Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Pumpkinification of the Divine Emperor Claudius

One of the pious myths maintained by the Roman Empire was that of the Apotheosis, the belief that after their death the better emperors would assume a place amongst the gods. As pious myths generally do, the Apotheosis came to serve as subject matter for comedians. Suetonius has it that when Emperor Vespasian concluded on his death bed that his ailments would presumably prove to be fatal, he uttered his famous last words, "Vae, puto deus fio," "Drat it! I think I am becoming a god." The most memorable satire of this tradition is the Apocolocyntosis, the Pumpkinification of the Divine (Emperor) Claudius, which is attributed to Seneca, the Roman author and philosopher.

Seneca had some good reasons to be critical of Claudius' reign; Claudius had been the first emperor to not be elected by the Senate but rather selected by the Praetorian Guard, after the assassination of Caligula. He also had personal reasons to resent him, as Claudius had banished him to Corsica because of his improprieties. When Claudius died, be it of poison or old age, Seneca seized the opportunity to settle scores, and wrote a satire that had Claudius not becoming a deity, but rather being transmuted into a banal pumpkin.

The Apocolocyntosis is quickly summarized; upon his death, Claudius makes his way to Mount Olympus to seek admission to live among the gods, but Hercules finds that he mangles his enunciation and syntax so badly as to be unintelligible, a huge humiliation for any Roman, a people among whom eloquence was highly prized.

Tum Hercules primo aspectu sane perturbatus est, ut qui etiam non omnia monstra timuerit. Ut vidit novi generis faciem, insolitum incessum, vocem nullius terrestris animalis sed qualis esse marinis beluis solet, raucam et implicatam, putavit sibi tertium decimum laborem venisse. Diligentius intuenti visus est quasi homo.

"But when Hercules, first saw him, he was badly shaken, even though not all the monsters in the world could frighten him; when he saw the face of this new object, with its extraordinary gait, and heard its voice, hoarse and inarticulate, like that of no land animal, but such as you might hear from a monster of the deep, he thought he had encountered his thirteenth labor. But when he looked closer, the thing seemed to be a kind of man."

Eventually the gods debate whether he should be admitted to their ranks, and give him the thumbs down. The hapless Claudius makes his way to the underworld, where as a punishment for his love of gambling and his generally having been a wastrel, he is sentenced to spend eternity trying to roll dice out of a box with no bottom; every time he tries to roll them, they fall to the floor, and he has to search for them and then pick them up, only to shake them again in their bottomless box. He is then saved from this futile drudgery when his predecessor, Emperor Caligula, appears, and claims Claudius as his former slave, a false and humiliating claim, and turns him over to be a law clerk in the court of the underworld.

Many believe the most memorable passage in the Apocolyntosis to be the description of Claudius' passing:

"Et ille quidem animam ebulliit, et ex eo desiit vivere videri. Exspiravit autem dum comoedos audit, ut scias me non sine causa illos timere.

Ultima vox eius haec inter homines audita est, cum maiorem sonitum emisisset illa parte, qua facilius loquebatur: "vae me, puto, concacavi me." Quod an fecerit, nescio: omnia certe concacavit.

And he really bubbled up his ghost, and the signs of life left him. He died while listening to comedians, so you know why I am wary of them, not without reason.

His last statement among humans was heard after he had let loose a very loud sound from that body part of him with which he spoke the most fluently; “Dear me, I think I’ve thoroughly crapped all over myself.” If he really did this I do not know, but what is certain is that he thoroughly crapped up everything he did.

P.S. Your humble author concluded his six years of studying Latin with a half-hour oral final exam on the works of his Seneca. His last words in that exam alluded to Seneca's having been Emperor Nero's tutor, Nero having been the emperor that Sueton and Dio Cassius accuse of having been responsible for the great fire which devastated the City of Rome, and of playing his lyre as Rome burned. To be fair, Tacitus, the great historian, defended him on this count, writing that this was only an unproven rumor. In any event, Nero blamed the fire on the hapless Christians, then a religious sect poorly understood in Rome, and began a savage persecution of them, accusing them, among other things, of cannibalism, introducing Rome's lions to the nutritive value of the flesh of Christians. This persecution made him immensely popular among the people of Rome, until the sheer brutality of his persecution and his crassness turned many of them against him.

To quote Tacitus:

Sed non ope humana, non largitionibus principis aut deum placamentis decedebat infamia quin iussum incendium crederetur. ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat. auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat; repressaque in praesens exitiabilis superstitio rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque. igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur, deinde indicio eorum multitudo ingens haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt. et pereuntibus addita ludibria, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent, aut crucibus adfixi aut flammandi, atque ubi defecisset dies in usum nocturni luminis urerentur. hortos suos ei spectaculo Nero obtulerat et circense ludicrum edebat, habitu aurigae permixtus plebi vel curriculo insistens. unde quamquam adversus sontis et novissima exempla meritos miseratio oriebatur, tamquam non utilitate publica sed in saevitiam unius absumerentur.
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to torture-stakes, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

Tacitus Annals XV.44

When the Pisonian conspiracy to murder Nero failed, Seneca was accused of at the least having been sympathetic to the conspirators, and their goal of ending Nero's despotic reign; Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide, which he duly did. Your humble author concluded his endeavor of six years, which had seen him progress from "amo, amas, amat" to Seneca by reminding his teacher that Seneca's having been Nero's tutor proved that even the best teachers had their limits. His teacher burst into laughter, and replied that he felt that his efforts with your humble author would prove to be more successful than Seneca's with Nero. Tempus patebit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!