Ancient History & Civilisation



Master of the House

Chaos spelt opportunity. None knew this better than the House of Caesar itself. This was why, ever since Augustus had emerged to supremacy from the horrors of civil war, it had jealously denied to anyone outside its own exclusive circles the chance to capitalise upon its often murderous rivalries. Now, though, with the assassination of Caligula, the dice had been thrown up in the air. The Palatine, from where Augustus had upheld the peace of the world, was given over to riot and confusion. German swordsmen, combing its tangle of alleyways and corridors, searched for the killers in a blood lust of their own. When they ran into Asprenas, the unfortunate senator whose toga had been dirtied during the sacrifices, they cut off his head. Two other senators were dispatched with equal brutality.

Meanwhile, in the theatre, confused rumours were sweeping the stands. No one could be certain that Caligula was truly dead. Some reported that he had escaped his assassins and made it to the Forum, where he was whipping up the plebs – ‘who in their folly had loved and honoured the emperor’.1 Senators sat paralysed, torn between their longing to believe the reports of their tormentor’s death and their dread that it was all a trick. Their nerves were hardly settled by the sudden arrival of a posse of Germans, who, after brandishing the heads of Asprenas and the two other murdered senators in their faces, dumped them on the altar. Only the timely arrival of an auctioneer famed for his booming voice, who confirmed for the benefit of everyone in the theatre the death of the Emperor, and successfully urged the Germans to put up their swords, prevented a massacre. Caligula would no doubt have been disappointed.

Meanwhile, down in the Forum, some of the more ambitious among the Senate were already calculating what his elimination might mean for them. When indignant crowds surrounded Valerius Asiaticus and demanded to know who had murdered their beloved emperor, he replied with cheery insouciance, ‘I only wish that I had.’2 Clearly, the insult to his wife had not been forgotten. More was at stake, though, than the satisfaction of personal pique. Without an obvious heir to Caligula on hand, a dizzying prospect had abruptly opened up before the nobility. That afternoon, as the Forum seethed with protestors, it was no emperor who appointed guards to keep order, but the two consuls. When senators convened to debate the future, they did so not in the Senate House rebuilt by the Caesars, but high up on the Capitol, in the great temple of Jupiter, on a site redolent of Rome’s venerable past. ‘For those schooled in virtue, it is enough to live even a single hour in a free country, answerable only to ourselves, governed by the laws that made us great.’3 So declared one of the consuls in a tone of soaring self-satisfaction. When Cassius Chaerea, reporting to the Senate that evening, solemnly asked the consuls for the watchword, the answer proclaimed to the Roman people that their ancient constitution was restored: ‘liberty’.

Except, of course, that it would take more than fine words to resuscitate the Republic. The regime founded by Augustus had put down roots so deep that only those at its heart could glimpse how far they reached. Senators, whose rank was fixed for them by law, and whose stage was a debating chamber in which everyone sat on open display, were ill-placed to trace them. Few now lived on the Palatine, that great labyrinth of alleyways, corridors and courtyards, into which even the murderers of an emperor had been able to vanish with impunity. One who still did was Caecina Largus, an Etrurian like Maecenas, and of the same family as Germanicus’s deputy on the Rhine. In the garden of his mansion there stood some beautiful lotus trees, of which Caecina was inordinately proud – as well he might have been, for from beneath their shade he was better placed than any number of his colleagues to monitor the arcana imperii, ‘the secrets of power’. Currents were flowing of which the senators on the Capitol were only dimly aware. However proudly Chaerea might strut, Caecina knew that most Praetorians had no stake in any return to the Republic. Roaming the Palatine in the wake of Caligula’s murder, they had been hunting his killers, not siding with them. Unsurprisingly, then, rather than join his colleagues in their grandstanding on the Capitol, Caecina opted to play a different game. Other, more certain routes to influence lay open. Caecina was not alone in suspecting that Rome’s future had already been decided for her.

Some months before his assassination, Caligula had summoned the two Praetorian prefects to a private interview. Their names had appeared alongside Caesonia’s on the list of conspirators drawn up by Capito – and Caligula demanded reassurance, despite his reluctance to believe them guilty. The two prefects, frantically assuring him of their loyalty, had lived to tell the tale – but the suspicions aroused by the meeting had not been eased. Both men knew full well what their fates might be were they to lose Caligula’s favour; but they appreciated too the stake that they, and all the Praetorians, had in the survival of the House of Caesar. Who, though, could they adopt as a plausible candidate for the rule of the world? Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the son of the exiled Agrippina and the only living male descendant of Germanicus, was a tiny child. Someone else would have to do. Someone adult, obviously, and a member of the August Family – and yet so despised and discounted by his relatives that not even Caligula had got around to eliminating him. Seen from such a perspective, the solution to the prefects’ dilemma was obvious. Indeed – there was only one.

News of what the Praetorians were up to reached the senators on the Capitol as they were still debating the future of the Republic. It was claimed that Claudius, in the wake of his nephew’s assassination, had hidden himself behind a curtain. A Praetorian, hurrying past, had seen his feet sticking out and pulled the curtain aside. When Claudius, falling to his knees, had begged for mercy, the soldier, raising him back onto his feet, had hailed him as imperator. A man less qualified to receive such a salute than the sickly and decidedly civilian Claudius it would have been hard to imagine, of course; but that had not prevented the Praetorians from bundling him into a litter, abducting him to their camp, and there, en masse, ‘endowing him with supreme power’.4 So, at any rate, it was reported to the Senate – who greeted the news with predictable consternation. Urgently, the consuls sent a summons to Claudius. He replied, in a tone of theatrical regret, that he was being kept where he was ‘by force and compulsion’.5 Notable scholar that he was, he knew his history. He appreciated that the surest way to win legitimacy as a Princeps was to insist that he did not want to be one. Just as Augustus and Tiberius had done before him, Claudius kept lamenting that he had no taste for supreme power – even while taking every step he could to secure it. One day into the restoration of the Republic, and already it was effectively dead.

By the following morning, with Claudius still securely ensconced in the Praetorians’ camp, and crowds down in the Forum chanting for an emperor, the Senate was left with little choice but to accept this. All that remained for it to do was to question whether a man who dribbled and twitched, who had never served with the legions, and who was a Caesar neither by blood nor by adoption, was really the best man for the job. Various senators, demonstrating a signal failure to understand the rules of the game, immediately set about pushing their own claims. One, a former consul and noted orator by the name of Marcus Vinicius, could at least boast a link to the August Family – for he had been married for almost a decade to Julia Livilla, Caligula’s disgraced youngest sister. A second, a man who had conspiracy and ambition running in his veins, sat at the heart of numerous spiders’ webs. Annius Vinicianus was, as his name suggested, a relative of Marcus Vinicius, but he had also been a close friend of the executed Lepidus and knew Chaerea well. Unsurprisingly, then, there were plenty who detected his fingerprints all over Caligula’s assassination. Vinicianus himself, by putting his name forward, did nothing to scotch such rumours.

It was not the habit of the Roman people, though, to favour men who operated in the shadows; and this was why, when Valerius Asiaticus put himself forward as a third candidate for the rule of the world, he could do so as a man renowned for the splendour of his lifestyle. His property empire stretched from Italy to Egypt; his gardens, a wonderland of exotic blooms and no less extravagant architecture on the heights above the Campus Martius, were the most celebrated in Rome; his sense of dignity, which Caligula had so wilfully offended, was true to the haughtiest traditions of the Republic. To the cowed ranks of the aristocracy, Valerius Asiaticus provided a welcome dash of colour, a reminder of what they had once been, before the rise to power of the Caesars. Despite that, though, he had no more realistic prospect of succeeding to the rule of the world than any of the various other senators making their pitch that morning. Not all his glamour and swagger could compensate him for one besetting drawback: he was not from Rome, nor even from Italy, but a Gaul. How could such a man hope to displace the brother of Germanicus, the nephew of Tiberius, a Claudian? Sure enough, by the afternoon of 25 January, Valerius Asiaticus – and everyone else on the Capitol too – had bowed to the inevitable. Through gritted teeth, senators who only the previous day had been talking in elevated tones about the restoration of liberty voted to entrust a man most of them despised with the full bundle of powers lately wielded by Caligula. Additionally, they granted him a title that the Senate had never before needed to bestow upon a Princeps: ‘Caesar’. That evening, when the fifty-year-old invalid whom his own mother had described as ‘a freak of a man’6 left the Praetorian camp and headed back into the centre of Rome, there to take possession of the Palatine, he did so as the bearer of an appropriately splendid new name: Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

The new emperor had played dangerously, but he had played well. As a young man, denied the opportunities provided as a matter of course to other members of the August Family, he had developed such a passion for gambling that he had even written a treatise on the subject: an addiction that, naturally enough, had only confirmed in their scorn those who regarded him as weak-minded. Yet it was Claudius who had enjoyed the last laugh. Though the odds had always been stacked against him, he had demonstrated an unexpected ability to play them. In the supreme crisis of his life, he had placed a bet that had won him the world. Not since Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon had there been quite so blatant a military coup.

Naturally, like the shrewd and calculating operator that he had revealed himself to be, Claudius chose to veil this as well as he could. He knew that his position remained precarious. He was certainly in no position to enforce a rule of terror. Although Chaerea was put to death – as he had to be for his crime of murdering an emperor – and Cornelius Sabinus, who had joined in Caligula’s assassination, committed suicide, deaths were otherwise kept to a minimum. In the Senate, everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief – and particularly those who had publicly opposed Claudius becoming emperor. When they agreed to vote him the same wreath of oak leaves awarded many decades previously to Augustus, ‘because he had preserved citizens’ lives’,7 it was more than an empty gesture. Coming after the terrors and humiliations inflicted on them by Caligula, an emperor who made play of his clemency was hardly to be sniffed at, after all. Claudius, who had suffered mockery his whole life, was sensitive to the dignity of others. Despite his lameness, he always made a point of rising to his feet when addressed by his fellow senators; and sometimes, should a particularly elderly senator be struggling to hear what was being said, he would permit the old man to sit on a bench reserved for magistrates. Claudius, unlike his nephew, was not a man to cause deliberate offence.

Nevertheless, he had no illusions as to his popularity with the Senate. Anxiety about his own personal security shaded into paranoia. All those allowed into his presence were first subjected to a vigorous frisking; he never dined but there were soldiers beside him; and when, a month after coming to power, he finally entered the Senate House for the first time, he did so accompanied by guards. Claudius knew what he owed the Praetorians – and he was not afraid to acknowledge it. One of his coins was stamped with an image of their camp; another showed him shaking hands with their standard-bearer. The friendship between emperor and Praetorians had been expensively bought. Vast handouts, equivalent to five times their annual pay, were lavished on them, a bribe so blatant that its nature could not possibly be concealed.8

Nor was that all. Ever since the accession of Tiberius, the legions on the frontiers had regarded it as their right to receive enormous donatives from a new Caesar. This was hardly a tradition that Claudius was minded to buck. Yet it confronted him with a massive financial headache. Even at the best of times, the funding of Rome’s armies swallowed up a huge proportion of the annual budget. ‘No peace without arms – and no arms without pay.’9 Yet money, by the standards of the August Family, was precisely what Claudius had always been short of. Caligula, as much for his own amusement as for any other reason, had systematically mulcted his uncle of such millions as he could. At one stage, in order to raise the sums necessary to qualify for continued membership of the Senate, Claudius had been reduced to selling off his properties. Now, as emperor, the need to secure military backing faced him with a bill equivalent almost to Rome’s entire annual intake of revenue. How to pay it?

