Seneca, Apocolocyntosis III

Criticism against Claudius’s policy concerning the grant of Roman citizenship.
Name of the author: 
54 CE
1st CE
Literary genre: 
Pamphlet / Satire
Title of work: 

This text is an excerpt from Seneca’s satirical work Apocolocyntosis, meaning “metamorphosis into a pumpkin or a gourd-vine.” He wrote this work after the death of the emperor Claudius (13th October 54 CE), after his ashes had been deposited in the Mausoleum of Augustus (24th October 54 CE), and after the Senate ordained his apotheosis a few days later. Ruurd Nauta has suggested that it could have originally been recited at the Saturnalia, that is the festival of Saturn celebrated in Rome in December, a festival which was characterized by the practice of exchanging worthless gifts between friends, and most of all, by the inversion of social norms (Nauta, “Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis”). Through this work, Seneca wanted to mock the deceased emperor on the occasion of his apotheosis, ordered by the Senate, and which led to the establishment of a new cult to the divinized Claudius and to the start of building operations for a temple dedicated to him on the Caelian hill (on this temple and on the question of its destruction by Nero, see Beste and von Hesberg, “Buildings of an Emperor,” p. 316-318). The Apocolocyntosis is a unique work because of the violence of Seneca’s satirical portrayal of Claudius. Actually, the deceased emperor is depicted as looking to gain residence among the inhabitants of Mount Olympus, from where he is finally ejected. After some ridiculous adventures, Claudius ends his wandering by going into hell, where he is also not welcomed. Seneca’s harsh criticism of Claudius can be explained by personal enmity, and most of all by the fact that Seneca wanted to gain the favour of Agrippina and of the new emperor Nero. As Christopher Whitton rightly remarks: “... Apocolocyntosis is just one example of a rising trend in first-century literature of vilifying a dead emperor to praise a living one” (Whitton, “Seneca, Apocolocyntosis,” p. 152).

The text presented here is an excerpt from the beginning of the Apocolocyntosis. While Claudius begins to ‘give up the ghost,’ Mercury askes Clotho, one of the Parcae (or Fates) – the three deities who controlled the life of every mortal and immortal, and who were represented as spinners measuring the lives of men and cutting their destiny –, to put an end to Claudius’s life (§ 1-2). Clotho, who is presented by Seneca as some kind of vulgar shrew, expresses her surprise at Mercury’s demand. Before putting an end to Claudius’s life and to that of two other ordinary men (§ 4), Clotho makes an interesting ironic remark about Claudius’s policy concerning the grant of Roman citizenship: “I swear I intended to give him a trifle more time, till he should make citizens out of the few that are left outside—for he had made up his mind to see everybody, Greeks, Gauls, Spaniards, Britons, wearing togas. However, since it is perhaps a good thing to have a few foreigners left as a nucleus, and since you wish it, it shall be attended to” (§ 3, “ego mehercules” (…) “pusillum temporis adicere illi volebam, dum hos pauculos, qui supersunt, civitate donaret; constituerat enim omnes Graecos, Gallos, Hispanos, Britannos togatos videre; sed quoniam placet aliquos peregrinos in semen relinqui et tu ita iubes fieri, fiat”).

