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I, Claudius c-1, Page 2

Robert Graves

  And there was a later one, Herophile, who came to King Tarquin and offered him a collection of prophecies at a higher price than he wished to pay; when he refused, so the story runs, she burned a part and offered what was left at the same price, which he again refused. Then she burned another part and offered what was left, still at the same price--which, for curiosity, this time he paid. Herophile's oracles were of two kinds, warning or hopeful prophecies of the future, and directions for the suitable propitiatory sacrifices to be made when such and such portents occurred. To these were added, in the course of time, whatever remarkable and well-attested oracles were uttered to private persons. Whenever, then, Rome has seemed threatened by strange portents or disasters, the Senate orders a consultation of the books by the priests who have charge of them and a remedy is always found. Twice the books were partially destroyed by fire and the lost prophecies restored by the combined memories of the priests in charge. These memories seem in many instances to have been extremely faulty: this is why Augustus set to work on an authoritative canon of the prophecies, rejecting obviously uninspired interpolations or restorations. He also called in and destroyed all unauthorised private collections of Sibylline oracles as well as all other books of public prediction that he could lay his hands upon, to the number of over two thousand. The revised Sibylline books he put in a locked cupboard under the pedestal of Apollo's statue in the temple which he built for the God close to his palace on the Palatine Hill. A unique book from Augustus' private historical library came into my possession some time after his death. It was called "Sibylline Curiosities: being such prophecies found incorporated in the original canon as have been rejected as spurious by the priests of Apollo". The verses were copied out in Augustus' own beautiful script, with the characteristic mis-spellings which, originally made from ignorance, he ever afterwards adhered to as a point of pride.

  Most of these verses were obviously never spoken by the Sibyl either in ecstasy or out of it, but composed by irresponsible persons who wished to glorify themselves or their houses or to curse the houses of rivals by claiming divine authorship for their own fanciful predictions against them. The Claudian family had been particularly active, I noticed, in these forgeries. Yet I found one or two pieces whose language proved them respectably archaic and whose inspiration seemed divine, and whose plain and alarming sense had evidently decided Augustus--his word was law among the priests of Apollo--against admitting them into his canon.

  This little book I no longer have, but I can recall almost every word of the most memorable of these seemingly genuine prophecies, which was recorded both in the original Greek, and (like most of the early pieces in the canon) in rough Latin verse translation. It ran thus:

  A hundred years of the Punic Curse

  And Rome will be slave to a hairy man,

  A hairy man that is scant of hair,

  Every man's woman and each woman's man.

  The steed that he rides shall have toes for hooves.

  He shall die at the hand of his son, no son,

  And not on the field of war.

  The hairy one next to enslave the State

  Shall be son, no son, of this hairy last.

  He shall have hair in a generous mop.

  He shall give Rome marble in place of clay

  And fetter her fast with unseen chains,

  And shall die at the hand of his wife, no wife,

  To the gain of his son, no son.

  The hairy third to enslave the State

  Shall be son, no son, of his hairy last.

  He shall be mud well mixed with blood,

  A hairy man that is scant of hair.

  He shall give Rome victories and defeat

  And die to the gain of his son, no son--

  A pillow shall be his sword.

  The hairy fourth to enslave the State

  Shall be son, no son, of his hairy last

  A hairy man that is scant of hair,

  He shall give Rome poisons and blasphemies

  And die from a kick of his aged horse

  That carried him as a child.

  The hairy fifth to enslave the State,

  To enslave the State, though against his will,

  Shall be that idiot whom all despised.

  He shall have hair in a generous mop.

  He shall give Rome water and winter bread,

  And die at the hand of his wife, no wife,

  To the gain of his son, no son.

  The hairy sixth to enslave the State

  Shall be son, no son, of this hairy last.

  He shall give Rome fiddlers and fear and fire.

  His hand shall be red with a parent's blood.

  No hairy seventh to him succeeds

  And blood shall gush from his tomb.

