Seneca the Younger

Translated from Latin to English by Allan Perley Ball (Columbia Univ. Press, 1902)
Entered by David Camden (2003)

[1] I wish to record an occurrence which took place in heaven on the third day before the Ides of October, in the new year which began our fortunate era. I am not going to be diverted by either fear or favor. I shall tell the unvarnished truth. If anybody asks me where I got my information, I say at once, I’ll not answer if I don’t want to. Who is going to make me? I know I have been free to do as I like since the day when he died who had made the proverb true: One must be born either king or fool. If I please to answer, I shall say what comes to my tongue. Who ever demanded affidavits from an historian? Still, if I must produce my authority, apply to the man who saw Drusilla going heavenward; he will say he saw Claudius limping along in the same direction. Willy-nilly, he has to see everything that happens in heaven; for he is the superintendent of the Appian road, by which you know both the divine Augustus and Tiberius Caesar went to join the gods. If you ask this man he will tell you privately; in presence of more than one he’ll never speak a word. For since the day when he took oath in the Senate that he had seen Drusilla going up to heaven and in return for such good news nobody believed him, he has declared in so many words that he’ll not testify about anything, not even if he should see a man murdered in the middle of the Forum. What I have heard from him, then, I state positively and plainly, so help him!

[2] Now was come the season when Phoebus had narrowed the daylight,
Shortening his journey, while sleep’s dim hours were left to grow longer;
Now victorious Cynthia was widening the bounds of her kingdom;
Ugly-faced Winter was snatching away the rich glories of Autumn,
So that the tardy vintager, seeing that Bacchus was aging,
Hastily, here and there, was plucking the clusters forgotten.

I presume I shall be better understood if I day that the month was October and the day October thirteenth; the exact hour I cannot tell you—it’s easier to get philosophers to agree than timepieces—but it was between noon and one o’clock.

“Too clumsily put!” you will say. “All the poets are unsatisfied to describe sunrises and sunsets, so that they are even tackling the middle of the day: are you going to neglect so good an hour?”

Phoebus already had passed the highest point of his circuit,
Wearily shaking the reins as his car drew nearer the evening,
Leading away the half-spent light on is down-dipping pathway.

[3] Claudius began to give up the ghost, but couldn’t find a way out for it. Then Mercury, who had always had a fancy for his character, led aside one of the three Fates and said: “Why, O hard-hearted woman, do you let the wretched man be tormented? Isn’t he ever to have a rest, after being tortured so long? It is the sixty-fourth year that he has been afflicted with life. What grudge have you got against him and the nation? For once let the prophets tell the truth, who have been taking him off every year, every month even, since he was made emperor. And still it’s no wonder if they go wrong and nobody knows his hour; for nobody ever made any account of his being born. Do what is necessary:

‘Give him over to death: let a better man reign in his place.’”

But Clotho remarked, “I swear I intended to give him a trifle more time, till he should make citizens out of the few that are left outside—for he had made up his mind to see everybody, Greeks, Gauls, Spaniards, Britons, wearing togas. However, since it is perhaps a good thing to have a few foreigners left as a nucleus, and since you wish it, it shall be attended to.” Then she opened a bandbox and brought out three spindles; one was that of Augurinus, the next was Baba’s, the third Claudius’. “I will have these three die at short intervals within a year,” she said, “and not send him off unattended. For it isn’t right that one who has been in the habit of seeing so many thousands of people following him about, going ahead of him, and all around him, should all of a sudden be left alone. For a while he will be satisfied with these boon-companions.”