The best bets are those placed with privileged knowledge. Claudius, practised gambler that he was, understood this as well as anyone. To have accepted the support of the Praetorians without first securing the funds necessary to keep them on-side would have been a lethal misjudgement. Claudius needed the backing of accountants as well as soldiers. In this, luck had favoured him. The two prefects had not been alone in lending him their support. At their fateful meeting with Caligula, a third man had been summoned for a grilling. Gaius Julius Callistus was a functionary, not a soldier – but no less a linchpin of the regime for that. While others busied themselves with the show of power, he presided over its secret workings. Consummate insider that he was, he understood what the House of Caesar had become: no longer, as Augustus had pretended it to be, the residence of a private citizen, but the sprawling nerve centre from which the world was run. Each day, just as at the home of any great nobleman, suitors would cluster at its gates, visitors pay their respects and eminent guests be entertained; but within its labyrinthine complex, away from the reception halls and the sumptuous banqueting rooms, operations were of an order that very few could comprehend. Every senator needed an agent to keep track of his assets; but none had assets on the scale of Caesar. There were his estates to run, of course, and his mines, and his warehouses: his patrimonium, as they were collectively called. But there was more. It was from the Palatine that the finances of the entire Roman world were administered: the taxes; the funding of the legions; assorted mints. Augustus, although he had made a point of leaving his accounts to be read out by Tiberius to the Senate on his death, had been purposefully vague: ‘Those who want the details can consult with the requisite officials.’10 Two and a half decades on, it was Callistus who had the figures at his fingertips, and knew the secret location on the Palatine where the reserves of coin were stored. Accused by Caligula of treachery, after his name too had appeared on Capito’s list, he had faced the same excruciating dilemma as the two prefects: whether to hope that his protestations of innocence would be believed, or to conspire in the promotion of a new Caesar. That Claudius had been able to fund his coup showed the choice that Callistus had made.

Other aides prominent in Caligula’s service had been eliminated in the wake of the coup: from his personal minder to the official who kept tabs on the aristocracy, and was never seen without twin books, ‘Sword’ and ‘Dagger’. Even the two Praetorian prefects were forcibly retired in due course. Not Callistus, though. He remained under Claudius where he had been under Caligula: at the heart of power. Like Caecina Largus, the senator who owned one of the few private residences left on the Palatine, he was too shrewd, too knowledgeable, too valuable an ally to be cast aside. Caecina claimed his reward a year after the coup, when, as the new emperor’s colleague, he served as a consul of the Roman people. Callistus, by contrast, was granted no such honour. His role remained, to outward show, far humbler. As Caecina strode through the Forum to the Senate House, guarded by his lictors, Callistus was up on the Palatine, surrounded by scrolls, vetting petitions to the Emperor. Yet the rewards enjoyed by the secretary were, according to many measures, no less than those enjoyed by the consul. Just as Caecina could boast a garden famous for its lotus trees, so had Callistus commissioned thirty pillars fashioned out of an eye-wateringly expensive brand of marble for his dining room. Although not a consul himself, he thought nothing of vetting candidates for the office. ‘Indeed, so great was his wealth and the dread which he inspired that his power verged on the despotic.’11 Yet this man notorious for his ‘arrogance and the extravagant uses to which he put his authority’12 was neither a senator nor an equestrian – nor had he even been born a citizen. Callistus, the man who had helped to topple one emperor and who controlled access to another, had spent his early life as the lowest of the low: a slave.

The clue lay in his name. ‘Callistus’ meant ‘Gorgeous’ in Greek, and was the kind of thing that no self-respecting Roman would ever allow himself to be called. As a name given to a slave, though, it was the height of fashion – partly because it provided a hint of foreign sophistication, and partly because everyone knew that Greeks made the best slaves. The real giveaway, though, was that Callistus had also adopted Caligula’s first two names, Gaius Julius. Wearing these marked him out as a man who had been set free by an emperor – as an Augusti libertus. Hardly a status to impress a senator, of course – except that even the grandest of noblemen knew, to their agonised regret, that lineage was no longer everything. Having the ear of Caesar might count for at least as much. As in the Senate, so in the back rooms of the Palatine: climbing the rungs of the ladder promised splendid rewards to those who could make it to the top.

Most, of course, were never in a position to try. Caesar’s household teemed with slaves, and if many of these were employed in the basest of menial tasks, then others specialised in duties that offered them little better prospect of promotion. To be stuck with responsibility for the polishing of the emperor’s mirrors, or the care of his perfumed oils, or the making of his fancy dress was hardly to be on the high road to influence and wealth. Secure a post handling his finances, though, and opportunities were altogether more promising. Even out in the provinces, the slaves who handled Caesar’s accounts or dispensed cash to the legions on his behalf often did very well for themselves. One accountant in Gaul was the owner of sixteen slaves, including a doctor, two cooks and a man charged with looking after his gold, while a steward in Spain was notorious for dining off silver plates, and ended up so fat that he was nicknamed ‘Rotundus’. Unsurprisingly, though, it was in Rome that advancement could be quickest. On the Palatine, ‘ever at Caesar’s side, tending to his affairs, privy to the holy secrets of the gods’,13 a slave was as well qualified as anyone to fathom the arcana imperii. Play his hand wrong and he might end up like the secretary of Augustus who, caught red-handed selling the contents of a letter, had his legs broken. Play it skilfully and he might end up like Callistus: not only rich, powerful and feared, but a freedman.

That they were willing to make citizens of slaves had always been a sacred tradition of the Roman people. Even their penultimate king, a much admired warrior and administrator by the name of Servius Tullius, had allegedly once been of servile rank. It was true that Claudius himself – whose private interests included ancient history as well as gambling – disputed this tradition, and claimed that the king had originally been an Etruscan adventurer named Mastarna; but most Romans had no time for such scholarly pettifogging. That Servius had been born into servitude was evident both from his name and from his insistence, made in the teeth of aristocratic opposition, that the Roman people would be strengthened, not weakened, by welcoming into their ranks such slaves as they chose to liberate. ‘For you would be fools,’ he had told his fellow citizens, ‘to begrudge them citizenship. If you think them unworthy of its rights, then do not set them free – but why, if you think them estimable, turn your backs on them solely because they are foreign?’14 The logic of this had seemed unanswerable; and so it was, over the course of the centuries, that slavery had served many an able man as a staging post on a journey to becoming Roman. When a law was passed in 2 BC, limiting how many slaves could be set free in a citizen’s will, it made explicit what had always been a guiding principle of slave-owners in the city: that only the talented were qualified to join their ranks.

To walk the Forum, then, and to see foreigners for sale at the foot of the Palatine, their limbs shackled and their feet chalked white to mark them as imports, was, just perhaps, to see the high achievers of tomorrow. ‘No one knows what he can do till he tries.’ Such had been the maxim of a celebrated wit named Publilius Syrus, who as his name implied had originally been brought in chains to Italy from Damascus, but had gone on, after winning his freedom, to become Rome’s leading dramatist, and to be crowned as such by Julius Caesar himself. His cousin, similarly enslaved, had ended up the city’s first astronomer. Another freedman, originally transported in the same slave ship as the two cousins, had founded the study of Latin grammar, teaching Brutus and Cassius, no less. Rome, over the years, had measurably benefited from the influx of foreign talent. ‘It’s no crime,’ as Ovid had once put it, ‘to have had chalked feet.’15

Even the right to run for office, although denied to freedmen themselves, was open to their sons. Many had taken advantage. Although the magistrate who could trace his lineage back to a slave would naturally do all he could to hush it up, everyone knew that ‘numerous equestrians, and even some senators, were descended from freedmen’.16 Augustus himself, so stern in his insistence upon the proprieties of status, had been perfectly content to count the sons of one-time slaves as his friends. Vedius Pollio, the financier with the notoriously extravagant home furnishings, had been one such. So too had been an altogether more estimable adornment of the Augustan regime, the man entrusted by the Princeps with the hymning of Rome’s rebirth, a poet still admired and treasured decades after his death. ‘I am the son of a man freed from slavery.’17 Horace, certainly, had never thought to deny it.

Yet even while honouring the debt he had owed his father, whose devotion and financial backing had given him such a stellar start in life, he had never entirely been able to escape a certain queasiness. ‘No amount of good fortune can change a man’s breeding.’18 Horace had been sufficiently a Roman to dread that slavery might leave an ineradicable taint. The surest measure of a freedman’s achievement was to father a son who despised what he had been. Perhaps this was why, far from being a soft touch, the slave-owning sons of former slaves tended to be notorious for their cruelty. Vedius Pollio, excessive in all things, had enjoyed feeding clumsy pageboys to enormous flesh-eating eels. Even Augustus had been shocked. Yet, however novel a spectacle a fish tank flecked with human body parts might be, it only made manifest what it was about slavery that made freedmen so keen to demonstrate that they had escaped it for good. To be a slave was to exist in a condition of suspended death. Such was the law. Although, under normal circumstances, it was forbidden a master to kill his slaves, there was otherwise no form of violence so terrible that it could not legally be inflicted upon a human chattel. The maid who inadvertently yanked her mistress’s hair might well expect to have a hairpin jabbed into her arm; the waiter who stole from a banquet to have his hands cut off and slung around his neck. Dream of dancing, and a slave was bound to be whipped. At its most brutal, the scarring from such an ordeal would leave a permanent fretwork upon the back. Thongs tipped with metal were designed to bite deep. Unsurprisingly, then, it was required by law of a slave-dealer to state whether any of his wares had ever sought to kill themselves. Barbarians who committed suicide rather than suffer to be enslaved, as did an entire tribe taken prisoner during Augustus’s Spanish campaign, were rather admired. Equally, by the same reckoning, those who submitted to servitude showed themselves fitted to be slaves. The baseness of it could never entirely be escaped. Freedom was like an unscarred back: once lost, it was lost for good.

