Building A Consensus
The murder of Gaius and the sudden elevation of Claudius represented the greatest challenge to the imperial regime since the war of Actium. Although the failure of the assassins and the senators to offer a plausible alternative regime might be thought to have ended any realistic attempt of overthrowing the emperors, the seriousness of the crisis is not obscured.
Claudius was able to secure relatively rapidly his position in Rome. But he could be in no doubt that many of the senators were either hostile to him or nervous as to how he might behave.
His response was to seek reconciliation. Mysteriously, most of the images of Gaius disappeared overnight. Although those responsible for the murder of Gaius’s family were killed, Claudius did not conduct significant reprisals. He ended those prosecutions that were pending at Gaius’s death, recalled exiles, and restored money to families of those killed by Gaius. He forgot all actions and speeches in the immediate aftermath of the assassination so there could be no reprisals (Suetonius, Claudius 11-12). He was moderate in the honours he accepted and prevented any continuation of the divine honours paid to Gaius, though he was flexible on this issue. He avoided ostentation in his manners and when the sentors came to meet him, he rose from his chair to greet them as equals. When staying at Neapolis, he dressed informally and according to local custom. Every attempt was made to return to a conciliatory style of government (Dio, 60 3-6).
Nevertheless, Claudius’s hold on power was not secure. There seems to have been an absence of trust. He owed much to the loyalty of the army. He made efforts to associate himself with military success. His endeavours recalled those of Augustus and Julius Caesar and thus older models of imperial behaviour.
His only claim for legitimacy rested on his family. Like Gaius, he took care to associate himself with the surviving members of the dynasty. Gaius’s sisters were restored from exile, though Julia was to be sent away again in the same year (Dio, 60. 4; 8). Claudius gave games for Antonia and Drusus, his mother and father, and for Livia (Claudius’ grandmother). Mark Antony (Claudius’ grandfather) and Germanicus were also honoured (Suetonius, Claudius 11; Dio, 60. 5).
Claudius was, however, without close male relatives. His son, Britannicus, was born in 41 BC. He did, however, have daughters. He gave his elder daughter, Antonia, as wife to Pompeius Magnus. They were certainly married by AD 43 when she was 12-13. The legal age for girl’s marriage was 12, but, strangely, it seems possible that a girl could marry before then, though the marriage would count as a betrothal. She may have married in 41 or 42. His other daughter, Octavia, was betrothed to Lucius Junius Silanus. Octavia was the daughter of Messalina, whom Claudius had married in AD 38, and there was a legal limit on betrothal of two years, the betrothal was certainly symbolic (Dio, 60.5; Suetonius, Claudius 27).
The point of these marriages was to bring two important and established aristocrats into the imperial family: Pompeius was a descendant of Pompey the Great and thus from one of the leading families of Rome. The Junii Silani were also prominent. They were an established Republican family who had provided consuls in 25 BC, 17 BC, AD 10, 15, 19, and 28 (twice). Appius Junius Silanus was governor of Spain and in 41 was hurried back so as to marry Messalina’s mother. Lucius Junius Silanus was given the consulship in 46. In default of other heirs, these sons-in-law were being marked out as likely successors and it was these men who brought the news to the senate of Claudius’s victory in Britain (Dio, 60.21).
The consular lists provide names of other prominent men in the Claudian regime. Lucius Vitellius, consul in 43, who was left in charge in Rome when Claudius went to Britain and had an extraordinary third consulship in 47. Marcus Vinicius, whose family was prominent under Augustus and who had been talked of as a possible alternative to Claudius, held the consulship in 45. He was also with Claudius in Britain. Sallustius Crispus had been consul in 27 and took a second consulship in 44. He married Agrippina, Claudius’s neice, whom Claudius was later to himself marry. That put him in a very prominent position in the imperial family. Statilius Taurus (consul in 44) and his brother Statilius Taurus Corvinus (consul in 45) were close relatives of Claudius’s wife Messalina, and were themselves descended from a Statilius Taurus who had been one of Augustus’s closest associates.
What one sees is a tight-knit groups of men from long-established aristocratic families holding high office. It was to these men that Claudius looked for political support. And when we assess Claudian political activity, and especially his supposed reliance on freedmen, we need to remember that these figures also wielded considerable authority.
As the reign progresses, several of these men, and others of prominence, were removed. The narrative accounts connect these political purges with the machinations of Agrippina and Messalina. The nervousness of the Claudian regime in the face of opposition and aristocratic political activities suggests that Claudius never achieved the consensus he appears to have sought in his early years.