Tacitus on the reign of Claudius
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Annals, Books 11-12
11.11 - ad48: the Secular Games and the arrival of Nero on the scene
It was during this consulship, in the 800th year after the foundation of Rome and the 64th since the games were celebrated by Augustus that Claudius held the Secular Games again. I will leave out any discussion of how the two emperors came to make their calculation; in any case I have discussed this thoroughly in my account of the reign of Domitian. He also put on secular games. In fact since I was honoured being a priest of the college of 15, and also praetor during that year, I was very much involved in these games. I do not say this to boast but because traditionally the administration of the games has always been part of the duty of the priestly college of 15, and especially the magistrates of the year.
Claudius was actually present when some young nobles performed the Troy Game on horseback. Among them were Britannicus, the emperor's son, and Lucius Domitius, soon afterwards to be adopted by Claudius and appointed his successor with the name of Nero. The obviously greater support given to Domitius was seen as a sign of the future. There was a well-known story that there had been snakes acting as guards during his childhood, a fantastic story probably modelled on stories from other lands. Nero, never one to be modest about himself, used to claim that only one snake was ever seen in his room.
- Messalina persecutes Agrippina but becomes obsessed with Gaius Silius
The people’s memory of Germanicus certainly added to his popularity; he was after all his last remaining male descendant; the sympathy for his mother Agrippina was increased by the violent cruelty of Messalina towards her. Messalina was always her enemy, but was even more violent towards Agrippina at this time. She was only prevented from piling up false charges and accusations against her by a new passion which was close to madness. She had become so infatuated by Caius Silius, the most handsome of the young aristocrats, that she forced him to divorce Junia Silana, a noble woman, leaving him free for her alone. Silius knew this was both scandalous and dangerous; but to say no would have meant death and he had a small hope that they might avoid detection; equally the rewards were great. So he had the comfort of enjoying the present while waiting to see what happened. Messalina did not seem to care about secrecy; she went frequently to his house with a crowd of followers; when they went out she clung to his arm; she gave him many gifts, much wealth and honours; finally, as if handing over the empire, slaves, freedmen, and possessions all belonging to the emperor could be seen in the adulterer’s house.
[Eventually, when Messalina was indiscrete enough to publicly 'marry' Silius, Claudius did find out. Silius was put to death and Messalina committed suicide. Tacitus milks the story for all it is worth - even admitting that 'it will seem, I am aware, incredible' ... but telling it nonetheless. You can read the story in Book 11, chapters 26-38.]
12.1 - the Conference to decide whom Claudius should marry
The death of Messalina shattered the imperial household; there began a contest between the freedmen over the choice of the next wife of Claudius; he was unable to put up with being alone and unmarried; besides his wives could always keep him under their control. The women burned with ambitious. Each of them put forward their claims of noble birth, beauty and wealth, all worthy of so great a marriage. But it was Lollia Paulia, daughter of the ex-consul M.Lollius and Agrippina, the daughter of Germanicus who were serious rivals.
- Callistus supported Lollia;
- Pallas supported Agrippina.
- Narcissus backed Aelia Paetina however, of the family of the Tuberones.
Claudius constantly changed his mind depending on who he was listening to at the time.
So finally he called them all to a conference and told them to give their views and explain their reasons.
- Narcissus argued the merits of the earlier marriage and their daughter (for there was Antonia, the daughter of Claudius and Paetina); he explained the advantage not bringing any new element into his household, if he returned to his previous wife; Paetina would not view Britannicus and Octavia as a stepmother but would treat them as she would her own children.
- Callistus claimed that she not eligible because of the divorce, and would become arrogant, if taken back. His view was that it was far more sensible to bring in Lollia; she had no children of her own, would be free from any jealousy and could be a parent for her step-children.
- Pallas praised Agrippina most of all because she would bring with her the grandson of Germanicus , who deserved imperial status; this marriage, he said, would bring together two noble families united in the Julii-Claudii family. Finally he warned Claudius not to allow this woman, who had already shown she could bear children, and who was still young, to take the famous reputation of the Caesars to another household.
