Sunday, July 11, 2010

Claudius’ “Pumpkinification”

Emperor Claudius

One of the most curious pieces of surviving classical Latin literature is The Apocolocyntosis of the Divine Claudius. The author was the stoic philosopher and politician Seneca, (3 BCE – 65 C.E.). It is a viciously satirical treatment and lampoon of the deification of the recently deceased Emperor Claudius (10 B.C.E. – 54 C.E.).1

The term apocolocyntosis, means to turn into a gourd. It means in effect to call some one the equivalent of a cabbage head or vegetable in other words an idiot.2 Robert Graves in his novel Claudius the God, provides a translation of The Apocolocyntosis of the Divine Claudius, but translates the title as The Pumpkinification of Claudius,3 which is certainly is not a exact translation although a very amusing. Of course one has to also note that Pumpkins are in fact a type of gourd.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, called the younger, was during his life time a philosopher, poet, playwright and politician. He is best known today for his philosophical writings and more specifically his letters on various subjects, although he also wrote plays.4


Seneca was a Stoic philosopher and his main influence was on later western philosophy through his philosophical writings. He also had an effect on the development of play writing and theatre and drama through his plays.

Although Seneca in his writings portrayed himself as a Stoic philosopher, basically indifferent to wealth and fame, contemporary attitudes towards him were highly ambivalent. The writer Robert Graves in his novel Claudius the God has his character Claudius says concerning Seneca:

There was a lot more about my wonderful loving-kindness and mercy and a passage putting into my mouth the most extravagant sentiments about the noblest way of bearing the loss of a brother. I was supposed to cite my grandfather Mark Antony's grief for his brother Gaius, my uncle Tiberius's grief for my father, Gaius Caesar's grief for young Lucius, my own grief for my brother Germanicus, and then relate how valiantly we had each in turn borne these calamities. The only effect that this slime and honey had on me was to make me quite satisfied in my mind; that I had not wronged anyone by his banishment except perhaps the island of Corsica.5

The context of the above is a revoltingly suck-up piece of writing that Seneca wrote during his exile in Corsica, (by Claudius), in which Seneca lays on the flattery with a trowel.6

Seneca despite his statements concerning his un-interest in money and power was both ambitious for power and greedy for money. He became both a very wealthy and a very powerful man. He was recalled from exile in c. 48 C.E., and became the tutor of the future Emperor Nero. When Claudius died, was murdered, in 54 C.E., Seneca became one of Nero’s most important advisers and became very rich and was enormously powerful. Seneca eventually fell out of favour with Nero, retired and a few years later was forced to commit suicide after being accused of plotting to kill the Emperor Nero.7

Thus it appears that Seneca was in many ways was indeed what Grave’s character describes as:

-that flashy orator, that shameless flatterer, that dissolute and perverted amorist.8

The term apocoloccyntosis is a mocking pun on the term apotheois which means deification. For after Claudius’ death it was declared that the Emperor Claudius was a god and in fact temples were dedicated to him.9

Seneca probably had a grudge against Claudius for being exiled and further the Emperor Nero seemed to have enjoyed mocking his dead father by adoption Claudius. So that sometime in the 50s C.E., Seneca wrote this piece of satire including it, as per Seneca’s rather servile attitude towards power some flattery of Nero.10

There is some debate over if Seneca wrote this piece of satire but it seems to be settled that he did. The historian Dio Cassius does in fact mention Seneca as the writer of the The Apocolocyntosis of the Divine Claudius, which seems to be conclusive as to authorship.11

The satire is about the now dead Claudius’ attempts to be accepted as a god by the other gods in heaven.

Being Seneca he begins with a piece of servile flattery of Nero:

I wish to give future generations an account of the events in heaven on the thirteenth of October of this new year of grace that inaugurated our present period of prosperity.12

There is then some cutting references to Claudius’ ill health and lameness and some jokes concerning his liberality in granting Roman citizenship. Claudius is also wondering around lost until the god Mercury finds him.

