As a subscriber to Classical Journal, I regularly receive emailed reviews of new scholarly books concerning ancient Greece and Rome. The other day, for example, they sent me Michael Peachin‘s review of Claudius Caesar: Image and Power in the Early Roman Empire, by Josiah Osgood (Cambridge University Press, 2010). The only other notice I’d seen of the book was a drearily dutiful one in The Bryn Mawr Classical Review, so I was surprised that Peachin found some exciting points in the book. I’ll quote two of these points:
Several recent accounts of Roman emperors have sailed off on a new tack. Instead of attempting a traditional biographical interpretationof the man, and thereby also a chronicle of his reign, each of thesehas sought to present an emperor on his own terms, and/or to view himas he was perceived by certain groups of contemporaries (other than theelite authors, who usually monopolize discussion). Thus, Caligula was notout of his mind; he simply had no taste for playing republic, when thereality was despotism; and so, he fashioned himself overtly as a tyrant,regardless of the consequences – or perhaps precisely to elicit certainones of those (A. Winterling, Caligula: A Biography [Berkeley, 2011]).
When I was in graduate school, I took a seminar on Roman history in which the professor horrified about half the class by spending a day arguing that Caligula was probably not a lunatic. A few of my classmates were committed to the view of the third emperor presented in the ancient historical texts, and were appalled to hear a revision of that view; the others were committed to the idea that the only sort of history worth doing was social history that focused on the most numerous groups in a society, and so were appalled that we were spending so much time on the question of one man’s mental health. I was not in either of those groups, but loved the day and have been defending Caligula ever since. By the way, there’s a fine review of Winterling’s book in September’s New Criterion. I recommend it to the the general reader.
Peachin makes a point that I found especially fascinating:
Augustus, in fine, had played his part well; but as Osgood aptly demonstrates, he fated all the various players in the sequel to write their own scripts as they went. In any case, Osgood argues that Claudius quite actively tried to shape his own time as emperor, and that in doing so, he contributed materially to the development of the imperial ‘system.’ As we observe this particular emperor at work, we are also being nudged slightly away from Fergus Millar’s picture of a more passive, and perhaps generic, sort of monarch (The Emperor in the Roman World [Ithaca, 1977]): “…who the emperor was mattered” ). Still, Osgood sees quite clearly that Claudius (or any emperor) was indeed only one person; and hence, the princeps’ direct involvement with his subjects was perforce limited. Thus, when an emperor did choose to intervene, the event was so momentous as to carry an aura of the divine. That said, Claudius was no lone actor. We are reminded, throughout, that “…much of this emperor’s image, like any other’s, was constructed in dialogue with his subjects” (317.)
So, it was precisely because the emperor’s position was inherently weak that he inspired awe in his subjects. This is just the sort of paradox I can never resist.
Many readers will be familiar with the theory that historian Arnaldo Momigliano developed and that Robert Graves popularized in his novels about Claudius. Under this theory, Claudius wanted to phase out the principate and restore the old Republic. Peachin explains Osgood’s view of this theory with admirable concision:
Following Momigliano’s observations (Claudius: the Emperor and His Achievement [Oxford, 1934]), Osgood stresses the fact that Augustus’ uneasy amalgam of republic and empire remained a befuddling puzzle for Claudius (indeed, for every emperor). In particular, the quasi-retention of a republican state meant that a new imperial system of government could not be crafted with anything even approaching clarity, or in any detail. Thus, to start at the start, when Gaius [a.k.a. Caligula] was murdered, and had not indicated a successor, a conclusively ‘proper’ or ‘constitutional’ way forward was nowhere to be discovered. That notwithstanding, Claudius was quickly on the throne; but then, the awkward facts of his accession, not to mention the earlier vituperation of him by members of the Augustan house (and others), seriously undercut his authority. Attempting to counter such hindrances, and just generally in his zeal to rule as he found appropriate, Claudius was too fastidious. The result was a nasty paradox: “The loftier the goals the emperor set for his administration, the more likely he was to fail, and to open himself to allegations of incompetency, or even corruption. Yet precisely to try to win loyalty and increase his prestige, Claudius had to set loftier goals than those of Tiberius, even those of Caligula” (189).
Considering that the written law in Rome in 41 BC was predicated on the idea that the Republic was still functioning, and that Claudius owed the principate to the very group of men who had just violently murdered his predecessor, it would have been quite a challenge for him to find a way to present his accession as legitimate without appealing to the idea of a restored Republic. In no position to prosecute the assassins of Caligula, Claudius could only appeal to the right of tyrannicide, and thus evoke the two Brutuses, one who according to legend struck against the Tarquins in order to end the monarchy and establish the Republic, and the other who struck against Julius Caesar the Dictator in an attempt to prevent a new monarchy from ending the Republic. If there were people who took this forced imposture at face value, one can hardly blame Claudius.