~~ Seneca ~~
The recent deification of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher by the British media, reminds me of how the Romans viewed their former imperial masters of the universe. Despite the gushing panegyrics of the Late Empire towards it`s demi -god emperors, the writers of the earlier Principate had a far healthier view on the all too human frailties of the man sitting at the top table. One of the pious myths maintained by Romans was that of the Apotheosis, the belief that the emperor`s spirit would wing it`s way with flights of angels to assume it`s place among the gods. Of course, the average Roman had both feet firmly on the ground, and such myths came to be generally ridiculed; and all the better if the individual who`s soul was a prime candidate to be fast tracked heavenwards, didn`t inspire too much reverence or respect in the first place……..Step forward the emperor Claudius, Clau, Clau, Claudius, Claudius the God……To be.
The Apocolocyntosis: the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius, is attributed to Seneca, the Roman author and senator. Claudius enjoyed a particularly low level of esteem among the ruling classes, basically because he was the first emperor to be given the nod for the job by the Praetorian Guard, rather than by the senate. The inconvenient fact of the senate`s approval being a mere rubber stamp for the inevitable was neither here nor there; appearances are what count here, emperors liked to keep the senate sweet by massaging egos and pressing the flesh when necessary, in order to keep up a pretense of senatorial influence on the reigns of government. Seneca also held a mighty big grudge against the late emperor; Claudius had banished him to Corsica because of his improprieties, and so, the death of Claudius gave Seneca the opportunity to settle a few old scores.
Seneca`s vengeance has Claudius not becoming a god, but a …………..pumpkin. Claudius was said to have had a speech impediment, and so after making his way to Mount Olympus, he asks for entry, but the gatekeeper, Hercules finds his enunciation and syntax so mangled and incomprehensible, he hands the case over to the gods for a quick debate, before they give poor Claudius the thumbs down.
“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 it`s extraordinary gait, and heard it`s voice, hoarse and inarticulate, like that of no land animal, but such as that you might hear from a monster of the deep, he thought he had encountered his thirteenth labour. But when he looked closer, the thing seemed to be a kind of man.”
Seneca wrote the Pumpkinification not just to get even with a man he despised, but to ingratiate himself with the new kid on the block, Nero. Claudius`s son, Britannicus still lived, but had been passed over in favour of the son of Claudius`s last wife, Agrippina; and so measures needed to be took to defame his father`s name and disinherit him by paternal association with a tyrant of low morals and values. The fact that Claudius was actually a highly intelligent and decent person who only wanted a quiet life, was neither here nor there; in power politics, time and tide wait for no man, and so the good name of Claudius was ridiculed, slandered and libeled. What we have here, is a highly sophisticated piece of satire designed to discredit a political rival through humour. To make fun of someone is often the best way to destroy a personality and reputation. In the case of Claudius it worked. The winners always write the history.