The Scholar and the Artist: Claudius (41–54) and Nero (54–68)

Our bodies grow slowly, but are quickly destroyed [. . . ] the sweetness of indolence comes over us, and in the end we love the laziness we once loathed.

Tacitus, Agricola 3.11

The Man Behind the Curtains

Gaius’ assassination was followed by a brief and bizarre power struggle. His loyal German bodyguards cut down several of the assassins and caused considerable collateral damage; the Senate thought about restoring the Republic, maybe using the urban cohorts; the Roman people, though, gathered in the Forum and chanted that they would not tolerate a return to Senatorial rule; and the Praetorian Guard, who knew that the restoration of the Republic would threaten their lucrative, cushy city-based existence, realized that they needed an alternative to Caligula, and needed him fast. During their rampage through the imperial palace, they stumbled upon Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding behind some curtains:

As he cowered there, a common soldier, who was prowling about at random, saw his feet, and intending to ask him who he was, pulled him out and recognized him; and when Claudius fell at his feet in terror, he hailed him as Emperor.2

This account, in which the man with no experience of public life whatsoever was randomly elevated to power entirely against his will, became Claudius’ authorized version. Other narratives make the Praetorians much more focused, actively seeking out Claudius, and there is a remote possibility Claudius was actively involved in planning his nephew’s demise: the argument goes that if Claudius was involved in the assassination, the absence of evidence is clear proof of it.3

The initial few hours after Caligula’s murder were vital ones for the survival of both Claudius and the Principate. He was endorsed by the Praetorian Guard on the same day, and the Senate realized they were powerless when the Praefectus Urbis defected to the Praetorian Guard with his cohorts, doubtless motivated by Claudius’ enormous donativum. So the Senate acquiesced, and the following day, 25 January 41, Claudius was invested with all the powers of the Princeps, becoming Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Legally speaking, Claudius had no right to be called ‘Caesar’, but the word was making a transition from a family name to a title that reaches into the modern era as ‘Kaiser’, ‘Tsar’ and possibly ‘Shah’.

The new Caesar had been born at Lugdunum (modern Lyons) on 1 August 10 BCE, but he had hardly been regarded as the golden boy of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Apparently his mother, Antonia Minor, frequently referred to him as ‘a monster of a man, not finished by Nature, but only begun’,4 and Suetonius described him as

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 and he had many disagreeable traits [. . .] he would foam at the mouth and trickle at the nose; he stammered and his head was very shaky at all times.5

This may be because he suffered from cerebral palsy, which his family simply found embarrassing: he remained under guardianship, like a woman, even after he had come of age, was kept out of public view, was not given magistracies, and remained an Equestrian until Caligula finally decided to share the consulship with him in 37. He was the butt of insults from relatives who equated his physical disabilities with mental ones, despite the fact that he became a scholar of considerable talent and composed numerous learned works in Greek and Latin (none of which survive) and could read Etruscan. Yet the tabula Siarensis and the Senatus Consultum de Pisone patre, which lavish great acclaim on his brother Germanicus’ family, barely mentioned Claudius, and alongside Tacitus’ account of the Piso affair in Tiberius’ reign,6 this shows just how low his position in the imperial family was:

Messalinus [proposed] that Tiberius, Augusta, Antonia, Agrippina and Drusus ought to be publicly thanked for having avenged Germanicus. He omitted all mention of Claudius. Thereupon he was pointedly asked by Lucius Asprenas before the Senate, whether the omission had been intentional, and it was only then that the name of Claudius was added [. . .] Clearly, the very last man marked out for empire by public opinion, expectation and general respect was he whom fortune was holding in reserve as the emperor of the future.7

And yet Claudius came unscathed through the first twentyfour hours of his Principate. However, his not unreasonable insecurity made him take a very hard line against any threats, real or imagined, and his first decade in power saw the execution or enforced suicide of more high-ranking Romans than under any other first-century Emperor. First on his list were Caligula’s murderer Cassius Chaerea, Julius Lupus, who had killed Caesonia and Drusilla, and Sabinus, who was allowed to go free, but committed suicide anyway.

On the other hand, Claudius tried hard to rectify ‘the unjust acts performed by Gaius and by others at his instigation’:8 free practice of Judaism was confirmed; order was restored in Alexandria; treason trials were abolished; there was an amnesty for Senators implicated in Gaius’ death; criminal records were burned; and Caligula’s stockpile of poi sons was destroyed, causing an environmental disaster in the River Tiber. Even so, several attempts were made on his life: Cn. Nonius was discovered with a dagger at a public audience; Claudius was attacked with a hunting knife outside the Temple of Mars; and in 42 L. Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus orchestrated a short-lived and unsuccessful rebellion in Dalmatia. There were still Senators who clung to the old Republican ideals, but Republicanism had little support elsewhere, and anyway, the army backed the Emperor.

Claudius the Conqueror

The perfect way for Claudius to cement his bond with the army was conquest. So despite, or indeed because of, having no military experience, and no clear exit strategy, Claudius invaded Britain. However bizarrely Caligula might have behaved, he had effectively put all the preparations in place, and there was also a ready-made pretext in the fact that the Catuvellauni, under Caratacus and Togodumnus, were threatening Britain’s status as a stable and profitable neighbour. They had misjudged how far they could go without provoking Rome. In or before 43,

a certain Berikos [i.e., Verica] who had been driven out from the island as a result of civil war persuaded Claudius to send a force there.9

Claudius was up for it:

He sought the honour of a real triumph, and chose Britain as the best field in which to seek this, for no one had attempted an invasion since the time of Julius Caesar and the island at this time was in a turmoil.10

The expedition would tick a number of important boxes for Claudius: he needed military kudos to bring him both respect and safety; the economic pretium victoriae (= ‘reward of victory’) was attractive; iron ore and lead (which indicated silver) were known to be present; the Druids had now moved their headquarters to Mona (modern Anglesey), but could conceivably use their influence to stir up trouble in Gaul; and there was the seductive prospect for a practising historian literally to influence the course of history.

