The Life of Claudius by Suetonius

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the fourth Roman emperor. Born in 10 BC, Claudius ruled from the assassination of his predecessor Caligula, in 41, until his own death in 54, a total of 13 years.

Claudius was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus (38 to 9 BC) and Antonia the Younger, the younger of two surviving daughters of Mark Antony and Octavia the Elder. He was born at Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons) in Roman Gaul, where his father was stationed as a military legate.

In his boyhood Claudius suffered an illness which left him with a limp and slight deafness. This led to him being ostracised by his family and excluded from public office (unlike most of his male relatives he didn’t hold any public office until he was allotted a consulship when his nephew became emperor in 37).

It was probably these infirmities which saved his life. Under the reigns of terror instituted by Tiberius (14 to 37) and Caligula (37 to 41) most of his extended family was executed. Claudius, by contrast, was not seen as a serious threat. In his Life of Caligula, Suetonius states that Caligula kept Claudius around as a laughing-stock (Caligula, chapter 23). When, to his own amazement, he was selected by the Praetorian Guard to replace Caligula, Claudius was the last surviving adult male of his family.

Claudius ruled effectively, though under continual threat from restive nobles. It was under Claudius that Britain was first invaded, conquered and settled by the Romans. (Julius Caesar had made a couple of brief incursions in 55 and 54 BC, fought a few battles then departed, leaving no lasting impact.)

When Claudius died at the age of 63, it was widely rumoured that he’d been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger. Agrippina wanted to secure the succession for her son, Lucius Domitius, whom Claudius had, at her bidding, adopted, before Claudius’s biological son (Britannicus) by his third wife (Messalina) could come of age. So Nero ascended the throne and the next year, 55, Britannicus died aged just 13, and all sources agree he was poisoned on Nero’s orders.

Suetonius’s life of Claudius

Roman texts were divided into short sections, sometimes called ‘chapters’ though most are less than a page long. Suetonius’s biography of the emperor Claudius is 46 sections long.

1. Claudius’s father, Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus (38 to 9 BC), also called Drusus the Elder, was the son of Livia Drusilla. He was born just three months after her marriage to Augustus (i.e. Augustus married her when she was 6 months pregnant by her first husband, who he forced her to divorce – unless the child was Augustus’s all along, and he had been sleeping with Livia while she was married).

Drusus was a successful general, in charge of the war in Raetia and later in Germany, the first Roman general to sail the northern Ocean, and responsible for building the huge canals which bear his name to this day. He was awarded an ovation with the triumphal regalia and was named consul, but after he returned to his summer camp in northern Gaul, he died, aged just 29. His body was brought back to Rome amid widespread mourning, he was given a marble arch on the Appian Way, and the surname Germanicus for himself and his descendants.

He made no secret of wanting to restore the old republican form of government whenever possible.

Some think that this prompted the enmity of Augustus and even accuse Augustus of having him poisoned. But Suetonius thinks this unlikely because there is plenty of evidence that Augustus loved him dearly, named him joint-heir along with his (adopted) sons, and eulogised him warmly after his death.

Drusus had several children by the younger Antonia, but was survived by only three, Germanicus, Livilla and Claudius.

2. At birth, Claudius’s name was Tiberius Claudius Drusus. Later, on the adoption of his elder brother Germanicus into the Julian family, he took over the surname Germanicus.

Claudius lost his father when he was a baby and throughout his childhood and youth he suffered so severely from various obstinate disorders that the vigour of both his mind and his body was dulled, so that he was not thought capable of any public or private business.

For a long time, even after he reached the age of manhood, he remained in the charge of a guardian. Later Claudius complained that this man was a barbarian and a former chief of muleteers, whose sole purpose was punishing severely for any cause of all.

It was because of poor health that Claudius wore a cloak when he presided at the gladiatorial games which he and his brother gave in honour of their father. Such was the family’s embarrassment of him that on the day when he assumed the gown of manhood, instead of processing to the Capitol in a public procession, he was taken there in a litter in the middle of the night, with no escort.

3. Claudius early was interested in the liberal arts and published works in many genres. But he could not attain any public position.

His mother Antonia often called him ‘a monster of a man, a man Nature had begun but not finished’ and if she ever accused anyone of dullness, she used to say that they were ‘an even bigger fool than my son Claudius.’

Claudius’s grandmother, Augusta, always treated him with the utmost contempt, very rarely speaking to him, and reproving him in short, bitter letters.

When his sister Livilla heard that he would one day be emperor, she openly and loudly prayed that the Roman people would be spared such a cruel and undeserved fate.

4. Suetonius then quotes extensively from letters by Augustus to Livia saying something must be done about ‘the Claudius problem’, namely that his lack of soundness of mind and body risked making the entire imperial family a laughing stock. However, his letters also suggest that, when he had a quit chat with Claudius, he was surprised how sensible and dignified he was.

‘How in the world anyone who is so unclear in his conversation can speak with such clearness and propriety when he declaims, is more than I can understand.’

In the event, Augustus left him invested with no office other than the augural priesthood and didn’t even name him as one of his heirs, save in the third degree​, and to a sixth part of his estate – among relatives so distant as to be virtual strangers.

5. When Claudius’s paternal uncle, Tiberius, assumed the throne, he gave him the consular regalia but refused to give him any other office.

So Claudius abandoned all hope of advancement and gave himself up to idleness, living sometimes in his house and gardens in the suburbs, sometimes at a villa in Campania. He hung out with the lowest of men and incurred criticism for drunkenness and gambling.

Yet somehow he retained the respect of the nobility and the public.

6. The equestrian order twice chose Claudius as their patron, to head a deputation on their behalf. They used to rise when he appeared at the public shows and put off their cloaks. The senate voted that he be made a special member of the priests of Augustus, who were usually chosen by lot. When he later lost his house by fire, the senate voted that it should be rebuilt at the public expense.

When Tiberius died (in 37) he named Claudius only among his heirs in the third degree, to a third part of his estate, although he did give him a legacy of about two million sesterces, and expressly commended him besides to the armies and to the senate and people of Rome.

7. It was only when his nephew, Caligula, came to power, that his uncle Claudius was awarded any significant office. Caligula made him consul, though admittedly only for two months.

It chanced that as he entered the Forum for the first time with the fasces, an eagle that was flying by alighted on his shoulder.

He was allotted a second consul­ship, to be held four years later, and several times he presided at the shows in place of Caligula, and was greeted by the people with cries of ‘Success to the emperor’s uncle!’ and with ‘All hail to the brother of Germanicus!’

8. None of which saved Claudius from constant insults. He’d arrive at dinner to find no place for him and have to wander round the dining-room. Whenever he went to sleep after dinner, which was a habit of his, he was pelted with the stones of olives and dates.

9. But Claudius also faced real dangers. He was almost deposed from his first consulship when he was slow in setting up statues of the emperor’s brothers, of Nero and Drusus.

After the conspiracy of Lepidus and Gaetulicus was discovered he was sent to Germany as one of the envoys to congratulate the emperor, but Caligula was furious that his uncle of all men had been sent to him, as if he were a child in need of a guardian. Some say Caligula had Claudius thrown into the river, clothes and all.

In the Senate he was humiliated by being ranked last to have his opinion asked.

10. Having spent most of his life putting up with humiliations like this, Claudius became emperor in his fiftieth year by a freak of fortune. When Caligula’s assassins shut out the crowd under pretence that the emperor wished to be alone, Claudius was ousted with the rest and withdrew to an apartment called the Hermaeum. When rumour of the assassination spread Claudius hid behind the curtains on a nearby balcony.

As he cowered there, a common soldier, who was prowling about at random, saw his feet and, intending to ask who he was, pulled him out. But when Claudius fell at his feet in terror, he was astonished when the soldier hailed him as emperor.

Then he took him to the rest of his comrades who were angry, confused and didn’t know what to do. These placed him in a litter and carried him to the army camp in a state of despair and terror. Here he spent the night among the sentries, full of doubt because the consuls, the senate and the city cohorts had taken possession of the Forum and the Capitol, and were determined to restore the republic.

When he was summoned to the Senate by the tribunes to give his advice on the situation, he sent word that he was being detained by force. But the Senate lost its chance by prevarication and argument among factions while the people, standing outside, called for one ruler and expressly named Claudius.

Learning of this, Claudius allowed the assembly of the soldiers to swear allegiance to him, and promised each man fifteen thousand sesterces. In doing so he was the first of the Caesars who resorted to bribery to secure the loyalty of the troops.

11. The first thing Claudius did was pass an act of oblivion for everything done and said in the confusion after the assassination, except for executing a few of the tribunes and centurions who he learned had called for his own death.

He then set about venerating the memories of his grandmother Livia and Augustus. He inaugurated annual games on his father’s birthday and for his (dead) mother a carriage to bear her image through the Circus and the surname of Augusta, which she had declined during her lifetime.

He took every opportunity of honouring his (dead) brother, Germanicus. He completed the marble arch to Tiberius near Pompey’s theatre, which had been voted some time before by the senate, but left unfinished.

He annulled all the acts of Caligula.

12. Claudius was modest and unassuming, refraining from taking the forename Imperator, refusing excessive honours, and passing over the betrothal of his daughter and the birthday of a grandson in with merely private ceremonies.

