B. M. Levick, Claudius. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990. Pp. ix, 256; 8 maps and 16 pls. $27.50. ISBN 0-300-04734-7.
Reviewed by David Potter, The University of Michigan.
Biographies of the ancients tend to have a bad name. Unless it be Cicero, Julian the Apostate or certain bishops, we cannot know enough about the person to be able to do more than make guesses about character and motivation. The concentration on a single character can also lead an author away from important general issues to lengthy discussion of trivial details, or to unlikely propositions about the importance of this character or that in the history of ancient civilizations. Barbara Levick's volume on Claudius is not this kind of book. It is a study of the evolution of the principate through the career of one of the emperors, it avoids the trivial, and it must rank as one of the best studies of the Julio-Claudians.
"Claudius should not be burdened with the dichotomy of his old reputations as innovator or obsessive scholar. Behind the operations multiple factors may be conjectured and recognized as conjectures" (175). This statement (in a discussion of the provinces under Claudius) sums up L.'s eminently sensible approach to the subject. She invites us to consider institutions and processes rather than to concentrate on the old question of whether or not Claudius was really an intelligent man who took an active role in running the empire. Instead, we find informed discussions of, for example, how women could exercise power at court (56), the conduct of courtiers (53), relations between the emperor and the people of Rome (105-10), or what constituted a policy (81). In the latter case, L. puts the question very well when she observes that "Claudius had principles, even ideals, to be applied as long as the prime condition of his own survival was met." This point needs to be taken to heart more often than it has been in recent years: it is possible to write ancient history in a way that values the individual human experience without descending into fantasy, as well as by developing highly schematic models of human behavior.
The sophistication of many of Levick's discussions is welcome to any reader who is familiar with the field and knows the sources well, but this sophistication does have a drawback. The reader who is not blessed with a good knowledge of Suetonius, Dio, Josephus, Tacitus and the major documents of the period will not find this an easy book to read. Another point that may trouble readers is the amount of knowledge that is assumed about the study of ancient history at Oxford. Those already familiar with the profound influence of Courtney Edward Stevens in training a generation of Oxford Roman historians, his legendary tutorial method, and his immense learning, will take pleasure from the many and generous references to his observations that are scattered throughout the text. Others may be annoyed. There are many other places where readers may well feel that they have missed the part of the tutorial, or the reading list, where essential background material needed to appreciate L.'s main point was set forth. This is more than an issue of style in one case.
Throughout the text L. makes numerous interesting observations about Claudian coinage. It seems clear from various statements (especially on p. 73) that L. thinks that great care was taken in the selection of obverse and reverse designs at imperial mints for propaganda purposes. On a point as controversial as this one, a clear statement of belief is necessary, as well as a clear statement as to what constitutes propaganda, which is to say "information that will persuade or convince people" as opposed to simple information. Furthermore, it needs to be pointed out that these are very slippery categories. The most obvious example, the name of the emperor, is a good case in point. Tiberius Claudius Drusi filius Caesar Augustus Germanicus can be read on a document simply as information about who the emperor actually was, but the additional cognomen can also be read as an attempt to convince people that Claudius was going to live up to the expectations that they once had of his brother, Germanicus (a point that might also have been taken very differently by the urban plebs than by a Spanish decurion). When it comes to the reverses on coins the same problems arise. We certainly do know that some reverses were read as statements of policy (viz. Soc. HE 3.17; Eph. Nis. Hymn. contra Jul. 1.17; Eus. VC 4.5), but we also know that coins could simply be looked upon as representations of imperial authority (Dio 77. 12.6 -- execution for bringing a coin bearing the emperor's image into a brothel; Mark 12:17 etc.), with no such profound interpretation of their illustration. What is more, the same reverse type could be read in widely varying ways by different people, and even, it is fair to surmise, by different mint masters. So too, as L. is so sensitive to what she calls propaganda in this medium (rightly or wrongly), it would have been a good idea to say a bit more about the other media that were used to spread information (games, pictures, monuments, edicts, the imperial titulature, etc.) and about the different groups responsible for providing the information made available through these media. The Aphrodisias reliefs are mentioned in passing (144) and are well represented in the plates, but there is no effort to explore their message in any detail, or to look at what this tells us about communication between Rome and the provinces.
The criticisms in the previous paragraph aside, this is a very good book. It gets away from the old questions that have bedevilled the study of this period in the past, many of L.'s observations are new, and many of them are important. This book will probably remain the best treatment of Julio-Claudian government for a long time to come.