This argument won over Claudius, supported by the attractions of Agrippina herself. Under the excuse of their close family relationship, she frequently visited her uncle, and gained his affection so that she was preferred to the others, and, although he was not yet his wife, she could already use the power as if she was married to him. When she was certain he would marry her, she started still greater schemes; she wanted a marriage between Domitius, her son by Cn. Ahenobarbus, and Octavia, the emperor's daughter. However, this marriage could not be achieved without a crime, because Claudius had engaged Octavia to L. Silanus. He was a young man famous for other reasons; Claudius had recommended the people support him by giving him the honour of triumphal decorations and a magnificent gladiatorial show. But nothing is difficult, it seems, in the mind of an emperor, who has no judgements and no hatreds unless they are suggested and ordered by others.
12.4 - Vitellius defames Lucius Silanus
Vitellius therefore used his position as censor to hide his slave-like lying, and in any case he could see the future tyranny that was growing in Agrippina. So he joined in her plans in order to gain her favour. He brought charges against Silanus. Silanus’ sister, Junia Calvina, was a pretty girl if a little wild at times, and had been until recently Vitellius’ daughter-in-law. So Vitellius started with this. Vitellius put the worst interpretation on the affection between Silanus and his sister, which was unguarded but not incestuous. Claudius was prepared to listen to this, because his love for his daughter made him all the more likely to accept suspicions against a son-in-law. Silanus knew nothing of the plot, and had already been chosen as praetor in that year; however, he was suddenly removed from the Senate by an edict of Vitellius, though the list of Senators had been recently reviewed and the ceremony of the census (lustrum) completed. Claudius at the same time broke off the proposed marriage connection; Silanus was forced to give up his magistracy, and Ti. Eprius Marcellus took over his praetorship for the one day that was left.
|12.5 - ad49: Vitellius persuades
the Senate to agree to Claudius's marriage to Agrippina
In the consulships of Caius Pompeius and Quintus Veranius, the marriage between Claudius and Agrippina was made certain both by popular gossip and by their sexual relationship. They did not dare to celebrate the actual ceremony yet, because there was no previous example of the introduction of a brother’s daughter into an uncle's house. Besides it was incest; and if that fact was ignored, they feared that it would cause a disastrous public reaction and be damaging to the state. They stopped hesitating when Vitellius took it upon himself to solve the problem. He asked the emperor whether he would accept the wishes of the people or the authority of the senate. When Claudius replied that he was only one of the citizens, unable to challenge their united view, Vitellius told Claudius to wait in the palace. Vitellius himself went to the Senate. He claimed that he had a most important issue of state to discuss and he demanded the opportunity to speak first.
He began as follows: “The emperor’s duties are so great that they need support; they include the administration of the whole world; with support he will then be able to focus on the good of all, freed from concern for his own household. There can be nothing more proper for the peace of mind of the Emperor (who happens also to be our censor) than to take a wife. He can then share with her the successes and problems, his personal thoughts, and the upbringing of his young children. Further more he is not a man who is used to extravagance and pleasure, and has always, from his early years, conformed to the laws.”
Senators showed their agreement with this persuasive opening speech; so he continued: “Since we all agree the emperor should marry, it is necessary to choose a woman who is outstanding in nobility of birth, experience of children and blameless character. We need not take long over this; Agrippina’s reputation and family clearly beats all other rivals. She has given proof that she can bear children, and her moral qualities are equally the best. But the vital factor is that, by the will of the gods, this marriage will join a widow to an emperor, who has experience only of his own marriages and wives. You have heard from your fathers, you have seen for yourselves how married women have been snatched away for the pleasures of the emperors. This marriage is far different from that sort of immorality. Let us establish the practice of the emperor’s wife being chosen by the wishes of the people. People will say that this is a new practice – for an uncle to marry a brother’s daughter. Yet other nations find this normal and do not prevent it by law. Indeed marriages of cousins were for a long time unknown in Rome, but after a time they became frequent. Customs change to suit new circumstances, and this new arrangement will soon become a common custom.”
