Saturday, February 17, 2018

Claudius the God

. And are you able to tell me anything definite, Brigand, about this prophesied Eastern Ruler who is destined after his death to become the greatest God that has ever appeared on earth? I am continually coming across references to him. There was one in court the other day. A Jew was accused of creating a disturbance in the City. He was alleged to have shaken his fist at a priest of Mars and exclaimed : `When the Ruler manifests himself, that will be the end of men like you. Your temples will be razed to the ground and you'll be buried in the ruins; you dog! And the time is not far off now.' Under cross-examination he denied having said anything of the sort, and as the evidence was conflicting I did no more than banish him - if you can call it banishment to send a Jew back to Judaea. Well, Caligula believed himself to be this prophesied Ruler and in certain respects the prophecy, as it was reported to me, did indeed seem to point to him. My grandmother Livia had also been misled, by something that the astrologer Thrasyllus said about the year of her death corresponding with that of this prophesied person, into believing that it was she who was meant. She did not realize that it was a God and not a Goddess who was prophesied, nor that his first manifestation should be at Jerusalem - Caligula was there as a child though later he should reign at Rome. Is there anything written about him in the Jewish sacred writings? If so, precisely what? I understand that your learned relative Philo is an expert in such matters. I was talking the matter over with Messalina the other day and she asked me whether anyone had inherited this peculiar obsession from my now deified grandmother Livia Augusta and from my crazy nephew Caligula. I told her, 'I haven't, I swear, in spite of the divinity that Herod Agrippa is always trying to curse me with'. But what about you yourself, my old Brigand? Perhaps you are really the person meant? No, on second thoughts you certainly are not, in spite of your connexion with Jerusalem. The prophesied Ruler is specified as a man off extreme holiness. Besides, Thrasyllus was quite positive as to, the year of his death, the fifteenth year of Tiberius' reign, which was the year Livia was to die - and did actually, die. Thrasyllus never to my knowledge made a mistake in dates. So you have lost your chance. But, on the other hand, if Thrasyllus was right, why have we not yet heard about this dead King? Caligula knew a part of the prophecy, which was that this King was to die forsaken by his friends and that afterwards they would drink his blood. Curiously enough, that was fulfilled in his case: Bubo, one of the assassins, you remember had sworn to kill him and drink his blood in revenge, and did dabble his fingers in the wound he had made and then lick them dry, the madman. But Caligula died nine years too late to agree with the prophecy. I should be very grateful if you would tell me what you know about all this. Perhaps there are two or three prophecies that have got mixed up together? Or perhaps Caligula was misinformed as to the particulars? He was told of the prophecy by the poisoner Martina, the one who was concerned in my poor brother Germanicus's murder at Antioch. But I hear that it has long been current in Egypt, as a pronouncement of the oracle of Jupiter Ammon.

Why I wrote in this way was that I now knew that Herod did really fancy himself to be this prophesied Ruler. 'I had been told all about it by Herodias and Antipas, whom I had visited in their place of banishment during my stay in France. I could not allow them to return to Judaea, though I knew now that they had not been guilty of plotting against Caligula, but I allowed them to leave Lyons and gave them a fair-sized estate at Cadiz in Spain, where the climate was more like the one to which they were accustomed. They showed me an indiscreet letter from Herodias's daughter, Salome, now married to her, first cousin, Herod Pollio's son.

