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 = Ϲ )
  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: nyu.edu.

  • 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.”