Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina, Page 2Robert Graves
Some reviewers of I, Claudius, the prefatory volume to Claudius the God, suggested that in writing it I had merely consulted Tacitus’s Annals and Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, run them together, and expanded the result with my own ‘vigorous fancy’. This was not so; nor is it the case here. Among the Classical writers who have been borrowed from in the composition of Claudius the God are Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius, Pliny, Varro, Valerius Maximus, Orosius, Frontinus, Strabo, Caesar, Columella, Plutarch, Josephus, Diodorus Siculus, Photius, Xiphilinus, Zonaras, Seneca, Petronius, Juvenal, Philo, Celsus, the authors of the Acts of the Apostles and of the pseudo-gospels of Nicodemus and St James, and Claudius himself in his surviving letters and speeches. Few incidents here given are wholly unsupported by historical authority of some sort or other and I hope none are historically incredible. No character is invented. The most difficult part to write, because of the meagreness of contemporary references to it, has been Claudius’s defeat of Caractacus. For a plausible view of British Druidism, too, I have had to help out the few Classical notices of it with borrowings from archaeological works, from ancient Celtic literature, and from accounts of modern megalithic culture in the New Hebrides, where the dolmen and menhir are still ceremonially used. I have been particularly careful in my account of early Christianity to invent no new libels; but some old ones are quoted, for Claudius himself was not well-disposed to the Church and derived most of his information about near-Eastern religious matters from his old school-friend Herod Agrippa, the Jewish king who executed St James and imprisoned St Peter.
I again thank Miss Laura Riding for her careful reading of the manuscript and her many suggestions on points of literary congruity; and Aircraftman T. E. Shaw for reading the proofs. Miss Jocelyn Toynbee, Lecturer in Classical History at Newnham College, Cambridge, has also given me help for which I am most grateful; and I must acknowledge my indebtedness to Signor Arnaldo Momigliano’s monograph on Claudius recently published in translation by the Oxford University Press.
Two years have gone by since I finished writing the long story of how I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, the cripple, the stammerer, the fool of the family, whom none of his ambitious and bloody-minded relatives considered worth the trouble of executing, poisoning, forcing to suicide, banishing to a desert island or starving to death – which was how they one by one got rid of each other – how I survived them all, even my insane nephew Gaius Caligula, and was one day unexpectedly acclaimed Emperor by the corporals and sergeants of the Palace Guard. I ended the story at this dramatic point; which A.D. 41 was a most injudicious thing for a professional historian like myself to do. A historian has no business to break off at a moment of suspense. I should by rights have carried the story at least one stage farther. I should have told what the rest of the Army thought of the Palace Guard’s most unconstitutional act, and what the Senate thought, and how they felt about accepting so unpromising a sovereign as myself, and whether bloodshed ensued, and what were the fates of Cassius Chaerea, Aquila, The Tiger – all officers of the Guard – and Vinicius, who was my niece’s husband, and Caligula’s other assassins. But, no, the last thing I wrote about was the very irrelevant train of thought that passed through my mind as I was being cheered round and round the Palace Court, seated uncomfortably on the shoulders of two Guards corporals, with Caligula’s golden oak-chaplet set crooked on my head.
The reason that I did not take the story any farther was that I wrote it less as ordinary history than as a piece of special pleading – an apology for having ever allowed myself to become the monarch of the Roman world. You may recall, if you have read the story, that both my grandfather and my father were convinced Republicans and that I took after them; the reigns of my uncle Tiberius and of my nephew Caligula merely confirming my anti-monarchical prejudices. I was fifty years old when I was acclaimed Emperor and at that age one does not lightly change one’s political colour. So I wrote, in fact, to show how innocent I was of any desire to reign, and how strong was the immediate necessity for yielding to the caprice of the soldiers: to have refused would have meant not only my own death but that of my wife Messalina, with whom I was deeply in love, and of our unborn child. (I wonder why it is that one feels so strongly about an unborn child?) I particularly did not want to be branded by posterity as a clever opportunist who pretended to be a fool, lying low and biding his time until he got wind of a Palace intrigue against his Emperor, and then came boldly forward as a candidate for the succession. This continuation of my story should serve as an apology for the crooked course that I have taken in my thirteen years of Empire. I hope, that is to say, to justify my seemingly inconsistent acts at different stages of my reign by showing their relation to the professed principles from which I have, I swear, never intentionally departed. If I cannot justify them, then I hope at least to show the extraordinarily difficult position in which I was placed, and leave my readers to decide what alternative course, or courses, remained for me to take.