Herod Agrippa is, growing more and more religious every, day. He tells his old friends that he is only playing at being a strict Jew for political reasons, and that he still secretly worships the Roman Gods. But I know now that this is only pretence. He is extraordinarily conscientious in his observances. The Alabarch's son, Tiberius Alexander, who has abandoned the Jewish faith,. much to the shame and grief of his excellent family,, tells me that while he was staying, at Jerusalem the other day he took Herod aside and whispered: `I hear you have an Arabian cook who really understands how to stuff and roast a midnight sucking pig. Would- you be good enough to invite me in some night? It is impossible to get really eatable food in Jerusalem.' Herod went scarlet and stammered that his cook was ill! The truth is that he dismissed this cook long ago. Tiberius Alexander has another queer story about, Herod. You have heard of that farcical occasion when he visited Alexandria with a bodyguard of two soldiers whom he had kidnapped to prevent them from serving a warrant on him, and borrowed money from the Alabarch? It. appears that the Alabarch afterwards went to Philo, that learned brother of his who tries to reconcile Greek philosophy with Jewish scripture, and said, `I have probably been a fool, brother Philo, but I have lent Herod Agrippa, a large sum of money on rather doubtful security. In return he has promised to protect our interests at Rome, and has sworn before Almighty God to cherish and protect His people, so far as in him lies, and to obey His Law.' Philo asked: `From where did this Herod Agrippa suddenly appear? I thought that he was at Antioch.' The Alabarch said: 'From Edom wearing a purple cloak - Bozrah purple - and stepping like a king. I cannot help believing that in spite of his former follies and vicissitudes he is destined to play a great part in our national history. He is a man of outstanding talent. And now that he has definitely pledged himself ...' Philo suddenly grew very serious and began to quote the prophet Isaiah: `Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength?... I have trodden .the wine-press alone; and of the people there was none with me. But the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my Redeemed is come.' Philo has long been convinced that the Messiah is at hand. He has written several volumes on that head. He builds his argument on the text in Numbers about the Star out of Jacob, and reconciles it with a number of others in the Prophets. He's quite crazy, poor man. And now that Herod has become so powerful and has kept his promise about observing the Law so faithfully and done the Alexandrian Jews so many services, Philo is really convinced that Herod is the Messiah. What finally decided him was the discovery that Herod's family, though an Edomite one, is descended from a son of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before the Captivity. (This Zedekiah managed to smuggle his newly-born son out of the city and get him safe to friends in Edom before Nebuchadnezzar captured the place.)

Herod (Agrippa) seems to have been persuaded by Philo that he really is the Messiah and that he is destined not only to redeem the Jews from the yoke of the foreigner but to combine all the Children of Shem together in a great spiritual rule of the Lord of Hosts: this is the only possible explanation for his recent political activities which, I must confess, make me feel extremely nervous for the future. Indeed, there seems to be altogether too much religion in the air. It's a bad sign. It reminds me of what you said when we had that mystical idiot John the Baptist beheaded - 'Religious fanaticism is the most dangerous form of insanity.' I have said too much, I think, but I can trust you, my dear mother, not to let the story go any farther. Burn this when you have read it. There was no more news from Marsus and I did not get an answer from Herod himself before I sailed for Britain for, a fortnight after: landing, Aulus was indeed obliged to send for me. But I reckoned that Herod would read between the lines of my letter that I suspected him, though I was careful not to mention Marsus in it, or the wedding celebrations at Tiberias; and that he would be very careful about his next step. I also strengthened the garrison at Alexandria and told Marsus to call up all Greek levies in Syria and give them an intensive drilling letting the rumour go about that a Parthian invasion was expected. He was to do this as if on his own initiative, and not to tell anyone that the orders came from me. [Robert Graves, I Claudius p. 70]


This was the time that I began going closely into the question of new religions and cults. Some new foreign god came to Rome every year to serve the needs of immigrants and in general I had no objection to this. For example, a colony of 400 Arabian merchants and their families from Yemen, which had settled at Ostia, built a temple there to their tribal gods: it was orderly worship, involving no human sacrifices or other scandals. But what I objected to was disorderly competition between religious cults, their priests and missioners going from house to house in search of converts and modelling their persuasive vocabulary on that of the auctioneer or the brothel-pimp or the vagabond Greek astrologer. The discovery that religion is a marketable commodity like oil, figs, or slaves was first made at Rome in late Republican times, and steps had been taken to check such marketing, but without great success. There had been a notable breakdown in religious belief after our conquest of Greece, when Greek philosophy spread to Rome. The philosophers, while not denying the divine, made such a remote abstraction of it that a practical people like the Romans began to argue: ‘Very well, the Gods are infinitely powerful and wise but also infinitely remote. They deserve our respect and we will honour them most devotedly with temples and sacrifices, but it is clear that we were mistaken in thinking that they were immediate presences and that they would bother to strike individual sinners dead or punish the whole city for one man’s crime, or appear in mortal disguise. We have been mistaking poetical fiction for prose reality. We must revise our views.’