The presence of a man such as Callistus at the heart of power was, then, profoundly disturbing to many Romans. Everyone took for granted that slaves, by nature, were prone to any number of contemptible habits. Rare was the owner who did not complain about their tendency to lie and thieve. It was evident from his obscenely well-appointed dining room that Callistus was no less inclined to pilfer as a freedman than he had been as a slave. Indignation, though, was not the only response to the spectacle of his wealth. There was anxiety as well. The man who had sold Callistus to Caligula was often to be seen standing outside his house, waiting in line for the chance to beg a favour – and being turned away, to rub salt into the wound. Such a sight served to remind slave-owners of a truth that few of them cared to dwell upon: that fortune was fickle, and that just as a slave might become a free man, so might a free man become a slave. ‘Scorn, then, if you dare, those to whose level, even as you despise them, you may yourself well descend.’19 Many centuries before, while lecturing the Roman aristocracy on the need to accept freedmen as fellow citizens, Servius Tullius had made a similar point: that of ‘how many states had passed from servitude to liberty, and from liberty to servitude’.20 It was perhaps no coincidence that Servius should also have prescribed that slaves, during the festival of the Compitalia, be the ones who made sacrifice to the Lares – and that they be permitted, what was more, to dress and behave like free men for the duration of the festivities. Other days of the year witnessed similar scenes of misrule. Early in July, slavegirls would put on their mistresses’ best clothes and offer themselves up for wild sex to passers-by; in December, the cry of ‘Io Saturnalia!’ would herald an even more riotous celebration of role reversal, in which slaves were allowed to put aside their work and be feasted by their masters. It was, most people agreed, ‘the best day of the year’21 – and yet a world in which every day was Saturnalia was hardly one in which even the most party-loving citizen would care to live. Proprieties had to be maintained – for if they were not, then who could say where things might not end?

Enough had happened in recent history to suggest the answer. Not the least horror of the civil war had been the dread that the distinction between slave and free, so fundamental to everything that made the Roman people who they were, had begun to blur and come under threat. Former slaves, in blatant disregard of the law, had dared to usurp the privileges of equestrians, ‘strutting around, flashing their wealth’;22 simultaneously, amid the chaos of the times, many a citizen had vanished into the chain-gangs of unscrupulous slavers. The problem had become so serious that Tiberius, during his first term as a magistrate, had been charged with touring slave-barracks across Italy and setting free all kidnapped prisoners. The order brought to the world by Augustus had, of course, helped to restore the chasm of difference that properly separated citizen from slave; but to those sensitive about their status, the character of his regime had only served to open up fresh wounds. Caligula, with his unerring talent for inflicting maximum pain, had naturally made sure to jab at them hard. On one occasion, in the full view of the Senate, a venerable former consul had expressed his gratitude for being spared execution by sinking to his knees – and Caligula had extended his left foot to be kissed, as he would have done to a slave. It had amused him too, as he dined, to be waited on by eminent senators dressed in short linen tunics, and to have them stand subserviently at his head and feet. Most devastatingly of all, he had granted slaves the right to bring charges against their masters: a licence of which many had taken enthusiastic advantage. Here, for the elite, had been one final, culminating horror: to discover that Caligula had his eyes and ears even in their homes, even in their most intimate moments, even among their basest menials.

Claudius, who had himself had a capital charge brought against him by one of his slaves, and only narrowly escaped conviction, was sympathetic to the sensitivities of his fellow senators. In token of this, one of his first acts as emperor was to sentence a lippy slave to a public flogging in the Forum. Claudian that he was, and scholar of Roman tradition, he was no revolutionary. Nevertheless, he had good reason to keep Callistus in his post. Unlike other men of his rank, Claudius had been confined by his disabilities to the domestic sphere in which talented freedmen were liable to make the running – and was in consequence unusually alert to their capabilities. Inexperienced as he was in the arts of government, yet earnestly resolved to provide the world with efficient administration, he had no wish to deprive himself of able subordinates.

Accordingly, far from slapping Callistus down, Claudius looked around for other, similarly talented freedmen to serve alongside him. One candidate selected himself: Pallas, the slave who had been entrusted by Claudius’s mother with the letter to Tiberius that had ultimately served to bring down Sejanus. Freed in token of his services shortly before Antonia’s death, he combined formidable administrative ability with an absolute loyalty to the Claudian house. So too did a third freedman, a master of back-room dealing by the name of Narcissus, who owed his power partly to the fact that he had been owned by the Emperor himself and partly to his own consummate skills as a fixer. Naturally, to resentful outsiders, his influence over Claudius could hardly help but seem sinister in the extreme: definitive proof that the new emperor was as befuddled and gullible a fool as everyone had always said he was. In truth, though, it illustrated the opposite: that Claudius was vastly more interested in setting his administration on a firm footing than with what his critics might have to say. He knew that he had no legal right to the Palatine, and that his possession of it was entirely a result of his coup; he knew too that his best chance of keeping hold of it was to exploit its resources to the full. The world needed good governance – and Claudius, in his determination to provide it, was content to grant his ablest freedmen such authority as they needed to be effective. No longer was there to be any pretence that Caesar’s household was anything but what it was: a court.

Inevitably, despite these changes, the essentials of the regime remained unaltered. Claudius’s reliance on his triumvirate of talented freedmen, while it boosted the efficiency of his government, did nothing to calm the swirl of intrigue and the scrabbling after power that had long been such features of life on the Palatine. The endless contest for advancement and advantage went on as it had ever done – but now with the addition of a new raft of power-brokers. Some adapted well to this development; others did not. Lucius Vitellius, ever alert to changes in the wind, smoothly added statues of Pallas and Narcissus to his household shrine, managing to remain as high in favour under Claudius as he had been under Caligula; but another senator, an experienced general named Silanus, proved hopelessly unequal to the demands of faction-fighting on the Palatine. Outmanoeuvred by his enemies, he was put to death on the orders of the Emperor only a year after Claudius had come to power. The precise details were murky, as so often with such cases; but all were agreed that the coup de grâce had been applied when Narcissus, hurrying to his master at daybreak, had reported seeing him murdered by Silanus in a dream. The episode made Claudius look both vindictive and credulous – an impression not helped by the damage already done to his authority by another, infinitely more titillating incident. Sex, incest and exile: less than a year after his seizure of power, the new emperor had found himself embroiled in an all too familiar kind of scandal.

It had begun, as so often before, with an attempt to project an image of domestic harmony. Keen to assert his authority as the head of the August Family, Claudius had summoned back his two nieces from the exile to which Caligula had sentenced them; but Julia Livilla, unlike Agrippina, had failed to learn her lesson. It was reported that she had begun an affair with a senator widely hailed – not least by himself – as the most brilliant man of his generation: a dazzling orator and intellectual by the name of Seneca. Nor was that the most titillating detail. It was rumoured as well that Julia’s uncle, smitten by her youthful charms, had been spending altogether more time with her than was decent for an old man. Whatever the truth of this, it was certain that the mere rumour of it had made her a mortal enemy. Claudius’s young and beautiful wife, Valeria Messalina was as well connected as she was famously pearly toothed. Like Julia, she was a great-grandniece of Augustus and had not the slightest intention of ceding advantage to a rival. Nor did it help that she was the daughter of Domitia Lepida, whose sister had taken the young Domitius under her wing after his mother’s exile by Caligula, and was cordially detested by Agrippina as a rival for her son’s affections. Unsurprisingly, then, relations between Claudius’s wife and his two nieces were toxic. When news of Julia’s affair with Seneca became common currency, it was Messalina whom many suspected of the leak. It certainly spelt disaster for the couple. Seneca was exiled in disgrace to Corsica, and Julia – once again – to a prison island. There, shortly afterwards, she was starved to death. A year on from the coup that had brought Claudius to power, all his talk of a new beginning already seemed so much hot air.

The most grievous blow to his reputation, though, was yet to come. A year after his coup, Claudius remained twitchy and insecure. That his administration was decidedly less murderous than his predecessor’s did not impress his critics. Senators who had expressed their resentment of him on the fateful day of Caligula’s assassination continued to scorn him as a fool, while the execution of Silanus at the behest of a freedman seemed to offer a grim portent of where his regime might be heading. Particularly resentful was Annius Vinicianus, whose ambition to lead the Roman world had been so decisively trumped by the Praetorians’ support for Claudius, but whose relish for spinning subtle webs of conspiracy remained undimmed. A year on, midway through 42, he was ready to attempt a coup of his own. In the Balkans, the commander of two legions had committed to backing the insurrection; in Rome, numerous senators and equestrians. Delivered an insulting letter demanding that he retire, Claudius was so flustered that he briefly despaired of his prospects; but it was not in vain, as it turned out, that he had paid such hefty bribes to the military. The soldiers in the Balkans refused to join the uprising; their commander committed suicide; so too did Vinicianus. Others implicated in the conspiracy, hesitating to follow their leaders’ example, had to be shamed into doing so. Most notorious for his hesitation was a former consul named Paetus. Holding his sword in a shaking hand, but dreading to fall on it, he had it snatched from him by his wife, who then promptly dropped onto it herself. ‘See, Paetus,’ she declared with her dying breath, ‘it does not hurt.’23

The stern quality of this admonishment, redolent as it was of Roman womanhood at its most antique and heroic, was much admired; for everything else about the abortive coup had been squalid in the extreme. Once again, as in the darkest days of Tiberius’s reign, there were corpses being dumped on the Gemonian Steps and hauled away on meat-hooks. Indeed, to bruised and bewildered senators, their world seemed as upended as it had ever been. Some of the conspirators had saved their skins by bribing Narcissus to intervene on their behalf; others, even more shockingly, had been put to torture. Here was the true measure of the scare that Claudius had been given: for there was only one class of person who could legally be subjected to such an indignity during an investigation into treason, and that was a slave. Specialists skilled in the art of extracting information tended to be found among private firms of undertakers, who would offer their services as a supplement to their regular income. Such men were proficient in using the rack to separate limbs from limbs, in applying pitch or scalding metal to bare flesh, in wielding an iron-tipped whip.24 That such horrors had been inflicted upon senators and equestrians left scars upon the entire Roman elite that could not easily be healed. What were all the fine-sounding claims by the new emperor to clemency but a grotesque joke, and what all his publicly stated ambitions to serve as a new Augustus but a monstrous charade? The Senate licked its wounds, and did not forget.

Nor, after the first shock of the conspiracy against him had subsided, and he had found time to gather his breath, did Claudius. His first year as emperor had been potentially crippling to his reputation, and therefore to his long-term prospects – and he knew it. He did not despair, though. He knew too the infinite resources available to him as Caesar, and that there was much that even a man such as himself, old, incapacitated and widely despised as a fool, could do. No matter what, he remained the most powerful man in the world.

The following year, Claudius was determined, would see him demonstrate it once and for all.