The expeditionary force was formidable, well balanced, and led by highly experienced commanders. Aulus Plautius and Legio IX Hispana had cut their teeth in the tough frontier territory of the Danube, and his officers T. Flavius Vespasianus (‘Vespasian’), Vespasian’s elder brother Flavius Sabinus and Cn. Hosidius Geta were first-rate soldiers. The three other legions that are assumed to have made up the invasion force were Legiones II Augusta, XIIII Gemina and XX (later entitled Valeria Victrix). But legions frequently operated in ‘vexillationes’ (detachments) rather than at full strength, and we know that a centurion of Legio VIII Augusta also won honours in the campaign, so part of that legion may also have been involved. This makes calculating the numbers difficult, especially since the legionaries were augmented by auxiliaries, who provided the strong cavalry contingent that Caesar had lacked, but a total of 40 000 men is the most quoted figure.

Even so, the invasion was almost aborted. The troops mutinied because they feared campaigning outside the limits of the world they knew, and it took Claudius’ imperial freedman Narcissus to bring them into line. However, the delayed departure had unintended benefits:

[The Romans] were sent over in three divisions [. . .] When they reached the island they found no one to oppose them. On the strength of the reports they received the Britons had concluded that they were not coming and had not assembled to meet them.11

The landing places are not known for certain: there are Claudian military features at Richborough (Ruptiae), which has a good enclosed harbour, and Fishbourne Harbour, in the territory of the pro-Roman Atrebates, from where Verica fled, may also have been used (see Map 2).

Once on the island, Plautius forged ahead. Having located and defeated Caratacus and Togodumnus, he won over a section of the Dobunni and continued his advance to ‘a river which the barbarians thought the Romans would be unable to cross without a bridge’,12 – either the Medway or the Thames. The Britons were over-optimistic: Plautius had an auxiliary unit of ‘Celts’ who were specially trained in swimming over rivers, although the fact that the battle lasted two days shows that the Britons resisted stoutly. Dio then describes another river crossing close to what is now central London, where Plautius’ ‘Celts’ again swam across whilst the legionaries crossed by a bridge further upstream. After that the Roman advance ground to a halt in the wooded territory of the vale of St Albans where they suffered quite severe losses in guerrilla action, although Togodumnus was also killed.

Plautius now withdrew south of the Thames and sent for Claudius:

He had been instructed to do this if he met any particularly strong opposition, and indeed considerable equipment, including elephants, had already been assembled as reinforcements.13

Claudius arrived in Britain in August.

Taking over the command [. . .] he crossed the river and engaged the barbarians who had assembled to oppose him; he defeated them, and captured Camulodunum [modern Colchester], the capital of Cunobelinus.14

When Claudius accepted the surrender of numerous British tribes it was a remarkable moment: after just sixteen days in Britain the person nobody had thought fit to rule Rome had outdone Gaius, Augustus and Caesar. Claudius celebrated a spectacular triumph, presiding over a show in the Campus Martius representing the capture of a town and the surrender of the British kings. He extended Rome’s city boundary, as those who had extended the Empire were entitled to do. The Senate voted him the title Britannicus. Coins depicted a triumphal arch inscribed DE BRITANN(IS) = ‘(Commemorating victory) over the Britons’, supporting a statue of the Emperor on horseback between two trophies. A real arch in Rome was

Set up by the Senate and People of Rome because he received the formal submission of eleven Kings of the Britons, overcome without any loss, and because he was the first to bring barbarian peoples across the Ocean under the sway of the Roman people.15

In the provinces a cult of Victoria Britannica was established in Corinth, and a relief panel on the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias graphically illustrated the conquest: Claudius, heroically nude apart from his helmet, cloak, sword-belt and scabbard, delivers the coup de grâce to a slumped woman wearing a tunic with one bare breast, modelled on an Amazon, but personifying Britain.

Claudius never commanded the army in person again, although the Empire was significantly enlarged during his Principate. The client kingdom of Mauretania was organized into two provinces (Mauretania Tingitania and Caesariensis); Lycia, Thrace and Noricum were likewise annexed and provincialized; when Herod Agrippa I died, his kingdom reverted to direct Roman rule; there was fighting along the Rhine and Danube frontiers, in the Crimea and in Armenia; and by the end of his reign, Claudius had been hailed as Imperator a record twenty-seven times.

Messalina and the Freedmen

If love is a battlefield, Claudius was seldom hailed as Imperator there. By his accession he had been unsuccessfully betrothed twice, first to Aemilia Lepida, daughter of the younger Julia, only for the engagement to be broken off when her parents fell into disfavour, then to Livia Medullina, who died on the day of their wedding. When he finally married Plautia Urgulanilla it was not a success. She was divorced for adultery and suspicion of murder, and their son, Claudius Drusus, choked to death on a pear he had thrown into the air and caught in his mouth. Claudius then wed Aelia Paetina, but divorced her in order to marry a woman over thirty years his junior: Valeria Messalina.

