Study Guide

Final Study Guide

The Final exam — Tuesday 17th December – will include:

  • Course quiz: questions on Roman history, literature, culture (30 questions)
  • Commentary: identify and comment on literary passages and/or art object (answer 3 out of choice of 5)
  • Essay (answer 1 essay question out of choice of 3)

Click here for the pdf of the study guide: FINAL STUDY GUIDE cl102 worldofrome Fall 2019

The study guide includes all of the questions that can appear in the course quiz, and all of the objects that could appear in the commentary section. If you have any questions about the final, or how to prepare for it, be in touch with your teaching fellows or myself.


Lecture 22: After the Julio-Claudians. Envoi.

Lecture 22, December 5th 2019 

Suetonius (Life of Galba 1, 2): The race of the Caesars ended with Nero. Nero was succeeded by Galba, who was related in no degree to the house of the Caesars, although unquestionably of noble origin and of an old and powerful family; for he always added to the inscriptions on his statues that he was the great-grandson of Quintus Catulus Capitolinus, and when he became emperor he even displayed a family tree in his hall in which he carried back his ancestry on his father’s side to Jupiter and on his mother’s to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

After the Julio-Claudian Emperors

69 CE: “Year of the Four Emperors”

Galba 8 June 68 CE – 15 Jan. 69 CE 
Otho 15 Jan. 69 CE – 16 April 69 CE
Vitellius 17 April 69 CE – 20 Dec. 69 CE
Vespasian took up power 21 Dec. 69 CE 

Flavians (69 – 96 CE)

Vespasian 69 – 79 CE
Titus 79 – 81 CE 
Domitian 81 – 96 CE

The Flavians
(69 – 96 CE)

Tacitus (Histories 4.1): “The death of Vitellius was rather the end of war than the beginning of peace.”

VESPASIAN (r. 69 – 79 CE)

  • T. Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian): an experienced general sent by Nero to crush Jewish War (66-70 CE); Vespasian’s troops killed Vitellius Dec. 20 69 CE. 
  • 60 years old when declared princeps by the senate. He had had a solid career: praetor under Caligula, legionary legate in conquest of Britain, consul 51 CE, proconsul of Africa in 61 CE.
  • Groomed his son, Titus, for succession. Vespasian and Titus held consulships together in 70, 72, 74, 75, 76, 77, and 79 CE; both held the censorship in 73-74 CE. Titus was included in the tribunician and proconsular powers of the emperor. 
  • Vespasian immediately deified at his death in 79 CE.

Suetonius (Life of Vespasian 4): Vespasian was chosen by Nero for the task [Jewish War, 66-70 CE], both as a man of tried energy and as one not to be feared because of the obscurity of his family and name.

Suetonius (Life of Vespasian 23): As death drew near, Vespasian said: “Woe’s me. I think I’m turning into a god.”

Marble Portrait of Vespasian (67-79 CE), Musei Capitolini. Image: Musei Capitolini. A rejection of the idealism of Julio-Claudian portraiture, and a return to Republican verism. Flavian portraiture displays the squat and square proportion of these Emperors. 

Suetonius (Life of Vespasian 20): He was well built, with strong, sturdy limbs, and the expression of one who was straining. Apropos of which a witty fellow, when Vespasian asked him to make a joke about him too, replied rather cleverly: “I will, when you have finished  relieving yourself [i.e. taking a shit].” 

TITUS (r. 79 – 81 CE)

  • Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Titus): b. 39 CE, son of Emperor Vespasian. Raised at court alongside Claudius’ son, Britannicus. Military postings in Germania, Britain, Judaea. 
  • Assumed leadership in the Jewish War in 69 CE. Titus took Jerusalem in 70 CE, sacking and burning the citym destroying the Second Temple, the holiest site in Judaism. Fortress of Massada held out until 73 CE, when the rebels committed mass suicide. Many Jews were sold into slavery or fled Judaea in the Jewish Diaspora. 
  • From 71 CE, Titus became sole commander of the praetorian guard, therefore his father’s bodyguard. 
  • In 79 CE ruled as emperor, but lived on a short while longer (till 81 CE). 
  • 79 CE: Mt. Vesuvius erupted (see lecture 9).
  • 81 CE: Titus dies under mysterious circumstances (Suet. Titus 10; Dom. 2). Titus was deified after his death (Dom. 2).

Head Titus Glyptothek Munich 338.jpg

Colossal head of Titus (r. 79-81 CE). Height of the full statue: 3.20m. Munich Glyptothek. Image: Wikimedia

The Flavian Amphitheatre (=”Colosseum”), 72-80 CE

  • built on the site of the lake on the former grounds of the Domus Aurea
  • known as “Colosseum” due to its proximity to Nero’s Colossus
  • designed for spectacular entertainments: animal hunts, prison executions (damnatio ad bestias), gladiatorial fighting, naval battles. 
  • 80 CE: Dedication of the Flavian Amphitheatre under Emperor Titus – 100 day inaugural games. 
  • structurally complex: 617ft on long axis, 512ft on cross axis, 159ft in height; arena floor = 282ft x 177ft 
  • facade = 4 storeys of travertine marble; first 3 storeys with 80 arches in an arcade; 
  • 1st floor: Tuscan columns, 2nd floor: Ionic, 3rd floor: Corinthian 
  • skeleton made of locally sourced travertine marble, but structure only possible becuase of concrete
  • network of tunnels and passages allowed 45,000 spectators 
  • intricate substructure below the arena floor
  • contemporary images on coins and the Tomb of the Haterii (see below)

Related imageThe Flavian Amphitheatre as it appears today. Constructed between 72-80 CE, dedicated by Titus in 80 CE. 

Reconstruction_3D_Domus_Aurea_Nero_Golden_House_5The Flavian Amphitheatre reclaimed space formerly taken up by the man-made lake, part of Nero’s Domus Aurea (see lecture 21). 

In 80 CE, the Flavian Amphitheatre (= the “Colosseum”) was inaugurated under Titus. A bronze coin (80 CE, RIC2.1 184) shows the spectators inside. Image: British Museum.

Tomb of the Haterii (early 2nd c. CE), via Labicana. Built by a family of builders, these reliefs depict building during the Flavian period (a crane operated by slaves, powered by a wheel), and the Colosseum. There appear to be statues in the arches. Left image: Musei Vaticani. Right image: Dr. Sophie Hay via twitter. 

A leopard attacks a criminal in the arena. Roman mosaic, 3rd c. CE. Archaeological Museum of Tunisia. Image: Wikimedia

Martial (De Spectaculis 1): Let barbarous Memphis speak no more of the wonder of her pyramids, nor Assyrian toil boast of Babylon; nor let the soft Ionians be extolled for Trivia’s temple; let the altar of many horns say naught of Delos; nor let the Carians exalt to the skies with extravagant praises the Mausoleum poised in empty air. All labor yields to Caesar’s Amphitheatre. Fame shall tell of one work in the place of all.

Statues of the Deified Vespasian and Titus, c. 95 CE 

Portraits of deified Vespasian and Titus Misenum c. 95 CEStatues of the deified Vespasian and Titus (c. 95 CE), discovered at the Sacellum of the Augustales, Misenum. Museo Archeologico dei Camp Flegrei, Baia. Height of each (including base) = 7.5ft (2.3m). Image: Gareth Harney via twitter. 

Sacellum of Augustales
Statues of the deified Vespasian and Titus (c. 95 CE), in situ at the Sacellum of the Augustales, Misenum. Image: Gareth Harney via twitter. 