Bread and Britons

In AD 42, one year after Claudius had come to power, a Roman governor by the name of Suetonius Paulinus led an army to the limits of Mauretania, and then beyond. The Moors, a people who lived just across the straits from Spain, and were renowned for their ability to hurl javelins while riding bareback and their high standards of dental hygiene, had long been within Rome’s orbit; but only recently had the decision been taken to absorb them formally into the empire. There was much in Mauretania to excite the interest of the Roman upper classes – including, not least, its manufacture of the purple dye used to colour their togas. The last king of the Moors – who, by virtue of his descent from Antony and Cleopatra, had been related to Caligula – had opted, when summoned by his cousin to Lugdunum, to sport a particularly flashy shade of cloak. A fatal act of one-upmanship. Back in Mauretania, the Moors had greeted news of their king’s execution with outrage. Rebellion had flared.

Claudius, inheriting the crisis from Caligula and reluctant to see it get out of hand, had duly ordered the kingdom transformed into a province. A hard-headed decision, made for hard-headed reasons – but not exclusively so. Scholar that he was, Claudius had an interest in distant regions that touched on more than affairs of state. South of the cities that lay just inland from the sea, where merchants from Italy were regular visitors and the architecture aped the best of Rome and Alexandria, there stretched an altogether different world. Inhabited by tribes so unspeakably savage that they ate flesh raw and thought nothing of drinking milk, it had never before been penetrated by Roman arms. In turn, beyond them loomed an even more fantastical land, one long believed to be swathed in perpetual clouds, and where the inhabitants were reported never to have dreams. Suetonius Paulinus was leading his men up into the Atlas mountains, ‘the pillar which supports the sky’.25

Reality, in the event, did not quite measure up to the fables told of the mountain range. There were deep snowdrifts, even in summer – but no perpetual clouds. The deserts beyond the Atlas mountains were scorching, and covered in black dust. The natives lived like dogs. Nevertheless, the expedition was not entirely a wasted effort. The forests that surrounded the mountain range, Paulinus reported back to Rome, were filled with wonders: towering trees with leaves that were covered with ‘a thin downy floss’26 much like silk; wild elephants; every conceivable kind of snake. Back in Rome, Claudius was delighted by the news. It played to all his passions. As a private citizen, denied by his disabilities the chance to travel, he had lovingly transcribed the details of exotic flora and fauna into a panoramic gazetteer: the aromatic leaves sprinkled by the Parthians on their drinks; a centaur born in northern Greece that had died the same day. Now, as emperor, he had a far broader stage on which to display his enthusiasms. Roman conquerors had long been in the habit of bringing back to their city plants and animals from remote lands. This was why, in gardens of the kind owned by Valerius Asiaticus, the smog-choked citizen might have a chance to breathe in the scents of distant forests, and to marvel at the blooms of strange flowers. It was also why beasts like those discovered by Paulinus were regular sources of entertainment in Rome. Pompey had exhibited the first rhinoceros to be seen in the city, Julius Caesar the first giraffe. Augustus, as a token of his victory over Egypt, had ridden through Rome with a hippopotamus waddling in his train, while Claudius himself, on formal occasions, might order elephants hitched to his chariot. It was no coincidence that all these creatures, and many more, had come from Africa – for the continent was famed as ‘the wet-nurse of wild beasts’.27Naturally, though, merely to exhibit them gave the Roman people an inadequate sense of the animals’ ferocity, and of the achievement that transporting them from the ends of the earth represented. More educational, and certainly more crowd-pleasing, was to pit them in battle against trained huntsmen, and have them fight to the death. Only then could spectators gain a due sense of what legates like Paulinus, when they tamed lands teeming with lions and crocodiles, were achieving on behalf of the Roman people. Only then could they begin to appreciate the task undertaken by Claudius Caesar in pacifying and ordering the world.

Not that the subduing of wild beasts was the only measure of Roman greatness. At the opposite end of the world, amid the surging and the heaving of the Northern Ocean, lay challenges even more formidable than those met by Paulinus. No one could know for sure what lay beyond the limits explored by Roman fleets, although travellers spoke of islands inhabited by freakishly barbarous people, some with horses’ hooves, others with ears so huge that they covered up their otherwise naked bodies – and ultimately, far beyond them, the mysterious land of Thule, and a terrible sea of frozen ice. For Claudius, the wilds and wonders of the Northern Ocean had a particular resonance, for it was his father, back in 12BC, who had been the first Roman commander to sail it. Twenty-eight years later, Germanicus had repeated the exploit; and even though, since then, no Roman general had led a fleet across the Ocean, Claudius now had the chance to emulate his father and brother. Yet his ambitions did not stop at exploration. Lame though he was, and fifty-four years a civilian, he aimed at an even more heroic feat: the completion of a conquest left undone by Julius Caesar. It was time, not merely to cross the Ocean, but to carve out from it a new province: to win for the Roman people the island of Britain.

There were good reasons for Claudius to command its invasion in the early summer of 43. Circumstances had rarely looked so promising. The island itself was convulsed by dynastic upheavals. Not only had Cunobelin, the veteran chieftain of the Catuvellauni, recently died, leaving his lands to two sons, but a neighbouring kingdom on the south coast had collapsed into such savage factionalism that its king had fled to the Romans. Simultaneously, on the opposite side of the Channel, preparations for an amphibious assault were well advanced. At Boulogne, where Caligula had ordered the construction of a towering lighthouse, some two hundred feet high, to light the way across the Ocean, a fleet sufficient to transport four legions awaited the command to set sail. The soldiers massing there bore witness to years of forward planning. Caligula’s expedition to the North had not, as his critics charged, been a mere exercise in wild irresponsibility. It was thanks to the two legions recruited on his orders that a substantial invasion force could be readied without unduly weakening the Rhine defences. Meanwhile, on the Rhine itself, all was quiet. So well had Galba’s campaign of pacification gone that Claudius, in his role of commander-in-chief, had been awarded triumphal honours. Two of the more contumacious German tribes had been decisively crushed. The glow of victory had been further burnished by the recapture of an eagle lost to Arminius. No better portent could possibly have been imagined.

Or could it? To the legionaries camped out on the Channel coast, anything that stirred up memories of the fate of Varus was liable to provoke deep unease. Bad enough as it was to be trapped on the wrong side of the Rhine, how much more terrifying was the prospect of being stranded on the wrong side of the Ocean. Few knew much about Britain – but what they did know was deeply off-putting. The natives were, if anything, even more barbarous than the Germans. They painted themselves blue; they held their wives in common; they wore hair on the upper lip, an affectation so grotesque that Latin did not even have a word for it. Nor were their women any better. They were reported to dye their bodies black, and even on occasion to go naked. Savages capable of such unspeakable customs were clearly capable of anything; and sure enough, just as it was part of the terror of the Germans that they practised murderous rites in the depths of their dripping forests, so did the Britons have priests who, in groves festooned with mistletoe, were reported to commit human sacrifice and cannibalism. These ‘Druids’, as the priests were called, had once infested Gaul as well, until their suppression on the orders of Tiberius; but across the Ocean, beyond the stern reach of Roman law, they still thrived. ‘Magic, to this very day, holds Britain in its shadow.’28 No wonder, then, ordered to embark for a land of such sorcery and menace, that many soldiers should have blanched. Soon enough, murmurings were turning to open insurrection. Legionaries began to lay down their arms and refuse point-blank to board the transport ships.

Up stepped Narcissus. Sent ahead of his master, who had no intention of venturing to Britain until he could be confident that the invasion was a success, the freedman boldly addressed the mutineers and began to lecture them on their duty. He was immediately drowned out by howls of derision. The mood was turning uglier by the minute. It seemed that discipline had been entirely lost. Then all at once, one of the legionaries yelled ‘Io Saturnalia!’ – and his comrades started to laugh. The cry was echoed across the entire camp. Abruptly, a holiday spirit took hold of the soldiers. The threat of violence was dissolved and the army brought back to obedience. When the legions boarded the transport ships, it was as though for a festival. Nor, from that point on, did anything further happen to shake their discipline. Instead, all went as well as the planners of the invasion could possibly have hoped. The seas for the crossing were calm; three bridgeheads established unopposed; the Britons twice defeated, and one of the two Catuvellaunian chieftains left dead on the battlefield. True, resistance was far from crushed. The surviving son of Cunobelin, a wily and indefatigable warrior named Caratacus, remained on the loose, while to the north and west of the island, in lands where even clay pots were a novelty, let alone coinage or wine, there lurked tribes who had barely heard of Rome. Nevertheless, with a crossing secured across the Thames and an encampment planted on the river’s northern bank, the time had clearly come to send for the commander-in-chief. The glory of securing the final defeat of the Catuvellauni, and receiving their formal submission, belonged to one man, and one alone.

Hobble-gaited though he was, Claudius did not make a wholly improbable conqueror. Tall and solidly built, he had the white hair and distinguished features that the Roman people expected of their elder statesmen; and there was no difficulty, whenever he sat or stood still, in accepting that he might indeed rank as an imperator. For Claudius himself, who all his youth had been cooped up in his study while his elder brother played the war hero, the chance to lead an army into battle was a dream come true. He did not waste it. Advancing at the head of his legions, he did so as the embodiment of Roman might. The Catuvellauni, duly intimidated, began to melt away. The advance along the north coast of the Thames estuary towards their capital, a straggling complex of dykes and round-houses named Camulodunum, met with scant opposition. Camulodunum itself, with only rough-hewn fortifications and a demoralised garrison to defend it, rapidly fell. Entering the settlement in triumph, Claudius could legitimately exult that he had proven himself worthy of the noblest and most martial traditions of his family. The potency of his name now reached even further than that of Drusus or Germanicus had done. Shortly after the storming of Camulodunum, there arrived at Claudius’s headquarters a slew of British chieftains – and among them was the king of a cluster of distant islands named the Orkneys, thirty in number, and so far to the north that their winter was one perpetual night.29 Receiving the submission of such an exotic figure, Claudius could know his dearest ambitions for the invasion had been fulfilled. ‘The Ocean had been crossed and – in effect – subdued.’30

Then, sixteen days after first setting foot in Britain, the Emperor was off again, back to Rome. He had no need to linger on a dank and amenity-free frontier. Let his subordinates pursue Caratacus, storm hill-forts and complete the pacification of the island. Claudius had accomplished what he had set out to do. The Britons themselves, after all, had never been the principal target of his exertions. He had always had other opponents more prominently in mind. The gravest threat to his security had never been Caratacus but his own peers. Seasoned gambler that he was, he had weighed the odds carefully before deciding to absent himself from the capital for six months. Even with Vinicianus and his fellow conspirators dead, the embers of insurrection were not completely stamped out. Shortly before Claudius’s departure, an equestrian had been convicted of plotting against him and flung off the cliff of the Capitol; then, a portent that invariably foretold some calamitous upheaval to the state, an eagle-owl had flown into the sanctum of Jupiter’s temple. Not surprisingly, before leaving on campaign, Claudius had made sure to take every precaution. The administration of the capital itself had been entrusted to that impeccably loyal courtier, Lucius Vitellius. Other, less tractable senators, meanwhile, had been graced with the supreme honour of accompanying Caesar to Britain. Prominent among them had been Valerius Asiaticus and Marcus Vinicius – both of whom, not coincidentally, had once asserted their own claims to supreme power. Now, with the conquest of Britain, there was no longer the remotest prospect of anyone wrenching it from Claudius’s grasp. The glory of his successes filled the world. In Corsica, the exiled Seneca – desperate to be allowed home – hailed the triumphant Imperator as ‘the universal consolation of mankind’;31 in the Greek city of Corinth, his victory was granted its own cult; on the far side of the Aegean, in the city of Aphrodisias, a vividly sculptured relief portrayed Britannia as a hapless and bare-breasted beauty, wrestled to the ground by an intimidatingly well-muscled Claudius. The man scorned all his life by his own family as a twitching, dribbling cripple stood, in the imaginings of distant provincials, transfigured into something infinitely more swaggering: a world-subduing sex god.

