by Kostas Petropoulos, M.A.
Now that we are firmly entrenched in autumn, and Halloween and Thanksgiving are nigh, this presents an excellent opportunity to talk about one of my favorite works of Latin literature, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii. The word Apocolocyntosis (Greek: ‘Αποκολοκύνθωσις) is roughly translated as “Gourdification” or if you prefer, the more colorful “Pumpkinification”.
Of course no one actually turns into a pumpkin. The word is merely a play on the term apotheosis, the process by which a person is elevated to the level of a god– something with which Seneca became increasingly dismayed during the time in which he lived. It would be akin to saying in jocular English “deification, shmeeification”. (The fact that the emperor Claudius, who was the subject of the work, was a man of great girth was only too apropos.) It is a fine piece of political satire that, much like the undistinguished mudslinging of today, served to smear one man while glorifying another. In order to fully appreciate it, however, a bit of context is in order.
With apologies to Lily Ross Taylor, the politics of the Roman Empire are not always the easiest to make sense of, so what follows is an abridged description of the events that led up to the story. When Claudius died he left his throne to his biological son Brittanicus and his adopted son Nero. The latter was done at the behest of his wife Agrippina, Nero’s mother, who ultimately wished to rule the empire by proxy through her son. To this end it is widely believed that it was she who was responsible for the poisoning which is most often attributed as the cause of Claudius’ death. Nevertheless, his murder could not remove the perception that Brittanicus was a more fitting heir, and so the ancient Roman version of the spin machine went to work. Mother and son worked in tandem to denigrate the image of both the deceased and his biological son through a bit of mocking and hatemongering.
Enter our intrepid author (who not so coincidentally happened to be Nero’s own tutor), contracted by Agrippina to, for all intents and purposes, write a propaganda piece. The bias is nothing if not transparent—the text features no shortage of flatteries for Nero. The fact that Claudius once banished Seneca to the island of Corsica certainly didn’t hurt either. At the time of Seneca’s writing the emperor had just undergone apotheosis by the Senate, providing the perfect backdrop upon which to forge the story.
The work picks up with the events that are supposed to have taken place immediately following Claudius’ arrival on Olympus, whereupon he is judged by the Senate of the gods in his quest for divine immortality. Sadly, much of the dialogue in this portion of the story is nonextant, however we are treated to an appearance from Augustus who appeals to the gods’ vanity by admonishing them not to let themselves be compared to such an undeserving bloke as he were he to be “confirmed”. Consequently Claudius is banished to Hades, deification denied, where he is met by the ghosts of all his murder victims. Another trial ensues to determine his ultimate fate, and in a nod to quasi-Sisiphyian irony, it is decreed that he must shake dice in a bottomless box so that every time he attempts to throw them they fall out and he must then search for them, doing this for eternity. He is then momentarily “saved” by Caligula who claims him as a former slave, only to be put to work in the court of the underworld as a lowly law clerk.
One of the great takeaways from the Apocolocyntosis is that in the space of roughly two millenia comparatively little has changed in the way people conduct themselves in regards to politics, though even a cursory look at Rome’s history would be sufficient to deduce this. While technology and scientific discoveries march on unabated, human nature remains constant. The desire for power, greed, and lust have not dwindled as we persist on this planet. Fortunately, neither has our sense of humor, which is what makes a work like this such interesting, insightful, and at times even light-hearted fare. That’s quite an accomplishment for something that was essentially conceived as the ancient equivalent of a hit piece. Kudos to Seneca for at least making it fun!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Professor Kostas Petropoulos earned his B.A. and M.A. in Classics from Villanova University where he focused on classical and modern languages. He has taught at Villanova and also worked in Music Technology. Prof. Petropoulos teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Classical and World Mythology for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.
Click here to see Prof. Petropoulos’ full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.