Messalina bore Claudius a daughter, Octavia, in 39, and a son, Ti. Claudius Germanicus, later renamed Britannicus, in 41. Messalina’s standing is indicated by her appearance on the obverse of coins, where you would expect to see the Emperor, and, confident in her position as mother of the heir apparent, she started eliminating her rivals. Caligula’s sister Julia Livilla was an early victim, as was Appius Silanus, who was recalled from Spain to marry Messalina’s mother, only to be executed for trying to murder the Emperor. Rumour had it, though, that his real ‘crime’ was to have spurned Messalina’s advances.

Recently, attempts have been made to rehabilitate Messalina as an astute player of court politics who used sex as a weapon, but in the ancient sources she is a shameless nymphomaniac, voraciously seducing everyone from Senators to actors and famously beating a celebrity prostitute in a sex contest, while Claudius either remained ignorant or turned a blind eye:

[In] her empty reserved cell, naked, with gilded nipples, she plied her trade, under the name of ‘The Wolf-Girl’ [. . .]

She would greet each client sweetly, demand cash payment, and absorb all their battering – without ever getting up.

Too soon the brothel-keeper dismissed his girls: she stayed right till the end, always the last to go, then trailed away sadly, still with burning, rigid vulva, exhausted by men, yet a long way from satisfied.16

But Messalina pushed things too far. In October 48, while Claudius was at Ostia, for reasons that remain unclear, she and her lover C. Silius went through a wedding ceremony. While Claudius was asking, ‘Am I still Emperor?’, Narcissus stepped in. The Princepswas spirited away to safety; Silius and Messalina were executed.

The Messalina issue highlights the criticism against Claudius that he was dominated by women and ex-slaves. One notable feature of the Principate in general is the pervasive influence of the imperial women, yet at the same time, anyone, female or male, with family or marriage ties to the imperial family was a potential threat to the Emperor, and one common reaction was for him to turn to freed slaves on whose loyalty and expertise he could rely. This, though, alienated Rome’s traditional political elite, who detested having to kowtow to people who were their social inferiors. In Claudius’ government Narcissus the Chief Secretary, Pallas the Financial Secretary and Callistus the Secretary of Petitions were not only exceptionally powerful and wealthy, but also highly competent, yet our sources, who are often from the Senatorial class, frequently blame them (or Messalina) for negative things that were probably Claudius’ fault rather than theirs.

Claudius and the Establishment

Despite Claudius scrupulously observing all its most hallowed protocols, the Senate never warmed to him. The aristocratic tradition excoriated his legal record as meddling, biased, stupid, capricious and just plain vicious, not to mention the fact that he heard sensitive cases behind closed doors. A satirical work attributed to Seneca the Younger, entitled The Apocolocyntosis (‘Pumpkinification’) of the Divine Claudius, purports to describe Claudius’ fate after death and ends with a courtroom drama in which Claudius is condemned to rattle dice for ever in a box with no bottom and have to hunt for the dice, which for ever slipped from his fingers (he was a notorious gambler), before being made into a faceless law-clerk. The Establishment also reacted negatively to his generous grants of Roman citizenship, for example the founding of numerous coloniae such as Colonia Agrippina (modern Cologne), the wholesale grant of citizenship to the Alpine Anauni tribe, and the induction of provincials into the Senate. The Princeps’ speech, in which he argues for the inclusion of various ‘long-haired’ Gauls (from Gallia Comata) into the Senate on the basis of Rome’s cosmopolitan history and melting-pot culture, is creatively reconstructed by Tacitus and transcribed verbatim on ‘the Lyons Tablet’, a fine large bronze inscription found in Claudius’ birthplace.17

The sources are similarly sniffy about Claudius’ building projects – ‘he carried out large and necessary works, rather than numerous ones’.18 But they were important. He completed the two aqueducts, the 70-kilometre-long Aqua Claudia and the 87-kilometre--long Anio Novus, which Caligula had begun in 52. A land-reclamation project that involved draining the Fucine Lake using a tunnel through Monte Salviano employed 30 000 men for eleven years, and was inaugurated with a mock seabattle involving 19 000 prisoners, who famously used the phrase, ‘Hail Emperor, those about to die salute you!’19 Perhaps the most important civil engineering project was the construction of a new deep-water harbour, known as Portus, at the mouth of the Tiber, which allowed large grain ships to dock much closer to Rome.

Agrippina the Younger, a Mushroom and a Pumpkin

Back on the domestic front, despite swearing that he would never re-marry after Messalina’s execution, Claudius, perhaps persuaded by Pallas, did take a new bride. He was now fiftyeight, and his choice again fell on a younger woman, Caligula’s sister Agrippina the Younger, who had allegedly attracted her uncle by behaving in an inappropriate and entirely un-niecelike way. Such a marriage was illegal under Roman law, but the persuasive powers of one L. Vitellius convinced the Senate that incest was best for Rome.

Tacitus was outraged:

From this moment the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman [. . .] this was a rigorous, almost masculine despotism.20

Agrippina had the incumbent Praetorian Prefects replaced with the more malleable Sextus Afranius Burrus; she took the title ‘Augusta’; she appeared independently from Claudius on coins; she greeted foreign embassies; and she wore a goldembroidered military cloak at official functions. She was ragingly ambitious, particularly when it came to her son by her previous husband, the noble but brutal Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus, who had died when the child was three. The boy was called L. Domitius Ahenobarbus. At thirteen he was a crucial three years older than Claudius’ son Britannicus, and on 25 February 50, after leverage from Agrippina and Pallas (who were rumoured to be lovers), Claudius adopted him as his son. His contemporaries then knew him as Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus Caesar; we just call him Nero.

