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The Gourdification of Claudius

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday, we noted the anniversary of the death of the Emperor Claudius, and how it is treated by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and by the televised miniseries based on the historical novels of the British author Robert Graves, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. The title of the latter book reflects the fact that despite the generally negative assessment of Claudius in antiquity, and in modern times until Grave’s novels were published, he was declared by the Romans to be a god after his death.

At least one ancient satirical author clearly felt that this made for a completely ridiculous choice to join a class of gods that hitherto had counted men of such historical stature and importance that there were only two of them, Julius Caesar and Augustus. The Greek historian Cassio Dio, writing in the early part of the 3rd century, says this author was the younger Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD), an attribution which is accepted by most modern scholars. The Greek word for “divinization” is “apotheosis”; Seneca’s satire is called the “apocolocyntosis. This is often euphemistically translated as “the pumpkinification of Claudius”, but pumpkins are native to the New World, and were unknown to the Romans. A more accurate translation would be “gourdification”, referring to the Citrullus colocynthis or colocynth, which has a laxative property well known to the ancient world. (If “divinization” and “apotheosis” had not both been absorbed by English, this would make for a superb pun: “godification” versus “gourdification.”) The use of it here refers to the author’s very rude account of Claudius’ manner of exiting this world, and final words, quae tacendo praeterimus.

(A surviving section of the podium of the temple of Claudius on the Caelian Hill, which now supports the bell-tower of the church of Saints John and Paul.)  

A good sense of the work as a whole may be had from its description of Claudius’ arrival in heaven (cap. 5).

“Nuntiatur Iovi venisse quendam bonae staturae, bene canum; nescio quid illum minari, assidue enim caput movere; pedem dextrum trahere. Quaesisse se, cuius nationis esset: respondisse nescio quid perturbato sono et voce confusa; non intellegere se linguam eius, nec Graecum esse nec Romanum nec ullius gentis notae. Tum Iuppiter Herculem, qui totum orbem terrarum pererraverat et nosse videbatur omnes nationes, iubet ire et explorare, quorum hominum esset. Tum Hercules primo aspectu sane perturbatus est, ut qui etiam non omnia monstra timuerit. Ut vidit novi generis faciem, insolitum incessum, vocem nullius terrestris animalis, sed qualis esse marinis beluis solet, raucam et implicatam, putavit sibi tertium decimum laborem venisse. Diligentius intuenti visus est quasi homo.

It was announced to Jove that someone had come, a man of good stature, with white hair, making some threat or other, for his was continually shaking his head, dragging his right foot. Asked for about his nation, he had answered nervously and with a confused voice, nor could his language be understood, as to whether it was Greek or Latin or any known speech. Then Jupiter told Hercules, who had travelled throughout the whole earth and seemed to know all the nations, to go and find out which group of men he belonged to. Then Hercules was very much shocked at his first sight of him, although he had never been afraid of all the monsters in the world. When he saw the new kind of face, the unusual walk, the voice like that of no earthly animal, but rather like that of a sea monster, hoarse and confused, he thought that his thirteenth labor had come upon him, but as he looked more closely, it appeared to be some kind of man.”

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