This decision made an uncomfortable void, for the ordinary common citizen, between himself and those remote ideals of (for example) Power, Intelligence, Beauty, and Chastity into which the philosophers had converted Jove, Mercury, Venus, and Diana. Some intermediary beings were needed. Into the void came crowding new divine or semi-divine characters. These were mostly foreign gods with very definite personalities, who could not easily be philosophized about. They could be summoned by incantation and take on visible human shape. They could appear in the middle of a circle of devotees and talk familiarly to each member of the cult. Occasionally they even had sexual intercourse with women-worshippers. There was one famous scandal in the reign of my uncle Tiberius. A rich knight was in love with a respectable married noblewoman. He tried to bribe her to sleep with him and offered her as much as 2,500 gold pieces for a single tryst. She refused indignantly, and thereafter would not even acknowledge his greetings when they met in the street. He knew that she was a devotee of Isis, who had a temple at Rome, and bribed the priests of the Goddess, for 500 gold pieces, to tell her that the God Anubis was in love with her and wished her to visit him. She was greatly flattered by the message and went to the Temple on the night ordained by Anubis, and there in the holiest part, on the very couch of the God, the knight, disguised as the God, enjoyed her until morning. The silly woman could not contain herself for felicity. She told her husband and friends of the signal honour that she had been shown. Most of them believed her. Three days later she met the knight in the street and as usual tried to pass by without answering his greeting. He barred her way and taking her familiarly by the arm said: ‘My dear, you have saved me two thousand gold pieces. A thrifty woman like you ought to be ashamed to throw good money away. Personally, I care nothing for names. You happen to dislike mine and adore Anubis’s, and so the other night I had to be Anubis. But the pleasure was just as great as if I had used my own name. Now, good-bye. I’ve had what I wanted and I’m satisfied.’ Never was a woman so thunderstruck and horrified. She ran home to her husband and told him how she had been deceived and abused, and swore that if she was not immediately avenged she would kill herself for shame. The husband, a senator, went to Tiberius; and Tiberius, who thought highly of him, had the Temple of Isis destroyed, her priests crucified, and her image thrown into the Tiber. But the knight himself boldly told Tiberius: ‘You know the power of love. Nothing can withstand it. And what I have done should be a warning to all respectable women not to embrace fancy religions but to stick to the good old Roman Gods.’ So he was only banished for a few years. Then the husband, having had his married happiness ruined by this affair, began a campaign against all religious charlatans. He brought charges against four Jewish missionaries, who had converted a noblewoman of the Fulvian family to their faith, that they had persuaded her to send votive offerings of gold and purple cloth to the Temple at Jerusalem, but had sold these gifts for their own profit. Tiberius found the men guilty and crucified them. As a warning against similar practices he banished all the Jews in Rome to Sardinia: there were 4,000 of them and half that number died of fever within a few months after arriving there. Caligula allowed the Jews to come back again.

Tiberius, you will recall, also expelled all the fortune-tellers and pretended astrologers from Italy. He was a curious compound of atheism and superstition, credulity and scepticism. He once said at a dinner that he regarded the worship of the Gods as useless in view of the stars: he believed in predestination. His expulsion of the astrologers was due perhaps to his wishing to enjoy the monopoly of prediction: for Thrasyllus remained with him always. What he did not realize was that though the stars may tell no lies, astrologers, even the best of them, cannot be counted upon either to read their messages with perfect correctness or to report with perfect frankness what they have read. I am neither a sceptic nor particularly superstitious. I love ancient forms and ceremonies and have an inherited belief in the old Roman Gods which I refuse to subject to any philosophical analysis. I think that every nation ought to worship its own gods in its own way (so long as it is a civilized way) and not idly adopt exotic deities. As high priest of Augustus I have had to accept him as a god; and after all the demi-god Romulus was only a poor Roman shepherd to begin with, and probably far less gifted and industrious than Augustus. If I had been a contemporary of Romulus I would probably have laughed at the notion of his ever being paid semi-divine rites. But godhead is, after all, a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion: if a man is generally worshipped as a god then he is a god. And if a god ceases to be worshipped he is nothing. While Caligula was worshipped and believed in as a god he was indeed a supernatural being. Cassius Chaerea found it almost impossible to kill him, because there was a certain divine awe about him, the result of the worship offered him from simple hearts, and the conspirators felt it themselves and hung back. Perhaps he would never have succeeded if Caligula had not cursed himself with a divine premonition of assassination.
Augustus is worshipped now with genuine devotion by millions. I myself pray to him with almost as much confidence as I pray to Mars or Venus. But I make a clear distinction between the historical Augustus, of whose weaknesses and misfortunes I am well informed, and the God Augustus, the object of public worship, who has attained power as a deity. What I mean to say is that I cannot deprecate too strongly the wilful assumption by a mortal of divine power; but if he can indeed persuade men to worship him and they worship him genuinely, and there are no portents or other signs of heavenly displeasure at his deification – well, then he is a god, and he must be accepted as such. But the worship of Augustus as a major deity at Rome would never have been possible if it had not been for this gulf which the philosophers had opened between the ordinary man and the traditional gods. For the ordinary Roman citizen, Augustus filled the gap well. He was remembered as a noble and gracious ruler who had given perhaps stronger proofs of his loving care for the City and Empire than the Olympian Gods themselves.