Naturally, though, it was in Rome that Claudius’s victory made the biggest splash. The Senate, alert to what was expected of them, duly voted the returning hero a full complement of honours: a triumph, lots of statues, a particularly flashy arch. His family too basked in his glory. Messalina was granted the same right to zip around Rome in a carpentum that Livia had previously enjoyed, while their infant son was awarded the splendid name ‘Britannicus’. Here, to a Caesar always painfully conscious that he lacked the blood of Augustus in his veins, were developments ripe with promise. Already, the previous year, he had secured for Livia the divine honours that both Tiberius and Caligula had neglected to award her – thereby ensuring himself a status as the grandson of a god. But it was not enough merely to draw on the past for legitimacy. Claudius knew that he had to look to the future as well. Now, with the gilding of his dependants, he had made a start. He had laid the foundations for a dynasty all of his own.

As a historian, and an attentive student of the past, the Emperor had a well-honed understanding of what it took to be regarded by the Roman people as a great man. His supreme role model, and the man whose name he swore his oaths by, was Augustus – as it was bound to be. Nevertheless, just as Tiberius had done, he thrilled to the tales inherited from Rome’s distant past. The virtues and values of the Republic at its most heroic never ceased to move him. Both as an antiquarian and as a Claudian, he felt profoundly bonded to traditions that had originated centuries before Augustus. To invade Britain, with its chariots, its mud huts and its phantom-haunted groves, had been, for a man like Claudius, to travel back in time to the very beginnings of his city, to that fabulous age when citizens had assembled on the Campus Martius before marching off to war against cities barely a few miles away. Claudius, in token of this, made sure to restage his storming of Camulodunum directly on the Campus, so that for one day at least, amid the marble, the fountains and the softly ornamented arbours, the violent flash of weaponry might be witnessed there once again.

Then, in AD 51, came an even more glittering opportunity for him to pose like a hero from a history book. Caratacus, after a bold and increasingly desperate series of last stands, had finally been taken prisoner by a rival chieftain, sold to the invaders and brought to Rome in chains. The nobility of his bearing as he was paraded through the streets excited much admiration; and Claudius, with the eyes of the Roman people fixed firmly on him, knew from his reading of history precisely what to do. Long ago, Scipio Africanus had captured an African king, and then, after leading him in his triumph, ordered him spared – a gesture of imperious magnanimity. Claudius, to wild approbation, now did the same. Upon his command, the shackles were struck off the British king. Caratacus, free to wander round Rome and to gaze at the people who had defeated him, played his part in the drama by wondering aloud that they should ever have aspired to conquer his own mean and backward land. The occasion, everyone could agree, had been like an episode from some collection of improving tales. In the Senate, Claudius was fêted with extravagant praise. ‘His glory was equal to that of anyone who had ever exhibited a captured king to the Roman people.’32

Naturally, Claudius himself was far too shrewd to put much faith in this gushing. He knew that resentment of him in the Senate still ran deep. The Senate, though, was not Rome. Claudius, steeped as he was in the annals of his city, knew this better than anyone. Unlike Tiberius, whose own devotion to the inheritance of the past had only confirmed him in his instinctive disdain for the mob, his nephew looked more fondly on the plebs. He could appreciate, thanks to his years of study, that the many remarkable achievements of the Republic had owed quite as much to the people as to the Senate. This was why, a year before the capture of Caratacus, Claudius had capitalised upon his triumphs in Britain to make a potent gesture. Over the centuries, ever since Romulus had first ploughed the pomerium, various conquerors had extended the sacred boundary which marked the limits of Rome – for only those who had added to the possessions of the city were permitted by tradition to do so. This, at any rate, was the claim made by Claudius in a speech to the Senate – and who was there, knowing of his exhaustive antiquarian researches, to dispute his assertion?33 For eight hundred years, ever since Romulus had bested Remus in their contest to found a city, the Aventine had lain beyond the limits of the pomerium – but no longer. On the orders of the Emperor, stone markers began to sprout, girding its slopes at regular intervals and proclaiming the hill no less a part of Rome than the Palatine. Back in the days of Tiberius, the attempt by Sejanus to woo the inhabitants of the Aventine had helped to precipitate his downfall; but now, seventeen years on, Tiberius’s nephew held it no shame to court them. Claudius, it went without saying, had not forgotten his history. He knew full well what was commemorated by the shrine to Liber on the slopes of the Aventine: the class war won by the plebs in the first decades of the Republic, and the establishment of their political rights. Each marker stone, stamped as it was with the Emperor’s prerogatives, served as a reminder that he held it a privilege to wield the powers of their tribunes. A conqueror, yes – but a friend of the people too.

Nor, in his own opinion, was there anything remotely un-Claudian about this. In contrast to his grim and haughty uncle, Claudius did not interpret the inheritance of his family’s past as a licence to scorn the interests of the plebs. Just the opposite. Lavishing funds on structures that could serve the good of every citizen was a prized and venerable tradition among the Roman aristocracy. Why else would Appius Claudius, flush with the booty he had won in the service of the Republic, have spent it on a road? The thought of blowing it on some flashy but useless monument, in the manner of a pharaoh, could not have been more alien to the dictates of his city. Centuries on, it remained a proud boast of the Roman people that their most impressive structures, unlike those of foreign despots, were thoroughly practical in their purpose. ‘Far better them than some pointless pyramid.’34 Claudius, who could still remember what it was to count the coppers, agreed. Earnest as he was in his respect for the traditional values of his fellow citizens, he had no wish to squander money on projects that would fail to serve their long-term interests. Now that the bribes he had lavished on the armed forces in the first days of his supremacy were behind him, it was his aim to order his finances sensibly and spend the proceeds well. Plunder from Britain helped; so too the acumen of Pallas. Widely though the freedman might be detested as a vulgar upstart, there could be no faulting his head for figures. Evidence for this was twofold: that Claudius did not, like his predecessor, end up detested for his exactions; and that he was able, all the same, to invest spectacularly in infrastructure.

The result, in a city where building sites had invariably been the surest source of employment, was a far more reliable source of income than promiscuous handouts of the kind favoured by Caligula. The prime focus of Claudius’s engineering ambitions, though, lay well beyond the bounds of the capital itself. This was not because Rome, in the wake of its renovation by Augustus, had ended up so beautified that it had no need of further improvements. Quite the opposite. It was precisely because multitudes still festered in sprawling, smog-choked slums which seemed, to the rich in their airy villas, ‘like the paltry, obscure places into which dung and other refuse are thrown’,35 that Claudius had resolved to sluice out the ordure. As a private scholar, he had been fascinated by hydraulics, writing knowledgeably about floodwaters in Mesopotamia; but naturally, historian that he was, he also looked to precedent to guide him in his actions. Others too in his family, from Caligula all the way back to the inevitable Appius Claudius, had commissioned aqueducts in their time. None, though, had brought to completion anything quite on the scale of the pair built by Claudius. Extending over many miles, crossing deep valleys and running through steep hills, they almost doubled the supply of water flowing into the heart of Rome. Everywhere in the city, even in the meanest quarters, where the snarl of back-alleys was matted with refuse and shit, lead pipes fed gushing fountains and provided a cooling touch of distant mountains. Although it was Caligula who had originally commissioned the two aqueducts, the achievement was very much Claudius’s own. On their final approach towards the city, the towering grandeur of the arches as they strode across the fields, never betraying so much as a hint of a limp, was complemented by the distinctive character of their stonework: rugged and determinedly old-fashioned, as though hewn from the bedrock of Rome’s past. ‘Who can deny that they are wonders without rival in the world?’36 Embittered senators, perhaps – but not the plebs. They knew they had in Claudius a leader who took seriously his duties to them as their champion.

Not, of course, that these duties were any longer what they had been in the distant age commemorated by the shrine to Liber on the Aventine. The days when the plebs had agitated for political rights were gone, and no one in Rome’s slums greatly missed them. Why bother with elections, after all, when they never changed anything? This was why Caligula’s restoration to the Roman people of their right to vote had been greeted with such yawns of indifference that it had soon discreetly been abandoned. Realities had changed – and everybody knew it. What mattered most to the poor, in a city so vast that many had never even seen a cornfield, still less harvested one, was to banish the spectre of famine – and only Caesar could guarantee that. In shouldering the responsibility for keeping his fellow citizens fed, Claudius was naturally concerned for his own survival – for he knew that even Augustus, in the dark days of the Triumvirate, had only narrowly avoided being torn to pieces by a starving mob. Yet as with the building of aqueducts, so with famine relief: the obligations laid upon an emperor had a venerable pedigree. The cause of keeping the Roman people fed had been championed by some of their most celebrated tribunes. It was Gaius Gracchus, in 123 BC, who had first legislated to subsidise the price of bread, and Clodius, sixty-five years later, who had introduced a free ration for every citizen. Augustus, although he privately disapproved of the dole, fretting that it would soften the moral fibre of the Roman people and keep them from honest toil, had known better than to abolish it – for of all the many bonds between plebs and First Citizen, there was none more popular with the plebs themselves. They valued it not simply because it kept them fed, but as an expression of their civic status. ‘No matter a man’s character, whether upstanding or not, he gets his dole by virtue of being a citizen. Good or bad, it makes no difference.’37 Only in Rome, of all the cities in the world, did Caesar provide a corn dole; and only citizens, among the multitudes who inhabited the capital, were entitled to receive it. Any notion that the poor merited charity simply by virtue of being poor was, of course, too grotesque to contemplate. Everyone knew that people only ever suffered poverty because they deserved it. This was why, for instance, when Judaea was hit by shortages so terrible that it seemed to those suffering them that there must surely be ‘a great famine over all the world’,38 Claudius took no steps to intervene – for what responsibility did he have to mere provincials? To fellow citizens, though, he did feel a duty of care – which was why, no sooner had he become emperor, than he was obsessing about the grain supply to Rome.