Nero quickly supplanted Germanicus, and in 53 he married Claudius’ daughter Claudia Octavia. He didn’t really like her, but the union clearly made him the heir apparent. Quite why Claudius preferred Nero to his natural son remains a mystery.

Timing now became everything for Agrippina. If Britannicus reached manhood, as he would in February 55, he could still legally succeed Claudius. So, in October 54, she decided to eliminate her husband. The rather conflicting ancient accounts involve Agrippina, a poisoner called Locusta, the eunuch foodtaster Halotus, and a particularly fine mush room. The outcome was either: (1) Claudius’ swift-ish painful death, or (2) an initial bout of diarrhoea or vomiting that necessitated a second dose administered through a syringe, or on a feather that Claudius was using to help himself vomit. Some modern authorities think that Claudius died a natural death, although the timing of it is extremely suspicious.

The late Emperor was swiftly deified. Out in the provinces, Claudius the god appears on Aphrodisias’ Sebasteion, striding forward in a divine epiphany, drapery billowing around his head, receiving a cornucopia and a ship’s steering oar, attributes appropriate to his role as guarantor of the prosperity of land and sea. In Nero’s tutor Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, though, the divine Augustus rails against the idea of a man with physical disabilities and a speech impediment becoming a god:

Is this the man you now wish to make a god? Look at his body, born when the gods were in a rage. In short, let him utter three words in quick succession and he can take me as his slave. Who will worship this man as a god? Who will believe in him?21

Nero’s Five Golden Years

Nero’s accession was greeted with delight. Born at Antium on 15 December 37 amid stories of a miraculous childhood, Augustus’ great-great-grandson, whose name means ‘strong and valiant’ in the Sabine language, was sixteen years old. Suetonius says that he was of average height and had a pustular and malodorous body, light blond hair, pretty rather than handsome features, dullish blue eyes, a squat neck, protuberant belly and spindly legs, none of which are prominent on his official portraiture.

He was escorted into the praetorian camp by the Praefectus Praetorio Burrus, and the Senate granted him the requisite powers. The ancient tradition presents the first five years of his Principate as a Golden Age, the Quinquennium Neronis. Seneca and Burrus joined forces in ‘educating’ him in philosophy, rhetoric and how to run the Empire. They indulged their student up to a point, while at the same time trying to stymie his pushy mother’s attempts to become the power behind the throne. For his part, Nero said he would govern in accordance with Augustan precedent, made the standard ploy of renouncing the abuses of the previous regime, and promised to share the responsibilities of government with the Senate, placing the legend EX S C (= ‘In Accordance with a Senatorial Decree’) on his coins. However, Agrippina’s influence also comes through in the official iconography: on coins minted in December 54 her head faces Nero’s on the obverse, and at Aphrodisias there is a sculpture that depicts her decked out with a cornucopia – symbol of Fortune and Plenty – crowning a military-looking Nero with a laurel wreath in a reference to her role in his accession. Even so, Agrippina didn’t have everything her own way: when she started showing sympathy for Claudius’ son Britannicus, he ended up poisoned.

Nero’s wife Claudia Octavia turned out to be too much of a shrinking violet. More to his taste was Poppaea Sabina, born in Pompeii in 30 and famous for her charm, beauty, wit and fondness for daily milk baths, but currently involved with, and possibly married to, Nero’s fellow party-animal M. Salvius Otho. Our five conflicting accounts of the Nero-Otho-Poppaea love triangle say either that Otho was protecting Poppaea in a bogus marriage until Nero could dump Octavia and marry her instead, or that although Otho and Poppaea were properly married, Nero simply took Poppaea and sent Otho off to govern Lusitania in 58. Poppaea may have used the splendidly opulent Villa Oplontis on the Bay of Naples as a seaside residence.

Regardless of who seduced whom, Poppaea focused on becoming Nero’s wife and Empress of Rome. As Nero’s desire for self-gratification increased, along with his resentment of anyone who interfered (or might interfere) with it, so did Poppaea’s influence with him. Agrippina’s desire to maintain her hold over her son led her to have sex with him, but Poppaea was simply more alluring. His mother had to be removed, so Nero tried to engineer an ‘accident’ by deploying a collapsible ship to drown her in the Bay of Naples. Although the resilient woman survived and swam ashore, she knew the game was up. Nero’s response to her message that she was well was to send a detachment of sailors under Anicetus, who commanded the fleet at Misenum, to finish the job. She famously exposed her stomach and said, ‘Strike this, Anicetus, strike here, for this bore Nero.’ He did.22

Just after Nero returned to Rome following Agrippina’s murder there was a major riot in the amphitheatre at Pompeii between the locals and the inhabitants of Nuceria, which resulted in a ten-year ban on shows in that arena. A fresco depicting the event was found in the house of Actius Anicetius (I.iii.23), and elsewhere graffiti proudly boasts,

Campanians, in our victory you perished with the Nucerians.23

The Transgressive Emperor

Agrippina’s termination also terminated Nero’s ‘Golden Age’. In 62 a maiestas (treason) charge was admitted for the first time, and when Burrus died that year too, he was succeeded as Praefectus Praetorio by Ofonius Tigellinus, a latter-day Sejanus who egged Nero on to the perpetration of crime and the gratification of lust. Seneca wisely went into retirement, while Nero divorced Claudia Octavia and then had her banished, murdered and beheaded. Poppaea, who by now was pregnant, got her heart’s desire and married Nero. Their daughter, Claudia Augusta, was born in January of 41, but sadly, the child died four months later, and Poppaea was pregnant again when Nero allegedly kicked her to death. Nero then married Statilia Messalina.

