Claudius the God
I recently visited Colchester Castle, site of the temple to the Emperor Claudius. When people think of Roman Britain, many think of the invasions of Julius Caesar. However, his adventures of 55 and 54 BC were half hearted affairs; no garrison was left in Britain and a Roman presence was not established until the Emperor Claudius rode into Colchester on an elephant nearly 100 years later.
Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus was emperor of Rome and the world from AD41 until AD54. His history, and that of his mixed bag of imperial predecessors, is well-known to readers of Robert Graves’ faux-autobiography in two parts, I Claudius, and Claudius the God. The books were also televised, very successfully, as I Claudius in the late 1970s with Derek Jacobi in the title role. Graves drew on his knowledge of the Roman histories of Tacitus, Suetonius and others, and painted a sympathetic portrait of the Emperor Claudius, known elsewhere for his stammer and lameness. In early life, Claudius’ contemporaries thought him simple. His grandmother certainly did. Claudius, who was related both to Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, managed to avoid being murdered by Livia (his grandmother, Augustus’ wife), who had killed so many others to smooth the way for her son, Tiberius, to become emperor after Augustus’ death. As well as outliving Augustus, Claudius survived the reigns of his uncle Tiberius and his mad nephew Caligula, both murdered, only to be murdered himself in the end, poisoned, probably by his fourth wife Agrippina, who also happened to be his niece.
Claudius was a reluctant ruler. Following Caligula’s assassination, when he believed that the entire imperial family were being hunted down, ‘Uncle’ Claudius was found by the Praetorian Guard hiding behind a curtain in the Royal Palace. They summarily proclaimed him the new emperor. Graves’ Claudius was a shrewd, liberal-minded administrator but he was prone to be gullible in matters of the heart. His third wife, Messalina, ‘given’ to him by Caligula, famously had a public contest with a well-known Roman prostitute to see who could service the most men in a night; this happened after Claudius had become emperor. According to the historians, Messalina won. She finally went too far though, divorcing Claudius while he was away at Ostia, and marrying a Senator, Gaius Silius, with the intention of murdering Claudius and making Silius emperor. The plot failed and Messalina paid with her head.
In AD 40, Caligula, by now descending into madness, is supposed to have ordered his troops to attack the sea at Boulogne in a failed invasion. He then ordered them to collect seashells as ‘booty’. Claudius’ invasion of Britain took place three years later. He stayed for only 16 days, but Camulodunum (Colchester) became the capital city of Roman Briton, an occupation or annexation that lasted for 400 years and had a profound effect on all aspects of life in the country.
Some time later a temple dedicated to ‘The Divine Claudius’ was built on the hill at Colchester. According to Graves, Claudius had sanctioned a temple to ‘The Divine Augustus’, Augustus having been deified on his death. In the event, the temple was dedicated to ‘The Divine Claudius’. Perhaps this was due to a misunderstanding of the original instruction, one of Claudius’ honorary imperial names being Augustus; possibly the sight of Claudius riding into town on an elephant had started the myth that he really was a god.
Unfortunately the temple lasted not very much longer than Claudius himself. In 60 AD, Boudica (Boadicea), Queen of the East-Anglian Iceni tribe, sacked Colchester and burned it to the ground. The Romans had been unwise enough to have her flogged and her daughters raped in the process of annexing the land of her dead husband Prasutagus. No doubt the temple of Claudius, as an icon of Rome, received Boudica’s particular attention; only the foundations avoided destruction and they were reused for the Norman castle built in the eleventh century. The foundations consist of a series of vaults, filled with sand, constructed using the only ‘stones’ available in the area, a form of compacted mud dug out of the sea, as can be seen by the barnacles still attached to some of them. Modern reconstructions of the temple suggest it had a double row of eight pillars at the front in the classic double portico style with pillars at the sides and rear. There being no marble available locally, the pillars were probably constructed of brick rendered with mortar. A large bronze statue of Claudius would have been positioned inside.
The Roman Emperors were a rum lot, but if Robert Graves is to be believed, Claudius stands out as a sane, just, liberal-minded and efficient ruler. Certainly, compared with Tiberius and Caligula before him and Nero after him, he was a good leader of most of the known world. His triumphal entry into Colchester astride what must have seemed to the local population to be a mythical monster must have been talked about for decades afterwards. It is amusing to reflect on the perplexity of subsequent archaeologists on encountering large amounts of elephant dung in the area.
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Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs