I claudius c 1, p.14

I, Claudius c-1, page 14

 part  #1 of  Claudius Series


I, Claudius c-1

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  Sulpicius who had been standing on one leg with his foot held in his hand, as his habit was when excited or impatient, and twisting his beard in knots, now summed up: "Yes, Livy will never lack readers. People love being 'persuaded to ancient virtue' by a charming writer, particularly when they are told in the same breath that modern civilization has made such virtue impossible of attainment. But mere truthtellers--'undertakers who lay out the corpse of history' [to quote poor Catullus' epigram on the noble Pollio]--people who record no more than actually occurred--such men can only hold an audience while they have a good cook and a cellar of Cyprian wine."

  This made Livy really furious. He said, "Pollio, this talk is idle. Young Claudius here has always been considered dull-witted by his family and friends but I didn't agree with the general verdict until to-day. You're welcome to your disciple. And Sulpicius can perfect his dullness: there's no better teacher of dullness in Rome." Then he gave us his Parthian shot: Et apud Apollinem istum Pollionis Pollinctorem diutissime poUeat. Which means, though the pun is lost in Greek: "And may he flourish long at the shrine of that Undertaker Apollo of Pollio's!" Then off he went, snorting.

  Pollio shouted cheerfully after him: "Quod certe pollcitw Pollio.

  Pollucibiliter pollebit puer.^ ["Pollio promises you he will; the boy will flourish mightily."]

  When we two were alone, Sulpicius having gone off to find a book, Pollio began questioning me.

  "Who are you, boy? Claudius is your name, isn't it? You obviously come of good family, but I don’t know you."

  "I am Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus."

  "My God! But Livy's right. You're supposed to be a half-wit."

  "Yes. My family is ashamed of me because I stammer, and I'm lame and usually ill, so I go about very little in society."

  "But dull-witted? You're one of the brightest young fellows I have met for years."

  "You are very kind, sir."

  "Not at all. By God, that was a nasty hit at old Livy about Lars Porsena.

  Livy has no conscience, that's the truth. I'm always catching him out. I asked him once if he always had the same trouble as I had in finding the brass tablets he wanted among the litter of the Public Record Office. He said, 'Oh, no trouble at all.' And it turned out that he has never once been there to confirm a single fact!

  Tell me, why were you reading my history?"

  "I was reading your account of the siege of Perusia. My grandfather, Livia's first husband you know, was there. I'm interested in that period and I'm getting together materials for a life of my father. My tutor Athenodorus referred me to your book: he said it was honest. My former tutor, Marcus Porcius Cato, had once told me that it was a tissue of lies, so I was the more ready to believe Athenodorus."

  "Yes, Cato wouldn't like the book. The Catos fought on the wrong side. I helped to drive his grandfather out of Sicily. But I think you are the first youthful historian I have ever met. History is an old man's game. When are you going to win battles like your father and grandfather?"

  "Perhaps in my old age."

  He laughed. "I don't see why a historian who has made a life-study of military tactics shouldn't be invincible as a commander, given good troops and courage--"

  "And good staff-officers," I put in, remembering Cleon.

  "And good staff-officers, certainly--though he's never actually handled a sword or shield in his life."

  I was bold enough to ask Pollio why he was often called "The Last of the Romans". He looked pleased at the question and replied: "Augustus gave me the name. It was when he invited me to join him in his war against your grandfather Antony. I asked him what sort of a man he took me for: Antony had been one of my best friends.

  'Asinius Pollio,' he said, 'I believe that you're the last of the Romans. The title is wasted on that assassin, Cassius.'

  'And if I'm the last of the Romans,' I answered, 'whose fault is that? And whose fault will it be when you've destroyed Antony, that nobody but myself will ever dare hold his head up in your presence or speak out of turn?'

  'Not mine, Asinius,' he said apologetically, 'it is Antony who has declared war, not I. And as soon as Antony is beaten I shall of course restore Republican government.'

  'If the Lady Livia does not interpose her veto,' I said."

