The Life of Claudius, 10–17

Suetonius  translated by J. C. Rolfe

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10Having spent the greater part of his life under these and like circumstances, he became emperor in his fiftieth year by a remarkable freak of fortune. When the assassins of Gaius shut out the crowd under pretence that the emperor wished to be alone, Claudius was ousted with the rest and withdrew to an apartment called the Hermaeum; and a little later, in great terror at the news of the murder, he stole away to a balcony hard by and hid among the curtains which hung before the door. 2As he cowered there, a common soldier, who was prowling about at random, saw his feet, and intending to ask who he was, pulled him out and recognized him; and when Claudius fell at his feet in terror, he hailed him as emperor. Then he took him to the rest of his comrades, who were as yet in a condition of uncertainty and purposeless rage. These placed him in a litter, took turns in carrying it, since his own bearers had made off, and bore him to the Camp in a state of despair and terror, while the throng that met him pitied him, as an innocent man who was being hurried off to execution. 3Received within the rampart, he spent the night among the sentries with much less hope than confidence; for the consuls with the senate and the city cohorts had taken possession of the Forum and the Capitol, resolved on maintaining the public liberty. When he too was summoned to the House by the tribunes of the commons, to give his advice on the situation, he sent word that “he was detained by force and compulsion.” 4But the next day, since the senate was dilatory in putting through its plans because of the tiresome bickering of those who held divergent views, while the populace, who stood about the hall, called for one ruler and expressly named Claudius, he allowed the armed assembly of the soldiers to swear allegiance to him, and promised each man fifteen thousand sesterces; being the first of the Caesars who resorted to bribery to secure the fidelity of the troops.

11As soon as his power was firmly established, he considered it of foremost importance to obliterate the memory of the two days when men had thought of changing the form of government. Accordingly he made a decree that all that had been done and said during that period should be pardoned and forever forgotten; he kept his word too, save only that a few of the tribunes and centurions who had conspired against Gaius were put to death, both to make an example of them and because he knew that they had also demanded his own death. 2Then turning to the duties of family loyalty, he adopted as his most sacred and frequent oath “By Augustus.” He had divine honours voted his grandmother Livia and a chariot drawn by elephants in the procession at the Circus, like that of Augustus; also public offerings to the shades of his parents and in addition annual games in the Circus on his father’s birthday and for his mother a carriage to bear her image through the Circus and the surname of Augusta, which she had declined during her lifetime. In memory of his brother, whom he took every opportunity of honouring, he brought out a Greek comedy in the contest at Naples and awarded it the crown in accordance with the decision of the judges. 3He did not leave even Mark Antony unhonoured or without grateful mention, declaring once in a proclamation that he requested the more earnestly that the birthday of his father Drusus be celebrated because it was the same as that of his grandfather Antony. He completed the marble arch to Tiberius near Pompey’s theatre, which had been voted some time before by the senate, but left unfinished. Even in the case of Gaius, while he annulled all his acts, yet he would not allow the day of his death to be added to the festivals, although it was also the beginning of his own reign.

12But 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. He obtained from the members as a favour the privilege of bringing into the House with him the prefect of the praetorian guard and the tribunes of the soldiers, and the ratification of the judicial acts of his agents in the provinces. 2He asked the consuls for permission to hold fairs on his private estates. He often appeared as one of the advisers at cases tried before the magistrates; and when they gave games, he also arose with the rest of the audience and showed his respect by acclamations and applause. 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.

3By 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 and with dreadful execrations continued to assail the soldiers as traitors, and the senate as murderers, until finally one or two men, and later several, were brought forward upon the rostra by the magistrates and assured the people that Claudius was safe and on his way to the city.

13Yet he did not remain throughout without experience of treachery, but he was attacked by individuals, by a conspiracy, and finally by a civil war. A man of the commons was caught near his bed-chamber in the middle of the night, dagger in hand; and two members of the equestrian order were found lying in wait for him in public places, one ready to attack him with a sword-cane as he came out of the theatre, the other with a hunting knife as he was sacrificing in the temple of Mars. 2Asinius Gallus and Statilius Corvinus, grandsons of the orators Pollio and Messala, conspired to overthrow him, aided by a number of his own freedmen and slaves. The civil war was set on foot by Furius Camillus Scribonianus, governor of Dalmatia; but his rebellion was put down within five days, since the legions which had changed their allegiance were turned from their purpose by superstitious fear; for when the order was given to march to their new commander, by some providential chance the eagles could not be adorned nor the standards pulled up and moved.

14He held four consulships in addition to his original one. Of these the first two were in successive years, while the other two followed at intervals of four years each, the last for six months, the others for two; and in his third he was substituted for one of the consuls who had died, a thing which was without precedent in the case of an emperor. He administered justice most conscientiously both as consul and when out of office, even on his own anniversaries and those of his family, and sometimes even on festivals of ancient date and days of ill-omen. He did not always follow the letter of the laws, but modified their severity or lenity in many cases according to his own notions of equity and justice; for he allowed a new trial to those who had lost their cases before private judges by demanding more than the law prescribed, while, overstepping the lawful penalty, he condemned to the wild beasts those who were convicted of especially heinous crimes.