He recalled no one from exile except with the approval of the senate. He asked the consuls for permission to hold fairs on his private estates. He often appeared as one of the advisers at cases tried before the magistrates. When games were held he rose with the rest of the audience and showed his respect by acclamations and applause.

When the tribunes of the commons appeared before him as he sat upon the tribunal, he apologised to them because for lack of room he could not hear them unless they stood up.

By such conduct he won love and devotion in a short time. When it was erroneously reported that he had been ambushed and killed on a journey to Ostia, it triggered a riot and outpouring of anger against the senate and soldiers, until witnesses were brought to the rostra to assure the people that Claudius was safe.

13. Yet Claudius’s rule saw many threats: he was attacked by individuals, by a conspiracy, and finally by a civil war.

A commoner was caught near his bed-chamber in the middle of the night, dagger in hand. Two members of the equestrian order were found lying in wait for him in public places, one ready to attack him with a sword-cane as he came out of the theatre, the other with a hunting knife as he was sacrificing in the temple of Mars.

Asinius Gallus and Statilius Corvinus, grandsons of the orators Pollio and Messala, conspired to overthrow him, aided by a number of his own freedmen and slaves. [When you consider how wise and just Augustus was, and yet the final years of his rule were clouded by conspiracies, you realise there will always be men who want to overthrow the existing regime, for whatever purpose.]

The civil war was set on foot by Furius Camillus Scribonianus, governor of Dalmatia but his rebellion was put down within five days, since the legions which had changed their allegiance were turned from their purpose by superstitious fear for when the order was given to march, by some chance the eagles could not be adorned​ nor the standards pulled up and moved.

14. Claudius held four consul­ships in addition to his original one under Caligula. He administered justice most conscientiously both as consul and when out of office, even on his own anniversaries and those of his family, and sometimes even on festivals of ancient date and days of ill-omen.

He did not always follow the letter of the laws, but modified their severity or lenity in many cases according to his own notions of equity and justice; for he allowed a new trial to those who had lost their cases before private judges by demanding more than the law prescribed, while, overstepping the lawful penalty, he condemned to the wild beasts those who were convicted of especially heinous crimes.

15. In hearing and deciding cases​ Claudius showed a strange inconsistency of temper, for he was now careful and shrewd, sometimes hasty and inconsiderate, occasionally silly.

When a woman refused to recognise her son, the evidence on both sides was conflicting, he forced her to admit the truth by ordering her to marry the young man.

Whenever one party to a suit was absent, he was prone to decide in favour of the one who was present, without considering whether his opponent had failed to appear through his own fault or from a necessary cause.

On a man’s being convicted of forgery, someone cried out that his hands ought to be cut off, whereupon Claudius insisted that an executioner be summoned at once with knife and block.

In a case involving citizen­ship a fruitless dispute arose among the advocates as to whether the defendant ought to make his appearance in the toga​ or in a Greek mantle, and the emperor, with the idea of showing absolute impartiality, made him change his garb several times, according as he was accused or defended.

By such acts as these he so discredited himself that he was held in general and open contempt.

Suetonius drops in another personal anecdote, saying that he himself used to hear older men say that the pleaders took such advantage of Claudius’s good-nature, that they would not only call him back when he left the tribunal, but would catch hold of the fringe of his robe, and sometimes of his foot, and thus detain him.

Suetonius says it is a widely known story that a Roman knight who was tried on charge of improper conduct towards women cooked up by his enemies, upon seeing common prostitutes brought as witnesses against him, hurled his stylus and tablets in the emperor’s face with such force as to cut his cheek badly. [Suetonius doesn’t say whether he was punished for this outburst.]

16. Claudius also assumed the censor­ship which had long been discontinued, but in this office too he was variable and both his theory and his practice were inconsistent.

In his review of the knights he left off a young man of evil character on his own judgement. Another who was notorious for corruption and adultery he merely admonished to be more restrained. He removed the mark of censure affixed to one man’s name, at the request of his friends, but insisted that the mark of erasure remain visible. He struck from the list of jurors a man of high birth, a leading citizen of the province of Greece, because he did not know Latin, and even deprived him of the rights of citizen­ship. And he degraded many, some contrary to their expectation and on the novel charge that they had left Italy without consulting him and obtaining leave of absence.

When he attempted to degrade more he discovered that the snooping of his spies was often careless, because those he accused of celibacy, childlessness or lack of means were able to prove that they were married, or fathers or well-to‑do.

17. Claudius waged only one military campaign and that of little importance. When the senate voted him the triumphal regalia, thinking the honour beneath the imperial dignity and desiring the glory of a legitimate triumph, he chose Britain as the best place for gaining it, a land that had been attempted by no one since the Deified Julius and was just at that time in a state of rebellion because of the refusal to return certain deserters.​

He led a force across the Channel and, without any battle or bloodshed, received the submission of a part of the island, returned to Rome within six months after leaving the city, and celebrated a triumph of great splendour.

18. Claudius always gave scrupulous attention to the care of the city and the supply of grain. On the occasion of a serious fire he paid the common people to work to put it out with his own money. When there was a bread shortage, he was caught by the mob and pelted with bread and abuse so that, from that moment on, he used every possible means to bring grain to Rome.

20. The public works which Claudius completed were great and essential rather than numerous. He completed an aqueduct begun by Caligula. He built an outlet of Lake Fucinus which was three miles in length, partly by levelling and partly by tunnelling a mountain, a work of great difficulty and requiring eleven years, although he had 30,000 men at work all the time without interruption.

He brought to the city on stone arches the cool and abundant founts of the Claudian aqueduct, one of which is called Caeruleus and the other Curtius and Albudignus, and at the same time the spring of the new Anio, distributing them into many beauti­fully ornamented pools.

He constructed the harbour at Ostia by building curving breakwaters on the right and left, while before the entrance he placed a mole in deep water. To give this mole a firmer foundation, he first sank the ship in which the great obelisk​ had been brought from Egypt, and then securing it by piles, built upon it a very lofty tower after the model of the Pharos at Alexandria, to be lighted at night and guide the course of ships.

21. Claudius very often distributed largess to the people. He also gave several splendid shows, some of a new kind and some revived from ancient times.

He opened the games at the dedication of Pompey’s theatre, which he had restored when it was damaged by a fire.

He also celebrated secular games,​ alleging that they had been given too early by Augustus and not reserved for the regular time.

He often gave games in the Vatican Circus, with a beast-baiting between every five races. The Great Circus he adorned with barriers of marble and gilded goals,​ whereas before they had been of tufa and wood, and assigned special seats to the senators, who had been in the habit of viewing the games with the rest of the people.

In addition to the chariot races he exhibited the game called Troy and also panthers, which were hunted down by a squadron of the praetorian cavalry under the lead of the tribunes and the prefect himself. And Thessalian horsemen who drive wild bulls all over the arena, leaping upon them when they are tired out and throwing them to the ground by the horns.

He gave many gladiatorial shows: one in yearly celebration of his accession, and one in the Saepta of the usual kind; another not in the regular list, short and lasting but a few days, to which he was the first to apply the name of sportula,​ because he proclaimed that he invited the people ‘as it were to an extempore meal, hastily prepared.’

He was familiar with the people, regularly addressing the audience and urging them to merriment, interspersing feeble jokes.

When he had granted the wooden sword​ to an essedarius for whose discharge four sons begged, and the act was received with loud and general applause, he at once circulated a note, pointing out to the people how greatly they ought to desire children, since they saw that they brought favour and protection even to a gladiator [an interesting commentary on the ongoing need to keep Rome’s population up which had so bothered Augustus 50 years earlier].

He staged a sea battle on the Fucine lake between a Sicilian and a Rhodian fleet, each numbering twelve triremes. The signal to commence was sounded on a horn by a silver Triton, which was raised from the middle of the lake by a mechanical device.

22. Claudius corrected various abuses, revived some old customs or even established new ones. He scrupulously observed the custom of having the praetor call an assembly and proclaim a holiday whenever there was an earthquake within the city, as well as that of offering up a supplication whenever a bird of ill-omen was seen on the Capitol.

23. The courts previously sat in a winter and a summer season; Claudius made them sit continuously.

He made a law that those who were banished from a province by its magistrates should also be debarred from Rome and from Italy. He created a new punishment whereby some were forbidden to go more than three miles outside of the city.

24. Claudius obliged the college of quaestors to give a gladiatorial show in place of paving the roads, then, depriving them of their official duties at Ostia and in Gaul, he restored to them the charge of the treasury of Saturn,​ which had in the meantime been administered by praetors, or by ex-praetors, as in our time.

He gave the triumphal regalia to Silanus, his daughter’s affianced husband, who was still a boy, and conferred them on older men so often and so readily, that a joint petition was circulated in the name of the legions,​ praying that those emblems be given the consular governors at the same time with their armies, to prevent their seeking pretexts for war.

25. Claudius rearranged the military career of the knights, assigning a division of cavalry after a cohort, and next the tribunate of a legion. He also instituted a series of military positions and a kind of fictitious service, which is called ‘supernumerary’ and could be performed in absentia and in name only.

When certain men were exposing their sick and worn out slaves on the Island of Aesculapius​ because of the trouble of treating them, Claudius decreed that all such slaves were free, and that if they recovered, they should not return to the control of their master; but if anyone preferred to kill such a slave rather than to abandon him, he was liable to the charge of murder.

Those who usurped the privileges of Roman citizen­ship he executed in the Esquiline field.​ He restored to the senate the provinces of Achaia and Macedonia, which Tiberius had taken into his own charge. He deprived the Lycians of their independence because of deadly intestine feuds, and restored theirs to the Rhodians, since they had given up their former faults.

He allowed the people of Ilium perpetual exemption from tribute, on the ground that they were the founders of the Roman race.

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.

He allowed the envoys of the Germans to sit in the orchestra, led by their naïve self-confidence; for when they had been taken to the seats occupied by the common people and saw the Parthian and Armenian envoys sitting with the senate, they moved of their own accord to the same part of the theatre, protesting that their merits and rank were no whit inferior.

He abolished the cruel and inhuman religion of the Druids among the Gauls, which under Augustus had merely been prohibited to Roman citizens. He tried to transfer the Eleusinian rites from Attica to Rome.

In this and many other acts he acquired the reputation of being dictated to by his wives and freedmen, since he nearly always acted in accordance with their interests and desires.

26. Claudius had four wives. He was betrothed several times before marrying Plautia Urgulanilla, whose father had been honoured with a triumph. Then Aelia Paetina, daughter of an ex-consul. He divorced both these, Paetina for trivial offences, Urgulanilla because of her scandalous lewdness and the suspicion of murder.

Then he married Valeria Messalina, daughter of his cousin Messala Barbatus. But when he learned that, besides other shameful and wicked deeds, she had bigamously married Gaius Silius, he put her to death and declared before the praetorian guard that, because his marriages did not turn out well, he would remain a widower.

Nonetheless, he toyed with marrying Paetina, whom he had formerly discarded, or Lollia Paulina, who had been the wife of Caligula.

But his affections were finally captured by Agrippina, daughter of his brother Germanicus and so, at the next meeting of the senate, he sponsored some senators to propose that he be compelled to marry Agrippina ‘for the interest of the State’, and he married her with hardly a single day’s delay.

27. He had children by three of his wives: by Urgulanilla, Drusus and Claudia; by Paetina, Antonia; by Messalina, Octavia and a son, at first called Germanicus and later Britannicus.

He lost Drusus just before he came to manhood, for he was strangled by a pear which he had thrown into the air in play and caught in his open mouth. A few days before this he had betrothed him to the daughter of Sejanus. Claudia was the offspring of his freedman Boter, and although she was born within five months after the divorce​ and he had begun to rear her, yet he ordered her to be cast out naked at her mother’s door and disowned.

He gave Antonia in marriage to Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later to Faustus Sulla, both young men of high birth, and gave Octavia to his stepson Nero, after she had previously been betrothed to Silanus.

Britannicus was born on the twenty-second day of his reign and in his second consul­ship.​ When he was still very small, Claudius would often take him in his arms and commend him to the assembled soldiers, and to the people at the games, holding him in his outstretched hands to the applauding crowd.

Of his sons-in‑law he adopted Nero; Pompeius and Silanus he not only declined to adopt, but put to death.

28. Suetonius lists some of Claudius’s favourite freedmen. Most of all he was devoted to his secretary Narcissus and his treasurer Pallas, and he gladly allowed them to be honoured in addition by a decree of the senate, not only with immense gifts, but even with the insignia of quaestors and praetors. He permitted them to amass such wealth by plunder, that when he once complained of the low state of his funds, the witty answer was made that he would have enough and to spare, if he were taken into partner­ship by his two freedmen.

29. Suetonius repeats the claim that Claudius was wholly under the control of these freedmen and his wives, playing the part, not of a prince, but of a servant lavishing honours, the command of armies, pardons or punishments, as they wishes.

It was at their wishes that he put to death his father-in‑law Appius Silanus and the two Julias, daughters of Drusus and Germanicus, on an unsupported charge and giving them no opportunity for defence. Also Gnaeus Pompeius, the husband of his elder daughter, and Lucius Silanus who was betrothed to his younger one.

He inflicted the death penalty on 35 senators and more than 300 Roman knights with such indifference, that when a centurion in reporting the death of an ex-consul said that his order had been carried out, he replied that he had given no order; but he nevertheless approved the act, since his freedmen declared that the soldiers had done their duty in hastening to avenge their emperor without instructions.

30. Claudius possessed majesty and dignity of appearance, but only when he was standing still or sitting, and especially when he was lying down; for he was tall but not slender, with an attractive face, becoming white hair, and a full neck.

But when he walked, his weak knees gave way under him (in 21 Suetonius describes it as ‘his ridiculous tottering gait’).

He had many disagreeable traits: his laughter was unseemly and his anger still more disgusting for he would foam at the mouth and trickle at the nose. He stammered and his head was very shaky at all times, but especially when he made the least exertion.

31. Though before ascending the throne Claudius’s health had been bad, it was excellent while he was emperor, except for attacks of heartburn, which he said all but drove him to suicide.

32. Claudius gave frequent and grand dinner parties, as a rule in spacious places, where 600 guests were often entertained at one time.

He gave a banquet close to the outlet of the Fucine Lake and was well-nigh drowned, when the water was let out with a rush and deluged the place.

He always invited his own children to dinner along with the sons and daughters of distinguished men, having them sit at the arms​ of the couches as they ate, after the old time custom.​

He is even said to have considered an edict allowing the privilege of breaking wind quietly or noisily at table, having learned of a man who ran some risk by restraining himself through modesty.

33. Claudius was eager for food and drink at all times and in all places. Once when he was holding court in the forum of Augustus and had caught the savour of a meal which was preparing for the Salii​ in the temple of Mars hard by, he left the tribunal, went up where the priests were, and took his place at their table.

He hardly ever left the dining-room until he was stuffed and soaked. Then he went to sleep at once, lying on his back with his mouth open, and a feather was put down his throat to relieve his stomach.

He slept but little at a time, for he was usually awake before midnight; but he would sometimes drop off in the daytime while holding court and could hardly be roused when the advocates raised their voices for the purpose.

He was immoderate in his passion for women, but wholly free from unnatural vice.​

He was greatly devoted to gaming, even publishing a book on the art, and he actually used to play while driving, having the board so fitted to his carriage as to prevent his game from being disturbed.

34. That Claudius was of a cruel and bloodthirsty disposition was shown in matters great and small:

He always exacted examination by torture and the punishment of parricides​ at once and in his presence.

When he was at Tibur and wished to see an execution in the ancient fashion,​ no executioner could be found after the criminals were bound to the stake, whereupon he sent to fetch one from the city and continued to wait for him until nightfall.

At any gladiatorial show, either his own or another’s, he gave orders that even those who fell accidentally should be slain, in particular the net-fighters,​ so that he could watch their faces as they died.

He took such pleasure in the combats with wild beasts and of those who fought at noonday that he would go down to the arena at daybreak and after dismissing the people for luncheon at midday, he would keep his seat and in addition to the appointed combatants, he would for trivial and hasty reasons match others, even of the carpenters, the assistants, and men of that class, if any automatic device, or pageant, or anything else of the kind, had not worked well. He even forced one of his pages​ to enter the arena just as he was, in his toga.

35. Claudius was most famous, though, for timidity and suspicion.

He never ventured to go to a banquet without being surrounded by guards with lances and having his soldiers wait upon him in place of the servants.

He never visited a man who was ill without having the patient’s room examined beforehand and his pillows and bed-clothing felt over and shaken out.

When Camillus began his coup he wrote Claudius a threatening letter telling him to retire to private life if he wanted to live and Claudius was so timorous that he called together the leading men and asked their advice about complying.

36. After the man with a dagger was caught near his person, Claudius summoned the senate in haste and bewailed his lot in tears. Coward.

When he thought Messalina’s lover Silius was planning a coup, he ran off to the army base, doing nothing all the way but ask whether his throne was secure.

[When you compare this behaviour with that of Sulla and Marius or Caesar and Pompey, it is laughable, pathetic.]

37. No suspicion was too trivial to drive him on to precaution and vengeance.

When Messalina and Narcissus had put their heads together to destroy him, they agreed on their parts and the latter rushed into his patron’s bed-chamber before daybreak in pretended consternation, declaring that he had dreamed that Appius Silanus had made an attack on the emperor. Then Messalina, with assumed surprise, declared that she had had the same dream for several successive nights. A little later, as the conspirators had arranged, Appius, who had received orders the day before to come at that time, was reported to be forcing his way in, as proving the conspirators’ dreams. And so Claudius ordered his immediate accusation and death. Then recounted the whole story to the senate next day and thanked the freedman​ for watching over his emperor’s safety even in his sleep.

38. Claudius knew he was quick to anger and resentment and excused both in an edict. Suetonius gives a list of his rash acts, generally punishing people for minor offences.

In some speeches Claudius declared that he had purposely feigned stupidity under Caligula in order to survive. This convinced no one and an anonymous book was published called ‘The Elevation of Fools’ arguing that that no-one feigned folly.

39. People were astonished by Claudius’s forgetfulness. Shortly after having his third wife, Messalina, put to death, he took his place at the table and asked where the empress was.

He caused many of those he had condemned to death to be summoned the very next day to consult with him or game with him, and sent a messenger to upbraid them for being sleepy-heads when they didn’t appear.

Just before his adoption of Nero, as if it were not bad enough to adopt a stepson when he had a grown-up son of his own, he publicly declared more than once that no-one had ever been taken into the Claudian family by adoption.

40. He often showed such heedlessness in word and act that one would suppose that he did not know or care to whom, with whom, when, or where he was speaking. Every hour he made unwise or tactless remarks.

41. He began to write a history in his youth with the encouragement of Livy and the help of Sulpicius Flavius. But when he gave his first reading to a large audience, he had difficulty in finishing, since he more than once threw cold water on his own performance. For at the beginning of the reading the breaking down of several benches by a fat man raised a laugh, and even after the disturbance was quieted, Claudius could not keep from recalling the incident and renewing his guffaws.

Even while emperor he wrote a good deal and gave constant recitals through a professional reader.

He began his history with the death of the dictator Caesar, but passed to a later period and took a fresh start at the end of the civil war, realising that he was not allowed to give a frank or true account of the earlier times, since he was often taken to task both by his mother and his grandmother.

He left two books of the earlier history, but forty-one of the later one.

He also composed an autobiography in eight books, lacking rather in good taste than in style, as well as a ‘Defence of Cicero against the Writings of Asinius Gallus’, a work of no little learning.

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

42. Claudius studied Greek which he publicly declared superior to Latin. He often replied to Greek envoys in the senate in a set speech. He quoted many Homeric lines from the tribunal.

He wrote historical works in Greek, 20 books of Etruscan History and eight of Carthaginian. Because of these works there was added to the old Museum at Alexandria a new one called after his name where it was required that his Etruscan History should be read each year from beginning to end, and in the other his Carthaginian, by various readers in turn, in the manner of public recitations.

43. Towards the end of his life Claudius repented his marriage with Agrippina and his adoption of Nero. For example when he was praised for his judgement in the trial of a woman for adultery, he declared that it had been his destiny, also, to have wives who were all adulterous but who went unpunished.

Meeting Britannicus, he hugged him close and urged him to grow up and receive from his father an account of all that he had done, adding in Greek, ‘He who dealt the wound will heal it.’

He expressed his intention of giving Britannicus the gown of manhood, since his stature justified it though he was still young, adding that: ‘The Roman people may at last have a genuine Caesar’.

44. Not long afterwards Claudius made his will and sealed it with the seals of all the magistrates but before he could go any farther he was cut short by Agrippina, who was being accused by increasing numbers of informers.

It is the general belief that Claudius was poisoned, but by whom is disputed. Some say that it was his taster, the eunuch Halotus, as he was banqueting on the Citadel with the priests. Others say that at a family dinner Agrippina served the poison to him with her own hand in mushrooms, a dish which he was extravagantly fond of.

Reports also differ as to what followed. Many say that as soon as he swallowed the poison he became speechless and then suffered excruciating pain all night, dying just before dawn. Some say that he first fell into a stupor, then vomited up the whole contents of his overloaded stomach, and was given a second dose, perhaps in a gruel, under pretence that he must be refreshed with food after his exhaustion, or administered in a syringe, as if he were suffering from a surfeit and required relief by that form of evacuation as well.

45. Claudius’s death was kept quiet until all the arrangements were made about the succession. Accordingly, vows were offered for his safety as if he were still ill, and the farce was kept up by bringing in comic actors, under pretence that he had asked to be entertained in that way.

He died on the third day before the Ides of October in the sixty-fourth year of his age and the fourteenth of his reign (in 54 AD). He was buried with regal pomp and enrolled among the gods, an honour neglected and finally annulled by Nero, but later restored to him by Vespasian.

46. There were, of course, omens foretelling Claudius’s death:

  • the rise of a long-haired star, commonly called a comet
  • the striking of his father Drusus’s tomb by lightning
  • the fact that many magistrates of all ranks had died that same year

There are indications that he suspected his approaching end: when he was appointing the consuls, he made no appointment beyond the month when, it turned out, he died. On his last appearance in the senate, after earnestly exhorting his children to harmony, he begged the members to watch over the tender years of both. And in his last sitting on the tribunal he declared more than once that he had reached the end of a mortal career, although all who heard him prayed that the omen might be averted.

Summary

One has the vague idea that Claudius was a huge relief after the madness of Caligula, but Suetonius goes out of his way to emphasise that Claudius, just as much as his predecessor, enjoyed watching people being tortured or forced to fight to the death in the arena and ordered the execution of senators and knights – while at the same time being a cowardly pawn of his scheming wife and freedmen.

In other words, he was still a pitiful falling-off after the ability and honour and sheer competence of Julius Caesar or Augustus: only the fact that he was bookended by Caligula and Nero makes Claudius look good.


Credit

Robert Graves’s translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was published by Penguin in 1957. A revised translation by Classicist Michael Grant, more faithful to the Latin original, was published in 1979. A further revised edition was published in 1989 with an updated bibliography. I read it in parallel with the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation which is available online.

Related links

Roman reviews

Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

‘Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses?’
(Cicero defending his fascination with politics to his secretary, Tiro, in Imperium, page 263)

What you notice first about this book are a) its length (480 pages) and b) the blank flatness of its style. Here’s how it opens:

My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. (p.3)

Very clear, plain and factual, with a complete absence of literary effects or colour. Opening my review of Harris’s 2016 thriller Conclave to extract the list of my reviews of Harris’s other novels, I see this is exactly what I thought about that work, too, so I might as well quote myself:

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a hotel lift or lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanations of the personalities and politics of 1st century BC Rome – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man who worked for decades in high level journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid, a servant of the subject matter, never drawing attention to itself.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake). But it leaves something be desired when it comes to character, setting or atmosphere.

Having read four histories of ancient Rome which all feature passages about Cicero, Sallust’s Catiline War in which he plays a starring role, Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and a selection of Cicero’s letters, I feel pretty familiar, if not slightly bored, by the actual content of the book i.e. the setting, characters and main events of Republican Rome from 79 to 64 BC (the exact dates are indicated on the title pages of the novels two parts).

For me, already over-familiar with the course of events, the interest was not in the narrative as such, but in the way Harris ‘brings the history alive’ by vividly imagining particular moments. These are hardly great literature but they have an uncanny knack of ringing true and, slowly, subtly, without you realising it, placing you right there, in the houses of the great, in the forum and senate house and numerous other locations of ancient Rome, watching the characters interact, the voters queue up on the dusty Field of Mars, the scrum of senators waiting outside the senate house, the night time stink coming from the public dumps just beyond the city walls, Cicero’s habit of tossing a leather ball from hand to hand as he thinks, or working a crowd of clients, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone by name.

The prose is as interesting as tap water, style-wise, but quite quickly the sheer intelligence Harris brings to his descriptions of ancient Roman power politics and the deftness with which he describes scenes and settings, really draw the reader into the narrative.

Ticking the boxes

Having just read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and Cicero’s letters, I recognise well-known anecdotes or remarks popping up throughout the novel. It feels slightly, to someone familiar with the source texts, as if Harris made a list of key anecdotes about and descriptions of Cicero and then found places to insert them into his text. It has a slightly mechanical feel. Thus we get mention of:

  • Cicero’s habit of making witty jokes about people which mortally offended them, thus making unnecessary enemies (pages 62, 296, 325, 326, 347, 403)
  • how Marcus Licinius Crassus got rich by sending his people to wherever a fire had broken out in Rome and offering to buy their houses from the owners at rock bottom prices then, when they’d sold them, sending in his fire brigade to put out the fires and make a massive profit on the properties (pages 79 and 306)
  • Cicero’s touchiness about his lowly provincial origins (p.97)
  • the fact that the leading lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, owned a statuette of the sphinx, the subject of one of Cicero’s wisecracks as reported in Plutarch’s life (pages 237 and 444; Plutarch’s Life of Cicero chapter 7)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of pushy young Gnaeus Pompeius telling the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla that more people worship the rising than the setting sun (p.218)
  • the much-told story of how Caesar was captured by pirates and, after he was eventually ransomed and released, returned with Roman soldiers, tracked down all his captors and supervised their crucifixions (p.287)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of the raven flying over the forum when Pompey was acclaimed to the special command to eliminate the pirate threat, and which was killed by the roar of approval from the crowd, dropping stone dead out of the sky (p.324 and Plutarch’s Life of Pompey chapter 25)

There’s a steady stream of these little flash bulbs going off in the narrative, as one by one anecdotes from the sources are deftly inserted into the text and ticked off the list.

Politics

But the real subject of the novel is not Cicero’s life but politics.

Harris was famously close to the Blair family during Tony Blair’s years as leader of New Labour. Although not directly involved in politics he saw how power and personality played out at the highest levels, experience which underpins The Ghost, his 2007 novel about a fictional Labour Prime Minister and his wife, which is blatantly based on Tony and Cherie Blair. That novel was published just a year after this one and you can’t help thinking they were worked on simultaneously, insights into the nature of power allotted to one or other of the closely related texts as appropriate.

All this is relevant because political power is also the subject of Imperium. It’s a novel about power and Harris takes every opportunity to really imagine what the exercise of power would have looked and felt like in ancient Rome. Harris’s descriptions can perhaps be categorised into implicit and explicit descriptions.

1. By explicit all I mean is explicit comments on and about the nature of power. Tiro’s narrative is littered with apothegms and reflections on the exercise of power, which are phrased in such a way that they could apply to Westminster today or to any place where power is exercised:

  • Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them. (p.2)
  • ‘The first rule in politics, Tiro, never forget a face.’ (p.29)
  • ‘Sometimes if you find yourself stuck, in politics, the thing to do is start a fight – start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.’ (p.58)
  • As every fool knows, the quickest way to get to the top on politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top. (p.76)
  • Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating on only one thing at a time. (p.77)
  • There are certain politicians who can’t stand to be in the same room as one another, even if mutual self-interest dictates that they should try to get along…This is what the Stoics fail to grasp when they assert that reason rather than emotion should play the dominant part in human affairs. I am afraid the reverse is true, and always will be, even – perhaps especially – in the supposedly calculating world of politics. (p.84)
  • I have frequently observed this curious aspect of power: that it is often when one is physically closest to its source that one is least well informed as to what is actually going on. (p.90)
  • No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. (p.132)
  • There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner. (p.188)
  • ‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)
  • The work gave Cicero his first real taste of what it is to have power – which is usually, when it comes down to it, a matter of choosing between equally unpalatable options – and fairly bitter he found it. (p.235)
  • Cicero knew that the way to a great man‘s confidence, curiously enough, is often to speak harshly back to him, thus conveying an appearance of disinterested candour. (p.271)
  • Is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? (p.292)
  • How important appearance is in politics. (p.296)
  • The journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery. (p.301)
  • You can scheme all you like in politics, the gesture seemed to say, but in the end it all comes down to luck. (p.333)
  • It is dangerous in politics to find oneself a great man’s whipping boy. (as Cicero began to find himself ‘owned’ by Pompey, p.340)
  • What a heap of ash most political careers amount to, when one really stops to consider them! (p.394)
  • ‘Cicero, you disappoint me. Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?’ (p.398)
  • ‘The ability to listen to bores requires stamina, and such stamina is the essence of politics. It is from the bores that you really find things out.’ (p.405)
  • It is always said of elections, in my experience, that whichever one is in progress at the time is the most significant there has ever been. (p.469)

As mention of Tony Blair suggests, quite a few of these sayings about politics could be applied to the contemporary British political world which Harris had seen at first hand. The kind of generalised rules Tiro articulates are designed to be widely applied. Thus when he has Cicero say:

‘The most fatal error for any statesman is to allow his fellow countrymen, even for an instant, to suspect that he puts the interests of foreigners above those of his own people.’ (p.251)

it made me think of how Jeremy Corbyn was monstered in the Tory press for his associations with the IRA and Hamas i.e. was accused of being unpatriotic. When Tiro describes the hysterical fear triggered in Rome when pirates attacked and burned the port city of Ostia, and how Pompey and Caesar describe this as a new kind of threat, international, with no centralised power structure, which must be crushed – it was impossible not to hear echoes of the kind of rhetoric which filled thousands of articles and op-eds about al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 (p.268).

Tiro’s thoughts are designed to make the reader hover, equivocally, between the ostensible setting of Rome 70 BC and London 1990s or 2020s. If there’s any consistent ‘literary’ effect in the book, maybe it’s this.

2. What I mean by implicit is the way Harris brilliantly captures the dynamics of power as it plays out in personal confrontations, in dramatic scenes and situations cleverly constructed to demonstrate how power politics really works in practice; how cunning political operators handle themselves and manipulate others. Thus:

  • The meeting with Lollius Palicanus who represents Pompey’s interest and tries to persuade Cicero to join up to Pompey’s cause. (p.61)
  • The meeting with Crassus outside Rome after the latter had crushed the Spartacus rebellion and crucified 6,000 of the rebel gladiators along 350 miles of the Appian Way. That’s all very Hollywood, but the point of the scene is the way the two men, intellectually and psychologically, sound each other out, assess each other, sparring and disagreeing while on the surface remaining immaculately polite, all while Tiro looks on. (p.81)
  • The way Cicero is invited to Pompey’s first big levée in the city after returning from his successful campaigns in Spain, and then only cursorily greeted by Pompey in a lineup like the cast meeting a royal at a movie premiere. It is a memorable image of the relationship between true, exceptional power (Pompey) and a rather desperate aspirer (Cicero). (p.97)
  • The entire extended description of the trial of Gaius Verres amounts to Cicero creating power from his oratory and the wealth of evidence he has amassed, and then wielding it against Verres along with the lawyer he has bought (Hortensius) and the corrupt senators he has bribed until they are all swept away in mob anger at the governor (Verres’s) scandalous, criminal behaviour. (chapter 9, pages 203 to 238)
  • ‘There is as much skill in knowing how to handle a meeting of ten as in manipulating a gathering of hundreds.’ (p.290)
  • ‘He leaned in close and moistened his lips; there was something almost lecherous about the way Crassus talked of power.’ (p.309)

And then the climax of the plot, the sequence of events leading up to Cicero’s big meeting with the grandest of Rome’s aristocrats and the Faustian pact he enters into with them in order to get elected consul, is an elaborate, multi-levelled and quite thrilling dramatisation of power in action, dirty deals, betrayals, compromises and all.

Imperium

Hence the title of the book. The plot centres on Cicero as described by his loyal freedman and secretary Tiro, but its real subject is power, how to win it, use it and keep it, as the narrator Tiro himself explains on page 2 with its hokey reference to the opening of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. ‘Arms and the man I sing’, wrote Virgil. Harris writes:

It is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual.

I looked up the Wikipedia definition:

In ancient Rome, imperium was a form of authority held by a citizen to control a military or governmental entity. It is distinct from auctoritas and potestas, different and generally inferior types of power in the Roman Republic and Empire. One’s imperium could be over a specific military unit, or it could be over a province or territory…In a general sense, imperium was the scope of someone’s power, and could include anything, such as public office, commerce, political influence, or wealth.

Tiro writes that:

Whenever I picture the word imperium it is always Pompey who comes to mind. (p.326)

But the same is true of half a dozen of the other characters who each exemplify really dizzying, intimidating top-level power in action – the terrifying Crassus, slippery Caesar, suave Publius Clodius Pulcher or half-mad Catiline. The whole novel is heady with the aroma of power and the endless threat and risk from the machinations of super-powerful men. Harris doesn’t need much literary styling because the subject matter itself is so psychologically powerful.

The plot

The text is divided into two parts:

Part one – Senator (79 to 70 BC)

This introduces the narrator, Marcus Tullius Tiro, freed slave and secretary to up-and-coming lawyer and aspiring politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro tells us he is writing his memoirs as he approaches the ripe old age of 100, long after Cicero and everyone else he will describe is dead. (Since Tiro tells us he was aged 34 in the year Cicero won the Verres case (p.230), which was in 70 BC, then 65 years later, the date must be 5 BC, well after the Roman Republic disintegrated and was replaced by the sole rule of Augustus, who established the template for the emperors who followed.)

Part one quickly jumps over Cicero’s early career, describing his sojourn in Athens where he learned oratory from the best teachers available, his election to the senate, and then the one-year governorship he served in Sicily, followed by his return to Rome and election as aedile.

But the majority of part one is devoted to Cicero’s involvement in the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for outrageous corruption and extortion, showing how it all began when a Sicilian whose business had been ruined by Verres arrives on Cicero’s doorstep, and following the subsequent twists and turns as Cicero and Tiro get drawn into his ‘case’, eventually travelling to Sicily to assemble evidence, and how the case itself gets tangled up in the bitter rivalry between Rome’s two strong men, the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the menacing plutocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Part one ends with Cicero overcoming all the vested interests facing him and triumphantly winning the Verres case. Along the way we have been introduced to key politicians and leading figures in Cicero’s personal life, his fearsome wife, Terentia, and beloved daughter, Tullia, his support network of brother Quintus Tullius Cicero and cousin Lucius. And enjoyed Harris’s well-researched descriptions of various aspects of life in ancient Rome, from the squalid apartment blocks known as insulae to the richest mansions, the festivals and triumphs, with special emphasis on the forms and rituals surrounding elections to public posts and ill-tempered debates in the senate.

Part two – Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)

The first part had a really strong central subject in the Verres case. Part two is a bit more diffuse. It starts by giving an insider’s view of the machinations surrounding the senate’s decision to appoint Pompey to a special command to deal with the threat from pirates, against the opposition of the aristocratic party, most of the senate and, most menacing of all, Crassus.

Then the narrative settles onto Cicero’s attempts to be elected one of Rome’s 8 praetors and, once he achieves that position, his manouevring for the ultimate prize, election as consul. Many obstacles present themselves but none as big as the enmity of the half-mad Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The novel develops into a genuinely nerve-wracking thriller as Tiro is smuggled into a secret meeting of Caesar, Crassus, Catiline and others who have developed a master plan to take over the running of the state and then make huge sums by selling off state land and taking over Egypt. Cicero then attends a late-night private meeting of Rome’s senior aristocrats, informs them about this plot and persuades them, reluctantly, that the only way to foil it is to give Cicero their vote in the consular elections, and it is this election which forms the climax of the second part.

