Thasos and the refusal of a temple by Claudius

Claudius sends a letter to the local institutions of Thasos giving thanks for their honours but rejecting the dedication of a temple. The emperor also confirms the privileged status of the island following Augustus’s precedent
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Imperial letter
Original Location/Place: 
Basilica of Thasos, reused context
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Archaeological Museum of Thasos (Greece)
42 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
The letter of Claudius was inscribed in a block containing also letters of the procurator M. Vettius and the emperor Nero. The texts are separated in three different columns. The block was reused in Late Antiquity and a rectangular and rounded hole can be found on the bottom of the stone. The reading of the first column also becomes difficult in the last lines where the surface is heavily weathered
135 centimetres in height, 48 in width, and 19.5 thick
Roman, Greek
Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 39.910 [Oliver, Greek Constitutions, p. 92, no. 23; Dunant, Pouilloux, Recherches, p. 66-67, no. 179]

The titles of Claudius in the first three lines date the inscription to 42 CE (second tribunician powers); that is, only one year after he accidentally acceded to the imperial throne (see Levick, Claudius, p. 29-39).  The emperor is replying to the local institutions – magistrates, council, and people – of Thasos, an island located in the northern Aegean Sea close to the Thracian shores. This community had conducted a customary procedure followed by many other cities in the eastern Mediterranean: to prepare an embassy in order to display their loyalty to the new Roman ruler and defend the rights granted by his predecessors (Ando, Imperial Ideology, p. 175-205). Thasos was neither innovative in the way in which the emperor could corroborate their renewed zeal (σπουδή/spoudê) and devotion (εὐσέβεια/eusebeia). They approved a resolution (ψήφισμα/psêphisma, l. 11) proposing the dedication of a temple to Claudius and local envoys were selected to travel to Rome and carry the news as soon as possible. The full names and filiation of those participating in the diplomatic mission would appear at the bottom of the inscription that is now lost.

Claudius’s response needs to be understood in this context. Many other letters (ἐπιστολαί/epistolai) with a similar content had reached him, and the emperor emphasises that his reply was the same in all cases (l. 3-4). Consequently, the Thasians should not consider that they were being disregarded and accept this specific decision as his general policy. Claudius was indeed not lying as a papyrus recording his reply to another embassy from Alexandria in 41 CE confirms. This document (P.Lond. 6.1912, l. 29-51) is more detailed and makes it possible to distinguish what kind of elements he either accepted or refused in relation to the commemoration and celebration of his rule. Namely, the designation of his birthday as a sacred day was approved, as well as the setting up of statues of his family and the golden Pax Augusta Claudiana. A local tribe was named after him and groves were dedicated according to the Egyptian tradition. By contrast, the establishment of his personal high-priesthood and temple were rejected. This cautious stance on imperial cult was based on the precedents of the Julio-Claudian family. Both Tiberius and Gaius-Caligula (IG VII 2711, l. 20-50) first refused to be worshipped as gods, commonly arguing that such honours were to be reserved for the dynastic founder; i.e. Augustus. Germanicus – Claudius’ brother – himself reprimanded the Alexandrians for the “god-like acclamations” proclaimed when he visited the city in Egypt (SB 1.3924, l. 31-36). However, such initial signs of humanity and humbleness did not always match the behaviour of these emperors at the end of their rules. The most illustrative example of this possible transformation is provided by Gaius-Caligula, who ended up claiming to be the new solar god Helios and inducing provincial communities to worship him in such a manner. As a result, local institutions such as those in Thasos still found it recommendable to appear over-zealous with their loyalty and proposals (l. 4-5), even when they knew that Roman emperors were likely to decline them and preferred “honours suitable to the best leaders” (l. 6-7). Thasos’s main aim was to impress – not acceptance – and, actually, no one could anticipate how a despotic ruler would react or whether he had adopted an innovative policy. Furthermore, if we believe the satiric information provided by Seneca’s Apolocyntosis (chap. 8), Claudius is accused of having changed his mind and accepting one temple dedicated to him in Britain.

The second part of Claudius’s letter concerns the motive for which Thasos had primarily decided to show his zeal and devotion. The emperor is confirming that he will protect (διαφυλάσσω/diaphylassô) what Augustus had previously granted to the island (l. 7-8). The weathered state of the stone makes the reading difficult and it is impossible to identify the exact nature of these benefits beyond the reference to the “exportation of grain” (σείτου ἐξαγωγή/seitou exagôgê). This privilege could be particularly beneficial for a community with limited resources such as Thasos, whose abrupt landscapes did not facilitate intensive agriculture. For instance, we know that the nearby island of Samothrace heavily depended on the exportations from the Propontis (SEG 31.788, 803; Robert “Des Carpathes”). Despite the lack of more specific information, both Claudius’ confirmation and Augustus’s benefits derived from the free status granted to Thasos after the first Mithridatic war. Two letters of Sulla and Dolabella concerning this decision adopted by the Senate of Rome are preserved (Dunant, Pouilloux, Recherches, nos. 174-175= Sherk, Roman Documents, no. 20-21). Consequently, the Thasians had managed to successfully defend their privileged condition during the Augustan Principate and were now trying to seek confirmation from Claudius upon his accession. 

This brief and fragmentary letter is therefore fundamental for attesting that imperial cult, worship, and temples were not only motivated by personal or communal devotion. Instead, the defence of other more tangible benefits such as privileged “freedom” could be the principal cause. In order to achieve this, Thasos firstly adopted a local resolution proposing the dedication of a sacred space and displaying their effortful reverence. Secondly, an embassy to reach the emperor and display their loyalty was organised. Finally, Claudius acknowledged the receipt, accepted some honours, declined others, enhanced his care for the city (l. 10), and established a policy whereby the population of the island could still remained satisfied. This result, nonetheless, was not definitive as the addition of letters of Nero and a procurator in the same stone block probably implies. Indeed, the fight for privileges was a never-ending enterprise for provincial communities under Roman domination; although precedents such as this provided by Claudius could later become decisive.

Bibliographical references: 


Levick, BarbarabookClaudiusLondonB.T. Batsford1990
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