I claudius c 1, p.6

I, Claudius c-1, page 6

 part  #1 of  Claudius Series

 

I, Claudius c-1
 



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  My grandmother looked hard at Augustus when he had finished reading the unlucky letter. "Well?" she asked.

  "I agree with Tiberius," he said mildly. "The young man must be ill. This is the derangement of overstrain.

  You notice the final paragraph where he mentions the results of his head-wound and seeing those visions--well, that proves it. He needs a rest. The natural generosity of his soul has been perverted by the anxieties of campaign.

  Those German forests are no place for a man sick in mind, are they, Tiberius? The howling of wolves gets on one's nerves the worst, I believe: the lamenting of women he talks about was surely wolves. What about recalling him, now that he has given these Germans such a shaking as they'll never forget? It would do me good to see him back here at Rome again. Yes, we must certainly have him back.

  You'll be glad, dearest Livia, to have your boy again, won't you?"

  My grandmother did not answer directly. She said, still frowning; "And you, Tiberius?"

  My uncle was more politic than Augustus. He knew his mother's nature better. He answered: "My brother certainly seems ill, but even illness cannot excuse such unfilial behaviour and such gross folly. I agree that he should be recalled to be reminded of the heinousness of having entertained such base thoughts about his modest, devoted and indefatigable mother, and of the further enormity of committing them to paper and sending them by courier through unfriendly country. Besides, the argument from the case of Sulla is childish. As soon as Sulla was out of power the Civil Wars began again and his new constitution was overturned." So Tiberius came quite well out of the affair, but much of his severity against my father was genuine, for landing him in so embarrassing a position.

  Livia was choking with rage against Augustus for allowing insults to her to go by so easily, and in her son's presence too. Her rage against my father was equally violent.

  She knew that when he returned he was likely to carry into execution his plan for forcing Augustus to retire. She also saw that she would never now be able to rule through Tiberius--even if she could assure the succession tor him--so long as my father, a man of enormous popularity at Rome and with all the Western regiments at his back, stood waiting to force the restoration of popular liberties.

  And supreme power for her had come to be more important than life or honour; she had sacrificed so much for it.

  Yet she was able to disguise her feelings. She pretended to take Augustus'

  view that my father was merely sick, and told Tiberius that she thought his censure too severe.

  She agreed, however, that my father should be recalled at once. She even thanked Augustus for his generous extenuation of her poor son's fault and said that she would send him out her own confidential physician with a parcel of hellebore, from Anticyra in Thessaly, which was a famous specific for cases of mental weakness.

  The physician set out the next day in company with the courier who took Augustus' letter. The letter was one or friendly congratulation on his victories and sympathy for his head-wound; it permitted him to return to Rome, but in language which meant that he must return whether he wished to come or not.

  My father replied a few days later with thanks for Augustus' generosity. He replied that he would return as soon as his health permitted, but that the letter had reached him the day after a slight accident: his horse had fallen under him at full gallop, rolled on his leg and crushed it against a sharp stone. He thanked his mother for her solicitude, for the gift of the hellebore and for sending her physician, of whose services he had immediately availed himself. But he feared that even his well-known skill had not kept the wound from taking a serious turn.

  He said finally that he would have preferred to stay at his post but that Augustus'

  wishes were his commands; and repeated that as soon as he was well again he would return to the City.

  He was at present encamped near the Thuringian Saal.

  On hearing this news, Tiberius, who was with Augustus and Livia at Pavia, instantly asked leave to attend his brother's sick-bed. Augustus granted it and he mounted his cob and galloped off north, with a small escort, making for the quickest pass across the Alps. A five hundred mile journey lay before him but he could count on frequent relays of [47] horses at the posting-houses and when he was too weary for the saddle he could commandeer a gig and snatch a few hours'

  sleep in it without delaying his progress. The weather favoured him. He went over the Alps and descended into Switzerland, then followed the main Rhine road, not having yet stopped for as much as a hot meal, until he reached a place called Mannheim. Here he crossed the river and struck north-east by rough roads through unfriendly country. He was alone when he reached his destination on the evening of the third day, his original escort having long fallen out, and the new escort which he had picked up at Mannheim not having been able to keep up with him either. It is claimed that on the second day and night he travelled just under two hundred miles between noon and noon. He was in time to greet my father but not in time to save his life; for the leg by now was gangrened up to the thigh. My father, though on the point of death, had just sufficient presence of mind to order the camp to pay my uncle Tiberius the honours due to him as an army commander.