Agrippina comes to power
Some senators were quick to rush out of the Senate-house declaring loudly that if the emperor hesitated, they would force him to act. A mixed crowd gathered, and kept shouting that the Roman people demanded this too. Claudius delayed no more; he went to meet them in the forum to receive their congratulations; he entered the senate house and demanded a decree which declared marriages between uncles and nieces to be legal. No one else was found who wanted this sort of marriage except Alledius Severus, a Roman eques; it was said by many that he was motivated by his wish to win Agrippina’s favour.
From this point on, the state was changed completely, and everything was subject to the control of a woman; however, this was a woman who was not motivated like Messalina; she did not play with the affairs of Rome like some toy for her personal pleasure. Rome was now enslaved by a controlling and almost masculine dominance. In public Agrippina showed a serious, often arrogant face; in private, there was no sign of immorality, unless it helped her in her search for power; she had an enormous desire for money which was excused with the reason that money was a means to power.
|12.8 - the death of Silanus and
the return of Seneca
On the day of the marriage Silanus committed suicide; either he had carried on hoping that he would be allowed to live, or he chose that day to die in order to increase the hatred his death would bring on Agrippina. His sister, Calvina, was exiled from Italy. Claudius added that, according to the laws of King Tullius, sacrifices and rituals were performed by the priests in the grove of Diana; many found it amusing that Claudius revived the penalties and rites to atone for incest at that time.
However, Agrippina, to be known for acts other than evil ones, got Annaeus Seneca recalled from exile; she also arranged that he had the praetorship. She thought this would please the general public, because of his fame as a writer; she also wanted him to be Domitius’ tutor and to use his advice in her efforts to win power. For Seneca was believed to be loyal to Agrippina because of her kindnesses to him, but equally he hated Claudius because he felt he had been unfairly treated by the emperor.
12.9 - Memmius Pollio persuades the Senate to propose the betrothal
of Nero to Octavia
So they decided to delay no longer; Memmius Pollio, the consul for the next year, was bribed by huge promises to propose in the Senate-house that the senate beg Claudius to engage his daughter Octavia to Domitius - which was sensible in view of their ages, and was likely to lead to greater things. Pollio spoke to the proposal in almost the same words as Vitellius had used shortly before. So Octavia was engaged to be married, and Domitius, on top of his previous family relationship, became the emperor's prospective son-in-law, and an equal of Britannicus, through the efforts of his mother. She was helped by the cleverness of those who had accused Messalina, and who feared the vengeance of her son.
|12.22 - Agrippina in power: the fall of Lollia
Paulina, Calpurnia and Cadius Rufus
In the same consulate (ad49), Agrippina organized the prosecution of Lollia Paulina. She had always fiercely hated Lollia and had become even more of an enemy over the rivalry for the marriage with Claudius. Now she arranged for an accuser to charge her with involvement with the Chaldaean astrolgers and consulting the statue of the Clarian Apollo, about the emperor’s marriage. Claudius gave no time for the defendant, Lollia, to be heard, but spoke in the Senate-house about her family’s excellent reputation, saying that that her mother was the sister of Lucius Volusius, Cotta Messalinus was her granduncle, that she had been married to Memmius Regulus (nothing was ever said about her marriage to Gaius Caesar), and that she had plans damaging to the State, and must have the resources for her crimes taken from her. As a result he proposed that her property should be confiscated, and she herself banished from Italy. From her great wealth only five million sesterces were left to support her in exile.
Calpurnia, another noble lady was destroyed, only because Claudius had praised her beauty in some casual conversation, not out of any desire for her. Despite her anger at the woman, Agrippina did not demand the full penalty.
A tribune was sent to Lollia, to force her to commit suicide.
Cadius Rufus was condemned on a charge of extortion brought by the Bithynians.