[4] Thus having spoken she wound up the thread on his spindle neglected,
Breaking off the royal days of his stupid existence.
Lachesis, waiting meanwhile, with tresses charmingly ordered,
Crowning the locks on her brow with a wreath of Pierian laurel,
Drew from a snowy fleece white strands which, cleverly fashioned,
Under her artful fingers began with new colors to glisten:—
Spun to a thread that drew the admiring gaze of her sisters.
Changed was the common wool, until as a metal most precious,
Golden the age that was winding down in that beautiful fillet.
Ceaselessly they too labored; and bringing the finest of fleeces,
Gayly they filled her hands, for sweet was the duty allotted.
She, in her eagerness, hastened the work, nor was conscious of effort;
Lightly the soft strands fell from the whirling point of her spindle,
Passing the life of Tithonus, passing the lifetime of Nestor.
Phoebus came with his singing, and, happy in anticipation,
Joyously plied the plectrum, or aided the work of the spinners:
Kept their hearts intent, with his song beguiling their labor.
While beyond thought they rejoiced in their brother’s music, their hands spun,
Busily twining a destiny passing all human allotment,
Wrought through the spell of Phoebus’ lyre and his praise, as he bade them:
“Stay not your hands, O Fateful Sisters, but make him a victor
Over the barriers that limit the common lifetime of mortals;
Let him be blessed with a grace and a beauty like mine, and in music
Grant him no meaner gifts. An age of joy shall he bring men
Weary for laws that await his restoring. Like Lucifer comes he,
Putting the scattered stars to flight, or like Hesper at nightfall,
Rising when stars return; or e’en as the Sun,—when Aurora
First has dispelled the dark and blushingly led forth the morning,—
Brightly gleams on the world and renews his chariot’s journey,
So cometh Caesar; so in his glory shall Rome behold Nero.
Thus do his radiant features gleam with a gentle effulgence,
Graced by the flowing locks that fall encircling his shoulders.”

Thus Apollo. But Lachesis, who herself, too, had a fondness for the handsomest of men, wrought with generous hand, and bestowed upon Nero many years from her own store. As for Claudius, however, everybody gave orders

With joy and great content to send him out of doors.1

And indeed he did go up the flume, and from that moment ceased to appear to be alive. He expired, moreover, while listening to comic actors, so you understand it isn’t without reason that I am afraid of those fellows. His last words that were heard among men were these, after a louder utterance in the locality where he expressed himself the more easily: “Oh, dear! I think I have hurt2 myself.” Whether he had, I don’t know; at any rate he was in the habit of hurting everything.

[5] What happened afterward on earth it is superfluous to describe. For you know very well, and there is no danger that things which the universal joy had impressed upon the memory will slip from it; no one forgets his own good fortune. Listen to what happened in heaven: it is on the authority of the narrator. The news was brought to Jupiter that somebody had come, a rather tall man, quite gray-headed; that he was threatening something or other, for he kept shaking his head; and that he limped with his right foot. The messenger said he had asked of what nation he was, but his answer was mumbled in some kind of an incoherent noise; he didn’t recognize the man’s language, but he wasn’t either Greek or Roman or of any known race. Then Jupiter told Hercules, who had travelled all over the world and was supposed to be acquainted with all the nations, to go and find out what sort of a man it was. Hercules at the first sight was a good deal disturbed, even though he was one who didn’t fear any sort of monsters. When he beheld the aspect of this unknown specimen, its extraordinary gait, its voice belonging to no earthly creature but more like that of the monsters of the deep, hoarse and inarticulate, he thought that a thirteenth labor had come to him. When he looked more carefully, however, it appeared to be a man. He approached him and thus spoke, as was easiest for a Greek chap:

Who and whence art thou, and where are thy city and parents?

Claudius was delighted to find literary people there, hoping there would be some place for his histories. So he, too, in a Homeric verse, indicating himself to be Caesar, said:

Hence from Ilium the winds have among the Cicones cast me.

But the following verse would have been truer, and equally Homeric:

There their city I wasted; the people I slaughtered.