  The brothers embraced and my father whispered, "She read my letter?"

  "Before [B.C. 9] I did myself," groaned my uncle Tiberius.

  Nothing more was said except by my father, who sighed, "Rome has a severe mother: Lucius and Gaius have a dangerous stepmother." Those were his last words, and presently my uncle Tiberius closed his eyes.

  I heard this account from Xenophon, a Greek from the island of Cos, who was quite a young man at this time. He was my father's staff-surgeon and had been much disgusted that my grandmother's physician had taken the case out of his hands. Gaius and Lucius, I should explain, were Augustus' grandchildren by Julia and Agrippa. He had adopted them as his own sons while they were still infants.

  There was a third boy, Postumus, so called because he was born posthumously; Augustus did not adopt him too, but left him to carry on Agrippa's name.

  The camp where my father died was named "The Accursed" and his body was carried in a marching military procession to the army's winter quarters at Mainz on the Rhine, my uncle Tiberius walking all the way as chief mourner. The army wished to bury the body there, but he brought it back for a funeral at Rome where it was burnt on a monstrous pyre in Mars Field. Augustus himself pronounced the funeral oration, in the course of which he said, "I pray the gods to make my sons Gaius and Lucius as noble and virtuous men as this Drusus and to vouchsafe to me as honourable a death as his."

  Livia was not sure how far she could trust Tiberius. On his return with my father's body his sympathy with her had seemed forced and insincere, and when Augustus wished himself as honourable a death as my father's she saw a brief half-smile cross his face. Tiberius who, it appears, had long suspected that my grandfather had not died a natural death, was resolved now not to cross his mother's will in anything. Dining so often at her table he felt himself completely at her mercy. He worked hard to win her favour.

  Livia understood what was in his mind, and was not dissatisfied. He was the only one who suspected her of being a poisoner, and would obviously keep his suspicions to himself. She had lived down the scandal of her marriage with Augustus and was now quoted in the City as an example of virtue in its strictest and most disagreeable form. The Senate voted that four statues of her should be set up in various public places; this was by way of consoling her for her loss. They also enrolled her by a legal fiction among the "Mothers of Three Children".

  Mothers of three or more children had special privileges under Augustus'

  legislation, particularly as legatees--spinsters and barren women were not allowed to benefit under wills at all and their loss was the gain of their fruitful sisters.

  Claudius, you tedious old fellow, here you have come to within an inch or two of the end of the fourth roll of your autobiography and you have
n't even reached your birthplace. Put it down at once or you'll never reach even the middle of your story. Write, "My birth occurred at Lyons in France, on the first of August, a year before my father's death." So. My parents had had six children before me but as my mother always accompanied my father on his campaigns a child had to be very hardy to survive. Only my brother Germanicus, five years older than myself, and my sister Livilla, a year older than myself, were living: both inherited my father's magnificent constitution. I did not. [49]

  I nearly died on three occasions before my second year and, had not my father's death brought the family back to Rome, it is most unlikely that this story would have been written.

  V

  AT ROME WE LIVED IN THE BIG HOUSE WHICH HAD BElonged to my grandfather and which he had left in his will to my grandmother. It was on the Palatine Hill, close to Augustus' palace and the temple of Apollo built by Augustus, where the library was, and not far from the temple of Castor and Pollux.

  [This was the old temple, built of timber and sods, which sixteen years later Tiberius replaced, at his own expense, with a magnificent marble structure, the interior painted and gilded and furnished as sumptuously as a rich noblewoman's boudoir. My grandmother Livia made him do this to please Augustus, I may say.