DOMITIAN (r. 81-96 CE)

  • Titus Flavius Domitianus (Domitian): b. 51 CE. While he held the consulship and was member of important priestly colleges, he did not have the famed military history of his elder brother or father. 
  • September 14th 81 CE: senate conferred full imperial powers on Domitian.
  • 83 and 87 CE: conspiracies against Domitian. 
  • 89 CE: L. Antonius Saturninus, legate of Upper Germany, rebels and names self emperor, accompanied by two legions and some Germans. 
  • 93 CE: bloody persecution of senators, expulsion of philosophers from Rome and Italy, proceedings against Jews and Christians. 
  • September 18th 96 CE: Domitian is stabbed to death by a conspiracy which included his wife, Domitia, two praetorian prefects, and senators, including the senator, M. Cocceius Nerva, already chosen to be next emperor…
  • Domitian suffers a damnatio memoriae. The literary tradition (esp. Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, Cassius Dio) is extremely hostile to his memory. 

Suetonius (Life of Domitian 17): Concerning the nature of the plot and the manner of his death, this is about all that became known. As the conspirators were deliberating when and how to attack him, whether at the bath or at dinner, Stephanus, Domitilla’s steward, at the time under accusation for embezzlement, offered his aid and counsel. To avoid suspicion, he wrapped up his left arm in woollen bandages for some days, pretending that he had injured it, and concealed in them a dagger. Then pretending to betray a conspiracy and for that reason being given an audience, he stabbed the emperor in the groin as he was reading a paper which the assassin handed him, and stood in a state of amazement.

Portrait bust of Emperor Domitian, ca. 90 CE. Ancient Rome, from Italy. Parian marble; H- 23 7:16 in. (59.5 cm); W- 15 7:8 in. (40.3). The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (1990.30).jpg

Portrait bust of Emperor Domitian (c. 90 CE). The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio. Although Domitian was bald – the satirist, Juvenal, called him a “bald Nero” (Sat. 4.38) – he is here depicted with a full head of hair. Image: Metropolitan Museum

Fragments of a colossal statue of Domitian (81-96 CE) which originally stood outside his temple at Ephesus. It may have been destroyed as part of his damnatio memoriae after his assassination. The temple was rededicated to Vespasian. Image: Dr. Sophie Hay.

C37pl5GUYAAbp3eEquestrian statue of Domitian, c. 95 CE, with his face later replaced by that of his successor, Nerva (r. 96-98 CE). discovered at the Sacellum of the Augustales, Misenum. Museo Archeologico dei Camp Flegrei, Baia. Image: Michel Lara on twitter.  

Domitian’s face replaced by that of his successor, Nerva (r. 96-98 CE). discovered at the Sacellum of the Augustales, Misenum. Museo Archeologico dei Camp Flegrei, Baia. Image: Michel Lara on twitter. 

The Arch of Titus


Arch of Titus (after 81 CE). One of Domitian’s first public works, a triumphal arch celebrating his brother, Titus, after his premature death (81 CE). The passageway is decorated with two panel reliefs depicting the joint triumph of Vespasian and Titus in 71 CE for the Jewish War (66-70 CE). Image: Wikimedia.

Arch of Titus 81 CERelief of the spoils from Jerusalem, Arch of Titus, Rome, after 81 CE. Image: Dnalor 01, CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia. In the Jewish War (66-70 CE), the Romans enslaved 97,000 people (Joshel 2010: 67).

djir1y3ueaizplt (1)The Center for Israel Studies Arch of Titus Project has developed a colour reconstruction of the triumph relief. Image: Center for Israel Studies. Watch a Youtube video.

The Arch of Titus — antiquity recalled?

Modern quotations of the ancient Arch of Titus, around the world. 1) Arc de Triomphe in Paris (1806), 2) Washington Square Arch in New York (1892), 3) United States National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge (1917), 4) India Gate in New Delhi (1921). 

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The Pantheon 


Photograph of the outside of the Pantheon, a large temple dedicated to all of the gods.Image: “Maros” (CC BY 2.5) via Wikimedia.

  • among the best preserved and influential of all Roman buildings 
  • preserved because it was converted into a church by the early 7th c. CE 
  • Agrippa, whose name appears in the inscription over the porch (M AGIRPPA L F COS TERTIUM FECIT = “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time”), had constructed an original structure here in 27 BCE
  • but the building which we now see was largely constructed later in the reign of Trajan (r. 98-117 CE)
  • prior dating to the reign of Hadrian (117-138 CE) was previously standard in scholarship based on the discovery of Roman brick stamps dated to 125 CE
  • examination of the rotunda shows that much of the building was already standing when Hadrian’s transitional block and porch were built

1280px-Dome_of_Pantheon_Rome.JPGThe Dome inside the Pantheon with its oculus, 27 feet across.  Image: Wikimedia. Like the Colosseum, this feat of engineering would be impossible without concrete

Back to the beginning…

  • Rome’s traditional foundation date: 21st April 753 BCE
  • Regal period at Rome: 753 – 509 BCE
  • Roman Republic: 509 BCE – 27 BCE
  • Roman Empire: 27 BCE – 476 CE
  • “Fall” of Rome: 
    • 330 CE: capital moved Rome to Constantinople (Nova Roma
    • 395 CE: split into West + East
    • 476 CE: Western portion falls
    • 1453 CE: East falls to Ottoman Turks

Rome’s 1st king: Romulus, 753 – c. 717 BCE  
Rome’s 1st emperor: Augustus (considered calling self Romulus), 27 BCE – 14 CE
Rome’s last emperor: Romulus Augustulus (‘Romulus little Augustus’), 460 CE – after 476 CE

Quotations of the ancient

Ralph Waldo Emerson Quotation and Originality (1875): “By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs.”



Monticello, Virginia, primary home of Thomas Jefferson, who began designing the complex at the age of 26. 1769-1809. Image:


University of Virginia Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason.” Heavily inspired by the Pantheon. 1822-1826. Image: “Patrickneil” (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia.

1024px-Jefferson_Memorial_At_Dusk_1The Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC designed by John Russell Pepe. 1939-1943. Statue of Jefferson added in 1947. Image: Wikimedia


On leaving antiquity

decline and fall.jpg

Spines of English historian Edward Gibbon’s History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), which shows the steady crumbling of a column over time. Spans period of reign of Trajan (98 CE) to Constantinople (1453). Image: @TheHiddenWorId.

Are We Romans?

Sarah Bond: “The trend of comparing the US to Rome is nothing new. What is clear is that the ‘Fall of Rome’ and the fall of the Roman Republic are most often used as a device to tease out perceived flaws in American society.”

+ her ongoing list of articles that compare various things about American society to the quote unquote “fall of Rome.”

Robert Needham Cust (1899: 17): “…and when gradually, though not yet thirty years of age, I found myself helping to rule Millions in their hundreds of towns and thousands of villages, the lines of Virgil came back to me:

‘Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento;
Hae tibi erunt artes; pacisque imponere morem,
Parcere subjectis, et debellare superbos.’ [=Aeneid 6.851-853]

Sarah Ruden’s translation of 6.851-853 (p141):

“But Romans, don’t forget that world dominion
Is your great craft: peace, and then peaceful customs;
Sparing the conquered, striking down the haughty.”

Phiroze Vasunia (2013: 240):Robert Needham Cust wrote in his autobiography that he was reminded of lines from Book Six of the Aeneid when he was sent to India as a young man and entrusted with the task of governing millions. And one finds references to Virgil and his works in articles written by Europeans (and some by Indians) for the learned journals of the Asiatic societies, in the official reports of colonial administrators, and in memoirs of army officers, civil servants, and the like.”