There is then a poem concerning Nero which is quite effusive and revolting in its sucking up. To quote:

As the shining Sun, whenso the ruddy Dawn,
The shades of night dispersed, brings back the day
Looks on the world and starts his chariot off:
So Caesar comes, so Nero appears to Rome,
His bright face fired with gentle radiance,
His neck all beauty under his flowing hair.13

Emperor Nero

Seneca than mocks Claudius’ death:

His last words heard on earth came after he’d let off a louder noise from his easiest channel of communication: ‘Oh my! I think I’ve shit myself’ For all I know, he did. He certainly shat on everything else.14

The Gods then here that Claudius is there and demanding to be heard but that:

He was making some sort of threat, as he kept shaking his head; he was also dragging his right foot. When asked his nationality, he made some answer with a confused noise and in indistinct tones. It was impossible to understand his language: he was neither Greek nor Roman, nor any known race.

Claudius flared up at this point and fumed as loudly as he could. No one understood what he was saying. He was, in fact, giving orders for the goddess Fever to be taken away. With his shaky head, which was steady enough only on those occasions, making the familiar gesture with which he had people’s heads cut off, he had ordered her to be decapitated. You’d have thought they were all his freedmen the way no one took any notice of him.15

The god Hercules questions Claudius who responds. There is then a gap in the text before it resumes. Hercules in the missing portion seems to have been convinced to become Claudius’ champion. When the text resumes Claudius is being questioned about his qualifications to become a god.

Their follows a series of speeches about whether or not Claudius should become a god. Just when it seems that Claudius might win the Augustus intervenes, (he is a god having been deified after his death), to condemn the motion. After accusing Claudius of murdering many of Augustus’ descendants, Augustus says:

Do you now want to make this man a god? Look at his body – the gods were angry when it came into the world. In short, let him say three words one after the other and he can drag me off as his slave. Who’s going to worship him as a god? Who’ll believe in him?16

Augustus than asks the heavenly Senate to instead punish Claudius for the wrongs he as done. There follows a list of Claudius’ murders and the recommendation that he be deported. So Claudius is deported.

There follows a digression about Claudius’ funeral and about how Lawyers are in mourning a mock funeral dirge. Part of which goes:

Weep, Weep
For the man’s good judgements.
Who could master
Hearing either
One or neither.

Pound, pound
Your breasts
In solemn mourning,
Lawyers for retainers
And all the other gainers!
Weep, weep
Ye new poetic prattlers
And ye tribes of
Lucky dice box rattlers!17

Claudius is sent to Hades, (hell) where is greeted by the spirits of those who he had killed. There follows another listing of Claudius’ victims:

The rumour spread quickly that Claudius had arrived. Up rushed first of all the freedman Polybius, Myron, Arpocras, Ampheus and Pheronactus – all of whom Claudius had dispatched ahead to avoid being anywhere without attendants.18

Claudius is then sent before a tribunal to be tried for his numerous murders and there is then some debate over the appropriate punishment. After some nonsense concerning punishing Claudius by having him toss dice with a box with a hole in it, Gaius Caesar, (the Emperor Caligula), shows up. He claims Claudius as one of his slaves. Claudius is then given to Gaius Caesar who then employees him as a legal secretary.

The piece is very funny and like much satire rather unfair. As per usual Seneca flattered Claudius while was alive but did not hesitate to ridicule him once he was safely dead. Of course what helps to make it even funnier, in a black comic way, is that Seneca who seems to have built his political career on excessive flattery of those in power was eventually forced to kill himself by Nero who he had flattered with oceans of praise.

1. Sullivan, J. P., Introduction, Petronius, The Satyricon, Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis, Penguin Books, London, 1986, pp. 209-218, at 212, Wikipedia Claudius Here.

2. IBID, Sullivan, p. 209.

3. Graves Robert, Claudius the God, Penguin Books, London, 1934, pp. 427-439, and Petronius, The Satyricon, Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis, Penguin Books, London, 1986, pp. 221-223.

4. Sullivan, Wikipedia Seneca the Younger Here.

5. Graves, p. 164.

6. Robert Graves is not inventing this the piece is called The Consolation for Polybius, does indeed exist and does contain some of the most stomach turning suck-up to the then Emperor Claudius imaginable. It can be found at Stoics Home Page Here.

7. Claudius, Seneca the Younger.

8. Graves, p. 402.

9. Claudius.

10. Sullivan.

11. Cassius, Dio, The Roman History, Book 60, s. 35, at LacusCurtius Here.

12. Petronius, The Satyricon, Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis, p. 221.

13. IBID, p. 223.

14. IBID, pp. 223-224.

15. IBID, pp. 224, 225.

16. IBID, p. 228.

17. IBID, p. 230, 231.

18. IBID, pp. 231.

Pierre Cloutier

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