There had been troubles with it since the summer before his accession, the lingering after-effect of his nephew’s most spectacular stunt. Without ships, of course, Caligula would never have been able to ride his horse across the sea; but without ships, there could be no transportation of grain from abroad. Rome, like an immense and insatiable belly, had long exhausted the ability of Italian farmers to keep her fed. This was why, from Egypt to Mauretania, the spreading fields of Africa were devoted to servicing the hunger of the capital. Every summer, massive freight ships would head for the Bay of Naples – for Puteoli, the city to which Caligula had crossed from Baiae, was the nearest port to Rome with docks sufficiently deep to harbour their bulk. Then would come the next stage of the journey: the reloading of the grain, half a million tons of it each year, onto smaller vessels, and the journey up the coast to the mouth of the Tiber.39There, surrounded by marshes and salt-flats, stood the port of Ostia; and beyond Ostia, lining the sixteen miles of quays that separated it from Rome, warehouse after giant warehouse, each one with windows so high and slit-like that they seemed a line of fortresses. There was much that could go wrong between Puteoli and the safe arrival of the grain in these depots; and Claudius, once the immediate threat of famine had been lifted, therefore resolved to attempt a solution appropriate to the greatness and ambition of the Roman people. As earnest as he was bold, as obsessed by the minutiae of detail as he was by the sweep of his global role, as ready to supervise plans beside a mudbank as he was to command the hollowing-out of the seabed, he aimed at an achievement no less heroic than the conquest of Britain. When engineers, informed of his intention to construct a deep-sea harbour at Ostia, threw up their hands in horror ‘and told him on no account tocontemplate it’,40 he ignored their warnings. He was Caesar, after all. If it served the good of the Roman people to refashion the land and sea, then Claudius would do it.

The project was set in train even as he was busy preparing for the invasion of Britain. Claudius himself was a regular visitor to the site. When it was reported one day in Rome that he had been ambushed there and killed, it was widely believed. The plebs, distraught, held the Senate to blame, and only a hurried announcement from the Rostra that the rumour was false and all was well, stopped them from rioting. Although Claudius seemed to many senators a ridiculous and sinister figure, the Roman people knew better; their devotion to him, bred of his palpable concern for their interests, demonstrated that an emperor might be lacking in glamour and still end up taken to their hearts. Caligula, building his private racecourse, had adorned it with an obelisk transported from Egypt; but Claudius, towing the ship that had brought it into the mouth of the Tiber, ordered it sunk, and used as the base for a lighthouse. Breakwaters too were built, and a mole extending the entire way out to the lighthouse, and all the appurtenances of an up-to-date, international port. The achievement, directly on the doorstep of the capital, brought home to the Roman people everything that made the scale and scope of their sway so astonishing: their absolute centrality in the scheme of things; their command of the world’s resources; their dominion over the globe. Even the monsters of the deep, like the elephants and serpents stalked by Suetonius Paulinus, could be brought to acknowledge it. When a whale strayed into the half-completed harbour, Claudius summoned a squad of Praetorians to fight it from boats. Understandably, then, he found it hard to keep away from the site. Nowhere else provided him with a more fitting context in which to operate as the kind of ruler he aspired to be. Nowhere else enabled him to feel more exultantly what it was to be a Caesar.

Except that Ostia, by keeping him from Rome, was distracting him from his own household and its functioning. In AD 48, while he was on site at the mouth of the Tiber, Claudius received an unexpected request for an interview. The girl asking it, a concubine of the Emperor’s named Calpurnia, was one of his favourite bed partners, and so naturally he granted it. Coming into his presence, so halting and stammering was Calpurnia that she sounded much like Claudius himself; but eventually, after a supreme effort, she managed to reveal what she had come to report.

And as he listened, Claudius Caesar realised to his horror that he had been made to look the fool that his enemies had always alleged him to be.

Deadlier than the Male

The art of attracting an emperor’s attention was a fine one.

When Calpurnia came into Claudius’s presence, she was accompanied, for good measure, by a second of his concubines. Those who wanted his ear often made sure to exploit his sexual tastes, for everyone knew that he only ever slept with women. Like his concern that people should feel free to break wind at table, or his insistence on adding three new letters to the Latin alphabet, the complete lack of interest he had always shown in forcing himself on male partners marked Claudius out as a true eccentric. Not that people particularly disapproved – for it was the way of the world that different men had different foibles, and just as some might prefer blondes and others brunettes, so were there a few who only ever fucked females, and a few who only ever fucked males.41 That Galba, for instance, was the mirror image of Claudius – liking as he did ‘mature, hard-muscled men’42 – never did any harm to his standing as a model of martial rectitude. Seasoned soldier that he was, he well knew what it was to seize control, to thrust hard, to take possession.

Which was, it went without saying, the responsibility of every citizen who chose to have sex. Nothing was more shocking to Roman sensibilities than the man who, as Hostius Quadra had so notoriously done, submitted for his own pleasure to being fucked. The sword-stab of a penis was, of course, precisely what the female body had been shaped by the gods to receive; but the male body too was not lacking in orifices. Pay obeisance with the mouth or the anus to another man’s cock, and a citizen was doubly shamed. It was not just that he was playing the part of a woman (although that was, of course, bad enough); it was also that he was playing the part of a slave. Just as it was the privilege of the free-born, male and female alike, to have any violation of their bodies condemned as a monstrous crime, so was it the duty of slaves to serve a master’s every conceivable sexual need. For some, indeed, it might be their principal responsibility. Pretty boys, long-haired, smooth-shaven and glistening with oils, were must-have accessories at any fashionable soirée – and all the more so if twins. One senator, in the time of Augustus, had abandoned subtlety altogether, employing waitresses who served entirely in the nude. Every slave knew, as a matter of course, that the threat of rape, like that of corporal punishment, might be realised at any moment.

This did not mean that a master was necessarily incapable of tenderness: Lucius Vitellius, for instance, ended up so besotted with one of his slavegirls that not only did he free her, but he took to mixing up her spit with honey and using it as a throat medicine. Such cases, though, were the exception that proved the rule. In general, the right of a master to glut his sexual appetites on a slave, rather as he might blow his nose or use a latrine, was taken for granted. It was a perk of ownership, plain and simple. ‘No sense of shame is permitted a slave.’43

Except that freedom itself, in a city where even senators had been subjected to the rack and whip, was no longer all it had been. The implications, even for the grandest, were unsettling in the extreme. In AD 47, a year before Calpurnia came calling on Claudius at Ostia, one of the Senate’s most flamboyant and charismatic figures had been destroyed. Valerius Asiaticus, charged with a variety of crimes, had been arrested in the pleasure resort of Baiae and hauled back to Rome in chains. His prosecutor had been an old associate of Germanicus’s, a man as opportunistic as he was remorseless, by the name of Publius Suillius Rufus. His talent, given a victim, was for sinking his jaws in deep – and sure enough, at a private trial attended by both Claudius and Lucius Vitellius, Suillius had done just that. Rounding off the various charges, he had accused Asiaticus, for good measure, of the very ultimate in deviancy: of being ‘soft and giving, like a woman’.44 The prisoner, silent until then, had found this particular slander too much. ‘Ask your sons, Suillius,’ he had yelled. ‘They will confirm that I am all man.’ Desperate, aggressive banter – but also something more. The scorning of Suillius, a father to sons used by Asiaticus as women, had been the scorning too of an order so rotten that it had given power to such a man. Later, once Asiaticus had been sentenced to death, but permitted, on the recommendation of Lucius Vitellius, to choose how he died, he had made his contempt for Claudius’s regime even more explicit. He would rather, he had declared, have perished at the hands of Tiberius or Caligula than on the say-so of the smooth-tongued Vitellius – whose mouth was rancid from his addiction to lapping at genitals. And then, having made sure that the flames of his pyre would do no damage to the trees of his beloved garden, Asiaticus had slit his wrists.

Defiant assertion of his own masculinity and suicide: no other means had been available to him, in the final reckoning, of maintaining his dignity as a citizen. That Claudius, paranoid and insecure, had feared to let him live was clear enough; but that was hardly the whole story. Senators, convinced as they were that the Emperor was mentally deficient, saw in Asiaticus’s fate confirmation of all their darkest suspicions: that he was the gullible plaything of perverts, and even worse. ‘He, more conspicuously than any of his peers, was ruled by slaves – and by women.’45 Certainly, when it came to identifying the person ultimately responsible for the downfall of Asiaticus, the consensus was clear. Messalina had envied him his gardens and wanted them for herself. Worse: he had died to satisfy her passion for Mnester, former paramour of Caligula and Rome’s most famous actor, who was rumoured to have been conducting affairs with both Messalina herself and an equally high-ranking beauty named Poppaea Sabina. The prosecution of Asiaticus had enabled two birds to be killed with one stone: for among the charges levelled against him had been one of adultery with Poppaea. Messalina, far from keeping discreetly to the sidelines, had been present at his secret trial; and she had deployed her agents, even as Asiaticus was being condemned, to bully her rival into suicide. Nothing, in short, could possibly have been more demeaning or grotesquely sordid. One of the most eminent senators in Rome, a man who had once aspired to rule the world, had been sacrificed upon the altar of a woman’s jealousy.

‘How shaming it is to be submissive to a girl.’46 Ovid’s maxim was one that Roman moralists had always taken for granted. Whether on the battlefield or in the bedroom, so clearly had men been intended by the gods to hold the whip-hand that very few of them ever thought to question it. ‘An unhappy state indeed it would be which saw women usurp masculine prerogatives – be it the Senate, the army or the magistracies!’47 The very prospect was incredible. Nevertheless, in a city where a feminine tiff over an actor appeared to have ended up destroying a two-times consul, it was clear that something had gone badly wrong. That women of wealth and breeding might exploit their influence on behalf of their menfolk was one thing; that they should openly flaunt it quite another. No matter the rumours whispered of Livia, she had always made a point, before ascending into the heavens and taking her place beside Augustus on his celestial throne, of operating from the shadows. Certainly, she had never thought to play her husband for a fool. That, though, it seemed – if the increasingly feverish swirlings of gossip were to be trusted – was precisely what Messalina was doing. A few days after the suicide of Poppaea Sabina, Claudius had invited her husband to supper and asked him where his wife was. Told that she was dead, he had simply looked bemused. Messalina, it seemed to those who despised the Emperor, had him wrapped around her finger. As gullible as he was besotted, he had delivered the great and the good into her hands. Consuls, a Praetorian prefect, the granddaughter of Tiberius: all had been eliminated as a result of her manoeuvrings. Those who prized their skins made sure to crawl to her. Lucius Vitellius, that veteran trimmer, had even begged permission to take off her shoes, ‘and once he had removed her right slipper, he slipped it between his toga and tunic, carrying it round with him the whole time, and every so often kissing it’.48 Not merely degrading, it was emasculating in the extreme.

And perhaps, for that very reason, truth be told, just a bit erotic. Ovid, had he lived to see the former governor of Syria raining kisses on a woman’s slipper, would not have been unduly surprised. He had always enjoyed exploring the paradoxes that hedged propriety about.