As Myles Lavan rightly argues, this remark about the fact that Claudius’s policy made nearly all the provincials wear a toga is a “scornful attack on Claudius’ liberal attitude to the citizenship” (Lavan, “The Empire,” p. 74). The fact that Claudius, who was born at Lyon in Gaul, had had during all his reign a special plan to grant Roman citizenship to a higher number of provincials, especially in the Western provinces, and also worked to grant the best men among these citizens from the province the right to hold Roman magistracies, and, in case of success, to become senators in the end, are phenomenon which are well attested by sources (on the spread of the Roman citizenship, see Cassius Dio, Roman History LX.17.5; on the reform of the accessibility of the Roman senate for provincials, see the speech of Claudius known through the Lyon tablet and Tacitus, Annals XI.23-24). At the beginning of Nero’s reign, the increase in the number of Roman citizens in the provinces of the Empire, and the fact that they had easier access to “the highest ranks of the social hierarchy” was a reality (see Lavan, “The Empire,” p. 75; Myles Lavan quotes the results of Ségolène Demougin’s study on the origo of the equites from the Republic to the Julio-Claudian period: under the Republican period, on the equites for whom we know the origin, only 4 % came from the provinces, a proportion which rises to 29 % under the Julio-Claudians, see Demougin, L’ordre équestre, p. 522). However, we should remark that this process was a cumulative one, and that even after the reign of Claudius, with the exception of the provincial communities which received Roman citizenship through a collective grant, the Roman citizens originating from provincial communities remained a minority compared with the global population living in these places. Thus, saying through the voice of Clotho that nearly all the provincials had become Roman citizens because of Claudius’s will is obviously an exaggeration, aiming to excessively inflate the consequences of a process in progress since the Republican period, and to present Claudius as a bad emperor who endangered the cohesion of the Roman people by incorporating into its civic body too many foreigners.

Considering that the spread of Roman citizenship had to be limited, many Roman and Italian aristocratic groups, especially senators, likely believed that most of the provincials could not attain such a prestigious grant. At the time of Claudius’s reform in 47-48 CE, the aim of which was to make access to the Roman Senate possible for the Roman citizens from the provinces, who had climbed up the first ranks of social mobility at a provincial and imperial level, many senators opposed this measure. In the imperial council they listed various arguments to explain the reasons for their hostility (Tacitus, Annals XI.23.2-4). Claudius responded to their criticism in a speech he pronounced in the Senate in Rome. It is interesting to see that in the first part of his speech as it appears in Tacitus’s narrative, the emperor begins with a lengthy attempt to prove that Rome had always had a vocation for incorporating foreigners into its civic body (see Tacitus, Annals XI.24.1-3, in the original version of the speech on the Tablet of Lyon, the issue of citizenship seems secondary compared to that of the political rights of the provincials, but it may be because of the the breaking of the tablet). Thus, one of the arguments given by Claudius in the Tacitean speech, to counter the arguments of the Roman senators opposed to his measure, defends clearly the idea that the integration of new communities into Roman citizenship was a regenerative process which enabled Rome to become a powerful empire once again: “The day of stable peace at home and victory abroad came when the districts beyond the Po were admitted to citizenship, and, availing ourselves of the fact that our legions were settled throughout the globe, we added to them the stoutest of the provincials, and succoured a weary empire” (Tacitus, Annals XI.24.3). As Simon Malloch rightly remarks, in this sentence Tacitus’s Claudius may distort the historical reality, as the enfranchisement of the Transpadani in 49 BCE did not lead to an age of peace – on the contrary, it was the very beginning of the civil war –, but it is presented by Tacitus’s Claudius as the starting point of a period of expansion for Rome’s empire (Malloch, The Annals, p. 363-364). Such a statement appears as the perfect antithesis of the conservative and restrictive conception of Roman citizenship provided by Seneca in the Apocolocyntosis, and which was also the view of most of the Roman senators in the 50s CE.

