Philosophy & satire
Seneca: The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius
When someone important and of questionable character dies, should we make fun of them?
“His last words heard among mortals — after he had let out a louder sound from that part with which he found it easier to communicate — were as follows: ‘Good heavens. I think I’ve shat myself.’ Well, I don’t know about that, but he certainly shat up everything else.” (The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius, 4)
This irreverent bit about the recently deceased (13 October 54 CE) emperor Claudius was written by Seneca the Younger, otherwise known as one of the major Stoic philosophers, advisor to Claudius’ successor, Nero, and — among other things — a playwright who ended up influencing Shakespeare.
The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius was written shortly after the emperor’s demise, likely on the occasion of the Saturnalia festivities of December 54 CE, an appropriate moment, given both that Claudius was fond of festivals and that the Saturnalia were meant to be irreverent and to (temporarily) overturn social conventions.
If your image of Claudius is shaped by the wonderful acting of Derek Jacobi in the BBC version of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” you may want to pause and question such image. The real Claudius was much closer to the kind of tyrant described by Seneca, prone to arbitrary acts of cruelty and unconcerned with any notion of justice, though a competent military administrator. The only thing that differentiates the actual Claudius from the one depicted in The Pumpkinification is that the emperor was certainly no fool. Then again, this is satire, so of course its target has to come across as a bubbling idiot.
Seneca had personal reasons to take revenge on Claudius, who had sent him in exile to Corsica from 41 to 49 CE on charges of adultery with Julia Livilla, the former emperor Caligula’s sister. The charges were likely trumped up by Claudius’ wife Messalina, who wanted to get rid of Julia and her supporters for political reasons.
Seneca had pleaded with Claudius to be recalled to Rome in a famous letter of consolation he wrote to his friend Polybius (who had lost his brother), but to no…