- Quasi Homo: Distortion and Contortion in Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis
The subject of our paper is one particular grotesque body—that of the emperor Claudius as depicted in Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis. In this short prose satire on the (attempted) deification of Claudius, written in 54 c.e. shortly after Nero’s accession, Seneca presents Claudius as a distorted and contorted specimen—both a monstrous beast and a ridiculous buffoon. Of course, this picture of Claudius contributes to the satirical bite in an obviously iconoclastic way. But we believe that the ethical and political significance of Claudius’ barely-human body has not been fully appreciated. By situating the Apocolocyntosis in its contemporary ethical and political context, we aim to show that Claudius’ vile body, his monstrous appearance and his lack of control over his body, have a broader ideological function.
I. Claudius the Beast
Hercules Meets a Monster
One of the most memorable moments in Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis is the narrative of Hercules’ reaction to the sight of Claudius, newly arrived among the gods after his death (5.1–3).
in caelo quae acta sint audite: fides penes auctorem erit. nuntiatur Ioui uenisse quendam bonae staturae, bene canum; nescio quid illum minari, assidue enim caput [End Page 285] mouere; pedem dextrum trahere. quaesisse se cuius nationis esset: respondisse nescio quid perturbato sono et uoce confusa; non intellegere se linguam eius: nec Graecum esse nec Romanum nec ullius gentis notae. tum Iuppiter Herculem, qui totum orbem terrarum pererrauerat et nosse uidebatur omnes nationes, iubet ire et explorare quorum hominum esset. tum Hercules primo aspectu sane perturbatus est, ut qui etiam non omnia monstra timuerit. ut uidit noui generis faciem, insolitum incessum, uocem nullius terrestris animalis sed qualis esse marinis beluis solet, raucam et implicatam, putauit sibi tertium decimum laborem uenisse. diligentius intuenti uisus est quasi homo.
Here is what happened in heaven: my informant will be responsible for the reliability of the account. An announcement was made to Jupiter that there was a visitor of a respectable size and with very white hair. He was making some sort of threat as he kept shaking his head; he was also dragging his right foot. When asked his nationality, he had made some answer with a confused noise and in indistinct tones. It was impossible to understand his language: he was neither Greek nor Roman, nor of any known race.
Jupiter then instructed Hercules, who had travelled the whole world over and seemed familiar with every nationality, to go and find out his nationality. Hercules was badly shaken by the first sight of him—he hadn’t been scared by all possible monsters yet. Seeing the strange sort of appearance and the weird walk and hearing the hoarse and incomprehensible voice that belonged to no land creature, but seemed more appropriate to a sea-monster, he thought his thirteenth labour had arrived. On a closer inspection, it appeared to be something like a man. 1 [End Page 286]
Hercules’ first reaction on seeing the monstrous Claudius is that his thirteenth labour has arrived. That is, Hercules the monster-slayer is here presented in comic guise as afraid at the sight of another monster. Claudius is not immediately recognised as human. This is not the only place where Seneca describes Claudius’ misshapen appearance in the Apocolocyntosis. At 1.2, reference is made to his limp through quotation of Virgil Aeneid 2.724, non passibus aequis (“with unequal steps”), and, at 6.2, comes a reminder of his “shaking hand” (illo gestu solutae manus). At 11.3, Augustus, in his speech opposing Claudius’ deification, points in exasperation at corpus eius dis iratis natum (“his body, born when the gods were in a rage”) and suggests that the other gods would bring their status into disrepute by agreeing to the deification of such a monstrosity. Twice doubt is cast upon the very nature of Claudius’ existence: at 3.1–2, cum anima luctatur (“he has been struggling with the breath of life”), nemo enim umquam illum natum putauit (“nobody ever thought that he existed”) and at 4.2, animam ebulliit et ex eo desiit uiuere uideri (“he did indeed gurgle his life...