By Francesca Leaf, Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly Partner
If we were to visit Rome in late January of 41 CE we would find it in a liminal phase. Caligula, after proving himself a strong candidate for worst-emperor-ever, had been assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. Rome was now in a unique situation—after nearly a century of Caesars, the Senate could make a bid for power. At first it appeared that this would be the case. Here is Suetonius’ take on the situation:
“The senators were so unanimous in their resolution to assert the liberty of their country, that the consuls assembled them at first not in the usual place of meeting, because it was named after Julius Caesar, but in the Capitol.”
Seems like the Senate wasn’t too fond of the Caesars. So they gathered together and began to debate. Some argued in favor of a monarchy, others a democracy. One thing was clear: none could agree on a suitable candidate for the currently vacant position of leader of Rome. As the arguing continued, the future ruler, Claudius, remained behind the curtains (seriously—he was hiding behind a curtain).
According to the best-known tradition, during the assassination of Caligula, Claudius wisely retired to an apartment. As he was Caligula’s uncle, he feared for his life and thus hid behind the hangings of a door. Despite being a well-educated man, he wasn’t too good at hiding—his feet poked out from the curtain. According to Suetonius, a soldier spotted his protruding feet (if you favor Cassius Dio’s take, it was several soldiers) and yanked him out of hiding. Realizing that it was Claudius, he (or they) hailed him as emperor. Claudius was hesitant to claim the title, but the guards, desiring to protect their very nice jobs, insisted. Claudius eventually relented—after what happened to Caligula, he was probably reluctant to anger them.
The Reluctant Emperor
Needless to say, the Senate was displeased with the Praetorian Guard’s actions. One thing the senators could agree upon was that Claudius just wasn’t the man for the job (as Suetonius wrote, Claudius’ own mother often referred to him as “an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature”). But the soldiers were quite insistent that Claudius be named emperor. And soon enough the Senate realized that they were outnumbered and, seeing that their own soldiers had deserted them, decided that their best option was acquiescence. And this is how the Praetorian Guard appointed the next emperor of Rome.
Claudius, wiser than most gave him credit for, understood that his claim to power was rather shaky. A man of fifty, he had lived long enough to be aware of the Praetorian Guard’s power. He was also intuitive enough to know that, despite appearances, he didn’t have the Senate’s support. They had conspired to kill one emperor. Why not two? Claudius’ first course of action was to curry favor with both parties. In regards to the Senate, he granted amnesty to those who were suspected to be complicate in the assassination of Caligula. He returned confiscated property, released prisoners, and recalled exiles. Next, he bought the loyalty of the Guard with a large donative. Claudius went the extra mile in making this relationship “official”—he minted coins displaying himself clasping hands with a soldier holding a military standard.
One could argue that Claudius’ rise to power exposed the reality of politics in post-Augustan Rome. An individual’s claim to power rested on the whims of his soldiers. Claudius’ ascension marked the first time this became painfully visible, and throughout his reign he went to great lengths to maintain the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard.
In spite of his attempts to conciliate the Senate and buy the loyalty of the Guard, Claudius’ worldview was dominated by fear and distrust. And so he made a preemptive strike: he ordered the death of men who were qualified to replace him (or, if we’re going with Cassius Dio’s account, Claudius’ wife, Messalina, was behind this).
Rome’s elite became nervous. Among the anxious was Annius Vinicianus. Vinicianus had been a key coordinator in Caligula’s assassination and had been opposed to Claudius taking the throne. Naturally, he was concerned that he was next on Claudius’ (or Messalina’s) list. Although he was well-connected, he lacked military power. But he knew someone who had it—the governor of Dalmatia, Lucius Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus.
Scribonianus had the makings of a leader: an impressive family tree and political connections. Tradition has it that his father had once been held in high-esteem by Tiberius (also a candidate for worst-emperor-ever). Plus, he was in command of not one but two legions and auxiliary forces—that’s around 20,000 heavily armed soldiers. Scribonianus, dissatisfied with Claudius, believed that it was time to restore the Republic. He announced his plan. It proved popular—senators and equestrians flocked to his cause.
Scribonianus, endowed with political and military support, probably felt that he couldn’t fail. Believing that Claudius was a coward, he sent him a letter and instructed his troops to prepare to march. Scribonianus’ letter wasn’t too polite. Suetonius describes it as being “a scurrilous, petulant, and threatening letter, desiring him to resign the government, and betake himself to a life of privacy.”
When Claudius received the letter, he was indeed intimidated. However, Scribonianus had underestimated Claudius (or at least an ensconced emperor). Claudius did not “betake himself to a life of privacy.” So, the letter was a failure. But, he still had his legions and auxiliary forces, right? Well, things just didn’t work out for Scribonianus. Here’s what Suetonius has to say:
“Furius Camillus Scribonianus, his lieutenant in Dalmatia, broke into rebellion, but was reduced in the space of five days; the legions which he had seduced from their oath of fidelity relinquishing their purpose, upon an alarm occasioned by ill omens. For when orders were given them to march, to meet their new emperor, the eagles could not be decorated, nor the standards pulled out of the ground, whether it was by accident, or a divine interposition.”
Historically, Roman soldiers viewed their military standards (a pike topped with an eagle) as being imbued with sacred power. While camped, they were even kept in shrines. At the beginning of a campaign, the soldiers would pull the eagles from the ground and carry them with them as they marched. Unfortunately for Scribonianus, the soldiers were unable to unearth the eagles. To the soldiers, this was a bad omen and could only mean one thing—the gods wanted them to remain in Dalmatia. Perhaps the eagle was stuck due to sabotage or tough luck or by the will of Jupiter. Or maybe the soldiers just wanted to avoid the strife of war (Dalmatia was a pretty great place to be stationed). Regardless, the legions turned on Scribonianus. Clearly, he had failed to earn or maintain their loyalty.
And here is how our story ends: Scribonianus, the would-be-usurper, fled to the island of Issa where a) he committed suicide or b) was killed (depending on if you prefer Cassius Dio or Pliny the Younger’s take). Claudius ruled until 54 CE when he was murdered by poison (popular belief is that his final wife, Agrippina, was behind this), allowing Nero to take the throne resulting in a third, but not final, candidate for worst-emperor-ever.