Edith Hall, “How Enoch Powell got Vergil Wrong” (20 April 2013): “45 Years ago today, classical literature was put to its most shameful use in the history of British oratory, when Enoch Powell MP quoted lines from the Aeneid to incite racial hatred. At a Conservative Party meeting in Birmingham, he emotively described the alleged plight of the white working-class in the face of immigration, and said that it was bound to end in violence: ‘like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.’” bella, horrida bella / et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno’ (6.86-7). [The words are in fact spoken by the Apollo via Sibyl to Aeneas — she predicts that there will be a second Trojan War in Italy]

9/11 monument — New York City

Caroline Alexander, New York Times April 6th 2011: “But one feature of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum seems above reproach: a quotation from Virgil’s “Aeneid” that will be inscribed on a wall in front of the victims’ remains. The memorial inscription, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” is an eloquent translation of the original Latin of “The Aeneid” — Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo (9.447). The impulse to turn to time-hallowed texts, like the classics or the Bible, is itself time-hallowed. In the face of powerful emotions, our own words may seem hollow and inadequate, while the confirmation that people in the past felt as we now feel holds solace. And the language of poets and great thinkers can be in itself ennobling. But not in this case. Anyone troubling to take even a cursory glance at the quotation’s context will find the choice offers neither instruction nor solace…The immediate context of the quotation is a night ambush of the Rutulian enemy camp by two Trojan warriors, Nisus and Euryalus, whose mutual love is described in terms of classical homoerotic convention and whose deaths represent one of the epic’s famously sentimental set pieces. Falling on the sleeping enemy, the two hack away with their swords, until the ground reeks with “warm black gore.” Stripping the murdered soldiers of their armor, the two are in turn ambushed by a returning Rutulian cavalry troop. As each Trojan tries to save his companion, both are killed, brutally and graphically…”

Further Reading: 

  • Sarah Bond’s many excellent pieces at Forbes and now Hyperallergic
  • Phiroze Vasunia (2013) The Classics and Colonial India. Available online via BU library.
  • Peter Onuf and Nicholas Cole (2011) Thomas Jefferson, the classical world, and early America. Available online via BU library.
  • Carl Richard (1994) The founders and the classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. [Mugar JA84.U5 R48 1994]


Lecture 21: Nero’s Iconosphere.

Lecture 21, Tuesday December 3rd 2019

Julio-Claudian Emperors

Augustus 27 BCE – 14 CE
Tiberius 14 – 37 CE
Gaius ‘Caligula’ 37 – 41 CE
Claudius 41 – 54 CE
Nero 54 – 68 CE

Nero’s Iconosphere

Nero the actor

Suetonius (Life of Nero 20): Having gained some knowledge of music in addition to the rest of his early education, as soon as he became emperor he sent for Terpnus, the greatest master of the cithara [= stringed concert instrument] in those days, and after listening to him sing after dinner for many successive days until late at night, he little by little began to practise himself, neglecting none of the exercises which artists of that kind are in the habit of following, to preserve or strengthen their voices. For he used to lie upon his back and hold a leaden plate on his chest, purge himself by the syringe and by vomiting, and deny himself fruits and all foods injurious to the voice. Finally encouraged by his progress, although his voice was weak and husky, he began to long to appear on the stage, and every now and then in the presence of his intimate friends he would quote a Greek proverb meaning “Hidden music counts for nothing.” And he made his début at Naples, where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number which he had begun, even though the theatre was shaken by a sudden earthquake shock.

60 CE: the Neronia

Suetonius (Life of Nero 12): Nero was the first to establish at Rome a quinquennial [= every 4 years] contest in three parts, after the Greek way, i.e. music, gymnastics, and riding. He called these games the Neronia.

🔥 The Fire of 64 CE 🔥

Suetonius (Life of Nero 38): On the pretence of the annoyance at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, Nero openly set fire to the city… For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. At that time, besides an immense number of regular houses, the houses of ancient leaders were burned, still adorned with trophies of victory, and the temples of the gods vowed and dedicated by the kings and later in the Punic and Gallic wars, and  whatever else interesting and noteworthy had survived from antiquity. Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in “the beauty of the flames,” he sang the whole of the Capture of Troy in his regular stage costume. To gain from this calamity all the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost he allowed no one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals.

Dio Cassius (62.18.1): While the whole population was in this state of mind and many, crazed by the disaster, were leaping into the very flames, Nero ascended to the roof of the palace, from which there was the best general view of the greater part of the conflagration, and assuming the cithara player’s garb, he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself, though to the enemies of the spectators it was the Capture of Rome.

Elite woman with a gilded cithara from the villa of P. Fannius Synistor (c. 50–40 BCE). Image: Metropolitan Museum. The English word ‘guitar’ comes from this word ‘cithara.’


Octavia attributed to Seneca (831-836): [Nero] Next the city’s buildings must fall to flames set by me. Fire, ruined homes, sordid poverty, cruel starvation along with grief must crush this criminal populace.The masses have grown unruly, spoiled by the blessings of my reign. They cannot appreciate my policy of mercy (CLEMENTIA) or feel grateful or endure peace.

Tacitus (Ann. 15.38): There followed a disaster, whether due to chance or to the malice of the Nero is uncertain — different writers give different versions — but graver and more terrible than any other which has befallen this city by the ravages of fire.

Shakespeare, Henry VI (I. iv. 94–5):
TALBOT: …and like thee, Nero,
Play on the lute, beholding the towns burn

Nero and the Christians

Tacitus (Ann. 15.44): But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus [= Jesus Christ c. 4 BCE – c. 26 CE], the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius [14 – 37 CE], by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast  numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

Siemiradski Fackeln.jpgHenryk Siemiradzki, “Nero’s Torches” (1876). Image: Wikimedia.

Christianity at Rome 

  • Roman state initially took little interest in Christianity
  • Jesus Christ, Hebrew preacher who founded the religion of Christianity, ultimately tried for sedition by the Sanhedrin, who handed him over to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. Roman soldiers crucified Jesus at Golgotha.
  • After Jesus’ death, Paul the Apostle, a Roman citizen, sent letters to Christian communities living throughout the Roman Empire.
  • Nero’s reign is the first recorded time Christians are punished by the Roman state — Christians executed for allegedly starting the Great Fire of 64 CE, although Tacitus (see above) assumes it is because they are disliked at Rome.
  • from mid 2nd c. CE: Christian martyrs:
    • Polycarp (Martyrdom of Polycarp): letter which describes the trial and death by burning of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.
    • Perpetua (Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions): 1st person prison diary of the young mother and martyr, Perpetua. Roman order and identity is represented by Perpetua’s father, and the Christian identity by Perpetua’s behavior in prison, during her trial, and finally during her execution in Carthage’s amphitheatre for games in celebration of Emperor Septimius Severus’ birthday (7 March 203 CE).
  • 313 CE: so-called “Edict of Milan” under Emperor Constantine (r. 306–337 CE): freedom of worship for all, including Christians; restitution of property to lost by the Churches since the persecution of 303 CE.
  • By the end of the 4th c. CE Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Matthew 22:15-22: Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.  So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, *“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

*Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ = “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”

Modern depictions of Matthew 22: 1) Titian, “The Tribute Money” (1516), 2) Peter Paul Rubens, “Caesar’s Coin” (1612-1614).

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Martyrdom of Polycarp (9.2-3): “Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say: ‘Away with the Atheists.'” But Polycarp, with a stern countenance looked on all the crowd of lawless heathens in the arena, and waving his hand at them, he groaned and looked up to heaven and said : ”Away with the Atheists.”  But when the proconsul pressed him and said: “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ,” Polycarp said: “For 86 years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

An early depiction of “Roman” Jesus 

The Hinton St Mary Mosaic 01The Hinton St. Mary Mosaic (4th c. CE). Possibly one of the oldest surviving depictions of Jesus Christ, from a Roman villa in Dorset (UK). A figure is portrayed as a clean-shaven, young man wearing a tunic and cloak. Behind his head are the letters chi (X) and rho (P), the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ – Christos. Part of a larger mosaic, also containing traditional mythological elements. These include the Greek hero Bellerophon riding Pegasus and slaying the monstrous Chimera. Image: British Museum. More information on the mosaic from BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects. 

The Aftermath of the Fire (64 CE)

Mary Beard (TLS, “A don’s life” Sept. 19th 2006): “Professional classicists have a habit of pouring cold water on popular facts about the ancient world.  Take something that everyone thinks they know about Greece and Rome, and the finger-wagging scholar loves nothing better than saying it’s wrong. My own curmudgeonly assault a few posts ago on ‘Et tu Brute‘ was a case in point. It must rank as one of the most famous phrases in the Latin language – and guess what, smirks the don, it was written by Shakespeare. Well, for a change, the good news is that Nero did fiddle while Rome burned. It just depends what you mean by fiddle. Most people, I fear, take ‘fiddling’ in the wrong sense.”