[6] And he would have imposed upon the guileless Hercules, had not Fever been there, who alone had left her shrine and come with him. All the other divinities he had left behind at Rome. She said, “It is simple nonsense that he is giving you. I tell you—I who have lived with him for so many years—he was born at Lugudunum; you behold one of Marcus’ citizens. As I’m telling you, he was born sixteen miles from Vienna, a genuine Gaul. And so as a Gaul ought to do, he captured Rome. Take my word for it, he was born at Lugudunum, where Licinus reigned for many years. But you, who have tramped more lands than any wandering muleteer, ought to know men from Lugudunum and that there are a good many miles between the Xanthus and the Rhone.” At this point Claudius fired up and angrily grumbled as loudly as he could. What he was saying, nobody understood, except that he commanded Fever to be led away to punishment. With the familiar gesture of his limp hand, that was steady enough for the one purpose of decapitating people as he was accustomed, he had ordered her head to be struck off. You would suppose all those present were his freedmen, so little attention did any one pay him. [7] Then Hercules said, “Listen to me and stop talking nonsense. You have come to a place where the mice gnaw iron. Tell me the truth, quick, or I’ll knock the silliness out of you.” And in order to be more terrifying, he struck the attitude of a tragedian and said:

“Declare at once the place you call your natal town,
Or else, by this tough cudgel smitten, down you go!
This club has slaughtered many a mighty potentate.
What’s that, that in a muffled voice you’re trying to say?
Where is the land or race to own your shaky head?
Speak out. Oh, I remember when afar I sought
The triple-bodied king’s domains, whose famous herd
From the western sea I drove to the city of Inachus,
I saw a hill above two rivers, towering high
In face of Phoebus rising each day opposite,
Where the broad Rhone pours by in swiftly moving flood,
And Arar, pausing ere it lets its waters go,
Silently laves the borders of its quiet pools.
Is that the land that nursed you when you first drew breath?”

These things he said with spirit, and boldly enough. All the same, he was inwardly a good deal afraid of the madman’s blow. Claudius, seeing the mighty hero, forgot his nonsense and perceived that while no one had been a match for him at Rome, here he didn’t have the same advantage; a cock is master only on his own dunghill. So, as well as could be made out, this is what he appeared to say: “I did hope that you, Hercules, bravest of the gods, would stand by me before the others, and if any one had asked me who could vouch for me, I should have named you, who know me best. For if you recall, I was the one who held court before your temple all day long during the months of July and August. You know how many troubles I had there, listening to the lawyers day and night; and if you had fallen among those fellows, though you may think that you are pretty courageous, you would have preferred to clean Augeas’ stables. I have cleaned out much more filth. But since I want”— 3

[8] “It’s no wonder you have made an assault upon the senate-house; nothing is closed to you. Only tell us what sort of a god you want him to be made. He cannot be an Epicurean god, neither having himself any care nor causing any to others. A Stoic? How can he be ‘round,’ as Varro says, ‘without head or prepuce’? Yet there is something in him of the Stoic god, now I see. He has neither heart nor head. By Hercules, though, if me had asked this favor of Saturn, whose festival month the Saturnalian prince kept going the whole year long, he wouldn’t have got it; and surely he wouldn’t of Jove, whom so far as he possibly could he convicted of incest. For he put to death Silanus his son-in-law, just because the man preferred that his sister, prettiest of all the girls, so that everybody called her Venus, should be called his Juno. ‘Why his sister?’ you say,—in fact, I ask it. Think, you blockhead. At Athens that sort of thing is halfway allowed; at Alexandria altogether. ‘But since at Rome,’ you say, ‘the mice live on dainties.’ He’s going to straighten our crooked ways! He doesn’t know what goes on in his own chamber, and now ‘he searches the regions of heaven.’ He wants to become a god. Isn’t he satisfied that he has a temple in Britain; that the barbarians worship him and beseech him as a god that they may find him a merciful madman?

[9] At length it occurred to Jove that while ordinary persons are staying in the senate-house it is not permitted to express an opinion nor to argue. “I had allowed you to ask questions, Conscript Fathers,” he said, “but you have brought out simply rubbish. I want you to observe the rules of the Senate. What will this person, whoever he is, think of us?”