15But 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. In revising the lists of the divisions of jurors he disqualified a man who had presented himself without mentioning that he was immune because of the number of his children, on the ground that he had a passion for jury-duty. Another, who was challenged by his opponents about a suit of his own, said that it did not come before Caesar’s tribunal, but the ordinary courts; whereupon Claudius compelled him at once to bring the case before him, saying that the man would show in a case affecting his own interests how just a juror he would be in the affairs of others. 2When a woman refused to recognise her son, and the evidence on both sides was conflicting, he forced her to admit the truth by ordering her to marry the young man. Whenever one party to a suit was absent, he was prone to decide in favour of the one who was present, without considering whether his opponent had failed to appear through his own fault or from a necessary cause. On a man’s being convicted of forgery, some one cried out that his hands ought to be cut off; whereupon Claudius insisted that an executioner be summoned at once with knife and block. In a case involving citizenship a fruitless dispute arose among the advocates as to whether the defendant ought to make his appearance in the toga or in a Greek mantle, and the emperor, with the idea of showing absolute impartiality, made him change his garb several times, according as he was accused or defended. 3In one case he is credited with having rendered the following decision, which he had actually written out beforehand: “I decide in favour of those who have told the truth.” By such acts as these he so discredited himself that he was held in general and open contempt. One man in making excuses for a witness that the emperor had summoned from one of the provinces, said that he could not appear, but for a long time would give no reason; at last, after a long series of questions, he said: “He’s dead; I think the excuse is a lawful one.” Another in thanking the emperor for allowing him to defend his client added “After all, it is usual.” I myself used to hear older men say that the pleaders took such advantage of his good-nature, that they would not only call him back when he left the tribunal, but would catch hold of the fringe of his robe, and sometimes of his foot, and thus detain him. 4To prevent any surprise at this, I may add that a common Greek pettifogger let slip this remark in a hot debate: “You are both an old man and a fool.” All the world knows that a Roman knight who was tried for improper conduct towards women, but on a false charge trumped up by unscrupulous enemies, seeing common strumpets called as witnesses against him and their testimony admitted, hurled the stylus and tablets which he held in his hand into the emperor’s face with such force as to cut his cheek badly, at the same time loudly reviling his cruelty and stupidity.

16He 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. In his review of the knights he let off a young man of evil character, whose father said that he was perfectly satisfied with him, without any public censure, saying “He has a censor of his own.” Another who was notorious for corruption and adultery he merely admonished to be more restrained in his indulgence, or at any rate more circumspect, adding, “For why should I know what mistress you keep?” When he had removed the mark of censure affixed to one man’s name, yielding to the entreaties of the latter’s friends, he said: “But let the erasure be seen.” 2He not only struck from the list of jurors a man of high birth, a leading citizen of the province of Greece, because he did not know Latin, but even deprived him of the rights of citizenship; and he would not allow anyone to render an account of his life save in his own words, as well as he could, without the help of an advocate. And he degraded many, some contrary to their expectation and on the novel charge that they had left Italy without consulting him and obtaining leave of absence; one man merely because he had been companion to a king in his province, citing the case of Rabirius Postumus, who in bygone days had been tried for treason because he had followed Ptolemy to Alexandria, to recover a loan. 3When he attempted to degrade still more, he found them in most cases blameless; for owing to the great carelessness of his agents, but to his own greater shame, those whom he accused of celibacy, childlessness, or lack of means proved that they were married, or fathers, or well-to-do. In fact, one man, who was charged with having stabbed himself, stripped off his clothing and showed a body without a scar. 4Other noteworthy acts of his censorship were the following: he had a silver chariot of costly workmanship, which was offered for sale in the Sigillaria, bought and cut to pieces in his presence; in one single day he made twenty proclamations, including these two: “As the yield of the vineyards is bountiful, the wine jars should be well pitched”; and “Nothing is so effective a cure for snake-bite as the juice of the yew tree.”

17He made but one campaign and that of little importance. When the senate voted him the triumphal regalia, thinking the honour beneath the imperial dignity and desiring the glory of a legitimate triumph, he chose Britain as the best place for gaining it, a land that had been attempted by no one since the Deified Julius and was just at that time in a state of rebellion because of the refusal to return certain deserters. 2On the voyage thither from Ostia he was nearly cast away twice in furious north-westers, off Liguria and near the Stoechades islands. Therefore he made the journey from Massilia all the way to Gesoriacum by land, crossed from there, and without any battle or bloodshed received the submission of a part of the island, returned to Rome within six months after leaving the city, and celebrated a triumph of great splendour. 3To witness the sight he allowed not only the governors of the provinces to come to Rome, but even some of the exiles; and among the tokens of his victory he set a naval crown on the gable of the Palace beside the civic crown, as a sign that he had crossed and, as it were, subdued the Ocean. His wife Messalina followed his chariot in a carriage, as did also those who had won the triumphal regalia in the same war; the rest marched on foot in purple-bordered togas, except Marcus Crassus Frugi, who rode a caparisoned horse and wore a tunic embroidered with palms, because he was receiving the honour for the second time.

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