Criminality and perversion were one thing, but Nero was guilty of far worse in Roman eyes: he was obsessed with music, poetry, acting, chariot racing and Greek athletics. This weighed more heavily in the court of public opinion even than his playing the role of bride in weddings with male partners.24 Agrippina’s death allowed him to indulge his passion for art and literature. Despite some crushing insecurities, he regarded himself as a virtuoso, but unfortunately he simply had delusions of adequacy. He performed at a competent amateur level, with a voice that was described as ‘slight and husky’, and Suetonius, who had seen his notebooks,25 is less than complimentary about his poetry, even though Nero won every competition that he entered. Anyone not suitably enthusiastic about one of his performances faced execution, although the future Emperor Vespasian did get away with either leaving the room or falling asleep.

The bottom line was that Nero was totally unsuited to being Emperor of Rome. Whilst Seneca and Burrus had been on the scene everything ran as smoothly as it needed to, Nero devoted himself to his art, and they tried to keep his performances out of the public domain. Yet even so there were tales of him roaming the streets in disguise at night, terrorizing people and then executing those who dared to defend themselves, on the grounds that they had disrespected the Emperor. But now Nero made his public debut in the Greek city of Naples in 64, and followed this up the next year by taking to the stage in Rome, naturally making sure that a hired claque of 5 000 supporters gave him a rousing reception.

Problems in the West and the East: Boudicca, Armenia and Judaea

In the wider Empire, Nero faced continuous military and diplomatic difficulties, primarily in Britain, Parthia and Armenia, and Judaea. Here the Romans were learning the hard way that administration was more difficult than conquest, and that winning hearts and minds was a much more complex affair than winning battles.

Since Claudius’ invasion, Britain had been undergoing a period of both conquest and consolidation: the Fosse Way had been established, forming a crucial SW–NE line of communication (see Map 2); cities like Verulamium (modern St Albans) and Londinium (modern London) were growing; insurgency by Caratacus in Wales had come to an end when Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, a formidable confederation that stretched across much of modern Yorkshire and Lancashire and into the Scottish Lowlands, handed him over; and the fifth governor, C. Suetonius Paulinus, was using Legiones XIV Gemina and XX to eradicate the Druidism on Mona. But then disaster struck.

Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, located chiefly in modern Norfolk, had died without a son and had left half of his kingdom to Nero and half to his daughters. But such an arrangement was not possible under Roman law, and Prasutagus’ wishes were not respected:

As if they were war booty his kingdom was devastated by centurions and his household by slaves, [. . .] To begin with, his wife Boudicca26 was whipped and his daughters raped. Various Icenian nobles were forcibly deprived of their ancestral estates [. . .] and the king’s relatives were treated like slaves.27

This maltreatment sparked off a rebellion that spread to the Trinovantes28 of Essex, similarly treated as ‘prisoners and slaves’, whose specific grievances centred on the establishment of the imperial cult in the new colony at Camulodunum, which cost them a fortune to administer. To make matters worse, to pay for this kind of thing, the Britons had accepted cash donations from Claudius, and taken on loans from speculators like Seneca, who had lent the islanders forty million sestertii at interest. Decianus Catus, theprocurator of the island, now demanded that the donations be returned and Seneca called in his loan.

In Boudicca the ancient historians found a perfect foil to Nero. They give her all the virtues that Nero lacked, spiced up with a little barbarous eroticism:

[She] had uncommon intelligence for a woman [. . .] She was very tall and grim; her gaze was penetrating and her voice was harsh; she grew her long auburn hair to the hips and wore a large golden torque and a voluminous patterned cloak with a thick plaid fastened over it.29

Her rebel army, about 120 000 strong, attacked, captured and razed Camulodunum, which was practically defenceless. A vexillation of Legio IX Hispana, commanded by Quintus Petillius Cerialis Caesius Rufus, attempted to relieve the town but was ambushed and routed, perhaps with losses of 2 000 men,30 although he himself escaped. Suetonius Paulinus responded promptly. Legiones XIV Gemina and XX started back from Mona, while he went ahead with his cavalry to try to defend Londinium. He also sent for Legio IIAugusta from Isca (modern Exeter), but their legatus was in Gaul and Poenius Postumus, the praefectus castrorum, refused to march.

Suetonius Paulinus quickly realized that he did not have the resources to defend Londinium, so he decided to sacrifice the city to save the province and headed back north to rejoin his legions. Terrible massacres, which cost tens of thousands of lives, took place at Londinium and Verulamium, where Boudicca’s warriors committed some stomach-churning atrocities:

They hung up naked the noblest and best-looking women. They cut off their breasts and stitched them to their mouths, so that the women seemed to be eating them, and after this they impaled them on sharp stakes run right up the body.31

Reunited with his infantry, Suetonius could only deploy around 10 000 men against a vastly superior number of Britons, but even so he knew it was vital to fight early, and he prudently selected a site somewhere between Mancetter and St Albans where the Roman flanks and the rear were protected by woods and hills. Boudicca harangued her warriors, contrasting her hard, manly Britons with the soft, effeminate Romans ruled by Nero: they live in luxury, she said, drink unmixed wine, anoint themselves with oil, take warm baths, and sleep with lads, and ones who are past their prime at that. While Nero may have the name of ‘man’, she scoffed, ‘he is in fact a woman, and the evidence for this is that he sings and plays the lyre’.32 The Britons were so confident that they brought their wives along to see the victory, installing them in carts at the edge of the battlefield.