So to pick up the thread just where I dropped it. First let me repeat that things might have turned out considerably worse for Rome if Herod Agrippa, the Jewish king, had not happened to be here on a visit. He was the only man who really kept his head in the crisis of Caligula’s assassination and saved the entire audience of the Palatine Hill theatre from massacre by the German Household Battalion. It is a strange thing, but until almost the last page of my story my readers will not have come across a single direct reference to Herod Agrippa’s surprising history, though it intertwined closely with mine at several points. The fact was that to have done justice to his adventures, as worth reading about on their own account, would have meant making him too important a figure in the story I had to tell: its chief centre of emphasis lay elsewhere. As it was, my story was constantly in danger of becoming burdened with matter of doubtful relevance. It was as well that I took this decision, because he does figure most importantly in what follows and I can now, without any fear of digressive irrelevance, tell the story of his life up to the point of Caligula’s murder, and then continue it concurrently with my own until I reach his death. In this way there will be no such weakening of dramatic unity as would have occurred if I had spread the story over two books. I do not mean that I am a dramatic historian: as you have seen, I am rather wary of literary formalism. But as a matter of fact one could not possibly write about Herod without presenting the story in somewhat of a theatrical style. For this was how Herod himself lived – like the principal actor in a drama – and his fellow actors played up to him well throughout. His was not a drama in the purest classical tradition, although his life was finally cut off in classical tragic style by the conventional divine vengeance for the conventional Greek sin of arrogance – no, there were too many un-Greek elements in it. For instance, the God who inflicted the vengeance on him was not one of the urbane Olympian community: he was perhaps the oddest deity that you could find anywhere in my extensive dominions, or out of them, for that matter, a God of whom no image is in existence, whose name his devout worshippers are forbidden to pronounce (though in his honour they clip their foreskins and practise many other curious and barbarous rites), and who is said to live alone, at Jerusalem, in an ancient cedar chest lined with badger-skins dyed blue and to refuse to have anything to do with any other deities in the world or even to acknowledge the existence of such. And then there was too much farce mixed up with the tragedy to have made it a fit subject for any Greek dramatist of the Golden Age to handle. Imagine the impeccable Sophocles faced with the problem of dealing in a serious poetical vein with Herod’s debts! But, as I was saying, I must now tell you at some length what I did not tell you before; and the best plan would be to finish off the old history here and now before getting into my stride with the new.
So here finally begins:
THE STORY OF HEROD AGRIPPA
Herod Agrippa was, you must understand, no blood-relation or connexion by marriage of the great Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augu
stus’s general, who married his only daughter Julia and became by her the grandfather of my nephew Gaius Caligula and my niece Agrippinilla. Nor was he a freedman of Agrippa’s: though you might have guessed that too, for in Rome it is the custom of slaves when liberated to assume their former master’s surname by way of compliment. No, it was like this: he was named in memory of this same Agrippa, recently dead, by his grandfather, Herod the Great, King of the Jews. For this remarkable and terrible old man owed his throne as much to his interest with Agrippa as to Augustus’s patronage of him as a useful ally in the Near East.