Don’t be ashamed (though shameful it is – which is why it’s fun)

To hold a mirror in your hand as though you were a slave.49

As with adultery, so with role reversal: the greater the taboo, the more of a thrill it might be to break it. The pressure on a male always to take the lead, always to exact submission, served to close off whole dimensions of pleasure. That it was the responsibility of a respectable matron, while being fucked, to lie back passively and leave the action to her partner, was taken for granted by moralists; but that did not prevent some women, greatly daring, from spicing things up during sex by actually moving – almost as though they themselves were the males. Shocking, yes, and threatening to the masculinity of any self-respecting citizen, to be sure; but there were, for the man who found his partner bucking her thighs in time to his thrustings, or grinding her buttocks, or sucking and licking his cock, undeniable compensations. That a woman might be so sexually aggressive as to play the role of a man was certainly, for any self-respecting citizen, a most unsettling possibility; but there was rarely anything so deviant that some would not find it exciting. A woman such as Messalina was presumed to be, predatory in her ambitions and demonic in her taste for blood, was a figure fit to stalk fantasies as well as fears. Young, beautiful and dangerous, she was the very stuff of pornography.

There had always been something peculiarly delicious about the idea of the house of Caesar as a brothel. Tiberius, during his retirement on Capri, and Caligula, on the Palatine itself, had both made salacious play with it; but, as ever in a city as obsessed with rumour as Rome, it was gossip that gave it legs. Assiduous promotion of the August Family as the embodiment of traditional values had, as its dark side, the kind of stories told about Augustus’s daughter: of how, ‘wearying of adultery, she had turned to prostitution’,50 and ended up hawking her favours from the Rostra. Julia, though, had been loved by the Roman people; and so the stories told of her, scandalous though they were, had not been without a certain affection. Messalina, vindictive and murderous, seemed an altogether more terrifying figure. Her clitoris, it was darkly whispered, was of such monstrous size as to constitute ‘a raging hard-on’.51 With her hair concealed beneath a blonde wig and her nipples painted gold, she was said to work shifts in a low-rent brothel; to host parties on the Palatine at which the husbands of prominent women would watch on as they were cuckolded; to have challenged one of Rome’s most experienced prostitutes to an all-day sexathon, and won. Such stories, though originally bred of Messalina’s readiness to sniff out her opponents and destroy them, increasingly served to cast her as the opposite of calculating. A woman who, in terms of her talent for eliminating her enemies, ranked closer to a Sejanus than a Julia, she had come to be seen by the Roman people as a very different order of creature: carnivorous, irresponsible and heedless of every risk.

Which left her exposed. When Calpurnia and her fellow concubine arrived in Ostia and came into the presence of their master, their role was much like the one that Pallas, by taking Antonia’s letter to Capri, had played in the ruin of Sejanus. Like Tiberius, Claudius had been more than happy to leave his dirty work to another, sanctioning his wife’s manoeuvrings against men like Asiaticus while simultaneously playing up to his reputation for absent-mindedness. The comparison, though, did not end there. Just as Tiberius, reading Antonia’s letter, had realised with an abrupt shock that he might be in mortal danger from a helpmate he had always trusted, so Claudius now suffered a similar moment of vertigo. Messalina, Calpurnia reported, was engaged in overt treachery. Astonishingly, she had taken as a lover the most handsome man in Rome, a consul-designate by the name of Gaius Silius – and actually married him. ‘The people, the Senate, the Praetorians: all have witnessed the wedding!’52 Claudius, whose first instinct when taken by surprise was invariably to panic, promptly went into a meltdown. It was bad enough that she had impugned his masculinity, his ability to maintain order in his own household, and, by extension, his competence as emperor; but there was worse. By marrying Silius, and permitting him to take possession of what was properly Caesar’s, she appeared to be signalling a coup. ‘Am I still in power,’ Claudius kept wailing, ‘or has Silius taken over?’53

Bundled into a carriage by his two most trusted senatorial aides, Vitellius and Caecina Largus, he remained in a state of shock as together they hurried back to Rome. When Messalina, riding out to meet him, vainly attempted to force an interview, he sat in silence; nor did the appearance on the roadside of their two children, seven-year-old Britannicus and his elder sister, Octavia, crack the frozen quality of his expression. Even when Claudius arrived in the Praetorian camp and addressed the assembled soldiers, he could barely bring himself to speak. ‘No matter how justified his outrage, he was hobbled by shame.’54

Actions, though, spoke louder than words. Claudius’s decision to take shelter in the Praetorian camp demonstrated both the scale of his alarm and his resolve to crush any hint of sedition. Silius and various of his high-born associates had already been rounded up. Hauled before the Praetorians, they were dispatched with brisk efficiency. Mnester too, despite histrionic appeals for mercy, was among those decapitated: for clearly, despite Claudius’s initial instinct to spare him, it was out of the question to pardon a mere actor when so many senators and equestrians had already been put to death. Only the odd plea for mercy was granted. When a son of Suillius Rufus, demonstrating the truth of Valerius’s accusations against him, declared that he could not possibly have committed adultery with Messalina because it was his habit, whenever having sex, ‘to play the role of a woman’,55 he was dismissively sent on his way. Otherwise, though, the bloodbath was total. Claudius might be panicky, and reluctant under normal circumstances to indulge in repression; but he could always be relied upon to take no prisoners when faced by a crisis.

Meanwhile, only his wife remained on the loose. Frantic with misery, Messalina had taken shelter in the gardens purloined from Asiaticus just the previous year. There, sobbing among the flowerbeds, she was watched over by her mother, Domitia Lepida, who sought to comfort her daughter, in the noblest tradition of Roman parenthood, by urging her to prepare for an honourable death. In the event, though, terror won out over courage. When a squad of soldiers arrived in the gardens, Messalina could not bring herself to slit her own throat. Instead, it was left to a soldier to run her through. Her corpse was then dumped at her mother’s feet. Her legacy was not only a name that would long serve the Roman people as a byword for nymphomania, but a sense of palpable bewilderment. Something about the episode struck many as not quite right. When people sought to explain what could possibly have persuaded Messalina, in a city as addicted to gossip as Rome, to imagine that she could get away with marriage to Silius, many shrugged their shoulders and confessed themselves bewildered. Had she really been swept to her doom by sheer lust? Or had Claudius been right to suspect a plot? But if a plot, then why had Messalina been willing to stake the prospects of her children on a conspiracy so self-evidently incompetent and half-baked? None of it quite made sense.

A familiar frustration, of course. The secrets of Caesar’s household were invariably impenetrable to outsiders. The weakness of Claudius’s position, which saw him as reliant upon freedmen as senators, had only made the situation worse. Conflicts on the Palatine, where rival factions fought in its subterranean depths for influence, only rarely disturbed the surface. Messalina herself, far from scorning to engage in the power struggles of her husband’s freedmen, was rumoured to have slept with one of them, and then – once he had outlived his usefulness – to have had him put to death. True or not, it was certain that by the time of her downfall she had made enemies of Narcissus, Callistus and Pallas; and that the fingerprints of Narcissus, in particular, were all over her ruin. It was he who had sent the two concubines to their master in Ostia; who had assured Claudius of the truth of their story, when both Vitellius and Caecina had seemed reluctant to confirm it; who had shouted down Messalina when she sought an interview with her husband. Astonishingly, for the duration of the crisis, he had even managed to secure command of the Praetorians – thereby ensuring that those put to death were eliminated directly on his orders. By the time the carnage was done and all the blood mopped up, anyone in a position to contradict the story of Messalina’s marriage to Silius had been silenced for good.

Whether it had truly happened, or whether Messalina had been the victim of a subtly crafted fiction, no one would ever know. Her statues were removed from their plinths, her name from every inscription. Narcissus, meanwhile, long obliged by his status as a freedman to operate without official recognition, was now graced by his master with a fleeting but authentic taste of the limelight. By formal decree of the Senate, and as a mark of gratitude for his actions in preserving the Roman state, he was granted an honorary magistracy. It was, for a one-time slave, an unprecedented mark of favour. Io Saturnalia indeed.

Yet it was the nature of Caesar’s household that its rivalries were like the hydra. Slice off one head and another would quickly sprout. The success of Narcissus in dispatching Messalina, and the predominance that it had brought him in the back-rooms of the Palatine, itself disturbed the balance of power that had long prevailed among Claudius’s three most trusted freedmen. Callistus and Pallas remained as clear-sighted about the workings of their master’s court as they had ever been. Indeed, when Callistus died soon after the great dégringolade of 48, it served perhaps as the ultimate measure of his influence: for he was one of the few men at the heart of power to enjoy a natural death. Pallas too, while having little choice in the short term but to swallow Narcissus’s pre-eminence, had no intention of ceding it permanently. He knew his master well. More clearly than his rival, he could appreciate the scale of the humiliation that had been visited on Claudius, and the inevitable insecurities that it had served to reawaken. Messalina had been a mother as well as a wife; and her downfall had wreaked terrible damage on her children’s prospects. How, after the scandal visited on his family, was Claudius to promote it as a model of Roman virtue now? As things stood, his task had been rendered impossible; and for as long as that remained the case, he was bound to feel that his legitimacy as ruler of the world stood in question. The old problem, that Claudius was no more descended from Augustus than any number of other ambitious senators, had abruptly come back into focus. There was, though, an obvious solution to hand. Pallas, clearer-sighted than Narcissus, knew that his master would have little alternative but to adopt it.56

During the years of Messalina’s primacy, Agrippina had made sure to keep her head down. Her son had the blood of Germanicus as well as of Augustus flowing in his veins; and she herself, for good measure, was famously beautiful. The fate of her younger sister, exiled and eliminated after provoking Messalina’s jealousy, had served Agrippina as a standing admonition; and so, rather than engage in court intrigue, she had devoted her energies to repairing her finances. Marriage to a fabulously wealthy senator had helped, as had his death a short while afterwards. Claudius, frantic for a way to burnish his own legitimacy after the calamity of Messalina’s downfall, did not have far to look. That Agrippina was his own niece was indisputably a problem: so revolted by incest were the Roman people that it ranked alongside treason as one of only two charges that admitted the evidence of tortured slaves. Nevertheless, far from attempting to veil it, or having Agrippina adopted first into another family, as he might otherwise have done, Claudius was obliged to trumpet that he was marrying his own ‘nursling’57 – for it was precisely his niece’s pedigree that rendered her so invaluable to him. Smooth as ever, it was Vitellius who served as fixer. Standing up before the Senate, he played it with his customary skill. After praising Claudius, with a perfectly straight face, as a model of sobriety, he urged a change to the law that forbade an uncle to marry his niece – for the good of Caesar himself, of Rome and of the world. ‘For surely it was by the foresight of the gods themselves that our Princeps – who never sleeps with a wife who is not his own – has been provided with such a widow!’58 Senators erupted in wild applause; out in the Forum, a carefully assembled crowd joined in with no less ecstatic cheering of their own. The Senate and the Roman people were united as one. Who, then, was Claudius to resist their demands?

