The Life of Claudius, 1–9

Suetonius  translated by J. C. Rolfe

« About This Work | Suet. Cl. 1–9 | Suet. Cl. 10–17 | About This Work »

1The father of Claudius Caesar, Drusus, who at first had the forename Decimus and later that of Nero, was born of Livia within three months after her marriage to Augustus (for she was with child at the time) and there was a suspicion that he was begotten by his stepfather in adulterous intercourse. Certain it is that this verse at once became current:

“In three months’ time come children to the great.”

2This Drusus, while holding the offices of quaestor and praetor, was in charge of the war in Raetia and later of that in Germany. He was the first of Roman generals to sail the northern Ocean, and beyond the Rhine with prodigious labour he constructed the huge canals which to this very day are called by his name. Even after he had defeated the enemy in many battles and driven them far into the wilds of the interior, he did not cease his pursuit until the apparition of a barbarian woman of greater than human size, speaking in the Latin tongue, forbade him to push his victory further. 3For these exploits he received the honour of an ovation with the triumphal regalia; and immediately after his praetorship he became consul and resumed his campaign, but died in his summer camp, which for that reason was given the name of “Accursed.” The body was carried by the leading men of the free towns and colonies to Rome, where it was met and received by the decuries of scribes, and buried in the campus Martius. But the army reared a monument in his honour, about which the soldiers should make a ceremonial run each year thereafter on a stated day, which the cities of Gaul were to observe with prayers and sacrifices. The senate, in addition to many other honours, voted him a marble arch adorned with trophies on the Appian Way, and the surname Germanicus for himself and his descendants. 4It is the general belief that he was as eager for glory as he was democratic by nature; for in addition to victories over the enemy he greatly desired to win the “noble trophies,” often pursuing the leaders of the Germans all over the field at great personal risk; and he made no secret of his intention of restoring the old-time form of government, whenever he should have the power. 5It is because of this, I think, that some have made bold to write that he was an object of suspicion to Augustus; that the emperor recalled him from his province, and when he did not obey at once, took him off by poison. This I have mentioned, rather not to pass it by, than that I think it true or even probable; for as a matter of fact Augustus loved him so dearly while he lived that he always named him joint-heir along with his sons, as he once declared in the senate; and when he was dead, he eulogized him warmly before the people, praying the gods to make his Caesars like Drusus, and to grant him, when his time came, as glorious a death as they had given that hero. And not content with carving a laudatory inscription on his tomb in verses of his own composition, Augustus also wrote a memoir of his life in prose.

6Drusus had several children by the younger Antonia, but was survived by only three, Germanicus, Livilla, and Claudius.

2Claudius was born at Lugdunum on the Kalends of August in the consulship of Iullus Antonius and Fabius Africanus, the very day when an altar was first dedicated to Augustus in that town, and he received the name of Tiberius Claudius Drusus. Later, on the adoption of his elder brother into the Julian family, he took the surname Germanicus. He lost his father when he was still an infant, and throughout almost the whole course of his childhood and youth he suffered so severely from various obstinate disorders that the vigour of both his mind and his body was dulled, and even when he reached the proper age he was not thought capable of any public or private business. 2For a long time, even after he reached the age of independence, he was in a state of pupillage and under a guardian, of whom he himself makes complaint in a book of his, saying that he was a barbarian and a former chief of muleteers, put in charge of him for the express purpose of punishing him with all possible severity for any cause whatever. It was also because of his weak health that contrary to all precedent he wore a cloak when he presided at the gladiatorial games which he and his brother gave in honour of their father; and on the day when he assumed the gown of manhood he was taken in a litter to the Capitol about midnight without the usual escort.

3Yet he gave no slight attention to liberal studies from his earliest youth, and even published frequent specimens of his attainments in each line. But even so he could not attain any public position or inspire more favourable hopes of his future.

2His mother Antonia often called him “a monster of a man, not finished but merely begun by Dame Nature”; and if she accused anyone of dulness, she used to say that he was “a bigger fool than her son Claudius.” His grandmother Augusta always treated him with the utmost contempt, very rarely speaking to him; and when she admonished him, she did so in short, harsh letters, or through messengers. When his sister Livilla heard that he would one day be emperor, she openly and loudly prayed that the Roman people might be spared so cruel and undeserved a fortune. Finally to make it clearer what opinions, favourable and otherwise, his great uncle Augustus had of him, I have appended extracts from his own letters:

4“I have talked with Tiberius, my dear Livia, as you requested, with regard to what is to be done with your grandson Tiberius at the games of Mars. Now we are both agreed that we must decide once for all what plan we are to adopt in his case. For if he be sound and so to say complete, what reason have we for doubting that he ought to be advanced through the same grades and steps through which his brother has been advanced? 2But if we realize that he is wanting and defective in soundness of body and mind, we must not furnish the means of ridiculing both him and us to a public which is wont to scoff at and deride such things. Surely we shall always be in a stew, if we deliberate about each separate occasion and do not make up our minds in advance whether we think he can hold public offices or not. 3However, as to the matters about which you ask my present advice, I do not object to his having charge of the banquet of the priests at the games of Mars, if he will allow himself to be advised by his kinsman the son of Silvanus, so as not to do anything to make himself conspicuous or ridiculous. That he should view the games in the Circus from the Imperial box does not meet with my approval; for he will be conspicuous if exposed to full view in the front of the auditorium. I am opposed to his going to the Alban Mount or being in Rome on the days of the Latin festival; for why should he not be made prefect of the city, if he is able to attend his brother to the Mount? 4You have my views, my dear Livia, to wit that I desire that something be decided once for all about the whole matter, to save us from constantly wavering between hope and fear. Moreover, you may, if you wish, give this part of my letter to our kinswoman Antonia also to read.” Again in another letter:

5“I certainly shall invite the young Tiberius to dinner every day during your absence, to keep him from dining alone with his friends Sulpicius and Athenodorus. I do wish that he would choose more carefully and in a less scatter-brained fashion someone to imitate in his movements, bearing, and gait. The poor fellow is unlucky; for in important matters, where his mind does not wander, the nobility of his character is apparent enough.” Also in a third letter:

6“Confound me, dear Livia, if I am not surprised that your grandson Tiberius could please me with his declaiming. How in the world anyone who is so unclear in his conversation can speak with clearness and propriety when he declaims, is more than I can see.”

7There is no doubt at all what Augustus later decided, and that he left him invested with no office other than the augural priesthood, not even naming him as one of his heirs, save in the third degree and to a sixth part of his estate, among those who were all but strangers; while the legacy that he left him was not more than eight hundred thousand sesterces.

5His paternal uncle Tiberius gave him the consular regalia, when he asked for office; but when he urgently requested the actual position, Tiberius merely replied by a note in these words: “I have sent you forty gold-pieces for the Saturnalia and the Sigillaria.” Then at last Claudius abandoned all hope of advancement and gave himself up to idleness, living in obscurity now in his house and gardens in the suburbs, and sometimes at a villa in Campania; moreover from his intimacy with the lowest of men he incurred the reproach of drunkenness and gambling, in addition to his former reputation for dulness. Yet all this time, despite his conduct, he never lacked attention from individuals or respect from the public.

6The equestrian order twice chose him as their patron, to head a deputation on their behalf: once when they asked from the consuls the privilege of carrying the body of Augustus to Rome on their shoulders, and again when they offered them their congratulations on the downfall of Sejanus. They even used to rise when he appeared at the public shows and put off their cloaks. 2The senate too voted that he be made a special member of the priests of Augustus, who were usually chosen by lot; when he later lost his house by fire, that it should be rebuilt at the public expense, and that he should have the honour of giving his opinion among the consulars. This second decree was however repealed, since Tiberius urged Claudius’s infirmity as a reason, and promised that he would make the loss good through his own generosity. Yet when Tiberius died, he named Claudius only among his heirs in the third degree, to a third part of his estate, although he gave him in addition a legacy of about two million sesterces, and expressly commended him besides to the armies and to the senate and people of Rome with the rest of his kinsfolk.

7It was only under his nephew Gaius, who in the early part of his reign tried to gain popularity by every device, that he at last began his official career, holding the consulship as his colleague for two months; and it chanced that as he entered the Forum for the first time with the fasces, an eagle that was flying by lit upon his shoulder. He was also allotted a second consulship, to be held four years later, and several times he presided at the shows in place of Gaius, and was greeted by the people now with “Success to the emperor’s uncle!” and now with “All hail to the brother of Germanicus!”

8But all this did not save him from constant insults; for if he came to dinner a little after the appointed time, he took his place with difficulty and only after making the round of the dining-room. Whenever he went to sleep after dinner, which was a habit of his, he was pelted with the stones of olives and dates, and sometimes he was awakened by the jesters with a whip or cane, in pretended sport. They used also to put slippers on his hands as he lay snoring, so that when he was suddenly aroused he might rub his face with them.

9But he was exposed also to actual dangers. First in his very consulship, when he was all but deposed, because he had been somewhat slow in contracting for and setting up the statues of Nero and Drusus, the emperor’s brothers. Afterwards he was continually harassed by all kinds of accusations, brought against him by strangers or even by the members of his household. Finally, when the conspiracy of Lepidus and Gaetulicus was detected and he was sent to Germany as one of the envoys to congratulate the emperor, he was really in peril of his life, since Gaius raged and fumed because his uncle of all men had been sent to him, as if to a child in need of a guardian. So great, indeed, was his wrath that some have written that Claudius was even thrown into the river clothes and all, just as he had come. 2Moreover, from that time on he always gave his opinion in the senate last among the consulars, having the question put to him after all the rest by way of humiliation. A case involving the forgery of a will was even admitted, in which Claudius himself was one of the signers. At last he was forced to pay eight million sesterces to enter a new priesthood, which reduced him to such straitened circumstances that he was unable to meet the obligation incurred to the treasury; whereupon by edict of the prefects his property was advertised for sale to meet the deficiency, in accordance with the law regulating confiscations.

« About This Work | Suet. Cl. 1–9 | Suet. Cl. 10–17 | About This Work »