  Now, it must have been plain to Augustus that the first of the hairy ones, that is, the Caesars (for Caesar means a head of hair), was his grand-uncle Julius, who adopted him. Julius was bald and he was renowned for his debaucheries with either sex; and his war-charger, as is a matter of public record, was a monster which had toes instead of hooves. Julius escaped alive from many hard-fought battles only to be murdered at last, in the Senate House, by Brutus. And Brutus, though fathered on another, was believed to be Julius' natural son: "Thou too, child!" said Julius, as Brutus came at him with a dagger.

  Of the Punic Curse I have already written. Augustus must have recognized in himself the second of the Caesars. Indeed he himself at the end of his life made a boast, looking at the temples and public buildings that he had splendidly reedified, and thinking too of his life's work in strengthening and glorifying the Empire, that he had found Rome in clay and left her in marble. But as for the manner of his death, be must have found the prophecy either unintelligible or incredible: yet some scruple kept him from destroying it.

  Who the hairy third and the hairy fourth and the hairy fifth were this history will plainly show; and I am indeed an idiot if, granting the oracle's unswerving accuracy in every particular up to the present, I do not recognise the hairy sixth; rejoicing on Rome's behalf that there will be no hairy seventh to succeed him.


  I CANNOT REMEMBER MY FATHER, WHO DIED WHEN I WAS an infant, but as a young man I never lost an opportunity of gathering information of the most detailed sort about his life and character from every possible person--senator, soldier or slave--who had known him. I began writing his biography as my apprentice-task in history, and though that was soon put a stop to by my grandmother, Livia, I continued collecting material in the hope of one day being able to finish the work. I finished it, actually, just the other day, and even now there is no sense in trying to put it into circulation. It is so republican in sentiment that the moment Agrippinilla--my present wife--came to hear of its publication every copy would be suppressed and my unfortunate copying-scribes would suffer for my indiscretions.

  They would be lucky to escape with their arms unbroken and their thumbs and index-fingers unlopped, which would be a typical indication of Agrippinilla's displeasure. How that woman loathes me!

  My father's example has guided me throughout life more strongly than that of any other person whatsoever, with the exception of my brother Germanicus.

  And Germanicus was, all agree, my father's very image in feature, body (but for his thin legs), courage, intellect and nobility; so I readily combine them in my mind as a single character. If I could start this story fairly with an account of my infancy, going no farther back than my parents, I would certainly do so, for genealogies and family histories are tedious. But I shall not be able to avoid writing at some length about my grandmother Livia (the only one of my four grandparents who was alive at my birth) because unfortunately she is the chief character in the first part of my story and unless I give a clear account of her early life her later actions will not be intelligible. I have mentioned that she was married to the Emperor Augustus: this was her second marriage, following her divorce by my grandfather. After my father's death she
became the virtual head of our family, supplanting my mother Antonia, my Uncle Tiberius (the legal head) and Augustus himself--to whose powerful protection my father had committed us children in his will.

  Livia was of the Claudian family, one of the most ancient of Rome, and so was my grandfather. There is a popular ballad, still sometimes sung by old people, of which the refrain is that the Claudian tree bears two sorts of fruit, the sweet apple and the crab, but that the crabs outnumber the apples. Among the crab sort the balladist reckons Appius Claudius the Proud who put all Rome in a tumult by trying to enslave and seduce a free-born girl called Virginia, and Claudius Drusus who in republican days tried to make himself King of all Italy, and Claudius the Fair, who, when the sacred chickens would not feed, threw them into the sea, crying "Then let them drink", and so lost an important sea-battle. And of the former sort the balladist mentions Appius the Blind, who dissuaded Rome from a dangerous league with King Pyrrhus, and Claudius the Tree-trunk who drove the Carthaginians out of Sicily, and Claudius Nero (which in the Sabine dialect means The Strong) who defeated Hasdrubal as he came out of Spain to join forces with his brother, the great Hannibal.