When the said individual had been sent out, Father Janus was the first to be asked his opinion. He had been elected afternoon consul for the first of July, being a very shrewd man, who always sees at once both forward and backward. He spoke at some length, and fluently, because he lives in the Forum; but the stenographer could not follow, and therefore I do not report him, for fear of misquoting what he said. He said a good deal about the importance of the gods, and that this honor ought not to be given commonly. “Once,” said he, “it was a great thing to be made a god, but now you have made the distinction a farce. And so lest my remarks seem to be dealing with personalities rather than with the case, I move that from this day forward no one shall be made a god, from among all those who eat the fruit of the corn-land or those whom the fruitful corn-land feeds. Whoever contrary to this decree of the Senate shall be made, called, or depicted as a god, is to be given to the hobgoblins, and to get a thrashing among the newly hired gladiators at the next show.”

The next to be asked his opinion was Diespiter the son of Vica Porta, who was himself also a consul-elect, and a money-changer; by this business he supported himself, and he was accustomed to sell citizenships in a small way. Hercules approached him politely and gave him an admonitory touch on the ear. Accordingly he expressed his opinion in these words: “Whereas the divine Claudius is by blood related to the divine Augustus and no less also to the divine Augusta, his grandmother, who was made a goddess by his own orders, and whereas he far surpasses all mortals in wisdom, and it is for the public interest that there be some one who can join Romulus in ‘eating of boiling hot-turnips,’ I move that from this day the divine Claudius be a god, with title equally as good as that of any one who has been made so before him, and that this event be added to the Metamorphoses of Ovid.”

The opinions were various, and Claudius seemed to be winning the vote. For Hercules, who saw that his iron was in the fire, kept running to this one and that one, saying, “Don’t go back on me; this is my personal affair. And then if you want anything, I’ll do it in my turn. One hand washes the other.”

[10] Then the divine Augustus arose at the point for expressing his opinion, and discoursed with the utmost eloquence. “I call you to witness, Conscript Fathers,” said he, “that since I was made a god, I have never addressed you; I always mind my own business. And I can no longer disguise my feelings nor conceal the distress that shame makes all the greater. Was it for this that I secured peace on land and sea? For this did I make an end of civil wars? For this did I found the city on a basis of law, adorn it with monuments, that—what to say, Conscript Fathers, I cannot discover. All words are beneath my indignation. So in desperation I must take to the phrase of that most clever man, Messala Corvinus, ‘I am ashamed of my authority.’ This fellow, Conscript Fathers, who doesn’t seem to you as if he could disturb a fly, used to kill people as easily as a dog stops to rest. But why should I enumerate the many great men? I have no heart to lament public calamities when I behold those of my own family. And so I will pass over the former and describe these. For I know, even if my sister doesn’t know [as they say in Greek], my knee is nearer than my shin. That fellow whom you see there, hiding under my name for so many years, has shown his gratitude to me by slaying the two Julias, my great-granddaughters, one by the sword, the other by starvation, and L. Silanus, one of my great-great-grandsons. We shall see, Jupiter, whether in a bad case, and one which is certainly your own, you are going to be just. Tell me, divine Claudius, why you condemned any one of the men and women whom you put to death before you understood their cases, or even listened to them. Where is this kind of thing customary? [11] It’s not the way in heaven. Here is Jupiter, now, who has been ruling for so many years. One person’s leg he has broken, Vulcan’s whom

Snatching him by the foot, he hurled from the heavenly threshold;

and he got angry at his wide and hung her up, but he didn’t kill her, did he? But you have put to death Messalina, to whom I was as much a great-uncle as I was to you. ‘I don’t know,’ you say? May the gods be hard on you! It is more shameful that you didn’t know it than that you killed her. He has never ceased to follow up the dead-and-gone C. Caesar. The latter had killed his father-in-law; Claudius here, his son-in-law besides. Gaius forbade the sons of Crassus to be called Magnus; this man returned him the name, but took off his head. He killed in one household Crassus, Magnus, Scribonia, the Tristionias, and Assario; and they were aristocrats too, and Crassus besides so stupid that he was even qualified to reign. Now do you want to make this man a god? Look at his body, born when the gods were angry. And finally, if he can say three consecutive words together, he can have me as his slave. Who will worship this god? Who will believe in him? As long as you make such gods as he, nobody will believe that you are gods yourselves. In short, Conscript Fathers, if I have behaved myself honorably among you, if I have not answered anybody in an ungentlemanly manner, avenge my injuries. This is the resolution which I have to offer;” and he read as follows from his tablet: “Since the divine Claudius has killed his father-in-law Appius Silanus, his two sons-in-law Magnus Pompeius and L. Silanus, his daughter’s father-in-law Crassus Frugi, a man as like himself as one egg is to another, Scribonia his daughter’s mother-in-law, his wife Messalina, and others too numerous to mention, I propose that strict punishment be meted out to him, that he be granted no rest from adjudicating cases, and that he be got out of the way as soon as possible, departing from heaven within thirty days and from Olympus within three.”