The Herod family originally came from Edom, the hilly country lying between Arabia and Southern Judaea: it was not a Jewish family. Herod the Great, whose mother was an Arabian, was given the governorship of Galilee by Julius Caesar at the same time as his father was given that of Judaea. His age was then only fifteen. He got into trouble almost at once for putting Jewish citizens to death without trial, while repressing banditry in his district, and was brought up before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. He showed great arrogance on this occasion, appearing before the judges in a purple gown and surrounded by armed soldiers, but forestalled the verdict by secretly leaving Jerusalem. The Roman Governor of Syria to whom he then went for protection gave him a new appointment in that province, the governorship of a district near Lebanon. To cut a long story short, this Herod the Great, whose father had meanwhile died of poison, was made King of the Jews by the joint order of my grandfather Antony and my granduncle Augustus (or Octavian, as he was then called), and ruled for thirty years, with severity and glory, over dominions that were constantly being enlarged by Augustus’s bounty. He married no less than ten wives in succession, among them being two of his own nieces, and finally died, after several ineffectual attempts at suicide, of perhaps the most painful and disgusting disease known to medical science. I never heard that it had any name but Herod’s Evil or that anyone else had ever suffered from it before him, but the symptoms were a ravenous hunger followed by vomiting, a putrescent stomach, a corpse-like breath, maggots breeding in the privy member, and a constant watery flow from the bowels. The disease caused him intolerable anguish and inflamed to madness an already savage nature. The Jews said that it was their God’s punishment for Herod’s two incestuous marriages. His first wife had been Mariamne, of the famous Maccabee family of Jews, and Herod had been passionately in love with her. But once, when he left Jerusalem to meet my grandfather Antony at Laodicea in Syria, he gave his Chamberlain secret orders that if he should fall a victim to the intrigues of his enemies, Mariamne should be put to death, to keep her from falling into Antony’s hands; and he did the same on a later occasion when he went to meet Augustus at Rhodes. (Both Antony and Augustus had bad reputations as sensualists.) When Mariamne found out about these secret orders she naturally became resentful and said things in the presence of Herod’s mother and sister which she would have been wiser to have left unsaid. For they were jealous of Mariamne’s power over Herod and repeated her words to him as soon as he returned, at the same time accusing her of having committed adultery in his absence as an act of spite and defiance–they named the Chamberlain as her lover. Herod had them both executed. But afterwards he was overtaken by such extreme grief and remorse that he fell into a fever which nearly killed him; and when he recovered, his temper was so gloomy and ferocious that the slightest suspicion would lead him to execute even his best friends and nearest relatives. Mariamne’s eldest son was one of the many victims of Herod’s rage: he and his brother were put to death on a charge instigated by a half-brother, whom Herod afterwards also put to death, of plotting against their father’s life. Augustus commented wittily on these executions: ‘I would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.’ For Herod, by religion a Jew, was not permitted to eat pork, and his pigs could therefore be expected to live to a comfortable old age. This unfortunate prince, Mariamne’s eldest son, was the father of my friend Herod Agrippa, whom Herod the Great sent to Rome as soon as he had orphaned him, at the age of four, to be brought up at Augustus’s court.
Herod Agrippa and I were exact contemporaries and had a good deal to do with each other through my dear friend Postumus, Agrippa’s son, to whom Herod Agrippa naturally attached himself. Herod was a very handsome boy and was one of Augustus’s favourites when he came to the cloisters of the Boys’ College to play at taws and leap-frog and ducking stones. But what a little rogue he was! Augustus had a favourite dog, one of the big bushy-tailed temple watch-dogs from Adranos near Etna, who would obey nobody in the world but Augustus, unless Augustus definitely told him: ‘Obey Such-and-Such until I call you again.’ The brute would then do as he was told but with unhappy yearning looks towards Augustus as he walked away. Somehow little Herod managed to entice this dog when it was thirsty into drinking a basin of very strong wine, and made him as tipsy as any old soldier of the Line on the day of his discharge. Then he hung a goat-bell on his neck, painted his tail saffron-yellow and his legs and muzzle purple-red, tied pigs’ bladders to his feet and the wings of a goose to his shoulders, and set him loose in the Palace Court. When Augustus missed his pet and called ‘Typhon, Typhon, where are you?’ and this extraordinary-looking animal wobbled through the gate towards him, it was one of the most ludicrous moments in the so-called Golden Age of Roman history. But it happened on the All Fools’ Festival in honour of the God Saturn, so Augustus had to take it in good part. Then Herod had a tame snake which he taught to catch mice and which he used to keep under his gown in school-hours to amuse his friends when the master’s back was turned. He was such a distracting influence that in the end he was sent to study with me under Athenodorus, my old white-bearded tutor from Tarsus. He tried his schoolboy tricks on Athenodorus, of course, but Athenodorus took them in such good part and I sympathized so little with them, because I loved Athenodorus, that he soon stopped. Herod was a brilliant boy with a marvellous memory and a peculiar gift for languages. Athenodorus once told him: ‘Herod, some day, I foresee, you will be called upon to occupy a position of the highest dignity in your native land. You must live every hour of your youth in preparation for that call. With your talents you may in the end become as powerful a ruler as your grandfather Herod.’