But the British optimism was sadly misplaced. The Romans stood their ground, launched their pila at the onrushing enemy, then surged forward and demolished all serious resistance. The Britons were impeded by the ring of wagons, and the Romans spared neither the women nor the baggage animals:

It was a glorious victory, comparable with bygone triumphs. According to one report almost 80 000 Britons fell [. . .] Boudicca poisoned herself.33

Suetonius Paulinus embarked on a policy of reprisals so savage that it caused friction between himself and the new procurator Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus. This was only defused by the diplomatic efforts of Polyclitus, one of Nero’s freedmen. But Suetonius Paulinus’ victory was comprehensive: there would be no more rebellions in Britain’s lowland zone.

Rome’s problems in the East were different. These revolved around the buffer state of Armenia, which separated Rome and Parthia. There had been disagreements and fighting in this area for quite a while, but Nero did succeed in striking an agreement with Parthia, thanks to the expertise of Rome’s foremost general Cn. Domitius Corbulo, who had been appointed by Seneca and Burrus. He combined diplomacy and force to achieve a compromise in which the Romans accepted the Parthian nominee Tiridates in Armenia while the Parthians recognized him as a client king of Rome. Tiridates went to Rome and was crowned by Nero in 66, and a relief panel on the Aphrodisias Sebasteion reveals how this was spun: in a composition that likens them to Achilles and the Amazon Queen Penthesilea, Nero supports a slumped personification of Armenia, naked apart from a soft eastern hat, by her upper arms. Nevertheless, the financial strain of Boudicca’s revolt and the wars with Parthia was made apparent when Rome’s gold and silver coins were reduced in weight and the silver content of the denarius was reduced by over 10 per cent.

Compromise was harder to achieve in Judaea. An incident that illustrates the tenseness of the situation occurred when St Paul was famously about to be publicly flogged after his arrival in Jerusalem in 58 caused a riot, only to receive an eleventh-hour reprieve:

And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is Roman, and uncondemned? When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest; for this man is a Roman. Then the chief captain came, and said unto him. Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea.34

Other Jews were not so fortunate, and in 63, when they gathered in Caesarea to protest about discrimination against them, they clashed with the local Greek citizens. The Roman procurator, M. Antonius Felix, sent in the army, and the philhellenic Nero sided with the Greeks. The Jews were livid.

By 66 Judaea had become a time bomb, and in May of that year the Roman procurator Gessius Florus detonated it. We have an eyewitness account of what happened from Joseph ben Mattathias, aka Flavius Josephus (his assumed Roman name), who wrote an important account of the Jewish rebellion (Jewish War) and a Jewish History (Jewish Antiquities). Now twentynine years old, he was an aristocratic Jewish priest and scholar who had been to Rome on a diplomatic mission, but had ended up staying there for two years before returning, with quite pro-Roman sentiments, to Jerusalem. To make up a budget deficit of 400 000 sestertii, Florus ordered his soldiers to seize seventeen talents (435 kg) of silver from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. From the Jewish perspective this was a sacrilegious violation of their most holy place, especially when Florus ordered his Gentile soldiers to force their way in.

The procurator responded to the resultant unrest by marching in person from Caesarea to Jerusalem to restore order and get the treasure. When Josephus and the moderate high priest Hanan made conciliatory noises, the uncompromising Florus sent in the cavalry, leading to over 3 000 innocent people being killed and the instigators of the riot being crucified. Further Jewish protests then triggered a second bloodbath, after which Jewish popular opinion swung in favour of nationalism and armed resistance. The nationalist backlash was effective: Florus and most of his cohorts were driven back to Caesarea; the pro-Roman client king, Agrippa, who ruled the adjacent territories, was called in, but he was stoned and driven out; and the Jewish insurgents seized control all over Judaea. Nero turned to C. Cestius Gallus, the newly appointed legatus Augusti pro praetore of Syria. In October 66 he marched to Jerusalem with 30 000 troops, but he failed to take the city, and as he retreated he was trapped in a narrow defile near Beth-Horon, where a sizeable army of Jewish rebels slaughtered around 6 000 of his men.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, the moderates had regained control of the city and of the war strategy. A ‘losing draw’ would have suited them, but Nero was already smarting from Boudicca’s revolt and was fearful that this rebellion might spread to the numerous Jews in Antioch, Alexandria or, worse, Parthia, and so destabilize the whole of the Roman Empire’s Eastern flank. The Princeps turned to Titus Flavius Vespasianus (‘Vespasian’), a veteran of Claudius’ invasion of Britain. Vespasian brought in his eldest son, also called Titus Flavius Vespasianus (aka Titus), and made himlegatus of Legio XV Apollinaris based in Alexandria, while he himself assumed command of Legiones X Fretensis and V Macedonica based in Syria (although he decided against deploying XII Fulminata, defeated at Beth-Horon). Vespasian gathered his army, augmented by auxiliaries and allies, in Syria during the winter of 66–7, after which he and Titus pacified Galilee and laid siege to Jerusalem: their mission would be accomplished in due course, but not in Nero’s reign, and not without terrible bloodshed.35