Modern depictions of the “Great Fire” of 64 CE. 1) Robert Hubert, “The Fire of Rome” (1785). 2) A painting by J.M.W. Turner which has been interpreted as depicting the Great Fire: “?The Burning of Rome” (c.1834–40). 3) Alfons Mucha, “Nero watching the burning of Rome” (1887).

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The Golden House (Domus Aurea)

Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 163-164: “After the disastrous fire, a huge building program was set in motion to replace the burned-out sections of the city…To house the many people who had lost their homes, many new high-rise tenements were built following safer standards, and urbanization was widespread. The overcrowding was satirized by the Roman poet Juvenal (Satire 3), who deplored the noisy, dirty streets and uncouth people. While the poor endured such conditions, Nero himself immediately seized upon the opportunity to build a sumptuous country house for himself in the center of Rome, in a large area that had been cleared by the fire. As it was extraordinarly lavish, and in part gilded, it is called the Golden House of Nero, or the Domus Aurea. [p164] The emperor hired the best architects of the day, Severus and Celer, to construct the palace, the surrounding gardens, and the artificial lake.”

Plan of the Domus Aurea. Image:


Photograph of the octagonal room in Nero’s Domus Aurea. When Trajan (reigned 98-117 CE) built his Baths over it, it was no longer seen in Rome. Image:

Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 164: “A dome with a central opening, known as an oculus, covered the center of the octagonal room…In addition to the light that came through the hole in the roof, there were slits that let light into the radiating rooms. This was an unprecedented and ingenious design that hid the light source from the viewer.”

Digital reconstruction of the Domus Aurea

Domus Aurea reopened and now using Virtual Reality 

Suetonius (Life of Nero 31): Nero made a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called the House of Passage [=Domus Transitoria], but when it was burned shortly after its completion and rebuilt, the Golden House. Its size and splendour will be sufficiently indicated by the following details. Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long. There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of‑pearl. There were dining-rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved night and day, in imitation of the motion of the celestial bodies”.  He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water. When the building was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being

Nero’s “Colossus”

  • designed by Zenodorus, the Greek
  • erected in the vestibule of the Domus Aurea
  • after death of Nero (68 CE), modified by Emperor Vespasian into a statue of the Sun (Suet. Vesp. 18)
  • Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) moved the Colossus c. 128 CE next to the Flavian Amphitheatre (hence = “Colosseum”)
  • Emperor Commodus (r. 177-192 CE) converted the statue to himself as Hercules (Hist. Aug. Com. 17); after his death, converted back to Sun.

Modern reconstruction of Nero’s “Colossus” by National Geographic (Sept. 2014). Image: Wikimedia.

Domus Aurea and the Fourth Style

For a refresher on the Pompeian wall painting styles, go back to lecture 9.

Fourth Style Baroque

combines aspects of previous styles, architectural details; eclectic, variety. The appearance of framed pictures.

c. 20 – end of 1st c. CE [many examples from 79 CE] Nero’s Golden House, Domus Aurea (between 64 and 68 CE) Rome
House of the Vettii (after 62 CE) Pompeii VI 15, 1
House of D. Octavius Quartio (later 1st c. CE) Pompeii II 2, 2-5

Example of Fourth Style painting, Ixion Room, House of the Vetii, Pompeii, 1st century C.E.House of the Vettii (Pompeii VI 15,1), after 62 CE. Ixion Room. Image: Kahn Academy.

Domus Aurea



Photographs of what remains of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Top: high vaulted ceilings with delicate painted patterns. Bottom: the effect of time on the extant parts of the Domus Aurea. Images: 

grottesque-closeup-thumb.jpgFourth Style: Birds, animals, and marine creatures in the Domus Aurea c. 64-68 CE. Ceiling paint. Image:

Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 167: “The paintings of the Golden House of Nero were discovered in the late 15th century. A number of famous Renaissance painters, such as Raphael and Giovanni da Udine, crawled in under the ceiling, which was then well underground, and were inspired to paint similar decorative motifs in some of their own works. Because the cave-like excavations in the Golden House were called grottoes, the figures on the wall were name grotteschi from which comes our word “grotesque“.


Image of the graffito of Giovanni da Udine (signed as “ZVAN DA VDENE FIRLANO”) from the cryptoporticus in the Domus Aurea. Image:

 Nero as Sun god?

  • 66 CE: Tiridates arrives in Rome, where he is crowned king of Armenia, and hails Nero as Mithras.

Dio Cassius (63.4): At daybreak Nero, wearing the triumphal garb and accompanied by the senate and the praetorians, entered the Forum. He ascended the rostra and seated himself upon a chair of state. Next Tiridates [of Armenia] and his suite passed between lines of heavy-armed troops drawn up on either side, took their stand close to the rostra, and bowed to the emperor as they had done before.  These were his words: “Master, I am the descendant of Arsaces, brother of the kings Vologaesus and Pacorus, and your slave. And I have come to you, my god, to worship you as I do Mithras. The destiny you spin for me shall be mine; for you are my Fortune and my Fate.”

The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero (2017: 202): “For those who followed the religion of Zoroaster, the sun was the eye of Mithras, and Mithras was associated with, if not identified as, the sun…And that must have been how Romans interpreted the ceremony as well, especially since the second part of the spectacle took place in the Theater of Pompey, which had been gilded for the occasion. The theater was overhung by an awning of purple on which was depicted a gigantic figure of Nero as the sun riding his chariot in the sky surrounded by stars resplendent with gold.”

Death of Nero and accession of Galba

Galba: The governor of Hispania Tarraconensis at the time of the rebellion of Julius Vindex in Gaul (67/68 CE), he seized the throne following Nero’s suicide (June 9, 68 CE).

Suetonius (Life of Nero 49): At last, while his companions one and all urged him to save himself as soon as possible from the indignities that threatened him, he bade them dig a grave in his presence, proportioned to the size of his own person, and at the same time bring water and wood for presently disposing of his body. As each of these things was done, he wept and said again and again: “What an artist the world is losing!” Qualis artifex pereo!


Lecture 20: Post-Aug Empire: Claudius (41-54 CE), Nero (54-68 CE).

Lecture 20, Thursday November 20th 2019

Julio-Claudian Emperors

Augustus 27 BCE – 14 CE
Tiberius 14 – 37 CE
Gaius ‘Caligula’ 37 – 41 CE
Claudius 41 – 54 CE
Nero 54 – 68 CE

Julio-Claudian family tree

Augustus family tree[Printable pdf of Julio-Claudian family tree]

Reign of Claudius (41-54 CE) 

Suetonius (Life of Claudius 10): 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.  As he cowered there, a common soldier, who was prowling about at random, saw his feet, 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.

What kind of man is Claudius? What kind of ruler?

  • b. 10 BCE at Lugdunum, Gaul (modern Lyon, France) — the emperor Caracalla (r. 211-217 CE) was also born there
  • Claudius = nephew of Tiberius, uncle of Caligula, younger brother of Germanicus
  • equestrian status until 37 CE when he was suffect consul with his nephew, emperor Caligula; consul again in 42, 43, 47, 51 CE
  • by end of reign, had received 27 salutations as imperator — more than any other emperor until Constantine I
  • revived office of censor in 47-48 CE (his colleague was L. Vitellius, father of a future emperor, r. 69 CE for 8 months) — censorship had not been held since 22 BCE

Claims of physical and mental infirmity 

Suetonius (Life of Claudius 3): His mother Antonia often called him “a monster of a man, not finished but merely begun by 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 [=Livia] always treated him with the utmost contempt, very rarely speaking to him; and when she criticized him, she did so in short, harsh letters, or through messengers.

