As the bearded comrades of the German Guard soldier Gratus crowded around Claudius, looking down at him with grins on their faces, Claudius, cringing on his bended knees, was convinced that they were planning to kill him, just as he believed that some of these very men had killed Caligula. But when he realized that they were seeking vengeance for the death of his nephew, he begged them to spare his life, swearing that he had no knowledge of who had killed Caligula.
Gratus smiled, and took Claudius by the right hand. “You can stop worrying about saving yourself, my lord,” he assured him, helping him to his feet. “You should be elevating your thoughts, and thinking about ruling the empire, which the gods, in their concern for the habitable world, have commited to your virtuous hands by removing Gaius [Caligula]. So come with us and accept your ancestral throne.”¹
A stunned Claudius was escorted from the Palatium by the band of German soldiers who had found him, and placed in a litter. Because all the litter-bearers had run off, some of the soldiers lifted the litter onto their own shoulders, while the others led the way. When the small procession came down into the Forum and reached the Treasury, which occupied the basement of the Temple of Saturn, men of the duty Praetorian cohort flooded around to see who was inside the litter. Gratus and his comrades told the Praetorians that Claudius should be made the new emperor, and these men all agreed, “on account of their fondness for Germanicus, his brother, who had left behind him a vast reputation,” Josephus was to say. These soldiers also realized that if they made Claudius emperor, he might reward them financially.²
So in a large body many hundreds strong, the few men of the German Guard, surrounded by their Praetorian colleagues, carried Claudius through the city streets toward the Praetorian Barracks. Those streets were crowded with people who were milling about amid both shock and elation at the news of Caligula’s assassination. All along the route to the barracks, people looked with pity at the emperor’s uncle as he was carried past by the soldiers, feeling sure that he was an innocent man being hurried to his execution by the troops.³
It was true that the bloodshed had not yet come to an end, but it was not Claudius who was to die; it was other members of the imperial house who were fated to soon meet their ends. The tribune Chaerea felt that the business of terminating the reign of Caligula could not be considered complete until his wife, Caesonia, and eighteen-month-old daughter, Julia Drusilla, also were dead. Another Praetorian tribune who also was a party to the assassination plot, Julius Lupus, was dispatched by Chaerea to find and kill mother and child. Caesonia wasn’t difficult to track down; the tribune Lupus located her beside Caligula’s bloodied corpse, which, since the murder, had been removed to a palace bedroom.
After the murder, Gaius’s body had been found where it had fallen by his longtime friend the Judean king Agrippa, who was staying at the Palatium on a visit to Rome. Agrippa felt in Caligula’s debt, for on the death of Tiberius four years before, Agrippa had been freed from house arrest by Caligula, who had subsequently given Agrippa his grandfather Herod’s kingdom of Judea. So Agrippa had lifted up the body and reverently carried it to the bedchamber.
Now the tribune Lupus discovered Caligula’s wife, Caesonia, on the bed beside Caligula, berating her dead husband. In the preceding months there had been rumors of an assassination plot, and Caesonia had urged Caligula to act on them and seek out the conspirators, but Caligula had dismissed her concerns. Now the tribune Lupus found Caesonia cursing the dead Caligula for not taking any notice of her.⁴
Looking around, Caesonia saw Lupus the tribune standing across the room with a bloodied sword in his hand and a pained look on his face. Caesonia knew at once why he had come. Quite composed, she climbed down from the bed, sank onto her knees, and projected her neck to receive his blade. When Lupus hesitated to act, she called to him not to stand there gaping but to finish the deed he had been sent to accomplish. With this encouragement, Lupus stepped up and, with a double-handed swipe of his short sword, sliced through her slender neck and took off her head. Lupus then located Caligula’s infant daughter and, to finish his gruesome task, grabbed up the child and dashed out her brains against a pillar.⁵
In the early evening, as a measure of calm returned to the city, the consuls Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus and Quintus Pomponius Secondus convened the Senate behind the guarded gates of the Capitoline complex, at the Temple of Jupiter, Rome’s largest, oldest, and most sacred temple. They were protected here by the four cohorts of the German Guard, who, apart from the few Germans who had taken Claudius to the Praetorian Barracks, had remained under the control of the prefect Sabinus and the tribune Chaerea and had ended their rampage in the palace. To prevent the national treasury from falling into the hands of looters should civil unrest break out, the German troops also had been ordered to bring to the Capitol the thousands of millions of sesterces in gold and silver coin normally kept in the Treasury of Saturn.
Not every senator turned up for the hastily called Senate sitting; a number were in hiding, fearful of being caught up in the bloodshed that had been initiated by the German Guard immediately after the assassination. As the Senate was coming to order, each senator present was asking his colleagues who had been behind the assassination. Valerius Asiaticus, one of the two senators who, with Claudius, had preceded Caligula from the theater just prior to his murder, proclaimed for all to hear, “I wish that I had been the one who killed him!”⁶
The consul Sentius Saturninus now called for order and gave a passionate speech to the Senate, condemning Julius Caesar for dissolving Roman democracy a century before, and equally condemning his successors the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula for continuing the oppression of the Roman people. He advocated a return to the days of the Roman Republic prior to Caesar, when consuls elected annually ruled with the aid of the Senate and there were no emperors. He was not alone. “Some people wanted all memory of the Caesars wiped out,” Suetonius was to say, “and their temples destroyed.”⁷ This was the course advocated by the consul.
The consul Sentius knew that Claudius had been taken to the Praetorian Barracks and that troops there were demanding that Claudius be made emperor. But in Sentius’s opinion, soldiers were meant to obey the Senate, not issue orders to it. As for Claudius, he had always been thought of as an idiotic fool by most senators. The Senate, said Sentius, now had the opportunity to reclaim its power, and should do so. And when it came to Caligula’s chief assassin, the tribune Cassius Chaerea, he should, in the consul’s opinion, be honored. “For, this one man, with the aid of the gods, has by his actions given us back our liberty,” Sentius declared.⁸
Sentius’s speech was cheered by his fellow senators, and when the tribune Chaerea, who was present, asked the consuls for a new watchword for the coming day, they gave him “Liberty,” to the great approval of the House. Well into the night, after much debate, the Senate decided to send envoys to the Praetorian Barracks to see if Claudius could be convinced to give up all claim to the throne. The chosen envoys, the civil tribunes Veranius and Brocchus, went to the Praetorian Barracks escorted by the tribune Chaerea and a large detachment of German Guard troops.
During the afternoon, Claudius had been visited at the barracks by Aprippa, the Judean king. Claudius knew forty-nine-year-old Agrippa very well—Agrippa had been raised at the Palatium alongside Claudius and Germanicus and their cousin and adoptive brother, Drusus the Younger. Agrippa had in fact been one of Drusus’s closest friends. At the barracks, Agrippa had found Claudius in mental turmoil. Claudius had been ready to withdraw from the scene and allow the Senate to take charge, but Agrippa discreetly counseled otherwise. After urging Claudius to claim the throne for himself, Agrippa had returned to his quarters on the Palatine.
The Senate envoys, Veranius and Brocchus, were permitted by the Praetorians to enter their barracks to address Claudius. Finding him surrounded by troops, the envoys said that if Claudius would agree to live quietly out of the way, he would be heaped with honors, but if he attempted to use the Praetorian troops to take the empty throne he would find himself at war with the Senate. When the envoys asked Claudius to come to the Senate and discuss a transition of power, he shrugged helplessly and replied that the soldiers would not let him leave their barracks.
After the tribunes returned to the waiting Senate with this response, the Senate sent for King Agrippa, knowing of his close friendship with Claudius. Unaware that Agrippa had already counseled Claudius to take the throne, the senators asked his opinion of the state of affairs. Seeing the senators unable to agree on a course of action, Agrippa cunningly claimed that he supported the Senate, but reminded the senators that many more troops backed Claudius than backed the House—13,500 Praetorian Guards and City Guards, against the 2,000 German Guards then in the city. In response to this, the senators told him they had more than enough treasury money to purchase weapons, and they would free all the slaves of the city and arm them. Agrippa scoffed at this, saying that slaves didn’t know how to draw a sword, let alone use one. When he volunteered to go to see Claudius as an official ambassador of the Senate, the senators gladly sent him to the barracks with their other envoys.