The Augustan cult, however, rather provided a political convenience than satisfied the emotional needs of religiously-minded persons, who preferred to go to Isis or Serapis or Imouthes for an assurance, in the mysteries of these gods, that ‘God’ was more than either a remote ideal of perfection, or the commemorated glory of a deceased hero. To offer an alternative to these Egyptian cults – they did not in my opinion play a wholesome part in our Graeco-Roman civilization – I prevailed on our standing commission on foreign religions at Rome, the Board of Fifteen, to allow me to popularize mysteries of a more suitable nature. For example, the cult of Cybele, the Goddess worshipped by our Trojan ancestors and therefore well suited to serve our own religious needs, had been introduced into Rome some 250 years before, in obedience to an oracle; but her mysteries were carried on in private by eunuch priests from Phrygia, for no Roman citizen was allowed to castrate himself in the Goddess’s honour. I changed all this: the High Priest of Cybele was now to be a Roman knight, though no eunuch, and citizens of good standing might join in her worship. I also attempted to introduce the Eleusinian mysteries to Rome from Greece: the conduct of this famous Attic festival in honour of the Goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone I need hardly describe, for while Greek survives as a language everyone will know about it. But the nature of the mysteries themselves, of which the festival is only the outer pomp, is by no means a matter of common knowledge and I should much like to tell about them; but because of an oath that I once swore I unfortunately cannot do so. I shall content myself by saying that they are concerned with a revelation of life in the world to come, where happiness will be earned by a virtuous life lived as a mortal. In introducing them at Rome, where I would limit participation in them to senators, knights, and substantial citizens, I hoped to supplement the formal worship of the ordinary gods with an obligation to virtue felt from within, not enforced by laws or edicts. Unfortunately my attempt failed. Unfavourable oracles were uttered at all the principal Greek shrines, including Apollo’s at Delphi, warning me of the terrible consequences of my ‘transplanting Eleusis to Rome’. Would it be impious to suggest that the Greek Gods were combining to protect the pilgrim-trade, which was now a chief source of their country’s income?

I published an edict forbidding the attendance of Roman citizens at Jewish synagogues and expelled from the City a number of the most energetic Jewish missioners. I wrote to tell Herod of my action. He replied that I had done very wisely, and that he would apply the same principle or, rather, its converse, in his own dominions: he would forbid Greek teachers of philosophy to hold classes in Jewish cities and debar all Jews who attended them elsewhere from worship in the Temple.


Aulus was very grateful to me for this, but even more grateful, he told me in private, for having hushed up the scandal of his wife and the Christian love-feast (followers of that Jewish sect were now called Christians) and for having left her to his jurisdiction. He said that when a woman is unavoidably parted from her husband – her health had not allowed her to go to Britain – she is apt to feel lonely and take strange fancies into her head and fall an easy prey to religious charlatans, especially the Jewish and Egyptian sort. But she was a good woman and a good wife and he trusted that she would soon be cured of this nonsense. He was right. Two years later I arrested all the leading Christians in Rome, together with all the orthodox Jewish missionaries, and sent them out of the country, and Aulus’s wife was a great help to me in rounding them up.

The chief emotional appeal of Christianity was that this Joshua, or Jesus, was said to have risen from the dead, as no man had ever done before, except in legends: after being crucified he had visited his friends apparently none the worse for his experience, had eaten and drunk to prove that he was no vision and then gone up to Heaven in a blaze of glory. And there was no proof that these were all lies, because, as it happened, there had been an earthquake just after the crucifixion, which had dislodged a heavy stone from the mouth of the tomb where the corpse had been put. The guard had fled in panic, and when they came back the corpse was gone; evidently it had been stolen. Once a story like this begins to circulate in the East it is difficult to stop it, and it would have been undignified to argue against its absurdity in a public edict; but I did publish a strong order in Galilee, where the Christians were most numerous, making it a capital offence to violate graves. But I must waste no more time over these ridiculous Christians: I must continue with my own story.

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