  These three were all virtuous men, besides being bold and wise. And the balladist says that of the Claudian women too, some are apples and some are crabs, but that again the crabs outnumber the apples.

  My grandfather was one of the best of the Claudians.

  Believing that Julius Caesar was the one man powerful enough to give Rome peace and security in those difficult times, he joined the Caesarean party and fought bravely for Julius in the Egyptian War. When he suspected that Julius was aiming at personal tyranny, my grandfather would not willingly further his ambitions in Rome, though he could not risk an open breach. He therefore asked for and secured the office of pontiff and was sent in that capacity to France to found colonies of veteran soldiers there.

  On his return after Julius' assassination he incurred the enmity of young Augustus, Julius' adopted son, who was then known as Octavian, and of his ally, the great Mark Antony, by boldly proposing honours for the tyrannicides.

  He had to flee from Rome. In the disturbances that followed he sided now with this party and now with that according as the right seemed to lie here or there.

  At one time he was with young Pompey, at another he fought with Mark Antony's brother against [B.C. 41] Augustus at Perusia in Etruria. But convinced at last that Augustus, though bound by loyalty to avenge the murder of Julius, his adopted father--a duty which he ruthlessly performed--was not tyrant-hearted and aimed at the restoration of the ancient liberties of the people, he came over to his side and settled at Rome with my grandmother Livia, and my uncle Tiberias, then only two years old. He took no more part in the Civil Wars, contenting himself with his duties as a pontiff.

  My grandmother Livia was one of the worst of the Claudians. She may well have been a re-incarnation of that Claudia, sister of Claudius the Fair, who was arraigned for high treason because once when her coach was held up by a street crowd she called out, "If only my brother was alive! He knew how to clear crowds away. He used his whip." When one of the Protectors of the People ["tribunes", in Latin] came up and angrily ordered her to be silent, reminding her that her brother, by his impiety, had lost a Roman fleet: "A very good reason for wishing him alive," she retorted. "He might lose another fleet, and then another. God willing, and thin off this wretched crowd a little." And she added: "You're a Protector of the People, I see, and your person is legally inviolable, but don't forget that we Claudians have had some of you protectors well thrashed before now, and be damned to your inviolability."

  That was exactly how my grandmother Livia spoke at this time of the Roman people. "Rabble and slaves! The Republic was always a humbug. What Rome really needs is a king again." That at least is how she talked to my grandfather, urging him that Mark Antony, and Augustus (or Octavian, I should say), and Lepidus (a rich but unenergetic nobleman), who between them now ruled the Roman world, would in time fall out; and that, if he played his hand well, he could use his dignity as a pontiff and the reputation for integrity which was conceded him by all factions as a means to becoming king himself. My grandfather replied sternly that if she spoke in this strain again he would divorce her; for in the old style of Roman marriage the husband could put his wife away without a public explanation, returning the dowry that had come with her--but keeping the children. At this my grandmother was silent and pretended to submit, but all love between them died from that moment. Unknown to my grandfather, she immediately set about engaging the passions of Augustus.

  This was no difficult matter, for Augustus was young and impressionable and she had made a careful study of his tastes: besides which, she was by popular verdict one of the three most beautiful women of her day. She picked on Augustus as a better instrument for her ambitions than Antony--Lepidus did not count--and that he would stick at nothing to gain his ends the proscriptions had shown two years before, when two thousand knights and three hundred senators belonging to the opposing faction had been summarily put to death, by far the greatest number of these at Augustus' particular instance. When she had made sure of Augustus she urged him to put away Scribonia--a woman older than himself, whom he had married for political reasons--telling him that she had knowledge of Scribonia's adultery with a close friend of my grandfather's. Augustus was ready to believe this without pressing for detailed evidence. He divorced Scribonia, though she was quite innocent, on the very day that she bore him his daughter, Julia, whom he took [B.C. 38] from the birth-chamber before Scribonia had as much as seen the little creature, and gave to the wife of one of his freedmen to nurse. My grandmother--who was still only seventeen years old, nine years younger than Augustus--then went to my grandfather and said, "Now divorce me. I am already five months gone with child, and you are not the father. I made a vow that I would not bear another child to a coward, and I intend to keep it." My grandfather, whatever he may have felt when he heard this confession, said no more than "Call the adulterer here to me and let us discuss the matter together in private." The child was really his own, but he was not to know this, and when my grandmother said that it was another's he believed her.

