Every major source comments critically on Claudius’s reliance on his household for administrative purposes.
An emperor had a great deal of business to contract, such as petitions and legal requests, financial issues, foreign relations, feeding Rome, and military administration. The emperor would also be managing relations with important persons in Rome, his personal wealth, and the houses and estates for which he had personal responsibility. He had a formal group of advisers, the consilium principis, and would have taken advice from friends and important senators. Leading Romans were supposed to take advice from and listen to their friends: it was a way in which authority and responsibility could be shared and, hopefully, the best decisions made.
Large aristocratic households had substantial business interests. If an aristocrat took over a magisterial office, little administrative support was provided. The magistrate looked to his friends and his household for support. Major decisions would be taken by the magistrate and his elite friends, but the records would by managed by slaves and freedmen. Such records might be extensive, especially if the magistrate was in the provinces, recording who was met, what was said, and what was decided. The use of households meant that Rome could rule an empire with very little visible bureaucracy.
When Augustus came to power, household management was the only option available to manage much of the business of the state. And so Augustus employed his slaves and freedmen to do many of the jobs the state required. This use of household labour appears not to have caused resentment, in part because the aristocrats would not have wanted to engage in all this hard administrative labour, but also because all important political decisions were made in the traditional way. But it was inevitable that as the material handled by the household became more important so the power of those household members increased.
Already under Gaius we see freedman becoming political powers. Some are even connected to the assassination. But with Claudius, the freedmen become central.
The major figures are
- Narcissus, who was ab epistulis [in charge of correspondence)
- Pallas, the a rationibus (in charge of accounts) who was a freedman of Antonia, Claudius’s mother and was likely the man who informed Tiberius against Sejanus. His brother, Marcus Antonius Felix, was made governor of Judaea.
- Polybius (a studiis), who seems to have dealt with legal matters. Seneca sent him a long disquisition on grief when his brother died, suggesting that he was well-connected in literary circles.
- Kallistos (Gaius’s main minister).
These freedmen are credited with taking crucial political decisions. The other centres of power in the imperial household were Claudius’s wives, Messalina and Agrippina. Imperial women had earlier taken positions of power. Livia took on much business for Octavia. Agrippina the elder was also a woman of considerable political importance, both when with Germanicus and after he died.
A Roman aristocrat would likely normally have his more trusted freedmen, his wife, and his friends. The difference with Claudius is that the freedmen and his wives were seen as manipulating his political decisions.
Such prominence offended the normal hierarchies of Roman societies. Senators were supposed to be the main source of support and advice for an emperor. Claudius made no attempt to cloak the influence of his wives or freedmen. Dio (60.19) tells us that when Aulus Plautius could not persuade the troops assembled on the coast of Gaul to board the ships bound for Britain, Narcissus tried to speak. The soldiers became angry at a freedman addressing them, cried ‘Io Saturnalia’, the chant for the festival of Saturnalia at which slaves had one day of pretending to be masters, and clambered aboard. Equally remarkably, Claudius persuaded the senators to pass an honorific decree in favour of Pallas, about which Pliny, Epistle 7.29 fulminated:
The Senate decrees to this man on account of his faithful and pious work for his patronus praetorian insignia and 15,000,000 sesterces, and that he is content with this honour alone.
Pliny, 8.6, goes back to the original documentation to confirm that senators were eager to honour the freedman. Tacitus (Annales 12.53) reports the same decree, inscribed in the centre of Rome, and notes that that it praised the traditional poverty of a man worth 300,000,000 sesterces.
- What are we to make of the acknowledged prominence of the freedmen ?
There is certainly exaggeration. There was an inner circle of elite close to Claudius at his accession and throughout his reign. Lucius Vitellius, for instance, seems to have been very close to the emperor. He was consul in 34, with the emperor in 43 and 47. Claudius also drew on the support of his sons in law early his reign, and other men brought into the family by marriage (Dio, 60 25). His wives were important political figures in part because they worked a range of aristocratic political connections. There is little doubt that Claudius did some things traditionally.
The traditionalism in some aspects of the reign makes his honouring of freedmen all the more surprising. Was Claudius unaware that he might cause offence?
There are three possibilities
- Claudius was unaware of the problems. Everyone relied on their freedmen and since his household was larger and more important than anyone else’s, he was more reliant on his liberti than others. As the work they did was important, they should be recognised and rewarded. Aristocrats did spend time with and befriend their freedmen. How Claudius behaved was no different from how other Roman aristocrats behaved.
- The problem was not as serious as later writers make out. What Claudius was doing was little different from what others did. But later in the first century, many of these key jobs were taken by equestrians and the status distinctions became more difficult to cross. In the aftermath of a difficult reign, the influence of the freedmen was blamed and the senators pointed to stories of their prominence in horror.
- Claudius as a different mode of politics. He had little experience of working with the senators and even less trust of them. He took governmental functions into the household. He asked those whom he trusted for advice. He did what they said because he thought they had his best interests at heart: a freedman was always the servant of his patron: he could not, like a senator, pursue an independent path. Did he really care if some of the senators got a bit upset?
There is a further consideration. Running the Roman Empire was a big job. Emperors needed help. Tiberius used Sejanus. Nero made use of Seneca. Claudius needed help and support. His freedmen and wives provided it. Like Sejanus, they were also expendable and could be blamed if things went wrong.
Administration Messalina Politics