Dio Cassius (60.2.1-2): In mental ability he was by no means inferior, as his faculties had been in constant training (in fact, he had actually written some historical treatises); but he was sickly in body, so that his head and hands shook slightly.  Because of this his voice was also faltering, and he did not himself read all the measures that he introduced before the senate, but would give them to the quaestor to read, though at first, at least, he was generally present. Whatever he did read himself, he usually delivered sitting down.

Suetonius (Life of Claudius 38): He did not even keep quiet about his own stupidity, but in certain brief speeches he declared that he had purposely feigned it under Gaius, because otherwise he could not have escaped alive and attained his present station. But he convinced no one, and  within a short time a book was published, the title of which was “The Elevation of Fools” and its thesis, that no one feigned folly.

Dio Cassius (60.2.4-5): From a child he had been reared a constant prey to illness and great terror, and for that reason had feigned a stupidity greater than was really the case (a fact that he himself admitted in the senate).

Claudius’ life of mind

  • wrote a history of Rome in over 40 Books; Etruscan history in 20 Books (in Greek); history of Carthage in 8 Books (in Greek) (Suet. Claudius 42)
  • he was encouraged in his writing of history by Livy (Suet. Claudius 41)

 Tacitus (Annales 11.13-14): After making the discovery that not even the Greek alphabet was begun and completed in the same instant, he invented and gave to the world some additional Latin characters. [14] The Egyptians, in their animal-pictures, were the first people to represent thought by symbols: these, the earliest documents of human history, are visible today, impressed upon stone. They describe themselves also as the inventors of the alphabet: from Egypt, they consider, the Phoenicians, who were predominant at sea, imported the knowledge into Greece, and gained the credit of discovering what they had borrowed. For the tradition runs that it was Cadmus, arriving with a Phoenician fleet, who taught the art to the still uncivilized Greek peoples. Others relate that Cecrops of Athens (or Linus of Thebes) and, in the Trojan era, Palamedes of Argos, invented sixteen letters, the rest being added later by different authors, particularly Simonides. In Italy the Etruscans learned the lesson from the Corinthian Demaratus, the Aborigines from Evander the Arcadian; and in form the Latin characters are identical with those of the earliest Greeks. But, in our case too, the original number was small, and additions were made subsequently: a precedent for Claudius, who appended three more letters, which were used during his reign, then fell out of use, but still meet the eye on the official bronzes fixed in the forums and temples.

Suetonius (Life of Claudius 41): he invented three new letters and added them to the alphabet, maintaining that they were greatly needed; he published a book on their theory when he was still in private life, and when he became emperor had no difficulty in bringing about their general use. These characters may still be seen in numerous books, in the state registers, and in inscriptions on public buildings.

Claudius’ letters:

  1. An inverted digamma, A Claudian letter, for the consonantal u, i.e. English ‘w’ (A Claudian letterVLGVS = VVLGVS);
  2. an “antisigma,” , equivalent to the Greek Ψ (sound: ps) and the sound bs — no known extant examples (and some uncertainty about what it really looked like: alternative theory = ↃϹ )
  3. the Greek sign for the spiritus asperA Claudian letter, to express the y‑sound, between u and i, heard in such words as maximus (maxumus) (= MAXA Claudian letterMVS).

49 CE cippi.png

Pomerium boundary stone, Rome. 49 CE. Found in 1913 near the Via Flaminia. One of 8 or 9 discovered examples of boundary-stones set up by Claudius when he expanded Rome’s pomerium during his censorship 47-48 CE. The last line reads: ampliaℲit terminaℲitq[ue]. = ampliauit terminauitque, “he enlarged it and made a boundary” (Illustrated Introduction to Latin Epigraphy, 118).

Imperial innovations

  • his domestic policy aimed at remedying the damage done by Caligula and stressing the importance of the cult of the imperial family
    • at his accession, Claudius deified Livia (Suet. Claudius 11, Dio Cassius 60.5.2); Tiberius had not wanted to deify his mother…
    • abolished taxes introduced by Caligula (Dio Cassius 60.4.1)
    • brought back those exiled by Caligula, including Caligula’s sisters Agrippina and Julia Livilla (Dio Cassius 60.4.1)
    • he took an active role in overseeing court cases and finances (Dio Cassius 60.4.4)
    • he destroyed all of the poisons found in Caligula’s residence; and the two books named Gladius (‘The Sword’) and Pugio (‘The Dagger’) belonging to Caligula’s freedman, Protogenes (Dio Cassius 60.4.5) which contained names of those marked out for judicial murder
  • but he did not allow the senate to officially condemn the memory (damnatio memoriae) of Caligula (Dio Cassius 60.4.5)

Dio Cassius (60.4.5-6): And yet, when the senate desired to dishonour Caligula, he personally prevented the passage of the measure, but on his own responsibility caused all his predecessor’s images to disappear by night.  [6] Hence the name of Caligula does not occur in the list of emperors whom we mention in our oaths and prayers any more than does that of Tiberius; and yet neither one of them suffered disgraced by official decree.

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1) Marble statue of Claudius with attributes of Jupiter, c. 50 CE. Over life sized. Musei Vaticani. Image: Sergey Sosnovskiy (CC BY-SA 4.0). 2) Close-up of Claudius as Jupiter. Image: GJCL Classical Art History. 3) Bronze head of Claudius, c. 50 CE, found at the River Alde at Rendham, Suffolk, perhaps originally from Colchester. British Museum, London. Image: Carole Raddato (CC-BY-SA-2.0) via Wikimedia. 4) Claudius conquers Britain, marble sculptural relief from Aphrodisias. Image:

  • reorganized the central administration of empire into various departments for administrative tasks
  • provinces:
    • 42 CE: Mauretania organized into two procuratorial provinces (Caesariensis and Tingitana);
    • 43 CE: conquest of Britain begun; with imperial cult at Camulodunum (modern Colchester)
    • 43 CE: Lycia + Pamphylia become a new imperial province
    • 43 CE: Anatolia integrated into the Empire
    • 46 CE: Thrace becomes a procuratorial province
    • by 54 CE Claudius’ eastern governers had allowed Parthia to control Greater Armenia, blow to Roman prestige
  • undertook construction and public works
    • project to drain Lake Fucinus, large lake in central Italy: Claudius employed 30, 000 men over 11 years to execute Caesar’s plan to drain the lake; emissarium of 3½ miles excavated through a mountain ridge to carry the lake waters to the River Liris (Suet. Iul. 44; Claudius 20, 32)
    • built aqueducts (Suet. Claudius 20)
    • the port of Ostia (Suet. Claudius 20); completed by Nero

coin of nero showing the harbour at Ostia.jpg

Copper alloy coin of Nero (reverse), mid. 1st c. CE. Bird’s eye view of the harbour of Ostia begun by Claudius in 42 CE, completed by Nero. At the top, a statue of Neptune on a base or on top of a lighthouse; at the bottom, reclining figure of River Tiber, holding rudder in right hand and dolphin in left hand; to left, crescent-shaped pier with portico of fourteen pillars, terminating with figure sacrificing at altar before building; to right, crescent-shaped row of fourteen breakwaters or slips terminating with figure seated on rock; within the central harbour, seven ships (three left, one centre, three right). The inscription reads: AUGUSTI POROST = Portus Ostiensis Augustus, “Augustan harbour of Ostia”. The term “Augustan” here refers to Nero, not to Augustus himself. Image: British Museum.