The Fire at Rome and the Christians

In the early hours of 19 June 64 a catastrophe occurred at Rome. A fire broke out in the Circus Maximus area, raged through the valley between the Palatine and the Esquiline Hills, burned for several days, and then erupted again to leave three out of Rome’s fourteen regions in smoking ruins, and only four of them unscathed. Tacitus says that Nero was at Antium when the disaster struck, and that he made some concerted relief efforts and imposed new health and safety regulations; Suetonius and Dio Cassius say that he sang the Sack of Troy in full stage gear while the city burned; and conspiracy theorists believed that he started the blaze on purpose, although Tacitus dismissed this speculation as rumour. Neither did he ‘fiddle’ while Rome burned: the Romans did not use violin-type instruments and none of the sources says he played the lyre-like instrument called thefidicula – the kithara was his instrument of choice. Dio has him wearing a kithara-player’s garb, but no source explicitly makes him play during the fire, whereas they all make him sing or declaim. The origin of the saying ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’ is uncertain, and in fact no written evidence has been discovered for the phrase, despite its fame.36

Nero didn’t have to search very far for scapegoats. Tacitus’ narrative seems to imply that Christians were not responsible for the fire, but nevertheless many Romans suspected that they were. There was all sorts of speculation about secret rituals and criminal activities – the Eucharist was interpreted as literal cannibalism – which were punishable by death under Roman law. Furthermore, the early Christians were not especially neighbourly, mainly because their neighbours were their fellow Christians, as opposed to their kinsfolk, compatriots, or people who lived around them, and their insular lifestyle raised suspicions in a world where, as Galen said, everyone knew each other, whose son was whose, what education they had received, how much property people owned, and how everybody conducted themselves.37 So, because everyone automatically thought that the Christians really were guilty, there was relatively little popular opposition to their executions, which took place under cognitio extra ordinem, a process that was all legal and above board. However, when Nero deviated from the norm by inventing incredibly perverse and sadistic methods of execution, even the Romans’ high tolerance for violence was tested:

In spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.38

Christians were exposed to wild animals (not unusual: damnatio ad bestias was a pretty standard sentence) and were set ablaze, smeared with pitch, to illuminate the night (grotesquely unusual). The Christian writers Tertullian, Lactantius and Sulpicius Severus all regarded Nero as the first persecutor of Christians; other texts equate him with the Antichrist; some modern thinkers maintain that the number 666 in the Book of Revelation is a code for Nero; and by the fourth century Christian writers were stating that Nero killed the Apostles Peter (crucified upside down on the Vatican hill) and Paul (beheaded along the Via Ostiensis).

Damnatio Memoriae

Nero’s attempt to deflect the blame onto others was an abject failure, and his public image was irrevocably damaged when he exploited the devastation to construct his own ultra-palatial Domus Aurea (‘Golden House’), featuring a lake and a colossal statue of himself, in the centre of Rome. ‘Now, at last, I can begin to live like a human being,’ he said.39 But soon he would die like an outlaw.

In 65 the Princeps had to face a major conspiracy that aimed to replace him with C. Calpurnius Piso. The plot was betrayed, but Subrius Flavus, a tribune of the Praetorian Guard who took part in it, told the young Emperor why he had done what he had:

I hated you, yet not a soldier was more loyal to you while you deserved to be loved. I began to hate you when you became the murderer of your mother and your wife, a charioteer, an actor, and an incendiary.40

Piso and various big names, including Lucan, Seneca, C. Petronius (possibly the author of the Satyricon) and Thrasea Paetus (a Stoic philosopher and long-time critic of Nero), were either executed or took their own lives. But the writing was on the wall for Nero.

Nevertheless, in September of 66 Nero left Rome to tour Greece. He had the date of the Olympic Games shifted to 67, so that he could compete in them, and despite being thrown from his ten-horse chariot, helped to remount and failing to stay the course, he was still proclaimed the victor. At the Isthmian Games at Corinth on 28 November 67 he released Greece from Roman administration and taxation. Another grand scheme to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth came to nothing, however.

All the while, the tide was turning against him, particularly since his self-indulgence led him to fail to indulge the army and its commanders. Prompted by the warnings of his freedman Helius, Nero returned to Italy. Unfortunately for him, however, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, C. Iulius Vindex, rebelled in March of 68. Vindex was an Aquitanian Gaul, but also a Roman Senator, and seems to have had some private difficulties, but the combination of his and the Gauls’ hatred of their obligations to Rome was a very powerful one. He was able to put an army of 20 000 into the field. Whether this was a ‘nationalistic’ movement is disputed: unlike the Jews, the Gauls (and the Germans, for that matter) tended to think in tribal terms rather than in overarching national ones, even though they all spoke the same language group. In any case, Vindex was defeated and killed by the Rhine legions under L. Verginius Rufus, at Vesontio (modern Besançon) in Gallia Lugdunensis. However, even though Vindex failed, he had initiated an unstoppable process: in Hispania Tarraconensis the elderly Servius Sulpicius Galba declared himself ‘Legate of the Senate and Roman People’ and minted coins with legends like ROM RENASC (‘Rome Reborn’), LIBERTAS RESTITUTA (‘Liberty Restored’) and SALUS GENERIS HUMANI (‘Salvation of Mankind’); in Africa L. Clodius Macer, legatus of the Legio III Augusta, cut off the grain supply to Rome; Galba’s agents won over C. Nymphidius Sabinus, the Praefectus Praetorio, who got the Praetorian Guard to defect; and the Senate declared Nero a public enemy. In the face of this, the Princeps simply lost his nerve. He took refuge in his freedman Phaon’s villa, and there committed suicide in June 68. His famous last words were, reputedly, ‘Dead. And so great an artist!’41 The Julio-Claudian dynasty died with him.