Now Agrippa met with Claudius a second time and, taking him to one side, informed him that the Senate was in disarray and told him what answer to send back to the senators. So, although he was not confident of the outcome, Claudius gave a stammering speech to the envoys, telling them that if they were to accept him as their new ruler he would be an emperor in name only, for he would share government with the Senate. After Agrippa and the other envoys had left the barracks, Claudius, probably at Agrippa’s suggestion, promised every soldier of the Guard a bonus of 150 sesterces if they made him emperor, and more again for their centurions.
The envoys reported back to the Senate with Claudius’s response, which the senators found unacceptable. The Senate broke up without agreeing on their next step, and in this atmosphere of stalemate the night passed uneasily. But Claudius rested more comfortably under the protective eyes of the troops at the barracks, relaxing somewhat “now that no immediate danger threatened, but feeling little hope for the future.”⁹
Well before dawn the next morning, the Senate met again at the Temple of Jupiter, with the senators determined to break the deadlock. Little more than a hundred senators turned up for this session. The remainder, fearful that the soldiers at the barracks would take matters into their own hands, either hid in the city or hurried away from Rome to their country estates. As those senators who had taken their seats debated the best course of action, the soldiers of the German Guard flooded into the chamber. Disgusted by the lack of decision, the German troops called on the Senate to choose one ruler, any ruler, whom they could throw their support behind. The republican argument held no attraction for the Germans; accustomed to taking orders from a single commander in chief, they weren’t interested in government by committee. They could see what chaos that achieved—here was evidence of it.
Some of the senators responded by offering themselves for the job of emperor. Marcus Vinicius was one of those who put up their hand. Vinicius said that as the husband of Julia, youngest daughter of Germanicus, he was eminently qualfied for the throne because of this connection with the family of the Caesars. Josephus says that he even urged the consuls to have the House vote on his appointment, but they refused to put his nomination to a vote.¹⁰
Word now reached the Capitol that the seven thousand men of the Night Watch had marched to the Praetorian Barracks in support of Claudius, as had gladiators from the city’s gladiatorial schools and crewmen from warships downriver at Ostia. On top of that, a large crowd of city residents had surrounded the Praetorian barracks and was calling on Claudius to become their emperor.
The German Guard soldiers in the Senate chamber became increasingly unruly on hearing this news, and when the tribune Chaerea tried to address them, they shouted him down, demanding one ruler without further delay. If the ruler was to be Claudius, they said, so be it. Chaerea angrily told the Germans he would give them Claudius’s head before he gave them Claudius as their emperor. But the guardsmen, says Josephus, drew their swords and took up their standards, then departed from the temple. Deserting the senators, they marched to the Praetorian Barracks to offer Claudius their allegiance.¹¹ It was all over; all the soldiers at Rome now supported Claudius, brother of Germanicus. The Senate could only match the troops’ swords with words.
After appointing Rufrius Pollio as his prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Claudius was carried through the city streets to the Palatium in his litter, followed by twenty-two thousand troops and half the population of Rome. At the same time he summoned the Senate to appear before him at the Palatium. Uneasy senators answered the summons. But before he addressed the Senate, Claudius met with his friends, including Agrippa, to discuss what he should do next. They convinced him that he must arrest and execute Caligula’s assassins; otherwise he would only send a signal that the murderers of emperors could expect to go unpunished, putting himself in peril in the future.
So, looking ahead, with his own safety in mind, says Dio,¹² Claudius ordered the Praetorian Guard to arrest and behead the tribune Chaerea, the tribune Lupus, and the centurions who also had participated in the assassination. Yet the prefect Cornelius Sabinus, chief of the German Guard, one of the assassination’s chief conspirators, and one of those who had used their swords on Caligula, escaped capital punishment. While he did not lose his head, he lost his job, and went back to being a gladiator. Sabinus would commit suicide several years later.
The Senate duly gathered before Claudius at the Palatium and, realizing that with all the troops at Rome behind Claudius they were in no position to oppose him or to restore the Republic, they resignedly voted unanimously to call on him to become their new emperor. And so it was that the brother of Germanicus became Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, emperor and high priest of Rome. Until recently, Claudius had been greeted by the public when he went to the theater with cries of “Hail the brother ofGermanicus!”¹³ Now it was “Hail the emperor!”