The advancement of provincial senators 


The Lugdunum tablet, or Lyon tablet (CIL XIII, 1668), discovered in 16th century near Lyon, France. Bronze tablet inscribed with a speech given by Claudius in 48 CE. Lugdunum, Gaul, was the city of Claudius’ birth and it also housed an imperial cult centre (see the image of the Lugdunum altar to Rome and Augustus on a coin in lecture 19 — this altar was consecrated in the year of Claudius’ birth, 10 BCE). Claudius’ speech made before the Roman senate argued that citizens from northern and central Gaul be allowed to become senators. The bronze tablet reflects the words which Claudius wanted his Gallic audience to hear. The historian Tacitus (Ann. 11.23-25) gives us his own version. This is another example of an extant inscription relating a historical event which was described by Tacitus, like the Senatus Consultum de Pisone patre. These points of contact allow us to analyze Tacitus as a historical source. Claudius’ speech shows his concern for the interest of provincial elites; his antiquarianism; and his literary/historical debt to Livy. Image: EDCS.

Tacitus (Ann. 11.24): “In my own ancestors, the eldest of whom, Clausus, a Sabine by extraction, was made simultaneously a citizen and the head of a patrician house, I find encouragement to employ  the same policy in my administration, by transferring hither all true excellence, let it be found where it will. For I am not unaware that the Julii came to us from Alba, the Coruncanii from Camerium, the Porcii from Tusculum; that — not to scrutinize antiquity — members were drafted into the senate from Etruria, from Lucania, from the whole of Italy; and that finally Italy itself was extended to the Alps, in order that not individuals merely but countries and nationalities should form one body under the name of Romans…”

The influence of women and freedmen…

Dio Cassius (60.2.4): It was not these infirmities,  however, that caused the deterioration of Claudius so much as it was the freedmen and the women with whom he associated; for he, more conspicuously than any of his peers, was ruled by slaves and by women.

Claudius’ freedmen:

  • Narcissus: freedman secretary of correspondence to Claudius. Acquired 400 million sesterces and great political influence. Power weakened during the Messalina affair of 48 CE.
  • Gaius Julius Callistus: an influential freedman who took part in the conspiracy to assassinate Caligula in 41 CE; in charge of petitions under Claudius.
  • Marcus Antonius Pallas: freedman of Claudius’ mother, Antonia, and financial secretary under Claudius. Wealth, success, arrogance made him unpopular. Devoted to Agrippina (sister of Caligula), and rumoured to be her lover, he successfully championed her as Claudius’ new wife after downfall of Messalina. Under Pallas’ influence, Claudius promoted Agrippina’s son, future emperor Nero, ahead of his bio son, Britannicus. After his influenced waned, he was put to death by Nero in 62 CE.

The Messalina Affair (48 CE) — the marriage to Gaius Silius

  • Valeria Messalina = Claudius’ 3rd wife (married in 38 or 39 CE), great-granddaughter on both sides of Octavia (Aug.’s sister) and Mark Antony. Her children with Claudius: Octavia (b. 40 CE), Britannicus (b. 41 CE).
  • during the height of her power she arranged the destruction or exile of a number of prominent elite individuals including Caligula’s sister, Julia Livilla, and Seneca 
  • 48 CE: Claudius’ wife Messalina “married” a consul-designate named Gaius Silius (attempt to replace Claudius as emperor). Tacitus gives an extended account of the public wedding celebrations and Messalina’s downfall.
  • Messalina and Silius were both executed — as well as 8 of their associates (Suet. Claud. 26, 39; Tac. Ann. 11.28-38; Dio 60(61).31.5)
  • her children were both later murdered by Nero: Britannicus (55 CE), Octavia (then Nero’s wife, 62 CE).
  • She was denied the title of Augusta (Dio Cassius 60.12.5), and suffered damnatio memoriae (Tac. Ann. 11.38.3; Varner 2004: 96)

Tacitus (Ann. 11.31-32): But Messalina had never given voluptuousness a freer rein. Autumn was at the full, and she was celebrating a mimic vintage through the grounds of the house. Presses were being trodden, vats flowed; while, beside them, naked women were bounding like Bacchanals excited by sacrifice or delirium. She herself was there with dishevelled tresses and waving a thyrsus; at her side, Gaius Silius with an ivy crown, wearing the buskins and tossing his head, while around him rose the din of a wanton chorus. The tale runs that Vettius Valens, in some freak of humour, clambered into a tall tree, and to the question, “What did he spy?” answered: “A frightful storm over Ostia” — whether something of the kind was actually taking shape, or a chance-dropped word developed into a prophecy. [32] In the meanwhile, not rumour only but messengers were hurrying in from all quarters, charged with the news that Claudius knew all and was on the way, hot for revenge.

Juvenal* (Satire 6.115-132): Then take a look at the rivals of the gods, listen to what Claudius put up with. When his wife [=Messalina] realised her husband was asleep, she would leave, with no more than a single maid as her escort. Preferring a mat to her bedroom in the Palace, she had the nerve to put on a nighttime hood, the whore-empress (meretrix Augusta). Like that, with a blonde wig hiding her black hair, she went inside a brothel reeking of ancient blankets to an empty cubicle—her very own. Then she stood there, naked and for sale, with her nipples gilded, under the trade name of “She-Wolf,” (lupa) putting on display the belly you came from, noble-born Britannicus. She welcomed her customers seductively as they came in and asked for their money. Later, when the pimp was already dismissing his girls, she left reluctantly, waiting till the last possible moment to shut her cubicle, still burning with her clitoris inflamed and stiff. She went away, exhausted by the men but not yet satisfied, and, a disgusting creature, with her cheeks filthy, dirty from the smoke of the lamp, she took back to the emperor’s couch the stench of the brothel.

*Juvenal = c.55 or 60–c.130 CE, Roman verse satirist.

Tacitus (Ann. 11.38.3): His forgetfulness was assisted by the senate, which decreed that the name and statues of the empress should be removed from private and public places.

Varner (2004: 96): “As a direct result of her damnatio memoriae and the virulence of the feeling against her, Messalina is the first empress for whom there is extant physical evidence for the deliberate mutilation of her images.”

Agrippina (14-59 CE); married her uncle Claudius in 49 CE

  • b. Nov. 15 CE, she married Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus in 28 CE; Nero was born from this marriage in 37 CE
  • Agrippina was banished by Caligula (39 CE) because of a conspiracy (Dio Cassius 59.22); recalled by Claudius, she married again (Passienus Crispus)
  • 49 CE: Agrippina married her uncle Claudius; she used her influence to recall Seneca from exile 
  • 50 CE: made Claudius adopt Nero, privileging him over his own biological son, Britannicus
  • she founded the Colonia Agrippinensium (modern Cologne: Tac. Ann. 12.25-27)
  • after Claudius’ death in 54 CE, she dominated politics; but she was killed by Nero in 59 CE

Imperial reliefs from the Sebasteion of Aphrodisias (modern Turkey). The Sebasteion, excavated 1979-1981, = a grandiose temple complex dedicated to Aphrodite and the Julio-Claudian emperors. Its construction stretched over two generations, from c. 20 to 60 CE, from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero. Left: Claudius with Agrippina and a personification of the Roman Senate or people (?); and right: Agrippina crowning her son Nero with a laurel wreath. Image, left: Egesto Sani (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0via Flickr; right: Carlos Delgado (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia.

Suetonius (Life of Claudius 44): That Claudius was poisoned is the general belief, but when it was done and by whom is disputed. Some say that it was his taster, the eunuch Halotus, as he was banqueting with the priests;  others that at a family dinner Agrippina served the drug to him with her own hand in mushrooms, a dish of which he was extravagantly fond. Reports also differ as to what followed. Many say that as soon as he swallowed the poison he became speechless, and after suffering excruciating pain all night, died just before dawn. Some say that he first fell into a stupor, then vomited up the whole contents of his overloaded stomach, and was given a second dose, perhaps in a gruel, under pretence that he must be refreshed with food after his exhaustion, or administered in a syringe, as if he were suffering from a surfeit and required relief by that form of evacuation as well.

Dio Cassius (61.35.2, 4): Agrippina and Nero pretended to grieve for the man whom they had killed, and elevated to heaven him whom they had carried out on a litter from the banquet…[4] Nero, too, has left us a remark not unworthy of record. He declared mushrooms to be the food of the gods, since Claudius by means of the mushroom had become a god.

