’s tools, not his masters:
The freedmen’s importance has led ancients and modern alike to suppose that the government must have fallen entirely into their hands. The falsity of this idea is obvious: the fact that Claudius organised this government is proof enough that his personality dominated it.
All modern historians agree that freedmen were VERY important in the reign of Claudius. Faced with a hostile Senate, they gave Claudius a body of administrators totally dependent upon, and therefore totally loyal to, the emperor (Barbara Levick, 1990). They ‘dominated the civil service and the palace [and] amassed considerable wealth and a say in policy’ (Matthew Bunsen, 2009).
Richard Alston (1998) sees the imperial freedmen as part of an intentional strategy to move political debate from the senate to the imperial court; he points out that it was not just freedmen whom Claudius used in this strategy – the emperor also promoted provinicials, equestrians and loyal senators such as Vitellius.
But did Claudius's freedmen become so powerful that they dominated the emperor?
Josiah Osgood (2011) thinks it ‘unlikely, really impossible’. Claudius was ‘not a totally weak-minded man’ and involved himself in the business of government much more than either Tiberius or Caligula.
‘The question thus becomes’, writes Osgood, ‘how to explain the existence of so hostile a later tradition’.
Looking at the question from the perspective of Nero’s reign, Miriam T Griffith (2002), however, tends to think that there is no smoke without fire. The complaints against Claudius’s freedmen had nothing to do with their actual jobs. And in Nero’s reign there continued to be freedmen in the government … but there was no outcry against Nero. The anger was not against freedmen-in-general, it was against CLAUDIUS’S freedmen … and the clear implication is that he gave them too much power and influence.
The fact is that your view on Claudius and his freedmen depends totally on your view of Claudius. If you think of him as a dynamic, hands-on, innovative ruler, then you find it impossible to admit that he was a pawn in the hands of his wives and freedmen. But, if you think of Claudius as a weak ruler … well you believe Suetonius.
You can read the summary-of-mentions sheet here.
Study the summary-of-mentions sheet. You MUST remember to use 'resisting reading'.
Looking at the list of reported involvements of the freedmen, first make a list of everything they did during the reign of Claudius. Then make FIVE key comments about their role and influence.
Then click the yellow pointer to compare the comments that my pupils made:
Now write an answer to the following question:
'Claudius was dominated by his freedmen.' How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?
In your answer you should:
• give a brief account of the functions and influence of Claudius's freedmen;
• discuss to what extent Claudius was dominated by his freedmen;
• show knowledge of the relevant sections of Tacitus and Suetonius;
• consider how reliable you think these sources are.