12.25 - ad50: the
adoption of Nero and the
desolation of Britannicus; Agrippina becomes Augusta
Formal thanks were voted to the emperor by the senate; more notable was the flattery paid to Domitius. A law was passed adopting him into the Claudian family with the name of Nero. Agrippina was now granted the title of Augusta. After all this, no one was so unsympathetic as not to feel sad for the situation of Britannicus. Bit by bit Britannicus was deprived of even the services of his slaves. He treated as a sick joke the ill-timed attempts by Agrippina to play the step-mother, recognizing how false she was. They say that he was an intelligent boy, which may be true, or perhaps, in view of the dangers he experienced, people believed this reputation for intelligence without any proof of it.
|12.27: Agrippina founds Cologne;
successes in Germany
Agrippina, to display her importance to Rome’s allies, arranged for a veteran colony to be founded in the Ubian town where she was born. The settlement received its title from her name; and in fact it happened that Agrippa, her grandfather, had welcomed this tribe into the Empire, when they migrated across the Rhine.
At the same time, the Chatti caused alarm in Upper Germany when they invaded across the Rhine in order to plunder the territory. So Lucius Pomponius, the commander in that area, sent the Vangiones and Nemetes auxiliaries, with a squadron of cavalry, to cut them off; moreover, if they separated into groups, they were to surprise them and surround them. The soldiers followed general's plan with enthusiasm. The forces were split into two columns; and one, moving to the left, surrounded a group, on their way back from some recent plundering, and caught them still sleeping off the effects of their effort. The men were even more overjoyed to learn that they had freed from slavery after forty years some survivors of the disaster of Varus (AD 9).
|12.37 - Caractacus does homage
to Claudius and Agrippina; his speech
[the British chieftain Caractacus had resisted the Roman invasion of britain, but in ad51 he was captured and brought to Rome, where he paid homage.]When he was set before the emperor's judgement seat, he spoke thus: "If my self-control in success had been as great as the nobility of my family and status, I would have come to Rome as your friend and ally rather than as your prisoner; and you would not have refused to welcome a king from a line of famous ancestors and you would have made a peace treaty with a king who ruled over many peoples. My present situation, humiliating as it is to me, is glorious for you. I had horses, men weapons and riches. Is it surprising that I was unwilling to lose them? If you wish to be the master of everything, does it also follow that the world will accept their slavery? If I had been brought here, after surrendering at the first opportunity, neither my misfortune, nor your success would be famous. If you punish me, it will all be forgotten; if you save me and keep me alive, I shall be a lasting example of your mercy."
In reply to this, Claudius pardoned him, his brothers and his wife. Freed from their chains, they honoured Agrippina, (she was easy to see sitting on a platform nearby) with the same praise and thanks which they had given the Emperor. This indeed was an innovation, totally against Roman usual practice – that a woman should preside before the Roman standards. But Agrippina was displaying her position as an equal partner in the power gained by her ancestors.
|12.41 - ad51: the rise of Nero
and the isolation of Britannicus
In the fifth consulship of Tiberius Claudius with his fellow consul Sextius Cornelius Orfitus, Nero took on the toga of adulthood early, so that he might be considered ready for taking part in political activity. Claudius was willing to give in to the flattery of the senators who demanded that Nero become consul at the age of 19. They also wanted Nero, while he was consul-elect, to have pro-consular power outside Rome with and be called "Leader of the Youth of Rome. [princeps iuventutis]" The soldiers and people were also given a gift of money in Nero's name. At the circus games, held then to gain him some popularity, Britannicus and Nero rode in procession; Britannicus wore the toga [praetexta] of a boy, while Nero gained attention dressed in the dress of a triumph. The people were meant to see one of them wearing the decorations of a general, and the other dressed as a child; they would therefore make assumptions about the futures of both.