Reign of Nero (54-68 CE)

  • after death of Claudius 54 CE, Claudius is deified by senatorial decree, Agrippina becomes priestess of Divine Claudius, as Livia had been of Divine Augustus (Dio 61.35.2)
  • Nero (nearly 17 yo) was named emperor by the praetorian guard; senate bestowed tribunicia potestas + imperium proconsulare
  • at Nero’s accession, he read speeches written for him by Seneca to the praetorians and to the senate (Dio Cassius 61.3.1)
  • Nero was consul in 55, 57, 58, 60, and 68 CE
  • Agrippina wanted to be in control — Agrippina is reported to have had a sexual relationship with her son in order to control him (Tac. Ann. 14.2.1, Dio 61.11.3)
  • 55 CE: Nero’s brother Britannicus died (poisoned by Nero, acc. to Tac. Ann. 13.15-17 and Suet. Nero 33)
  • 59 CE: Nero had his mother, Agrippina, killed (Tac. Ann. 14.1-9)

Killing Agrippina (59 CE)

Tacitus (Ann. 14.3, 5): Nero began to avoid private meetings with his mother; when she left for her gardens or the estates at Tusculum and Antium, he commended her intention of resting; finally, convinced that, wherever she might be kept, she was still an burden,he decided to kill her, debating only whether by poison, the dagger, or some other form of violence…Anicetus the freedman pointed out that it was possible to construct a ship, part of which could be artificially detached, well out at sea, and throw the unsuspecting passenger overboard:— “Nowhere had accident such scope as on salt water; and, if the lady should be cut off by shipwreck, who so captious as to read murder into the delinquency of wind and wave? The sovereign, naturally, would assign the deceased a temple and the other displays of filial piety.” …[5] . Suddenly the signal was given: the canopy above them, which had been heavily weighted with lead, dropped, and Crepereius was crushed and killed on the spot. Agrippina and Acerronia were saved by the height of the couch-sides, which, as it happened, were too solid to give way under the impact. Nor did the break-up of the vessel follow: for confusion was universal, and even the men accessory to the plot were impeded by the large numbers of the ignorant. The crew then decided to throw their weight on one side and so capsize the ship; but, even on their own part, agreement came too slowly for a sudden emergency, and a counter-effort by others allowed the victims a gentler fall into the waves. Acerronia, however, incautious enough to raise the cry that she was Agrippina, and to demand aid for the emperor’s mother, was despatched with poles, oars, and every nautical weapon that came to hand. Agrippina, silent and so not generally recognised, though she received one wound in the shoulder, swam until she was met by a few fishing-smacks, and so reached the Lucrine lake, whence she was carried into her own villa.

Tacitus (Ann. 14.8): The centurion was drawing his sword to make an end, when she gave her womb to the blow. “Strike here,”* she exclaimed, and was despatched with repeated wounds.

*”Strike here!” = in Seneca’s Oedipus (1036-1039) Jocasta (mother/wife of Oedipus) kills herself by stabbing her womb.

440px-Nero_Glyptothek_Munich_321.jpgPortrait of Nero from the Munich Glyptothek. Image: public domain via Wikimedia. Paul Zanker (2008: 76): “In his last years, Nero increasingly saw himself as an artist of rival talent. This subjective view comes across strongly in his final portrait type. Unlike his predecessors, Nero is not depicted with idealized features and a Classical hairstyle but rather with his own full, rather fleshy face and a hairstyle that could only have been made with a curling iron.”

Paper topics

Paper 2 topics

Answer one of the following questions:

— “It cost so much to found the Roman nation” (Aeneid 1.33). What, according to Vergil’s epic, are the costs of empire?

— Discuss the depiction of power and tyranny in Seneca’s Thyestes. 

— Discuss the significance of the father in Vergil’s Aeneid and Seneca’s Thyestes. 

Go back to the paper 1 prompts for tips for writing.

Further instructions:

  • Your second paper is due 10th Dec.
  • This paper must be 5-7 pages in length and will make up 20% of your grade.
  • Format all papers double-spaced with Times New Roman, 12-point font, 1” margins at top and bottom, 1” margins on sides.
  • Papers must be printed and handed in (not emailed) on the stated date to your Teaching Fellow at the beginning of the lecture.
  • All papers MUST include references to primary sources discussed in this course (in lecture and/or in section).

Lecture 19: Seneca Thyestes.

Lecture 19, Tuesday November 19th 2019


Double herm of Seneca and Socrates (3rd c. CE) in the Antikensammlung Berlin. In this picture, the view is of Seneca. The identifications are based on inscriptions: Seneca in Latin, and Socrates in Greek. Image: Wikimedia.

Seneca the younger (4 BCE — 65 CE)

  • L. Annaeus Seneca born in Spain at Corduba; of equestrian wealth
  • his father was Seneca the elder (c. 55 BCE – c. 40 CE), Latin rhetorical theorist and historian; Seneca’s the younger’s nephew, Lucan (39 – 65 CE), wrote an epic poem, the Bellum Civile (“Civil War”) on the conflict of Julius Caesar and the senate
  • as a young man he studied philosophy with the Stoic Attalus of Pergamum (Ep. 108.3) and Papirius Fabianus (Ep. 100.12), a rhetorical theorist who was close to a Stoic-Pythagorean school with ascetic tendencies + interest in natural science
  • c. 26 CE: Seneca is thought to have spent some time in Egypt while his aunt’s husband (Gaius Galerius) was prefect there (16 – 31 CE); he returned to Rome in 31 CE, having survived a shipwreck in which his uncle died
  • 31 CE: Seneca began career in law courts + politics (Ep. 49.2); his aunt helped him attain the quaestorship (Dialogue 12.19.2)
  • the emperor Caligula (37 – 41 CE) hated Seneca personally (Dio Cassius 59.19.7) and hated his oratorical style (Suet. Gaius. 53.2: “Caligula hated a polished and elegant style that he used to say that Seneca, who was very popular then, composed ‘mere school exercises’ and that he was ‘sand without lime'”)

founded by Zeno of Citium (4th/3rd c. BCE)

  • what is god?:
    • ratio/λόγος = reason: Diog. Laert. 44B
    • intelligent designing divine fire 🔥: Aetius 46A
  • do the gods care about mankind?:
    • YES!!: Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods (2.3): “the gods care about the fortunes of mankind.”
  • what is the universe made of?:
    • plenum (“fullness”), facilitated by pneuma (“tensility”): “The Stoics think that the universe is a plenum. Like Aristotle, they reject the existence of empty space or void.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • what is the goal of life?:
    • living in agreement with nature (Arius Didymus 63A, 63B)
  • should we fear death?:
    • NO: Seneca, Ep. 45: death is non-existence so we have already experienced it (in pre-birth) and haven’t suffered. So don’t worry about it!

Stoicism has entered the modern popular consciousness. Left: Seneca’s ‘On the Shortness of Life’ (De Brevitate Vitae) in the Penguin Books “Great Ideas” series. Right: The Daily Stoic Journal by Ryan Holiday + Stephen Hanselman of

Seneca and the Politics of Empire…

Dio Cassius (59.19.7-8): Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who was superior in wisdom to all the Romans of his day and to many others as well, came near being destroyed, though he had neither done any wrong nor had the appearance of doing so, but merely because he pleaded a case well in the senate while the emperor was present. [8] Caligula ordered him to be put to death, but afterwards let him off because he believed the statement of one of his female lovers, to the effect that Seneca had consumption in an advanced stage and would die soon.

  • 41 CE: under the emperor Claudius (41 – 54 CE), Seneca was exiled to Corsica for alleged adultery with Julia Livilla, a sister of Caligula; the charge against him was made by Claudius’ wife, Messalina (Dio Cassius 60.8.4-5)

Dio Cassius (60.8.4-5): The acts I have named, now, were the acts of Claudius himself, and they were praised by everybody; but certain other things were done at this time of quite a different nature by his freedmen and by his wife Messalina[5] Messalina became enraged at her niece Julia Livilla because she neither paid her honour nor flattered her; and she was also jealous because  the girl was extremely beautiful and was often alone with Claudius. Accordingly, she secured her banishment by trumping up various charges against her, including that of adultery (for which Seneca was also exiled), and not long afterward even arranged her death.