  My grandfather was astonished to find that it was his pretended friend Augustus who had betrayed him, but concluded that Livia had tempted him and that he had not been proof against her beauty; and perhaps Augustus still bore a grudge against him for the unlucky motion that he had once introduced in the Senate for rewarding Julius Caesar's assassins. However it may have been, he did not reproach Augustus. All that he said was: "If you love this woman and will marry her honourably, take her; only let the decencies be observed." Augustus swore that he would marry her immediately and never cast her off while she continued faithful to him; he bound himself by the most frightful oaths. So my grandfather divorced her. I have been told that he regarded this infatuation of hers as a divine punishment on himself because once in Sicily at her instigation he had armed slaves to fight against Roman citizens; moreover, she was a Claudian, one of his own family, so for these two reasons he was unwilling to show her public dishonour. It was certainly not for fear of Augustus that he assisted in person at her marriage a few weeks later, giving her away as a father would his daughter and pining in the wedding hymn. When I consider that he had loved her dearly and that by his generosity he risked the name of coward and pander, I am filled with admiration for his conduct.

  But Livia was ungrateful--angry and ashamed that he seemed to take the matter so calmly, giving her up tamely as if she were a thing of little worth. And when her child, my father, was born three months later she was deeply vexed with Augustus' sister Octavia, Mark Antony's wife--these were my two other grandparents--because of a Greek epigram to the effect that parents were fortunate who had three-months' children; such short gestation had hitherto been confined to cats and bitches. I do not know whether Octavia was truly the author of this verse, but, if she was, Livia made her pay dearly for it before she ha
d done. It is unlikely that she was the author, for she had herself been married to Mark Antony while with child by a husband who had died; and, in the words of the proverb, cripples do not mock cripples. Octavia's was, however, a political marriage and legalised by a special decree of the Senate; it was not brought about by passion on one side and personal ambition on the other. If it is asked how it happened that the College of Pontiffs consented to admit the validity of Augustus' marriage with Livia, the answer is that my grandfather and Augustus were both pontiffs, and that the High Pontiff was Lepidus, who did exactly what Augustus told him.

  As soon as my father was weaned Augustus sent him back to my grandfather's house, where he was brought up with my uncle Tiberius, the elder by four years. My grandfather, as soon as the children reached the age of understanding, took their education in hand himself, instead of entrusting it to a tutor, as was already the general custom.

  He never ceased to instill in them a hatred of tyranny and a devotion to ancient ideals of justice, liberty, and virtue.

  My grandmother Livia had long grudged that her two boys were out of her charge--though indeed they visited her daily at Augustus' palace, which was quite close to their home on the Palatine Hill--and when she found in what way they were being educated she was greatly annoyed.

  My grandfather died suddenly while dining [B.C. 33] with some friends, and it was suspected that he had been poisoned, but the matter was hushed up because Augustus and Livia had been among the guests.

  In his will the boys were left to Augustus' guardianship.

  My uncle Tiberius, aged only nine, spoke the oration at my grandfather's funeral.

  Augustus loved his sister Octavia dearly and had been much grieved on her account when, soon after her marriage, he learnt that Antony, after starting out for the East [i9] to fight a war in Parthia, had stopped on the way to renew his intimacy with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt; and still more grieved at the slighting letter that Octavia had received from Antony when she went out to help him Ac next year with men and money for his campaign. The letter, which reached her when she was half-way on her journey, ordered her coldly to return home and attend to her household affairs; yet he accepted the men and money.