  Tiberius was not religious-minded and very stingy with money.] It was healthier on that hill than down in the hollow by the river; most of the houses there belonged to senators, I was a very sickly child--"a very battleground of diseases", the doctors said--and perhaps only lived because the diseases could not agree as to which should have the honour of carrying me off. To begin with, I was born prematurely, at only seven months, and then my foster-nurse's milk disagreed with me, so that my skin broke out in an ugly rash, and then I had malaria, and measles which left me slightly deaf in one ear, and erysipelas, and colitis, and finally infantile paralysis which shortened my left leg so that I was condemned to a permanent limp.

  Because of one or other of these various illnesses I have all my life been so weak in the hams that to run or walk long distances has never been possible for me: a great deal of my travelling has had to be done in a sedan-chair. Then there is the appalling pain that catches me often, after eating, in the pit of my stomach. It has been so bad that on two or three occasions, if my friends had not intervened, I would have /plunged a carving-knife [which I madly snatched up] into the place of torment I have heard it said that this pain, which they call "the cardiac passion", is worse than any other pain known to man except the strangury. Well, I must be thankful, I suppose, that I have never had the strangury.

  It will be supposed that my mother Antonia, a beautiful and noble woman brought up to the strictest virtue by her mother Octavia, and the one passion of my father's life, would have taken the most loving care of me, her youngest child, and even made a particular favourite of me in pity for my misfortunes. But such was not the case. She did all for me that could be expected of her as a duty, but no more. She did not love me. No, she had a great aversion to me, not only because of my sickliness but also because she had had a most difficult pregnancy of me, and then a most painful delivery from which she barely escaped with her life and which left her more or less an invalid for years.

  My premature birth was due to a shock that she got at the feast given in honour of Augustus when he visited my father at Lyons to inaugurate the "Altar of Roma and Augustus" there: my father was Governor of the Three Provinces of France, and Lyons was his headquarters. A crazy Sicilian slave who was acting as waiter at the feast suddenly drew a dagger and flourished it in the air behind my father's neck. Only my mother saw this happening.

  She caught the slave's eye and had presence of mind enough to smile at him and shake her head in deprecation, signing to him to put the dagger back. While he hesitated two other waiters followed her glance and were in time to overpower and disarm him. Then she fainted and immediately her pains began. It may well be because of this that I have always had a morbid fear of assassination; for they say that a pre-natal shock can be inherited. But of course there is no real reason for any pre-natal influences to be mentioned. How many of the Imperial family have died a natural death?

  Since I was an affectionate child my mother's attitude [5i] caused me much misery. I heard from my sister Livilla, a beautiful girl but cruel, vain and ambitious--in a word a typical Claudian of the bad variety--that my mother had called me "a human portent" and said that when I was born the Sibylline books should have been consulted. Also that Nature had begun but never finished me, throwing me aside in disgust as a hopeless start. Also that the ancients were wiser and nobler than ourselves: they exposed all weakly infants on a bare hillside for the good of the race.

  These may have been embroideries by Livilla on less severe remarks--for seven-months' children are very horrible objects--but I know that once when my mother grew angry on bearing that some senator had introduced a foolish motion in the House she burst out: "That man ought to be put out of the way! He's as stupid as a donkey--what am I saying? Donkeys are sensible beings by comparison--he's as stupid as... as... Heavens, he's as stupid as my son Claudius!"

  Germanicus was her favourite, as he was everyone's favourite, but so far from envying him for the love and admiration that he won wherever he went I rejoiced on his behalf. Germanicus pitied me and did the most he could to make my life happier, and recommended me to my elders as a good-hearted child who would repay generous and careful treatment. Severity only frightened me, he would say, and made me more sickly than I need be. And he was right. The nervous tic of my hands, the nervous jerking of my head, my stammer, my queasy digestion, my constant dribbling at the mouth, were principally due to the terrors to which, in the name of discipline, I was subjected. When Germanicus stood up for me my mother used to laugh indulgently and say, "Noble heart, find some better object for your overflow!" But my grandmother Livia's way of talking was:

  "Don't be a fool, Germanicus.