There was a division of the house, and this resolution was carried. Without delay the Cyllenian dragged him by the nape of his neck off from heaven toward the lower regions,

“Whence they say no man returns.”

[12] While they were going down the Via Sacra, Mercury inquired what such a crowd of people could mean: whether it was Claudius’ funeral. And indeed it was a most elegant and elaborate display, so that you would easily recognize that a god was being carried off to burial. There was so great a crowd of trumpeters, hornblowers, and players upon every kind of brass instruments, so great a concord, that even Claudius could hear it. Everybody was joyful and in high spirits. The Roman people walked about like free men. Only Agatho and a few pettifoggers were weeping, but their grief was plainly heartfelt. The real lawyers were coming out of their hiding-places, pale and thin, scarcely drawing breath, like people who were just coming to life again. One of them, when he had seen the pettifoggers getting their heads together and lamenting their calamity, came up and said, “I told you the Saturnalia wouldn’t last forever.” Claudius, when he saw his own funeral, understood that he was dead. For in a mighty great chorus they were chanting a dirge in anapests:

“Pour forth your tears, lift up woful voices;
Let the Forum echo with sorrowful cries.
Nobly has fallen a man most sagacious,
Than whom no other ever was braver,
Not in the whole world.
He in the quick-sped race could be victor
Over the swiftest; he could rebellious
Parthians scatter, chase with his flying
Missiles the Persian, steadiest-handed,
Bend back the bow which, driving the foeman
Headlong in flight, should pierce him afar, while
Gay-coated Medes turned their backs to disaster.
Conqueror he of Britons beyond the
Shores of the known sea:
Even the dark-blue-shielded Brigantes
Forced he to bend their necks to the fetters
That Romulus forged, and Ocean himself
To tremble before the Roman dominion.
Mourn for the man than whom no one more quickly
Was able to see the right in a lawsuit,
Only at hearing one side of the quarrel,—
Often not either. Where is the judge now
Willing to listen to cases the year through?
Thou shalt be given the office resigned thee
By him who presides in the court of the shades,
The lord of a hundred cities Cretaean.
Smite on your breasts, ye shysters forsaken,
With hands of despair, O bribe-taking crew;
Ye too, half-fledged poets, now should bewail;
And ye above all, who lately were able
To gather great gains by shaking the dice-box.”