At the same time the centurions and tribunes who sympathized with Britannicus’ situation were removed, some for false reasons, others with the pretence of giving honours to them. Any freedman who was loyal and could not be bribed was got rid of with the following excuse: when meeting, Nero greeted Britannicus by that name but they greeted him as Domitius. Agrippina complained to Claudius about this suggesting it was the start of some trouble between them; she claimed that the adoption was being treated with contempt; that it was what the senators had decided; the people had ordered it. She said that if the malicious teachers who were so hostile were not stopped, there would be disaster for the state. Claudius, angered by these claims as if they were crimes, had all the best of Britannicus’ tutors either exiled or executed and placed him under the guardianship of others provided by his stepmother.
|12.42: Agrippina promotes
Burrus; her growing status
Even so Agrippina did not dare to make a play for supreme power, if Lusius Geta and Rufius Crispinus were not removed from the command of the praetorian cohorts; she believed that they still remembered Messalina and were loyal to her children’s cause. Agrippina, therefore, constantly argued that the cohorts were split by the rivalry between the two, and that, if there was one commander, their discipline would be all the stricter; so Burrus Afranius was given the command. He had a fine reputation as a soldier, but he was fully aware as to whom he owed his position.
Agrippina also added to her own importance and status; she entered the Capitol in a carpentum; because this honour was by ancient custom only allowed for priests and sacred statues, it increased the reverence for the woman. She is, even now, the only example of the daughter of an emperor, who was also the sister, wife and mother of emperors. About this time, her chief supporter, Vitellius, who, despite his old age, still had the greatest influence was brought up on a charge by the senator Junius Lupus (so uncertain is the position of power). The charge was treason and having a desire to be emperor himself. Claudius would have believed these charges, if Agrippina’s threats, rather than her prayers, had not changed his mind. Instead he condemned the accuser as an outlaw (to be refused fire and water). Vitellius had wanted no more than this.
|12.58 - ad53: Nero marries
Octavia and is
brought to the attention of the public
In the consulship of Didius Junius and Quintus Haterius, Nero at the age of 16 married Octavia, Claudius’ daughter. In order to gain a reputation for knowledge and rhetorical skill, he pleaded the case of the people of Ilium, describing eloquently the origins of Rome from Troy and how Aeneas began the line of the Julian family, including other ancient stories, not far short of fantasy; however, he was successful in freeing the people of Ilium from public duties. In another speech, he gained for Bononia , a colony recently ruined by fire, a gift of 10 million sesterces. The people of Rhodes were given back their freedom which often has been taken away or given back, depending on whether they help us in wars or cause trouble by rebellion at home. Apamea, devastated by an earthquake, freed from paying taxes for 5 years.
|12.59: Agrippina and the gardens
The scheming of Agrippina, however, was pushing Claudius into acts of the most cruel kind. She destroyed Statilius Taurus, who was famous for his wealth, because she wanted his gardens. She had Tarquinius Priscus bring a charge against him. He had been a subordinate officer when Taurus was governor in Africa; when they came back to Rome, he accused him of extortion, but added charges dealing in magic and superstitious practices. Taurus, not wanting to put up with an undeserved dishonour from a lying accuser, committed suicide before the Senate brought in a verdict. Tarquinius was however expelled from the Senate, which the senators did, despite the efforts of Agrippina, because of their hatred of the accuser.
|12.64 - ad54: Agrippina's influence begins to wane; she attacks
In the consulship of Marcus Asinius and Manius Acilius people realized that things were about to change for the worse because of frequent omens. The soldiers' standards and tents were set on fire by lightening from the sky. A swarm of bees settled on the top of the Capitol; there were reports of children being born who were half-man and half-beast, and a pig born with the claws of a hawk. People considered it a bad omen that the numbers of every magistracy were reduced; a quaestor, an aedile, a tribune, a praetor and consul all died within a few months of each other.
But most obvious was Agrippina’s panic. She was particularly alarmed by what Claudius said once when drunk - that he was destined to suffer the crimes of his wives and then to punish them; she decided to act and to do it quickly.
