Claudius invested heavily in securing the support of the plebs. He was a notable giver of games, which he used as an opportunity to provide gifts to the people (Suetonius, Claudius 21). He also held secular games (Tacitus, Annales, 11. 11–12), which offered him the opportunity rival the grand spectaculars put on by Augustus. He devoted much money and attention to the provision of the grain supply. He himself was caught in a bread riot and clearly did not want to repeat the experience. In addition to the immediate concerns, he made efforts to improve the infrastructure of the grain supply system. His most spectacular work was at Ostia, where he remodelled the harbour. But he also gave attention to the merchants who shipped in the grain. He appears to have offered state insurance on their voyages and to have given legal privileges to those who built large ships for moving the grain (Suetonius, Claudius 18-19). Recent excavations (see also Portus project) have exposed the scale of Claudius’ constructions: he channelled some of the Tiber waters to build an entirely new artificial harbour. The most famous depiction of the harbour comes on a coin of Nero. An inscription from AD 46 suggests that the preliminary phase of the work was about flood relief for the city of Rome.
Previously the harbour at Ostia was small and not particularly safe: it was located in the river mouth and protected by a sandbank. This made it relatively difficult of access, but also liable to dangers from large storms or from Tiber floods. As a consequence, larger ships tended not to be trusted to the harbour and the grain fleet had unloaded at the superb harbour at Puteoli (Puzzuoli) in Campania. But from there it had to be unloaded and transported to Rome either by road or by barge up the coast. Landing at Ostia allowed the transfer of the grain to barges to be shipped direct to the granaries in Rome.
Claudius also attempted to bring more land in Italy into cultivation. His major project was the draining the Fucine lake at modern Avezzano. The project involved the construction of a massive drainage ditch and was celebrated by a reconstruction of a naval battle staged on the lake. The scale of the engineering, though, eventually overwhelmed the project and the imperial family was nearly washed away when a canal wall gave way (Dio, 60. 11; Tacitus, Annales, 12. 56–7; Suetonius, Claudius, 21.6).
This new land would likely have been destined for a colony of the Roman landless or poor, continuing a policy of resettlement that had been traditional for the Romans for centuries.
Claudius’ efforts to secure popular support were, however, probably successful. Suetonius tells us of popular dismay following a rumour of the emperor’s death (Suetonius, Claudius 12).
Claudius behaved as if the support of the plebs was important, but why? All our narratives suggest that political power resided with the senators and their friends. Why would anyone care about the plebs?
- We could see in this a form of paternalism in which the emperor looked after ‘his people’. It was just a good thing to do.
- We could argue that Claudius wanted to be seen as working for all the people. In many ways, he was quite old-fashioned, even archaic, and very old ideas of Rome as being a state in which benefits were shared with the people might have appealed. Even though the Roman elite were notable for their greed and the way they concentrated wealth and power in their own hands, they also lamented greed as evidence of a decline in morality and looked back fondly to days when they imagined there was more equality.
- We might argue that he followed examples set by Julius Caesar and Augustus, but then we have to explain why those politicians also looked to the plebs.
- Such gestures in Republican history were not read as being apolitical and charitable, but as ways of building popular political support.
If he was imitating Julius Caesar (and we can see that also in his invasion of Britain), there was a political message. Caesar looked to the support of the plebs to counter the aristocracy. Claudius was unpopular with the traditional elite. Was he seeking a political constituency who would offer him support?
Let us imagine it. Claudius has a senate who would like to kill him. How does he keep them in order?
- He appears with his soldiers and points out that they would be annoyed, and heavily armed, if something were to happen to him.
- He looks after the plebs. He appears at games and the theatre and basks in his popularity. He thus points out to the senators that if something were to happen to him, the plebs might be cross and take it out on the senators.
- Meanwhile, his wives make friends and convince people that sticking with them and thus with the emperor might bring benefits.
Was that a strategy?