Harris has this great knack of generating genuine excitement in a narrative – not anything to do with his style, but with the intelligent laying on of facts and his vivid depiction of the psychology of power politics. The result is that the novel builds to a real climax in the form of a thriller-style conspiracy which Cicero cleverly turns against the conspirators by revealing it to the aristocrats in exchange for their support.

And then…Cicero has won! Achieved his lifetime’s ambition. He is a consul, one of the two most powerful men in Rome for a year. And the book ends with a little family celebration on the roof of his house underneath the stars, where his entourage learn the details of the deal he made with the aristocrats and the compromises he will have to make during his time in power. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Imperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about Cicero’s career so the reader can be confident that the consequences of this deal will be described in the second book of the trilogy, Lustrum. Anyone who knows about Cicero, knows that it was during his year as consul that the Cataline conspiracy erupted, one of the most dangerous and florid events in late Republican Rome. Wow, what a feast of political intrigue for Harris the political novelist get his teeth into!

The multi-layered connectivity of Roman politics

From a factual point of view, one thing comes over very strongly in this novel which is often missing from the history books and this is the tremendous importance of family, clan, tribe and social connections among Rome’s elite in creating the very complex political ‘system’ or just situation, seething with competition and rivalry.

Elections in ancient Rome were a complicated business:

  • The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens into 193 centuries organised into tiers by rank and property, with the equites or knights at the top and the unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Which century voted first was decided by lot and the winning century was called the centuria praerogativa (p.471)
  • Quaestors and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. The electorates for both these assemblies were divided into 35 tribes or geographical units of voters. Harris names and gives pen portraits of the important tribes in his description of the election of Cicero as aedile (pages 198 to 200).

A really important point to grasp is that all votes were not equal. The votes of the wealthy and upper classes counted for a lot more than the votes of the average citizen. In the Centuriate Assembly the oldest established tribes voted first and their votes counted for more.

As well as tribes, the city was divided into wards. Each of these had community meeting halls and community (or gang) leaders, who could turn their members out if you needed a crowd, to jeer at a trial or cheer a triumph or jostle senators on their way into the senate house.

The novel gives a vivid description of the ‘voting syndicates’ based on local wards, which had organisers and which could be bought at a price (the precise, elaborate and well established method of bribing these syndicates is described in detail on pages 406 to 408).

The reader is made aware of the way these tribes and wards fed into political situations and calculations.

But sitting above this complicated electoral system was the intricate web of family connections which dictated or rather, made up Roman politics. It had arguably two aspects.

1. Like any aristocracy, the Romans had very ancient, super-well-established families which could trace their origins right back to the legendary times when the monarchy was overthrown (about 500 BC). Their authority was bolstered by their family’s track records in holding office and this was made visible because the atriums of the worthiest families contained wax busts of the ancestors who had held public office, in particular the consulship. These busts could be removed from the home and paraded by the proud descendant at festivals or political events.

The Togatus Barberini, a marble sculpture from first-century Rome depicting an unknown Roman of noble birth holding effigies of his ancestors in either hand

Let’s take a detour into structural linguistics for a moment:

Synchrony and diachrony are two complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. A diachronic approach considers the development and evolution of a language through history.

The Roman upper classes can be considered in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective. I’ve just outlined the diachronic perspective, namely the history of each family and its eminent members. But the ruling class must also be seen synchronically in terms of its alliances in the present.

2. Thus someone like Cicero, trying to play the political game, had to be aware not only of the histories of all the most eminent families, but also of the super-complicated mesh of marriage alliances, of uncles, aunts, first and second cousins which connected families and factions at the highest level.

In addition to the complex interlinking of powerful families by marriage went the uniquely Roman custom of adopting someone from a different family into yours, but not in our modern sense of adopting a baby or toddler. It meant adopting a full-grown adult from one family into another. To take two famous cases, Publius Clodius Pulcher came from a very distinguished and ancient family but in a demonstration of aristocratic eccentricity, in the 50s had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian family so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs. More famously, Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir, a legal position he used to maximum advantage when he arrived in Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.

Laid on top of this was political alliances which came in at least two flavours: First, as a rule, the aristocracy stuck together and thought of themselves as the optimates or best people (hero figure Sulla, contemporary leader Quintus Lutatius Catulus). Anyone who opposed them was liable to be tarred as populares i.e. upstart representatives of the ever-unruly ordinary people of Rome, unpredictable, cowardly, ignoble (hero figure Marius, contemporary star Caesar).

But of course, the unrelenting competition for power of the ambitious often cut across class divides. Thus the psychopathic Cataline (‘A jagged streak of violent madness ran through Catalina like lightning across his brain’, p.351) who ended up trying to lead an abortive rebellion came from one of the oldest patrician families in Rome, gens Sergia. In his frustrated furious ambition to seize power he ended up allying himself with the working classes and political outcasts of all kinds.

His younger contemporary, Clodius, also came from one of Rome’s oldest and noblest patrician families, the Claudia gens. But, again, lust for power and a certain aristocratic perversity, led him to get adopted by an obscure plebeian so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs, which is why he changed his middle name from the aristocratic ‘Claudius’ to the more plebeian ‘Clodius’.

In addition to all this was the complicated system of clients and patrons. Rich and influential Romans acquired clients who they had done or would do favours for in return for their political or financial support, and so whose patron they would be. Powerful individuals such as Crassus, Caesar or Pompey were continually working behind the scenes to acquire and cultivate networks of hundreds of clients. Nothing came for nothing. All the deals which businessmen, lawyers, politicians and military commanders were doing all the time created new alliances, new networks of clientilism and patronage.

So as you read about figures in Republican Rome, you have to be aware that they operated in a society where people were individuals but also came enmeshed in a tribe, a clan, a family, with both a particular family history and the complexity of recent familial alliances (through marriage or adoption), as well as their position in the simmering conflict between optimates and populares, as well as their calculated commitments to this or that powerful patron.

Taken together these elements or strands created the fantastically complex matrix of history, family, class, financial, legal and political obligations which Tiro at one point (in a rare departure from Harris’s use of the plainest of plain English) describes as the ‘webwork’ of Roman society.

It’s into this webwork of 1st century BC Rome that the book swiftly plunges the reader, and a great deal of the pleasure of reading it derives from getting used to this multi-levelled game of allegiance and obligation which Cicero (and everyone else) finds themselves playing all their adult lives. With the whole thing acutely observed by the clever but non-participating eye-witness, Tiro.

Family connections

Publius Clodius Pulcher’s biography demonstrates the complex interlinking at the top of Roman society. His elder brothers were Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul in 54 BC, and Gaius Claudius Pulcher, praetor in 56 BC and subsequently governor of Asia. His sisters included Claudia, the wife of Quintus Marcius Rex, Claudia Quadrantaria, the wife of Celer, and Claudia Quinta, the wife of the fantastically successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Through his family, Clodius was closely connected with a number of prominent Roman politicians. His brother-in-law, Lucullus, was consul in 74 BC, while brother-in-law Celer was consul in 60, and the latter’s brother, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, in 57. Mucia Tertia, a half-sister to the Caecilii, was the wife of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, praetor in 56 BC. A half-brother, Publius Mucius Scaevola, was a pontifex, while his brother Quintus was an augur, and tribune of the plebs in 54.

So anyone who tangled with Clodius had to be aware that he was also going to provoke some or all of his extended network of family members and spouses, who each had their own positions of power, ambitions and networks of clients to consider. Matrices and intricate webworks of alliance, patronage and position, in every direction…

Aspects of ancient Rome

  • The hubbub as senators gathered in the senaculum before entering the chamber for a debate.
  • Sumptuous description of Pompey’s grand triumph. (p.115)
  • The look, feel and smell of rundown apartment blocks.
  • The stench of decay coming from the public dump outside the Esquiline Gate. (p.193)
  • Detailed description of the melée on the Field of Mars on election day. (pages 196 to 200)

Harris has Tiro describe Catullus as ‘that cruellest of poets’ (p.307).

Cicero describes Tiro as his second brother (p.428).

Lowering

Right at the end of the book I realised what it is I find so depressing about Harris’s books. Not a word in any of his political books hints for a moment that politics is about making a fairer, juster, safer world, could be about plans for building a better society, helping the vulnerable, righting historic wrongs, supporting hard-working families, planning carefully for the future etc. In Harris’s discourse none of this exists.

‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)

Like the outstanding political journalist he was, Harris sees politics is just another career, like medicine or the law. Tiro (like the narrator of Harris’s novel of contemporary politics, Ghost) never mentions policy or political programmes, what is best for Rome and its people, but thinks only in terms of individual politicians, their scams and strategems, and the special buzz you get from being in the room with the big beasts as they are making seismic decisions.

It’s depressing because in this world of professional politicians and their journalistic hangers-on nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. A succession of charismatic crooks, desperate wannabes, blustering liars, and bullying blowhards will create coalitions of supporters enough to scrabble their way to the leadership of their parties, then do anything, say anything, make any promise and cook up any impractical policy, in order to ensure good headlines in tomorrow’s papers and cling onto power for another day.