Many, of course, away from the various stage-managed shows of enthusiasm, were shocked by what they regarded as a legal sleight of hand, and feared that no good could possibly come from such ‘an illegal and deplorable union’.59Agrippina herself, though, was not among them. Marriage to the aged and dribblesome Claudius, no matter how physically unsatisfying it might be, marked as triumphant a return to the centre of power as her original fall from it had been precipitous. Naturally, a woman willing to prostitute herself to her own uncle could hardly expect to be spared the mockery of the Roman people; but their abuse, even so, was leavened with a certain grudging respect. Unlike the Emperor’s previous wife, Agrippina was not diagnosed with nymphomania. ‘In her private doings she was always most respectable – except when she had a sniff of power.’60 Just as Augustus was said only ever to have committed adultery in order to spy on a woman’s husband, so were Agrippina’s supposed infidelities attributed to her implacable determination to reach the top. Such ambition, shocking and unnatural though it obviously was in a woman, marked her out as an indisputable heavyweight. ‘Her style of dominance was not just abrasive – it was essentially masculine as well.’61

Forebodings that the world had been delivered up to the rule of a mistress as imperious as she was determined were only strengthened the following year. Few doubted the intensity of Agrippina’s hopes for her son; and sure enough, it came as no great surprise when, in AD 50, thirteen-year-old Domitius was formally adopted by his stepfather as a Claudian. No longer Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the boy could now boast the altogether more impressive name of Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. Portraits of young Nero, round-faced and still with a hint of baby fat, immediately began to proliferate. It was his mother, though, whose radiance was truly coming to fill the world. Honours that not even Livia had enjoyed were lavished on her by her husband. For the first time, an emperor permitted his wife to be graced with the awesome title of ‘Augusta’ while he was still alive; to be shown in sculptures wearing the crescent-shaped diadem of a goddess; to appear with him on his coins. These, prior to the downfall of Messalina, had been minted on their reverse side with images designed to proclaim Claudius’s many triumphs; but no longer. Now, where previously there had been soldiers, and triumphal arches, and self-aggrandising slogans, there gleamed only the heads of Agrippina and Nero. The sheer scale of the crisis required nothing less. The grievous wound inflicted on the August Family could not possibly be allowed to suppurate. Its future had to be presented, at all costs, as stable.

Naturally, those predisposed to see Claudius as a pliable dolt, the plaything of women and slaves, were only confirmed by this in their contempt for him. The Emperor himself, as he had done throughout his life, shrugged it all aside. At stake, so he believed, was not merely his own survival but the long-term security of the Roman people. Claudius had appreciated from an early age the terrible consequences of civil war. As a young man, embarking on a history of Augustus’s rise to power, he had been roundly scolded by Livia and his mother, and persuaded to abandon it. ‘No one,’ they had told him, ‘could ever give an accurate or frank account of what had really happened.’62 Decades on, the menace of what might happen were he to slip, to squander the legacy of Augustus, to betray the inheritance of a peace that had lasted now for decades, still haunted Claudius. Schooled as he was in the history of the Republic at its flintiest and most austere, he understood that the ideal of citizenship might sometimes demand sacrifice. With Messalina consigned to oblivion and Britannicus still only nine years old, he could not rely on his own son to take the helm of the world. Claudius was old, and in declining health: it was too dangerous to leave Nero untutored in the demands of ruling Rome. Certainly, that winter, there were reminders everywhere of how narrow was the thread by which Caesar’s fortunes might hang. Ominous-looking birds were seen flocking above the Capitol. Earthquakes shook the city. Meanwhile, in the warehouses along the Tiber, reserves of grain were running low. A hungry mob, cornering Claudius in the Forum, would have torn him to pieces had he not been rescued by a detachment of troops. It was a salutary lesson. The love of the people, the steel of the Praetorians: these were things that an emperor had to hug close to his chest.

As soon as he could, then, Claudius set about providing his prospective heir with both. The perfect opportunity was not long in coming. On Nero’s fifteenth birthday, one year ahead of schedule, he was permitted to celebrate his coming-of-age. First, he lavished donatives on both the Roman people and the Praetorians; then he led the Praetorians on parade. Shortly afterwards, for good measure, he made his maiden speech in the Senate. Meanwhile, as Nero was busy cutting a dash in his gleaming new toga, or presiding over the Circus arrayed in best triumphal regalia, Britannicus was left to mope around wearing the distinctive striped toga of a child. When he briefly sought to fight back against his stepbrother’s grandstanding by calling him ‘Domitius’, Agrippina went straight to Claudius and had the boy’s teachers replaced with nominees of her own. Britannicus’s principal tutor was put to death on a charge of plotting against Nero. The Augusta had form when it came to executing manoeuvres of this kind. She did not care to see anyone occupy a significant post unless he owed it to her. This was why, soon after her marriage to Claudius, she had persuaded him to appoint to the command of the Praetorians a man whose record of service to her family was as impeccable as his lack of pedigree was glaring. That Sextus Afranius Burrus was a distinguished officer, and even had a mutilated hand to prove it, did not alter the fact that he was irredeemably provincial – ‘and as such could hardly help but be aware who was responsible for his promotion’.63

Below the surface waters of Caesar’s household, where monsters of the deep fed on those weaker than themselves and yet were always hungry, Agrippina had shown herself as predacious as anyone. ‘It is not arms which constitute the surest safeguard of power, but the ability to bestow favours.’64 So Seneca, with the perspective provided by distance, had observed from his exile on Corsica. Agrippina, content to demonstrate the truth of his aperçu, had arranged, following her marriage to Claudius, for his recall to the capital. Her son needed a tutor – and who better than Rome’s foremost intellectual? Seneca, naturally, had leapt at the chance. The chance to educate a future ruler of the world, as Aristotle had taught Alexander the Great, was every philosopher’s dream. Not that Agrippina wanted her son taught anything as impractical as philosophy: rather, it was Seneca’s talent for giving a speech that she had hired. Sure enough, when Nero stepped onto the floor of the Senate House, it was evident that his tutor had done his work. As senators grown lined and craggy in the service of Rome listened to the sixteen-year-old give them the benefit of his views on foreign affairs, they could detect no sign of nerves. Unlike Claudius himself, he appeared to the manner born. Fluent, strapping and intimidatingly bumptious, Nero could hardly help but present a contrast to the aged Emperor. His very youth, an inevitable cause of perturbation in a Senate House still scarred by its memories of Caligula, seemed transformed almost into a source of strength.

Nero was not the only one entering into manhood. In AD 53, in a seeming confirmation of his status as favoured heir, he married Octavia, Claudius’s daughter by Messalina. There was, though, a second message broadcast by the marriage. Britannicus was only a year younger than his sister, and it served as a reminder to the Roman people that he too was on the verge of leaving childish things behind. Whether in the Senate, the Praetorian camp or the bars and street-markets of the city, he still had backers. In the household of Caesar too. Pallas, whose early support of Agrippina had seen him rewarded with public honours fit to put even those granted to Narcissus in the shade, was yet to establish total supremacy. Taking Britannicus by his hands, Narcissus would hug him and urge the boy to grow up fast. Claudius too, embracing his son, promised him, if he came of age, ‘an account of all that he had done’.65 By AD 54, when Britannicus turned fourteen, such a moment was plainly not far off. Nero had been arrayed in the toga of a man for the first time when he was only fifteen: why not the younger sibling too? Claudius began to talk openly of how much he was looking forward to the ceremony. Give it another year, and he would have double the number of candidates to succeed him – and then, of course, Nero’s future might no longer look so assured.

It was certainly hard to doubt that some great perturbation was brewing. Blood rained from the sky; the Praetorian eagles were struck by lightning; a pig was born with the talons of a hawk. Meanwhile, in the law courts, Britannicus’s grandmother, Domitia Lepida, was arraigned on a number of capital charges. Few doubted who lay behind the prosecution, for among the accusations was that she had deployed sorcery against the Emperor’s wife. Nero – on his mother’s instructions, it was said – appeared as a witness for the prosecution. Domitia Lepida, inevitably, was sentenced to death. Then, in October, the most formidable of Agrippina’s adversaries departed Rome. Narcissus, as befitted the vastly wealthy man that he had become, suffered from gout; and for such an ailment there was no surer remedy than to take the waters in Campania. Naturally, he had no intention of risking a lengthy holiday. He could not afford to be away from the capital for long. But just a short break – what could possibly go wrong?

The answer came at dawn on 13 October – just three months before Britannicus was due to come of age. Claudius, it was reported, had been taken dangerously ill. The Senate was convened. Consuls and priests alike offered up prayers for Caesar’s recovery. Meanwhile, on the Palatine, all the gates stood barred, while squads of soldiers blocked off the various approaches. Even so, there remained scope for optimism. Throughout the morning, reassuring bulletins were released, and various comic actors could be seen heading into Caesar’s house – for Claudius, it was said, as he lay on his sickbed, had asked to be entertained. Then abruptly, at midday, the gates were flung wide open. Out came Nero, accompanied by Burrus, the new prefect of the Praetorians. A cheer was raised by the men standing guard; Nero was ushered into a litter; he and an escort of soldiers then headed straight for the Praetorian camp. Here, he announced to the listening men the news that Claudius was dead – before lavishing on them yet another eye-watering bonus. Then to the Senate House. Its members knew the role expected of them. All the various powers and honours possessed by his predecessor were bestowed with universal acclaim upon Nero. There was only one that the seventeen-year-old new Caesar, with becoming modesty, turned down: that of ‘Father of his Country’. Plump, smooth-cheeked and with the rosebud lips of a girl, Nero knew better than to court needless ridicule. Then, by winning for his adoptive father divine honours, he secured for himself one final, clinching title: ‘Son of a God’.

And Claudius? What had happened to him, that he had departed the Palatine so abruptly for the golden throne of an immortal? Rome had been stalked by fever all that year, and Claudius, sickly since birth, was sixty-three years old: it was hardly implausible that he might have died of natural causes. Inevitably, though, in a city ever alert to the faintest whisperings of criminality, the circumstances of his death raised eyebrows. When Nero, with a casual quip, declared ‘mushrooms to be the food of the gods, since it was by means of a mushroom that Claudius has become a god’,66 it seemed to many that he was dropping a hint as to what had actually happened. Various accounts of the murder were given: that Agrippina had commissioned a notorious poisoner to lace a dish of mushrooms; that she had done the deed herself; that she had persuaded her husband’s physician to stick a venom-drenched feather down his throat. No one could know for certain; everyone suspected the worst.

As for Nero, whether his mother had played foully on his behalf or not, he knew what he owed her. That evening, when asked for the first time as Caesar to give the Praetorians the watchword, he did not hesitate. The phrase he chose was an unstinting acknowledgement of his debt: ‘Best of Mothers.’67

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