  The old man then took me by the shoulders. "By the way, I'll tell you something, Claudius. I'm a very old man and though I look brisk enough I have reached the end. In three days I shall be dead; and I know it. Just before one dies there comes a strange lucidity. One speaks prophetically. Now listen! Do you want to live a long busy life, with honour at the end of it?"


  "Then exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I can see, you would know that this was your only hope of safety and eventual glory."

  I said: "Livy's story of Brutus--the first Brutus, I mean--may be unhistorical, but it's apt. Brutus pretended to be a half-wit, too, to be better able to restore popular liberty."

  "What's that? Popular liberty? You believe in that? I thought that phrase had died out among the younger generation."

  "My father and grandfather both believed in it----"

  "Yes," Pollio interrupted sharply, "that's why they died."

  "What do you mean?"

  "I mean that's why they were poisoned."

  "Poisoned! By whom?"

  "Hm! Not so loud, boy. No. I'll not mention names.

  But I'll give you a sure token that I'm not just repeating groundless scandal.

  You're writing a life of your father you say?"


  "Well, you'll see that you won't be allowed to get beyond a certain point in it. And the person who stops you----"

  Sulpicius came shuffling back at this point and nothing more was said of any interest except when I took my leave of Pollio and he drew me aside and muttered: "Little Claudius, good-bye! But don't be a fool about popular liberty.

  That cannot come yet. Things must be far worse before they can be better." Then he raised his voice: "And one thing more If, when I'm dead, you ever come across any important point in my histories that you find unhistorical I give you permission--I'll stipulate that you have the authority--to put the corrections in a supplement.

  Keep them up to date. Books when they grow out of date only serve as wrappings for fish." I said that this would be an honourable duty.

  Three days later Pollio died. He left me in his will a collection of early Latin histories, but they were withheld from me. My uncle Tiberius said that it was a mistake: that they were intended for him, our names being so similar. His stipulation about my having the authority to make corrections everyone treated as a joke; but I kept my promise to Pollio some twenty years later. I found that he had written very severely on the character of Cicero--a vain, vacillating, timorous fellow--and while not disagreeing with this verdict I felt it necessary to point out that he was not a traitor too, as Pollio had made him out. Pollio was relying on some correspondence of Cicero's which I was able to prove a forgery by Clodius Pulcher. Cicero had incurred Clodius' enmity by witnessing against him when he was accused of attending the sacrifice of the Good Goddess disguised as a woman-musician. This Clodius was another of the bad Claudians.


  WHEN I CAME OF AGE, TIBERIUS HAD LATELY BEEN ORdered by Augustus to adopt Germanicus as his son, though he already had Castor as an heir, thus bringing him over from the Claudian into the Julian family. I now found myself head of the senior branch of the Claudians A.D. 6] and in indisputable possession of the money and estates inherited from my rather. I became my mother's guardian--for she had never married again--which she felt as a humiliation. She treated me [ii9] with rather more severity than before, though all business documents had to come to me for signature and I was the family priest.

  My coming of age ceremony contrasted curiously with that
of Germanicus. I put on my manly-gown at midnight and without any attendants or procession was carried into the Capitol in a sedan, where I sacrificed and was then carried back to bed. Germanicus and Postumus would have come, but in order to call as little attention to me as possible Livia had arranged a banquet that night at the Palace which they could not be excused from attending.

  When I married Urgulanilla, the same sort of thing happened. Very few people were aware of our marriage until the day after it had been solemnised.

  There was nothing irregular about the ceremony. Urgulanilla's saffron-coloured shoes and flame-coloured veil, the taking of the auspices, the eating of holy cake, the two stools covered with sheepskin, the libation I poured, the anointing by her of the doorposts, the three coins, my present to her of fire and water--everything was in order, except that the torchlight procession was omitted and that the whole performance was carried through perfunctorily, and hurriedly and with bad grace.