[13] Claudius was delighted with his praises, and desired to stay longer to look on. But the Talthybius of the gods laid a hand on him and pulled him away, with his head covered so that nobody could recognize him, across the Campus Martius, and between the Tiber and the Arcade went down to the lower world. The freedman Narcissus had already gone ahead by a short cut to be ready to receive his patron, and as the latter was approaching he ran up, all sleek from the bath, and said: “What’s this? Gods, among men?” “Hurry up,” said Mercury, “and announce that we are coming.” In less time than it takes to tell it, Narcissus skipped out. All the way being down hill, the descent was easy. And so, in spite of his gout, he came in twinkling to Pluto’s door, where lay Cerberus, or as Horace says, “the beast with the hundred heads.” Narcissus was a trifle scared—he had been accustomed to have a white dog as a pet—when he saw that huge, hairy black dog, which, on my word, is one that you wouldn’t like to meet in the dark. And with a loud voice he said, “Claudius is coming.” Then a crowd began to come forward with clapping of hands and chanting: “We have got him; let us rejoice!” Among them were C. Silius the consul-elect, Iuncus the ex-praetor, Sextus Traulus, M. Helvius, Trogus, Cotta, Vettius Valens, and Fabius, Roman knights whom Narcissus had ordered to execution. In the middle of this company of singers was Mnester the dancer, whom Claudius had made shorter for the sake of appearances. To Messalina—the report that Claudius had come quickly spread—they gathered; first of all, the freedmen Polybius, Myron, Harpocras, Amphaeus, and Pheronactus, all of whom Claudius had sent ahead in order that he might not be anywhere unprepared; then the two prefects Justus Catonius and Rufrius Pollio; then the Emperor’s friends Saturnius Lusius and Pedo Pompeius and Lupus and Celer Asinius, of consular rank; finally his brother’s daughter, his sister’s daughter, his sons-in-law, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, in fact all his relatives; and forming in line they came to meet Claudius. When he had seen them, he exclaimed: “Plenty of friends, everywhere! How did you come here?” Then said Pedo Pompeius: “What are you talking about, you cruel villain? ‘How?’ did you ask? Well, who else but you has sent us here, you murderer of all your friends? Come to the court of justice. I’ll show you where our tribunal is.”

[14] He led him to the bar of Aeacus, who conducted the trial under the Cornelian law against assassins. He asked that the court would enter the name, and recorded the accusation: Senators killed, thirty-five; Roman knights, two hundred and twenty-one; other persons, as many as the sands on the seashore. No one was found as counsel for the accused until at length P. Petronius came forward, an old boon companion of his, a man skilled in the Claudian tongue, and asked for a postponement. It was not granted. Pedo Pompeius spoke for the prosecution with loud shouts. The attorney for the defense wanted to begin his reply. Aeacus, most equitable of persons, forbade him and condemned Claudius after hearing only one side, saying: “Right will be done him if he be treated as he treated others.” Then there was a tremendous silence. Everybody was struck dumb by the novelty of the procedure. They said the thing never happened before. To Claudius it seemed more unjust than new. Over the nature of the penalty there was a long discussion, as to what would be an appropriate sentence for him. Various ones said that if they made Tantalus’ suffering too long he would perish of thirst unless somebody came to his rescue; and that poor Ixion’s wheel ought at last to be stopped. But it was decided that no release should be given to any of the old ones, lest Claudius should sometime hope for the same in his turn. It was decided that a new punishment ought to be arranged, that for him must be devised some vain task and the hope of gratifying some desire, without end or consummation. Then Aeacus commanded him to gamble with a bottomless dice-box. And already he had begun to search for his constantly escaping dice and to accomplish nothing; for

[15] Every time when he wanted to throw from his clattering dice-box,
Both of the dice escaped him by way of the hole in the bottom.
Then when he gathered them up and once more ventured to play them,
Over again they gave him the slip, and kept him pursuing,
Constantly baffling his hopes by skipping away through his fingers,
Always trickily sliding through with the same old deception,—
Tiresome as when poor Sisyphus reaches the top of his mountain
Vainly to feel his burden go rolling back from his shoulders.

Suddenly C. Caesar appeared and began to claim him as a slave. He produced witnesses who had seen Claudius getting thrashed by him with whips, with rods, and with his fists. The man was adjudged to C. Caesar; Caesar presented him to Aeacus; the latter delivered him to Menander his freedman, to be his law-clerk.


1 Greek quotations in the original are in the translation indicated by italics.

2 Camden’s note: This is euphemistic to the point of incomprehensibility. The actual Latin (‘vae me, puto, concacavi me’) should instead be translated as “Oh, dear! I think I have soiled myself.”

3 Perhaps here Claudius begins the persuasion which proved effective with Hercules. The break which follows in the MSS., if due, as is supposed, to the loss of even only one leaf from the archetype from which they are all derived, would seem to have included in the gap more incidents than have been suggested in the various attempts to fill it.