  • Seneca stayed in exile till 49 CE (after death of Messalina), when he was recalled under the influence of Agrippina (the younger, Claudius’ niece and now wife; Seneca would later be accused of being her lover — Tac. Ann. 13.42.5, Dio Cassius 61.10.1), made praetor, made tutor of the future emperor Nero (12yo)Tac. Ann. 12.8
  • Seneca drew up a program of ‘clemency’ (clementia) for the young emperor (Tac. Ann. 13.11); Seneca’s On Clemency (De Clementia) tried to make Nero embrace this philosophical program
  • Seneca augmented his already large fortune during this period via a combination of business savvy and gifts from emperor, attracting envy and hatred (Tac. Ann. 13.42; 14.52)

Suetonius (Life of Nero 7): When Nero was twelve years old he was adopted by Claudius and consigned to the training of Seneca, who was then already a senator. They say that on the following night Seneca dreamed that he was teaching Caligula, and Nero soon proved the dream prophetic by revealing the cruelty of his disposition at the earliest possible opportunity.

Tacitus (Annales 13.11): There followed, in fact, a display of leniency towards Plautius Lateranus [see Tac. Ann. 11.36], demoted from his rank as senator for adultery with Messalina, but now restored to the senate by the emperor Nero, who pledged himself to clemency (clementia) in a series of speeches, which Seneca, either to attest the exalted qualities of his teaching or to advertise his ingenuity, kept presenting to the public by the lips of the sovereign.

Seneca (De Clementia 1.1): I have determined to write a book upon clemency, Nero Caesar, in order that I may as it were serve as a mirror to you, and let you see yourself arriving at the greatest of all pleasures. For although the true enjoyment of good deeds consists in the performance of them, and virtues have no adequate reward beyond themselves, still it is worth your while to consider and investigate a good conscience from every point of view, and afterwards to cast your eyes upon this enormous mass of mankind — quarrelsome, factious, and passionate as they are…

Losing control of Nero…

  • Seneca and the praetorian commander Afranius Burrus controlled the behaviour of Nero and his mother Agrippina in the early part of the Nero’s reign, beginning in 54 CE (Tac. Ann. 13.2)
  • Seneca was suffect consul (for 6 months) in 56 or 55 CE (Griffin 1976: 73-74)

Tacitus (Annales 13.2): “The tendency, in fact, was towards murder, had not Afranius Burrus and Seneca intervened.”

Seneca’s works

A. J. Boyle (2017: xvii): “The prose works are infused to a greater or lesser extent with Stoic ideas concerning fate, god, virtue, wisdom, reason, endurance, self-sufficiency, and true friendship, and are filled with condemnation of the world of wealth and power (to which Seneca belonged) and contempt for the fear of death. Central to their conception of the world is the Stoic belief in divine reason/ratio as ‘the governing principle of the rational, living and providentially ordained universe,’ in which ‘only the Stoic sage (sapiens)…can achieve virtue…and live the truly happy life.’ (Williams 2003: 4) They cover a considerable period of time — from the 30s CE to Seneca’s death. Among the earliest to be written was the Consolatio ad Marciam, composed under Caligula (37-41 CE); among the lasat were Naturales Quaestiones and Epistulae Morales, written during the years of Seneca’s ‘retirement’ (62-5 CE).”

  • tragedies (verse): 10 plays are attributed to Seneca, 8 of which are considered genuine: Hercules, Trojan Women, Phoenician Women, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes. The 2 which are (probably) not by Seneca: Hercules Oetaeus (twice as long as most Senecan plays); Octavia (Seneca appears in it as a character + events after his death are described)
  • the chronology of Seneca’s tragedies is not known for certain, but based on style Thyestes is considered to be one of the last (Boyle 2017: xix)

Were Seneca’s plays performed on stage?

A. J. Boyle (2017: xl): “It is not known and may never be known whether Seneca’s plays were performed on stage or otherwise during their author’s life. But it is certainly the case that they were and are performable: they have been and are performed.”

Seneca’s Thyestes

Themes: hunger and satiety, power and powerlessness, anger and revenge, tyranny, brotherly conflict, paranoia and suspicion, ancestral bloodguilt, fatherhood and paternity, perverse pietas.

  • Ghost of Tantalus: dead grandfather of Atreus + Thyestes. He had served his own son, Pelops, as a meal to the gods. For his crime he was punished with eternal hunger and eternal thirst — surrounded by a bounty of food and water, these things always recede from him when he tries to grasp them (Thy. 148-175).
  • Fury: female infernal spirit of vengeance and retribution. Compare the Fury Allecto in Vergil’s Aeneid (7.323ff.). Furies are often described as clothed in black, coiled with snakes. In Greek contexts they torment the sinful; in Vergil, Seneca, they are weaponized psychology.
  • Atreus: Grandson of Tantalus, son of Pelops, brother of Thyestes, father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. King of Argos. Thyestes had seduced his wife, Aerope, to whom she secretly gave the golden ram which allowed him to claim the throne (Thy. 220-243). After a sign from Jupiter(/Zeus: Euripides’ Electra 699-746, the reversal of the path of the sun) leads to the discovery of adultery, Thyestes is exiled.
  • Courtier (satelles = in Wilson, “servant”): representative of the member of court who must abide by a tyrant’s commands. To some extent reflective of Seneca’s own role in the court of Nero.
  • Thyestes: Brother of Atreus. Lured back from exile to Argos by Atreus’ promises of reconciliation (Thy. 295-304)
  • Tantalus Junior: older son of Thyestes.
  • Plisthenes: younger son of Thyestes (silent part). A third son is mentioned at line 731, but he is unnamed and also silent.
  • Messenger.
  • Chorus of Argives.

A Fury emerges from beneath the ground in a vase depicting a lost Euripidean tragedy, 340s BCE. Note how she is depicted as inversion, void. Discovered in Paestum, Italy. Image: British Museum.

ACT ONE (1-121): Ghost of Tantalus and the Fury with snake whip (see: 96-100)

1st CHORAL ODE (122-175) — THE ‘TANTALUS’ ODE: Chorus of Argives sing.

144-176: the Chorus describes Tantalus’ crime (serving his son Pelops as a meal to the gods) and his punishment (‘tantalized‘ by eternal hunger and thirst).

ACT TWO (176-335): Atreus and the Courtier (satelles = in Wilson, “servant”).

Compare Tacitus’ (Ann. 14.53-56) dramatization of Seneca asking Nero if he can retired from public life. In the Octavia (435-592), a debate between “Seneca” and “Nero” is based on this scene of the Thyestes.

Lines 248-249:
SATELLES: nulla te pietas mouet?
ATREUS: excede, pietas
Courtier: “But are you not moved by morality [=PIETAS]?”
Atreus: “Away, morality!”

2nd CHORAL ODE (336-403) — THE KINGSHIP ODE: Chorus of Argives sing.

ACT THREE (404-545): Fake reconciliation between Thyestes and Atreus. Does Thyestes want to be king or not?

3rd CHORAL ODE (546-622) — THE PIETAS ODE: Chorus of Argives sing.

ACT FOUR (623-788): The messenger describes Atreus’ murder of Thyestes’ sons.

4th CHORAL ODE (789-884) — THE STAR ODE: Chorus of Argives sing.

ACT FIVE (885-919): Atreus rejoices.

THE DRINKING SONG (920-969): Thyestes’ solo song.

ACT FIVE cont. (970-1112): The crime is revealed.

Further reading:

  • A. J. Boyle (2017) Seneca. Thyestes. 
  • A. J. Boyle (2006) Roman Tragedy.