  In order not to stumble over her husband's threshold the first time she enters, a Roman bride is always lifted over it. The two Claudians who had to do the lifting were both elderly men and unequal to Urgulanilla's weight. One of them slipped on the marble and Urgulanilla came down with a bump, pulling them with her in a sprawling heap. There is no wedding omen worse than that. And yet it would be untrue to say that it turned out an unhappy marriage: there was not enough strain between us to justify the term unhappy. We slept together at first because that seemed expected of us, and even occasionally had sexual relations--my first experience of sex--because that too seemed part of marriage, and not from either lust or affection. I was always as considerate and courteous to her as possible and she rewarded me by indifference, which was the best that I could hope from a woman of her character. She became pregnant three months after our marriage and bore me a son called Drusillus, for whom I found it impossible to have any fatherly feeling. He took after my sister Livilla in spitefulness and after Urgulanilla's brother Plautius in the rest of his character. Soon I shall tell you about Plautius, who was my moral exemplar and paragon, appointed by Augustus.

  Augustus and Livia had a methodical habit of never coming to any decision on any important matter relating to the family or the State without recording in writing both the decision and the deliberations that led up to it, usually in the form of letters exchanged between each other. From the mass of correspondence left behind them on their deaths I have made transcripts of several which illustrate Augustus' attitude to me at this time. My first extract is dated three years before my marriage.

  "MY DEAR LIVIA, "I wish to put on record a strange thing that happened to-day. I hardly know what to make of it. I was talking to Athenodorus and happened to say to him: 'I fear that tutoring young Tiberius Claudius must be rather a weary task. He seems to me to grow daily more miserable-looking and nervous and incapable.' Athenodorus said: 'Don't judge the boy too harshly. He feels most keenly the family's disappointment in him and the slights that he everywhere meets. But he's very far from incapable and, believe it or not, I get great pleasure from his society. You never heard him declaim, did you?'

  'Declaim!' I said, laughing.

  'Yes, declaim,' Athenodorus repeated. 'Now let me make a suggestion. You set a subject for declamation and in half an hour's time come and hear what he makes of it. But hide behind a curtain or you'll hear nothing worth listening to.' I set for a subject 'Roman Conquests in Germany' and, listening half an hour later behind that curtain, I have never been so astonished before in my life. He had his facts at his fingers' ends, his main headings were well chosen, and his detail set in proper relation and proportion to them; more than this, his voice was under control and he did not stammer. God strike me dead if it wasn't positively pleasant and instructive to listen to him! But how a fellow whose daily conversation is so hopelessly foolish can make a set speech, at short notice too, in so perfectly rational and even learned a style is beyond me. I slipped away, telling [121]

  Athenodorus not to mention that I had been there or how surprised I had been, but feel obliged to tell you of the matter, and even to suggest that we might henceforth occasionally allow him to dine with us at night, when there are few guests there, on the understanding that he keeps his mouth shut and his ears open. If there is, after all, as I am inclined to think, some hope that he will eventually turn out a responsible member of the family, he ought to be gradually accustomed to mix with his social equals. We can't keep him shut away with his tutors and freedmen for ever. There is, of course, great division of opinion on the question of his mental capacities. His uncle Tiberius, his mother Antonia and his sister Livilla, are unanimous in regarding him as an idiot. On the other side, Athenodorus, Sulpicius, Postumus and Germanicus swear that he's as sensible, when he wishes, as any man but that he's easily put off his balance by nervousness. As for myself, I repeat that I cannot make up my mind on the matter yet."