  It he reacts favourably to discipline, we shall treat him with the kindness he deserves. You're putting the cart before the horse." My grandmother seldom spoke to me and when she did it was contemptuously and without looking at me, mostly to say, "Get out of this room, child, I want to be in it." If she had occasion to scold me she never did so by word of mouth but sent a short, cold note. For example: "It has come to the knowledge of the Lady Livia that the boy Claudius has been wasting his time mooning about the Apollo Library. Until he can profit from the elementary text-books provided for him by his tutors it is absurd for him to meddle with the serious works on the Library shelves. Moreover his fidgeting disturbs genuine students.

  This practice must cease."

  As for Augustus, though he never treated me with calculated cruelty, he disliked having me in the same room with him as much as my grandmother did.

  He was extraordinarily fond of little boys [remaining to the end of his life an overgrown boy himself], but only of the sort that he called "fine manly little fellows", such as my brother Germanicus and his grandchildren, Gains and Lucius, who were all extremely good-looking. There were a number of sons of confederate kings or chieftains, kept as hostages for their parents' good behaviour--from France, Germany, Parthia, North Africa, Syria--who were educated with his grandchildren and the sons of leading senators in the Boys' College; and he often came into the cloisters there to play at taws, or knucklebones, 01 tag. His chief favourites were little brown boys, the Moors and Parthians and Syrians: and those who could rattle away happily to him in boyish talk as if he were one of themselves. Only once did he try to master his repugnance to me and let me into a game of taws with his favourites. but it was so unnatural an effort that it made me more than usually nervous--and I stammered and shook like a mad thing. He never tried again. He hated dwarfs and cripples and deformities, saying that they brought bad luck and should be kept out of sight. Yet I could never find it in my heart to hate Augustus as I came to hate my grandmother, for his dislike of me was without malice and he did what he could to
master it: and indeed I must have been a wretched little oddity, a disgrace to so strong and magnificent a father and so fine and stately a mother.

  Augustus was a fine-looking man himself, though somewhat short, with curly fair hair that went grey only very late in his life, bright eyes, merry face and upright graceful carriage.

  I remember once overhearing an elegiac epigram that he [53] made about me, in Greek, for the benefit of Athenodorus, an old Stoic philosopher, from Tarsus in Syria, whose simple serious advice he often asked. I was about seven years old and they came upon me by the carp-pool in the garden of my mother's house. I cannot remember the epigram exactly, but the sense of it was: "Antonia is old-fashioned: she does not buy a pet marmoset at great expense from an Eastern trader. And why? Because she breeds them herself." Athenodorus thought for a moment and replied severely in the same metre: "Antonia, so far from buying a pet marmoset from Eastern traders, does not even cosset and feed with sugar-plums the poor child of her noble husband." Augustus looked somewhat abashed. I should explain that neither he nor Athenodorus, to whom I had always been represented as a half-wit, guessed that I could understand what they were saying.

  So Athenodorus drew me towards him and said playfully in Latin: "And what does young Tiberius Claudius think about the matter?" I was sheltered from Augustus by Athenodorus' big body and somehow forgot my stammer. I said straight out, in Greek: "My mother Antonia does not pamper me, but she has let me learn Greek from someone who learned it directly from Apollo." All I meant was that I understood what they were saying. The person who had taught me Greek was a woman who had been a priestess of Apollo on one of the Greek islands but had been captured by pirates and sold to a brothel-keeper in Tyre. She had managed to escape, but was not permitted to be priestess again because she had been a prostitute. My mother Antonia, recognizing her gifts, took her into the family as a governess. This woman used to tell me that she had learned directly from Apollo, and I was merely quoting her: but as Apollo was the God of learning and poetry my remark sounded far wittier than I intended. Augustus was startled and Athenodorus said: "Well spoken, little Claudius: marmosets don't understand a word of Greek, do they?" I answered; "No, and they have long tails, and steal apples from the table."

 
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