Nero became the first Emperor to suffer damnatio memoriae – his reign was officially expunged from the record by order of the Senate. At the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias there is a relief on which a heroically nude Claudius, wearing the corona civica (‘citizen crown’) that was awarded to Roman leaders for saving citizens’ lives, joins hands with Agrippina, who is holding ears of wheat like a fertility goddess. Claudius is being crowned by the personified Roman People or Senate, yet somewhat bizarrely, the Greek inscription on the base reads: [Neron] Klaudios Drousos Kaisar Sebastos. The builders had made a mistake and placed a relief showing Claudius onto a base made for Nero, but they were able to get away with it by erasing Nero’s name, Neron, after his damnatio memoriae. Yet the late Emperor still had supporters who placed flowers on his grave every year, and there are some modern scholars who think Nero’s memory should be rehabilitated rather than damned.

1   Tr. Kershaw, S.

2   Suetonius, Claudius 10.2, tr. Rolfe, J. C., op. cit.

3   See Levick, B., Claudius, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 33–39.

4   Suetonius, Claudius 3.2, tr. Kershaw, S.

5   Ibid 30, tr. Rolfe, J. C., op. cit.

6   See above, p. 75.

7   Tacitus, Annals 3.18.4, tr. Church, A. J. and Brodribb, W. J., The History of Tacitus Translated into English, Cambridge and London: Macmillan, 1864.

8   Dio, 60.5.1, tr, Cary, E., op.cit.

9   Dio 60.19.1, tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds.), op. cit. Dio is writing in Greek – the Greek ‘b’ was coming to be pronounced ‘v’.

10   Suetonius, Claudius 17.1, tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds.), op. cit.

11   Dio 60.19.4–5, tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds.), op. cit.

12   Ibid. 60.19.5 ff.

13   Ibid. 60.21.1–2.

14   Ibid. 60.21.4.

15   CIL 6. 920 = ILS 216 (restored), Capitoline Museum, Rome. Tr. Dudley, D. R., Urbs Roma. A Sourcebook of Classical Texts on the City and its Monuments, London: Phaidon, 1967.

16   Juvenal, Satire 6.122 ff., tr. Green, P., in Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires, Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Peter Green, London: Penguin Classics, 3rd edn., 1998.

17   CIL 13.1668 = ILS 212; Tacitus, Annals 11.23–25.

18   Suetonius, Claudius 20.1, tr. Kershaw, S.

19   ‘Have imperator, morituri te salutant!’ Suetonius, Claudius 21.6. Gladiators did not shout this before they fought.

20   Tacitus, Annals 12.7.5, tr. Grant, M., op. cit.

21   Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 11.3, tr. Eden, P. T., in Seneca: Apocolocyntosis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

22   Dio 62.113.5, tr, Kershaw, S.

23   CIL IV 1293 = ILS 6443a, tr. in Cooley, A. and M. G. L., Pompeii: A Sourcebook, London: Routledge, 2004. Riot: Tacitus, Annals 14.17. See also CIL IV 3340.143 and 3340.144.

24   See, e.g., Tacitus, Annals 15.37; Suetonius, Nero 29; Dio 62.28.2f., 63.13; Williams, C. A., op. cit., Appendix 2: Marriage between Males, pp. 279 ff.

25   Suetonius, Nero 52.

26   I have opted for the spelling Boudicca. Boadicea probably originates from a misprint. Tacitus most likely spelled her name as it is used here. However, there is evidence that the Britons called her Boudica, pronounced ‘BowDEEkah’, rhyming ‘bow’ with ‘low’. The Greek sources call her Buduika. See Jackson, K., ‘Queen Boudicca?’,Britannia 10 (1979) p. 255; Williams, C. D., Boudica and Her Stories: Narrative Transformations of a Warrior Queen, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009, pp. 44 ff.

27   Tacitus, Annals 14.31, tr. Kershaw, S.

28   The spelling of the tribal name varies in the ancient sources between Trinobantes and Trinovantes. Philology suggests Trinovantes is closer to the actual form current in Britain.

29   Dio 62.2.2–4, tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds.), op. cit.

30   Tacitus, Annals 14.32, says he lost the entire infantry force of his legion.

31   Dio 62.7.2, tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds.), op. cit.

32   Dio 62.6.3, tr. Williams, C. A., op. cit., 154.

33   Tacitus, Annals 14.37, tr. Grant, M., op. cit. In Dio’s account Boudicca just gets ill and dies. For the full battle narrative, see Tacitus, Agricola 15–16, Annals

34   Acts 22.25–27.

35   See below, pp. 145.

36   Gyles, M. F., ‘Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned’, The Classical Journal, vol. 42, no. 4 (Jan. 1947), 211–217.

37   Galen, De Praetotatione 4 (ed. G. Kuhne, Leipzig 1827), XIV, 624.

38   Tacitus, Annals 15.44, tr. Jackson, J., Tacitus: The Annals with an English Translation by John Jackson, Books XIII – XVI, Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1937. Suetonius, Nero 16, also mentions persecutions of Christians (of which he seems to approve), but not in the context of the fire.

39   Suetonius, Nero 31.2.

40   Tacitus, Annals 15.67, tr. Church, A.J. and Brodribb, W. J., op. cit.

41   Suetonius, Nero 491.

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