  To which Livia replied: "MY DEAR AUGUSTUS, "The surprise that you had behind that curtain was no greater and no less than the surprise we once had when the Indian Ambassador took the silk cloth off the gold cage which his master the High King had sent us, and we saw the bird Parrot for the first time with his emerald feathers and ruby necklet and heard him say, 'Hail Caesar, Father of the Country!' It was not the remarkableness of the phrase, for any little lisping child can say as much, but that a bird spoke it astonished us. And nobody but a fool would praise Parrot for his wit in coming out with the appropriate words, for he did not know the meaning of any one of them. The credit goes to the man who trained the bird, by incredible patience, to repeat the phrase, for, as you know, on other occasions he is trained to say other things; and in general conversation he talks the most arrant nonsense and we have to keep his cage covered to silence him. So with Claudius, though it is hardly complimentary to Parrot, an undeniably handsome bird, to compare my grandson to him: what you heard was without the least doubt a speech that he had happened to learn by heart. After all, 'Roman Conquests in Germany' is a very obvious subject, and Athenodorus may well have made him word-perfect in half a dozen or more model declamations of the same sort. Mind you, I don't say that I'm not pleased to hear that he is so amenable to training: I am extremely pleased. It means, for instance, that we will be ' able to coach him through his marriage-ceremony. But your suggestion about his supping with us is ridiculous. I refuse ever to eat in the same room as that fellow: it would give me indigestion"As for the testimony in favour of his mental soundness, examine it. Germanicus as a child swore to his dying father to love and protect his infant brother: you know Germanicus' nobility of soul and that rather than betray this sacred trust he would make out the best case possible for his brother's wits, hoping that they might happen one day to improve. It is equally clear why Athenodorus and Sulpicius pretend to consider him improvable; they are very well paid to improve him and their appointments give them an excuse for hanging about the Palace and giving themselves airs as privy counsellors. As for Postumus, I have been complaining now for some months past, haven't I, that I cannot understand that young man at all. I consider that Death has been extremely unkind to take off his two talented brothers and leave us only him. He delights in starting an argument with his seniors, where no argument is necessary, the facts being clearly beyond dispute, merely to exasperate us and show his own importance as your single surviving grandson. His championship of Claudius' intelligence is a case in point. He was positively insolent to me the other day when I happened to remark that Sulpicius was wasting his time in tutoring the boy; he actually said that in his opinion Claudius had more penetration than most of his immediate relatives--which I suppose was intended to include me! But Postumus is another problem.

  For the moment the question is about Claudius; and I cannot, I repeat, have him dining in my company--for physical reasons, which I hope you will appreciate.


  He wrote to Livia a year later, when she was away for a few days in the country: "... As for young Claudius I shall take
advantage of your absence to invite him to supper every night. I admit that his presence still embarrasses me, but I do not think it good for him always to sup alone with his Sulpicius and Athenodorus.

  The talk he has with them is too purely booldsh and, excellent fellows though they both are, they are not ideal companions for a boy of his age and station. I do sincerely wish that he would choose some young man of rank on whose bearing and dress and behaviour he might model his own. But his timidity and diffidence prevent this. He has a hero-worship for our dear Germanicus, but feels his own shortcomings so keenly that he would no more dare to imitate him than I would go about in lion's skin and club and call myself Hercules. The poor, creature is unfortunate; for in matters of importance [when his mind is not wool-gathering]

  the nobility of his heart is clearly shown... -"

  A third letter written shortly after my marriage, when I had just been nominated as a priest of Mars, is also of interest: "MY DEAR LIVIA, "As you advised me, I have discussed with our Tiberius what we are to do about young Claudius when these Games in honour of Mars are held. Now that he has come of age and been appointed to the vacancy in the College of the Priests of Mars we cannot put off our decision with regard to his future much longer: we agree about that, do we not?

  If he is sufficiently sound in mind and body to be eventually recognised as a reputable member of the family--as I believe he is, or I would not have adopted both Tiberius and Germanicus and left him as head of the senior branch of the Claudian house--then obviously he should be taken in hand and given the same opportunities for advancement as Germanicus. I admit that I may still be mistaken-

  -his recent improvement has not been striking. But if we decide that, after all, the infirmities of his body are bound up with a settled infirmity of mind, we must not give malicious people a chance of making fun of him and us. I repeat, we must decide pretty quickly once and for all about the lad--if only because we would find it a continual trouble and embarrassment if we had to decide afresh on every occasion that presented itself whether or not we considered him able to undertake those duties of State for which his birth befits him.


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