I found that Cicero was fond of repeating certain phrases and these I learned to reduce to a line or even a few dots – thus proving what most people already know, that politicians essentially say the same thing over and over again. (p.14)

Harris’s journalistic cynicism may be intelligent and witty, and the speed of the narrative as it builds up to the big conspiracy at the end is certainly thrilling. But to any thinking reader it is also pretty dispiriting.

If you’re right in the thick of the political vortex it is no doubt tremendously exciting, and this novel powerfully projects Harris’s first-hand knowledge of the nail-biting psychology of power 2,000 years back onto the dramatic political career of Cicero. Countless memoirs testify to how thrilling it can be to be right in the thick of the political world, talking to the leaders of nations as they wage the daily struggle to stay in power, please the people and shaft their rivals. But you only have to walk out of the room, down the corridor and out into the fresh air to suddenly find the hype and hysteria surrounding most politics pathetic and squalid.

And if you’re a citizen of the country unlucky enough to be ruled by these bloviating blunderers, then there is no excitement at all, but depressed resignation at the spectacle of the unending bickering and mismanagement of idiots.

The visceral thrill of the political manoeuvrings which Harris describes so well make it easy to lose sight of the basic fact that the personal rivalries described in Imperium destabilised the late Roman Republic for decades, eventually leading to nearly 20 years of civil war and social upheaval, deaths, destruction, starvation, ruin.

Politics in our own time has given us Brexit, the mismanagement of the Covid crisis, widespread corruption, now a pointless war in Ukraine and a global food crisis. The stupidity of human mismanagement, which some people dignify with the term ‘politics’, never ends.


The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Cicero reviews

Roman reviews

Plutarch’s lives of Marius and Sulla (translated by Rex Warner)

Now the generals of this later period were men who had risen to the top by violence rather than by merit; they needed armies to fight against one another rather than against the public enemy.
(Doleful reflections of the Amphictyons of Delphi upon being ordered to hand over all their treasure to the Roman general Sulla who was besieging Athens: Life of Sulla, chapter 12)

1. Plutarch’s Life of Caius Marius (157 to 86 BC)

Plutarch’s life of Marius is divided into 46 brief sections. Rex Warner’s translation of Plutarch in the Penguin edition is relaxed and chatty. Very clear, very readable. However it is not available online whereas the 1920 Loeb Classical Library edition is. So, for practical purposes, I’ll quote Loeb.

As for the personal appearance of Marius, we have seen a marble statue of him at Ravenna in Gaul,​ and it very well portrays the harshness and bitterness of character which were ascribed to him. For since he was naturally virile and fond of war, and since he received a training in military rather than in civil life, his temper was fierce when he came to exercise authority.

Plutarch brings out very vividly the successive rivalries during the Jugurthine War (112 to 106 BC) between Metellus, Marius, and his quaestor Sulla. The Roman army comes over as an engine of fierce rivalries. But although Plutarch describes some of Marius’s military victories, in Numidia (112 to 106 BC) and then against the Cimbrian and Teutons who threatened to invade Italy from Gaul (113 to 101 BC) what really impresses is the second half of the life, and especially the final years when Marius fell from military and political favour and was eventually outlawed from Italy and had to go on the run, in disguise.

These final sections of his adventures on the run (35 to 45) read more like a boy’s own adventure story than history. The modern histories I’ve read refer to Marius’s brief exile only in general terms whereas in Plutarch we meet the captains of the ships which smuggle him out of Ostia, then dump him further down the Italian coast, the peasants who take him in and try to hide him, his betrayal and arrest to the authorities. We meet the Cimbrian soldier who is ordered to kill him but can’t bring himself to do so because, in the darkened bedroom, he sees Marius’s eyes darting fire and hears the voice of a god warning him against such a wicked deed. And so on. It’s like something out of the Arabian Nights more than history, more even, than biography.

Superstitions

Rex and other commentators emphasise Plutarch’s focus on the individual, on character, and call him ‘the first of modern biographers’ (p.9). None of them mention the ubiquity of superstition, prophecies and the uncanny i.e. the irrational, in his narratives. Thus in Marius alone:

  • as Marius prepares to sail back from Africa to Rome a soothsayer predicts great things (8)
  • in the campaign against the Cimbri and Teutones Marius has a Syrian prophetess named Martha accompany him in a litter (17)
  • the story that his army was accompanied everywhere by two vultures (17)
  • over the Italian cities of Ameria and Tuder flaming spears and swords are seen in the sky moving as if in actual battle (17)
  • from the massed ranks of the enemy arose an unearthly wailing (20)
  • heavy rain often follows a major battle because the supernatural powers want to hallow and cleanse the earth (21)
  • Fortune or nemesis or natural necessity, call it what you will, some force always ensures the enjoyment of any great success is never unalloyed or pure (23)
  • the incident of Fannia’s donkey who ran out to drink water from a spring near where Marius was being held by his escort, stopped directly in front of him, let out a tremendous bray, then went frisking past him – from which Marius drew the conclusion that his escape would be by sea

And:

When he was quite young and living in the country, Marius had caught in his cloak a falling eagle’s nest, which had seven young ones in it; at sight of this, his parents were amazed, and made enquiries of the seers, who told them that their son would be most illustrious of men, and was destined to receive the highest command and power seven times. (36)

  • when a Cimbrian soldier went into Marius’s bedroom to kill him he saw a pair of mighty eyes darting flame at him and a voice as of a god saying: ‘Man, does thou dare to slay Caius Marius?’ (39)

The grotesque

A sprinkling of what must surely be grotesque exaggerations, notably the wildly improbable description of the mass suicides of the Cimbri civilians once their menfolk were defeated

The fugitives were driven back to their entrenchments where the Romans beheld a most tragic spectacle. The women, in black garments, stood at the wagons and slew the fugitives — their husbands or brothers or fathers, then strangled their little children and cast them beneath the wheels of the wagons or the feet of the cattle, and then cut their own throats. It is said that one woman hung dangling from the tip of a wagon-pole with her children tied to either ankle, while the men, for lack of trees, fastened themselves by the neck to the horns of the cattle, or to their legs, then plied the goad, and were dragged or trampled to death as the cattle dashed away. (27)

In their hurry to claim for Plutarch all kinds of proto-modern interests in character and psychology, Rex and others simply ignore the much more prominent traits of primitive superstition and a garish, vulgar fascination with grotesque violence.

Thus Plutarch dwells lovingly on the scenes in Rome once Marius has returned from exile, seizes power along with Cinna, and unleashes a tidal wave of vengeful violence:

Headless trunks thrown into the streets and trampled under foot excited no pity, though everybody trembled and shuddered at the sight. The people were most distressed however, by the wanton licence of the Bardyaei, as they were called, who butchered fathers of families in their houses, outraged their children, raped their wives, and could not be checked in their career of rapine and murder until Cinna and Sertorius, after taking counsel together, fell upon them as they were asleep in their camp, and transfixed them all with javelins. (44)

Gory enough for you?

The ludicrous

And then incidents which are so wildly improbable as to be ludicrous. Take the incident of the faked diarrhoea. Marius fell in with a rabble rousing demagogue who didn’t hesitate to murder his political opponents, Saturninus. Marius attempts to keep the respect of the senate but also stay in with Saturninus, a balancing act which is epitomised one night:

For when the leading men had come to him by night and were trying to incite him against Saturninus, without their knowledge he introduced Saturninus into the house by another door; then, pretending to both parties that he had a diarrhoea, he would run backwards and forwards in the house, now to the nobles and now to Saturninus, trying to irritate and bring them into collision. (30)

2. Plutarch’s Life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78 BC)

Sulla served as captain of cavalry under Marius in the Jugurthine War. To his bravery was attributed the final negotiations which led to the capture of Jugurtha and Sulla was embittered when Marius received the credit and triumph for it. Sulla was tasked with fighting the Social War (91 to 87 BC) and when Marius, in Rome, managed to manoeuvre Sulla out of leadership of the army set to head off to deal with Mithradates in Turkey, Sulla rejected the senate’s decision, let his men kill the senate’s envoy and marched on Rome.

Why Sulla failed

Rex gives admirably brief, one-page introductions to each of the lives (generally pointing out how Plutarch ignores the profound historical importance of this or that event in order to focus on trivial anecdotes or shallow moralising). Therefore it is Rex who sums up Sulla’s political agenda, once he’d become dictator (82 to 78 BC) and why it failed, more briefly and better than any other account I’ve read.

After marching on Rome to seize power twice, with an intervening period of anarchy and bloodshed under Cinna (87 to 84 BC), Sulla set out to make the republic safe by ensuring the situation which led to the anarchy could never happen again. These he took to be:

  • the ability of the tribunes of the plebs to veto laws suggested by the patricians and senate, which sounds fine in theory, but in practice tribunes were all too often bribed by powerful interests to derail senatorial rule
  • the struggle between senate and equites for control of the courts, which again unravelled into political powerplays
  • the consecutive consulships of overmighty rulers (in the recent past the consecutive consulships of Marius in 107, 104, 103, 102, 101, 100)

So Sulla:

  • abolished the legislative powers of the tribunate and debarred those who held it from higher office
  • restored the courts to full control of the senate
  • revived the lex annalis which set minimum ages to hold each of the magistracies in the so-called cursus honorum and required fixed periods between people holding each post

It was a valiant effort but, as Rex points out, it was blind to the fact that the chief threat to the republic came not from any law or aspect of the constitution but from a reality which transcended them, which was the advent of proconsuls appointed for long periods of time to prosecute distant wars whose armies came to owe more allegiance to them than to the state – the conversion of Roman armies into something closer to private armies answerable to charismatic warlords.

The obvious examples were Marius, Sulla himself, Pompey then Caesar, then Mark Anthony and Octavian and the era of instability and collapse exactly matches the rise of this new phenomenon.

Plutarch’s Sulla

Predictably, Plutarch focuses on gossip and anecdote:

  • Sulla had a famously bad complexion, covered in blotchy spots.
  • Though he came from a patrician family, it was very down at heel and he spent a dissolute young manhood with dancers and actors and cross-dressers and comedians. Throughout his life, strict and stern in public, once he sat down at a banquet he reverted to a monstrously debauched and bohemian character.

And, once again, a blizzard of superstitions, omens and prophecies:

  • A certain man in the retinue of Orobazus, a Chaldaean, after looking Sulla intently in the face, and studying carefully the movements of his mind and body, and investigating his nature according to the principles of his peculiar art, declared that this man must of necessity become the greatest in the world, and that even now the wonder was that he consented not to be first of all men. (6)
  • Sulla himself relates that when he was dispatched with an army to the Social War, a great chasm in the earth opened near Laverna, from which a great quantity of fire burst forth and a bright flame towered up towards the heavens; whereupon the soothsayers declared that a brave man, of rare courage and surpassing appearance, was to take the government in hand and free the city from its present troubles. And Sulla says that he himself was this man, for his golden head of hair gave him a singular appearance, and as for bravery, he was not ashamed to testify in his own behalf, after such great and noble deeds as he had performed.
  • When Sulla had set out for his camp on unfinished business,​ he himself kept at home and contrived that most fatal sedition, which wrought Rome more harm than all her wars together had done, as indeed the heavenly powers foreshadowed to them:
    • for fire broke forth of its own accord from the staves which supported the ensigns, and was with difficulty extinguished
    • and three ravens brought their young forth into the street and devoured them, and then carried the remains back again into their nest
    • and after mice had gnawed consecrated gold in a temple, the keepers caught one of them, a female, in a trap, and in the very trap she brought forth five young ones and ate up three of them
    • but most important of all, out of a cloudless and clear air there rang out the voice of a trumpet, prolonging a shrill and dismal note, so that all were amazed and terrified at its loudness. The Tuscan wise men declared that the prodigy foretokened a change of conditions and the advent of a new age (7)
  • While the senate was busied with the soothsayers about these prodigies, and holding its session in the temple of Bellona, a sparrow came flying in, before the eyes of all, with a grasshopper in its mouth, a part of which it threw down and left there, and then went away with the other part. From this the diviners apprehended a quarrelsome dissension between the landed proprietors and the populace of the city and forum; for the latter is vociferous like a grasshopper, while the former haunt the fields (like the sparrow). (7)
  • After he had offered a sacrifice, Postumius the soothsayer learned what the omens were, and stretching out both hands to Sulla, begged that he might be bound and kept a prisoner until the battle, assuring him that he was willing to undergo the extremest penalty if all things did not speedily come to a good issue for him. (9)
  • It is said, also, that to Sulla himself there appeared in his dreams a goddess whom the Romans learned to worship from the Cappadocians, whether she is Luna, or Minerva, or Bellona. This goddess, as Sulla fancied, stood by his side and put into his hand a thunder-bolt, and naming his enemies one by one, bade him smite them with it; and they were all smitten, and fell, and vanished away. Encouraged by the vision, he told it to his colleague, and at break of day led on towards Rome. (9)
  • Mithridates, who was staying at Pergamum, was visited with many other portents from Heaven, and that a Victory with a crown in her hand, which the Pergamenians were lowering towards him by machinery of some sort, was broken to pieces just as she was about to touch his head, and the crown went tumbling from her hand to the ground in the midst of the theatre, and was shattered, whereat the people shuddered, and Mithridates was greatly dejected. (11)

And so on and very much on. And The Grotesque:

Nearby is Apollonia, and in its vicinity is the Nymphaeum, a sacred precinct, which sends forth in various places from its green dell and meadows, streams of perpetually flowing fire. Here, they say, a satyr was caught asleep, such an one as sculptors and painters represent, and brought to Sulla, where he was asked through many interpreters who he was. And when at last he uttered nothing intelligible, but with difficulty emitted a hoarse cry that was something between the neighing of a horse and the bleating of a goat, Sulla was horrified, and ordered him out of his sight. (27)

Fairy tales

At Fidentia, when Marcus Lucullus, one of Sulla’s commanders, with sixteen cohorts confronted fifty cohorts of the enemy, although he had confidence in the readiness of his soldiers, still, as most of them were without arms, he hesitated to attack. But while he was waiting and deliberating, from the neighbouring plain, which was a meadow, a gentle breeze brought a quantity of flowers and scattered them down on his army; they settled of their own accord and enveloped the shields and helmets of the soldiers, so that to the enemy these appeared to be crowned with garlands. This circumstance made them more eager for the fray, and they joined battle, won the victory, killed eighteen thousand of the enemy, and took their camp. (27)

Fortunate Sulla

Plutarch emphasises the Sulla himself was happy to attribute much of his success to Fortune rather than his own personal merits or achievements. So in the matrix of opinions about what constitutes a Successful Man which the Parallel Lives amount to, Sulla stands at one extreme of the spectrum, a superstitious man who attributed much to Fortune. Hence his own insistence on the agnomen (‘a fourth name occasionally given as an honour to an ancient Roman citizen’) ‘Felix’, superficially meaning ‘happy’ but at a deeper level meaning ‘lucky’ – more than lucky, in the deepest sense of the word, fortune-ate. Fortune rich. Fortune full.

Slaughter in Athens 86 BC

Apart from the civil war and street fighting in Rome, what comes over more vividly from this account than others I’ve read, is the unmitigated slaughter Sulla inflicted on Athens after a prolonged siege in which he had devastated the surrounding territory. ‘There was no counting the slain’. The blood flowed under the city gates (14).

Proscriptions in Rome

The mass murder in Rome of Sulla’s enemies who he included on lists of ‘proscriptions’ brings to mind Stalin sitting up late into the night going through long lists of names, putting a tick or a cross next to who should live or die.

Sulla now busied himself with slaughter, and murders without number or limit filled the city…He also proscribed anyone who harboured and saved a proscribed person, making death the punishment for such humanity, without exception of brother, son, or parents, but offering anyone who slew a proscribed person two talents as a reward for this murderous deed, even though a slave should slay his master, or a son his father. And what seemed the greatest injustice of all, he took away the civil rights from the sons and grandsons of those who had been proscribed, and confiscated the property of all. Moreover, proscriptions were made not only in Rome, but also in every city of Italy, and neither temple of God, nor hearth of hospitality, nor paternal home was free from the stain of bloodshed, but husbands were butchered in the embraces of their wedded wives, and sons in the arms of their mothers. (31)

Mass murder at Praeneste

Meanwhile Marius the younger, at the point of being captured slew himself; and Sulla, coming to Praeneste, at first gave each man there a separate trial before he executed him, but afterwards, since time failed him, gathered them all together in one place — there were twelve thousand of them — and gave orders to slaughter them all. (32)

Metrobius

Plutarch’s life ends where it began, with comments on Sulla’s private behaviour and liking for louche, lowlife, bohemian company. Despite having a series of respectable wives, in the usual Roman fashion, Sulla also:

consorted with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people, drinking with them on couches all day long. For these were the men who had most influence with him now: Roscius the comedian, Sorex the archmime, and Metrobius the impersonator of women, for whom, though past his prime, he continued up to the last to be passionately fond, and made no denial of it.

Mass murderer, sacker of Athens, failed attempter to restore the Republic, and lifelong lover of a female impersonator.

A grisly end

Then comes the kind of moralising conclusion which delighted the ancients and then the Christians, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Plutarch claims that in his final illness Sulla was literally eaten alive by worms.

By this mode of life [his decadent lifestyle] Sulla aggravated a disease which was insignificant in its beginnings, and for a long time he knew not that his bowels were ulcerated. This disease corrupted his whole flesh also, and converted it into worms, so that although many were employed day and night in removing them, what they took away was as nothing compared with the increase upon him, but all his clothing, baths, hand-basins, and food, were infected with that flux of corruption, so violent was its discharge. Therefore he immersed himself many times a day in water to cleanse and scour his person. But it was of no use; for the change gained upon him rapidly, and the swarm of vermin defied all purification. (36)


Related links

Roman reviews

  • Plutarch
  • Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla
  • Plutarch’s life of Sertorius
  • Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Crassus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Pompey
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cicero
  • Plutarch’s Life of Caesar
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger
  • Plutarch’s Life of Antony
  • Plutarch’s Life of Brutus
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