Herod replied: ‘That is all very well, Athenodorus, but I have a large, bad family. You cannot possibly conceive what a cut-throat crew they are, the greatest rogues that you could meet in a year of travel; and since my grandfather died eight years ago they have not improved in the least, I am told. I can’t expect to live six months if I am forced to return to my country. (That’s what my poor father said when he was being educated here at Rome in the household of Asinius Pollio. And my uncle Alexander, who was with him, said the same. And they were right.) My uncle the King of Judaea is old Herod reborn, but mean instead of magnificent in his vices; and my uncles Philip and Antipas are a brace of foxes.’
‘Single virtue is proof against manifold vice, my princeling,’ said Athenodorus. ‘Remember that the Jewish nation is more fanatically addicted to virtue than any other nation in the world: if you show yourself virtuous they will be behind you as one man.’
Herod answered: ‘Jewish virtue does not agree any too well with Graeco-Roman virtue, such as you teach it, Athenodorus. But many thanks for your prophetic words. You can count on me once I am king to be a really good king; but until I am on the throne I cannot afford to be any more virtuous than the rest of my family.’
As for Herod’s character, what shall I say? Most men – it is my experience – are neither virtuous nor scoundrels, good-hearted nor bad-hearted. They are a little of one thing and a little of the other and nothing for any length of time: ignoble mediocrities. But a few men remain always true to a single extreme character: these are the men who leave the strongest mark on history, and I should divide them into four classes. First there are the scoundrels with stony hearts, of whom Macro, the Guards Commander under Tiberius and Caligula, was an outstanding example. Next come the virtuous men with equa
lly stony hearts, of whom Cato the Censor, my bugbear, was an outstanding example. The third class are the virtuous men with golden hearts, such as old Athenodorus and my poor murdered brother Germanicus. And last and most rarely found are the scoundrels with golden hearts, and of these Herod Agrippa was the most perfect instance imaginable. It is the scoundrels with the golden hearts, these anti-Catos, who make the most valuable friends in time of need. You expect nothing from them. They are entirely without principle, as they themselves acknowledge, and only consider their own advantage. But go to them when in desperate trouble and say, ‘For God’s sake do so-and-so for me,’ and they will almost certainly do it – not as a friendly favour but, they will say, because it fits in with their own crooked plans; and you are forbidden to thank them. These anti-Catos are gamblers and spendthrifts; but that is at least better than being misers. They also associate constantly with drunkards, assassins, crooked business men, and procurers; yet you seldom see them greatly the worse for liquor themselves, and if they arrange an assassination you may be sure that the victim will not be greatly mourned, and they defraud the rich defaulters rather than the innocent and needy, and they consort with no woman against her will. Herod himself always insisted that he was congenitally a rogue. To which I would reply, ‘No, you are a fundamentally virtuous man wearing the mask of roguery.’ This would make him angry. A month or two before Caligula’s death we had a conversation of this sort. At the end of it he said, ‘Shall I tell you about yourself?’ ‘There’s no need,’ I answered, ‘I’m the Official Fool of the Palace.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘there are fools who pretend to be wise men and wise men who pretend to be fools, but you are the first case I have encountered of a fool pretending to be a fool. And one day you’ll see, my friend, what sort of a virtuous Jew you are dealing with.’