Ancient and modern

Claudius, Messalina and how not to choose political advisers

5 February 2022

9:00 AM

5 February 2022

9:00 AM

The Prime Minister has been having some trouble with his inner circle of advisers. Tacitus supplies fine examples of how they worked in Rome.

Emperors chose whomever they liked to advise them. Augustus, for example, chose men like Agrippa and Maecenas, who had provided excellent service for him while Rome was still (just) a republic. The fourth emperor C-C-Claudius, by contrast, despised by the imperial family but thrust into power by the military, put his trust in politically experienced and highly efficient Greek freedmen (ex-slaves). Pallas was put in charge of the treasury, Narcissus in charge of correspondence (nothing got past him), and Callistus in charge of justice and law. One incident illustrates the way Narcissus worked.

Claudius’s third wife, Messalina, was young, attractive, randy and faithless, as everyone but the besotted Claudius knew. Crazily, she ‘married’ the incoming consul Silius. Pallas and Callistus kept their heads down. But Narcissus, seeing a real threat to the emperor (and so to himself), moved fast to take control, though aware that revealing Messalina’s serial disloyalty could be embarrassing and Claudius might shrug it all off.

First, he cleverly ordered Claudius’s two favourite squeezes to give him the news. As rumours spread, Messalina, deciding to use her allure on him, sent their children ahead to soften him up. Narcissus dismissed them, drew up the charge sheet against her and gave it to Claudius. He then had the strangely silent Claudius shown around Silius’s mansion full of Messalina’s gifts, and set up a meeting with the praetorian guards to demand revenge against traitors. Silius and assorted lovers of Messalina were executed.

No shrinking violet, Messalina was quite ready to face Claudius. But Claudius, having now dined and drunk, said ‘the poor woman’ should present her case the next day. Fearful that a night with her might change his mind, Narcissus told the soldiers Claudius wanted her killed now. Claudius impassively accepted her death.

Decisive, resourceful and ruthless advisers solve problems. No other skills required.

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