By condemning Claudius’s liberal attitude to the citizenship, Seneca fitted with an opinion which was widespread among the senators coming from more or less prestigious Roman and Italian families, an opinion that we have the opportunity to see through the reactions to Claudius’s reform of 47-48 CE (Chastagnol, “La table claudienne de Lyon,” p. 96). Roman citizenship could be individually granted to the worthiest provincials, but could not be collectively granted. In addition, we can imagine that many Italians – who for the majority obtained the Roman citizenship approximatively one century ago – may not have welcomed this phenomenon of extension of the civic status. Actually, if most of the Roman provincials became Roman citizens, it would have become impossible to use Roman citizenship to claim being ‘Roman’ was a distinctive feature (Lavan, “The Empire,” p. 78). Because of the integration of a greater number of provincials into the Roman citizenship – and also because of the increasing number of provincials who gained access to the Roman senate (which is the main theme of Claudius’s reform exposed in his speech presented in the Lyon tablet and in Tacitus, Annals XI.23-24) – it logically became necessary for many citizens to “claim to be more ‘Roman’ or ‘Italian’” than the provincials newly promoted into the Roman citizenship (Lavan, “The Empire,” p. 78). We can thus imagine that among the senators coming from Roman or Italian families, the contempt for these new Roman citizens coming from the provinces was omnipresent; a contempt which is clearly at work in Seneca’s ironical condemnation of Claudius’s reforms. This idea that Seneca would be the spokesperson of a senatorial opinion hostile to any opening of the Roman citizenship to new provincial recruits, is affirmed by Christopher L. Whitton’s conclusion, according to which the audience and the readership of the Apocolocyntosis would not have been restricted to the young new emperor Nero and the imperial court, but would have included “much or all of the senatorial order” (Whitton, “Seneca, Apocolocyntosis,” p. 155-157, 165).

The last important point to recall is that even if Seneca mocks Claudius’s policy which would have seen all “Greeks, Gauls, Spaniards, Britons” wear the toga, Seneca himself was born in Cordoba in Baetica, into a wealthy equestrian family. His father, Seneca the Elder, was born in the same place. He was a famous rhetorician who spent a large part of his life at Rome. We know very little about the childhood of Seneca the Younger, except that he arrived and lived in Rome when he was still a very small boy (Griffin, Seneca, p. 29-35). What is interesting it is the contempt that Seneca expresses towards the Hispani. Myles Lavan has rightly remarked that “Spaniards who could trace descent from Italian settler stock called themselves Hispanienses to distinguish themselves from indigenous Spaniards, whom they called Hispani” (Lavan, “The Empire,” p. 78 and Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 34-35; for another similar distinction made by another Spaniard, see Martial’s preface of the twelfth book of his Epigrams). Seneca may have considered himself as a Hispaniniensis, firstly because his family, the Annaei, would have originally come from Italy before their settlement in Spain, and second because he had spent a large part of his life in Italy. By referring to the Hispani, Seneca expresses all his contempt towards the indigenous Spaniards who, according to his point of view, which was also that of numerous senators in Rome, could not pretend to become real Roman citizens.

To conclude, by criticizing Claudius, who, according to his words, wanted to see in the toga every Greek, Gaul, Spaniard and Briton, Seneca opposed an excessive extension of the Roman citizenship to provincials, a position which clearly recalls that of the senators who opposed in 48 CE Claudius’s decision to increase the accessibility of the Roman Senate for provincials. The narrow conception of the Roman people which appears through Seneca’s words was also shared by one member of his family, his nephew Lucan. Actually, a few years after the writing of the Apocolocyntosis, when he composed the seventh book of his epic The Civil War, narrating the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, Lucan laments that, after Pharsalus, Pompey’s barbarian soldiers could become the populus Romanus. He thus presents the “Easternisation” of the Roman army under Pompey’s command as one of the origins of the barbarisation of Rome, a process which will lead, according to him, to the disappearance of a pure, unified Roman identity (see Martin, “La ‘barbarisation’,” p. 252-253; Lucan, The Civil War VII.535-543).

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

“La table claudienne de Lyon”

Chastagnol, Andréarticle-in-a-bookLe Sénat romain à l’époque impériale. Recherches sur la composition de l’Assemblée et le statut de ses membres André Chastagnol79-96“La table claudienne de Lyon”ParisLes Belles Lettres1992

“The Empire in the Age of Nero”

Lavan, Mylesarticle-in-a-bookA Companion to the Neronian Age Emma Buckley, Martin T. Dinter65-82“The Empire in the Age of Nero”OxfordWiley-Blackwell2013

“Seneca, Apocolocyntosis”

Whitton, Christopher L.article-in-a-bookA Companion to the Neronian Age Emma Buckley, Martin T. Dinter151-169“Seneca, Apocolocyntosis”OxfordWiley-Blackwell2013
Realized by: