Happy Birthday Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus
Born today in 10 BCE. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by the stories told about this famously “unlikely” Roman Emperor.
Claudius became a big star in the 1970s, thanks to Robert Graves, Jack Pulman and Derek Jacobi. His story was, of course, ludicrously oversimplified.
The Claudius I grew up with was often described as “the least likely man in the empire to become emperor” which just wasn’t true. The least likely man in the empire was a slave being worked to death in a salt mine in Thrace. Claudius became emperor because he was the last surviving adult male representative of the Julio-Claudian family – making him the most likely candidate in the empire. Graves, Pulman and Jacobi also helped to promote the notion that Claudius was a closet republican – an assertion for which there is no evidence. Indeed, such evidence as we have suggests instead a populist despot, who centralised power while doing his darndest to keep the plebs fed, watered and entertained. He allowed his freedmen – people like Pallas and Narcissus – to monopolise power because freedmen, unlike Senators, had no independent power base and could not possibly threaten him. They owed everything to him. In the 1976 TV series, young Claudius is shown passing out while watching gladiators fight, whereas Suetonius asserts that the mature Claudius loved watching people die for his amusement.
It is a great shame that we have lost Tacitus’ description of the accession of Claudius. We only have the latter part of Claudius’ reign from Tacitus’ pen, which is more concerned with his uxorious fall rather than his character as a governor.
But “Claudius” – Graves’ Claudius fascinates because he is the silent observer of events turned actor, the observer vindicated and the historian turned politician. As someone who watches and stays safe for most of his life, he is very very easy for an audience or a readership to identify with. We are Claudius, insofar as we read or watch the antics of Livia, Tiberius, Sejanus and Caligula, thinking all the while how we could possibly stay alive. Graves’ Claudius did more than anything(one) else to promote a sense of empathy with the uncanny cocktail of sex and power and sudden death than characterised the Julio-Claudian court.
Claudius is one of the best framing devices ever conceived, one of the best ideas for mediating a world that is very strange and (let’s face it) very wrong.
Happy Birthday Claudius, whether invented by Tacitus, or Suetonius or Graves. You put us in the picture.