Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Deification of Claudius

Claudius, the fourth of the Julian Caesars, was one of those unhappy men who, through no fault of their own, miss their vocation. Nature made him for a scholar, and fortune made him an emperor. He had some learning, and was genuinely fond of literature; but in person and manner he was singularly awkward and ungainly. His mother had the greatest aversion to him. "A greater fool than my son Claudius," was the most unfavourable judgment that she could pass on any one. Augustus thought him unfit to hold any public office of importance; Tiberius annulled certain complimentary resolutions which the senate had passed concerning him. Caligula made him his butt. If he came a minute too late to dinner, he found his place filled up. If he fell asleep after the meal, which he commonly did, the emperor and his guests pelted him with the stones of olives and dates, or woke him up with a stroke from a cane or a whip. In the Senate he was the last of the ex-consuls to be asked his opinion. The solitary honour bestowed on him was his nomination to a priesthood, and for this he had to pay so extravagant a sum that he was reduced to poverty.

Then came a sudden change of fortune. He was in attendance at court when Caligula was assassinated. In his terror he sought to conceal himself under some curtains, but a soldier saw his legs sticking out from his hiding place, and from mere curiosity dragged him out. The poor wretch fell at his captor's knees, and was astonished to find himself saluted as emperor. Other soldiers gathered round, put him into a litter, and carried him through the streets to the camp. All who saw him thought that he was being carried off to execution; and, indeed, for some time his fate was doubtful. The Senate, supported by a few cohorts of the city soldiers, thought of re-establishing the Republic. But there was no energy, no harmony in their action, and the populace was unmistakably in favour of a despotism. Claudius had the claim of birth, and he was acknowledged without further opposition, but not till he had purchased the Praetorians with the enormous bribe of 120 per man.

I have not to tell the story of his reign. It was a dismal time for Rome, not because the Emperor was bad, but because he fell into bad hands. He was a glutton and a voluptuary, but he was not blood-thirsty. And yet, such was his weakness under the control of designing advisers and counsellors, he shed more innocent blood than rulers who were ten times more cruel. At last the end came. His wife, the younger Agrippina, had induced him to set aside his own offspring, Britannicus, in favour of her son Nero. But he showed signs of repenting of the act. "He that gave the wound can heal," he said one day to the lad. Shortly afterwards he was poisoned, according to common report, by a dish of mushrooms, handed to him by his wife.

This wretched creature, who scarcely deserved to be called a man, was added to the number of the Roman gods. The satire with which Seneca resented this foolish act of adulation is one of the most curious remains of Roman literature.

Claudius, in obedience to the decree which had made him a god, presents himself at the gate of heaven and demands entrance. The report of the door-keeper is that he is tall, lame of one leg, and always shaking his head, that it was impossible to tell of what race he was, especially whether he was a Greek or a Roman. Hercules, as the great traveller among the dwellers in heaven, is deputed to question the stranger, recognises him, and is much impressed by his claims.

A high debate follows among the gods as to whether the new claimant is to be admitted. Janus, who opens it, roundly asserts that, in his opinion, the honour had been made too common, and that, in future, no mortal should be admitted to it. Hercules pleads in his favour. Other gods take sides for or against him. Finally the motion is formally proposed: "Seeing that Claudius is of the kin of Augustus, let him be made a god, and let the thing be added to the Metamorphoses of Ovid." Hercules is very urgent in recommending him to his follow-immortals. He canvasses them all, and beseeches them to vote for him as a personal favour. He would do the same for them on another occasion. "Scratch me, and I'll scratch you." Then Augustus rises. "He had never," he said, "addressed them before, but had always been content to mind his own business, but this was a thing that he could not pass over. He must speak, seeing that the fellow was a kinsman of his own. He has filled the world with massacre," he went on, "but of this I will not speak for the present; I will dwell only on the murders with which he has polluted his own house. He slew the two Julias, one of them his niece, and one his cousin; and he slew them unheard and uncondemned. This may be the custom upon earth, but it is not our fashion in heaven. He slew a whole crowd of kinsmen, one of them so foolish that he might have been Emperor himself. Look at him. What a figure he is! Scarcely human, much less divine! Hear him speak. Can he utter three consecutive words? Who will worship such a god as this? If this be the sort of creature that you deify, man will refuse to believe that you are gods yourselves. I propose this motion: 'Seeing that this Claudius slew so many of his kindred and his wife, it is hereby commanded that he quit heaven within thirty days.' "

The Senate of the gods divided on the question, and the motion of Augustus was carried. Thereupon Hermes, the conductor of souls, was called in. He carried off the banished man to the region below, going by way of Rome. As he approached the city, Claudius saw his own funeral, and heard, with great delight, his own praises. So at last it dawned upon his slow intellect that he was really dead. As he came near to the gates of the City of the Dead, there went up a great shout, Claudius is coming!  And straightway a crowd of his victims went forth to meet him. His kinsmen were there and his wife, and nobles and freedmen, thirty senators among them, and three hundred and fifteen knights, and a crowd of common folk like the sand on the sea-shore for multitude. Claudius stood astonished at the sight. "Why, the whole place is full of them!" he cried; and then, stolidly unconscious of his having had anything to do with their presence, "And pray how did you come here?" He is carried off to be tried by Æacus, judge of the dead. Æacus hears the charge against him, declines to listen to his defence (a proceeding that astonishes the audience, but is pronounced to be but paying him in his own coin), and finds him guilty. Then his sentence is debated.

Should he take the place of one of the old offenders? Sisyphus or Tantalus might well give place to him. But no. If they were released, Claudius might himself hope for some future remission of his punishment, and that is not to be thought of. Finally Æacus condemns him to throw dice for ever out of a dice-box without a bottom. And so we leave him. It points the story to know that Claudius had actually a temple and a priesthood dedicated to him in the British colony of Camalodunum, and that this was made one of the means of oppression and extortion which exhausted the patience of the natives and led to the bloody revolt of the Iceni under Boadicea.