First she ruined Domitia Lepida for purely feminine reasons. Lepida was the daughter of the younger Antonia, as the grandniece of Augustus, the second cousin of Agrippina, and sister of her husband Domitius Ahenobarbus, and so believed herself to be the equal of Agrippina in status. They were virtually equal in beauty, youth and wealth. Both were immoral, notorious and vicious; they rivalled each other in crime as much as in the prosperity provided for them by fortune. The bitterest struggle was over who should have the most influence with Nero - his aunt or his mother. Lepida was winning over his young mind by flattery and extravagant gifts; on the other hand, Agrippina, who could give her son an empire but could not tolerate him being emperor, was harsh and menacing.
|12.65 - Narcissus defends
Lepida was charged with trying to end the life of the Emperor’s wife by magic and with disturbing the peace of Italy by too little control of her bands of slaves in Calabria. She was sentenced to death, despite the strong opposition of Narcissus.
Narcissus had become more suspicious of Agrippina’s intentions. Rumour was that he said to his closest friends, “My own ruin is inevitable whether Britannicus or Nero becomes emperor; but I owe so much to Claudius that I would give my own life for him. Messalina and Silius had been condemned; now again there are equal reasons for accusation, if Nero becomes emperor. If Britannicus were to be Claudius’ successor, there is nothing for the emperor to fear. But the plans of the stepmother aim at overthrowing the whole imperial house, resulting in a much greater disaster than if I had kept silent about the immorality of Messalina, his previous wife. As things stand, disgrace is not difficult to find with Pallas as her lover; so no one can have any doubts that she considers her reputation, her decency and even her own body, everything, cheaper than power." He was always saying this sort of thing, and he would embrace Britannicus, praying that he would reach maturity as early as possible; he would stretch out his hands, first to the gods, then to Britannicus himself, with the prayer that when he grew up, he would banish his father's enemies and take vengeance on the murderers of his mother, Messalina.
|12.66 - the story of
the murder of Claudius
With so much worry and concern, Narcissus became ill; he went to Sinuessa to recover his strength with its gentle climate and healing waters.
Then, Agrippina who had for a while decided on murder, seized on the opportunity this offered; she had the helpers she needed; however, she asked advice on the type of poison to use: if it acted too quickly and suddenly the crime would be betrayed; if she chose a slow and lingering poison, Claudius, near death, might realize the treachery and revive his love for his son. What she wanted was some unusual poison which might affect his mind while delaying his death. She chose a skilled practitioner in such things called Locusta; she had been recently condemned on a charge of poisoning, but held for a time as a useful tool for those in power. Through the skills of this woman Agrippina acquired a poison; Halotus, one of the eunuchs, would administer it. His normal duty was to bring in and taste the food.
Soon every detail of the event was so well known that writers of the period say that the poison was placed on a very tasty dish of mushrooms. The drug did not immediately take effect, whether through Claudius’ natural laziness or because he was drunk. At the same time an emptying of his bowels appeared to have helped him recover. Therefore, Agrippina was now terrified; however, since the outcome of failure was feared, she had to ignore the what people might think of her, and turned for help to the doctor Xenophon, whose participation in the plot had already been secured by Agrippina. He, as if helping him to vomit, is believed to have put a feather covered in a quick-acting poison down his throat. He was well aware that the greatest of crimes begin in danger but are completed with greater rewards.
Meanwhile the senate was summoned and prayers were offered for the safety of the emperor by the consuls and priests, even while this lifeless body was being wrapped in cloths and bandages. All the while the arrangements were being made for the safe succession of Nero. First of all Agrippina, as if overcome with grief and needing comfort, held Britannicus in embrace, declaring he was the very image of his father; in this and other ways, she kept him from leaving the room. She kept there also Antonia and Octavia, his sisters. She had all the entrances and exits guarded. She put out frequent bulletins that Claudius was getting better, so that the soldiers were kept in good spirits and she could wait for the right moment according to the advice of the Chaldaean astrologers.