This book, which has developed from a doctoral dissertation presented to the University of Paris VII in 2013, follows two historiographical trends in the field of Roman history. On the one hand, it is a contribution to the debate on the structure and functioning of the court ( aula Caesaris) in the Roman Empire, a theme of renewed interest since the studies of Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Aloys Winterling in the 1990s, among others.1 On the other hand, the book also aligns itself to a scholarship that is shedding new light on the principate of Claudius (AD 41-54),2 considered by Anne-Claire Michel, “un moment important, mais non révolutionnaire, pour le renforcement des structures politiques, sociales et administratives de l’Empire romain” (p. 22).
The originality of the work lies in the fact that it offers to the reader a thorough examination of the imperial court in the age of Claudius. Such a study, restricted to a specific reign, reveals itself an important complement to those approaches that analyze the evolution of the imperial court over a broad range of time, a choice that obviously prevents any detailing of the social composition of the court members and their relationship between each other and to the emperor.
The first part of the book, “La cour comme espace: topographie des résidences impériales” (comprising chapters 1 and 2), is devoted to the spatial dimension of the court of Claudius. It seeks to reconstitute Claudius’ imperial residence on the Palatine, as well as other properties owned and frequented by the emperor, such as horti and villas. The objective is to determine the innovations introduced by Claudius after his predecessors. Drawing on archaeological data, Anne-Claire Michel maps the structures on the Palatine that would have remained with few changes, from Augustus to Caligula, on the occasion of Claudius’ rise to power in 41 (like the temple of Apollo and its annexes), and those that were modified by the successors of Augustus (such as the extension of the imperial residence toward the Forum by Caligula). However, despite the difficulties involved in accurately establishing the topography of the court, due to the nature of the available archaeological and literary evidence, the author stresses that, at the beginning of the principate of Claudius, it is reasonable to speak of a “palace” to designate the imperial complex on the Palatine, although the term Palatium with the meaning of palace is attested only under the Flavians. Furthermore, the author stresses that Claudius tried to present his reign as a continuation of that of Augustus. He redefined the extension of the pomerium in 49, a reference to Augustus as a new Romulus, and he also placed the naval crown received from the Senate on account of his military conquests in Britain next to the Augustan civic crown. The main intervention of Claudius was the monumentalization of the architectural ensemble of the Palatine, especially in the sector of the domus Tiberiana. In sum, the emperor modified the topography of the Palatine to be an expression of his personal power.
Besides the buildings on the Palatine, Anne-Claire Michel also deals with the horti, villas, and the itinerant court that accompanied Claudius in his expedition to Britain. Claudius inherited from his predecessors the Horti Sallustiani, Horti Maecenatis and Horti Agrippinae. The author notes that Claudius adopted a systematic and aggressive practice of appropriation of aristocratic domains by means of confiscations, as in the case of the Horti Lucullani, Horti Lolliani and Horti Tauriani. This conduct of Claudius is explained not as a mere project for asserting his power by eliminating the influence of rival aristocrats. It was also marked by an urban logic since the emperor tried to control the limits of the city of Rome and above all to ensure its supply of water. The author also maps the villas owned by Claudius in the suburbium, Latium, and Campania. These villas functioned as symbolic spaces of power, creating a center of attraction of the elite by the emperor, as demonstrated by the presence of senatorial properties near the imperial villas of Claudius. The imperial retinue in the expedition to Britain fulfilled a similar function; it was a “spectacle of imperial power” (p. 108), composed of members of the imperial family, prominent senators, administrative staff, and imperial freedmen.
The second part of the book, “La cour comme milieu social: prosopographie de la cour claudienne” (chapters 3-5), is the most innovative one. It is an attempt to make a prosopography of the members of Claudius’ court. For such an approach, Anne-Claire Michel establishes three criteria: status, degree of intimacy with the emperor, and factors that explained the presence in the court. Concerning status, there are three groups: the imperial family and its slaves and freedmen; certain members of the senatorial and equestrian orders, and those individuals whose presence in the court depended on their functions and competences (for example, the emperor’s guard, intellectuals, and foreign kings). As to the degree of intimacy with the emperor, there are two groups: those members who regularly maintained a close relationship with the emperor, and those with not so regular ties. Finally, there were those who owed their place in the court to their function and dignitas, and those who depended on the emperor’s personal goodwill. The location of individuals in these groups allows the author to develop her idea that the court is, at the same time, both an environment created by the emperor and one imposed on him, and so it is possible to discuss to what extent Claudius has succeed in shaping the court according to his political objectives and priorities.
Through a detailed analysis of the epigraphic and literary data, the author cites those individuals who probably composed Claudius’ court. Anne-Claire Michel finds an overrepresentation of senators from central Italy and the preeminence of members of the high Roman nobilitas. For the author, the study of the composition of the court shows that Claudius respected Roman social and political hierarchies, but that he also managed to shape that composition according to his wishes. Executions and exile of aristocrats were instruments used by the emperor to eliminate rivals and to face the constraints imposed on him by the court itself. This fact reveals a political skill on the part of Claudius that contradicts the image of that emperor as manipulated by his wives and freedmen, as we usually read in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius.
The last part of the book, “La cour, lieu de pouvoir et de symbole du pouvoir” (chapters 6 and 7), deals with the political role of the court under Claudius. The author tries to reassess the image left by the ancient writers of a Claudius manipulated by the court and without any political agenda of his own. Anne-Claire Michel provides a portrait of Claudius as an emperor who sought to take into account the interests of Rome (as pointed out, for example, in her analysis of the measures taken by Claudius in favor of the Jews of Alexandria and Judea) and who followed a policy of cooperation between Senate and court. The court thus enabled a certain stability to the emperor since it integrated the senatorial elite, allowing it to maintain its prestige. Therefore, the court needed to present itself to society to show the respect to the social hierarchy. Salutationes, banquets organized by the emperor, games and spectacles, and public funerals, were important demonstrations of such respect, indicating that the princeps could not avoid the Roman social hierarchy, because it also reinforced his personal power.
Anne-Claire Michel concludes this presentation of the political role of the court under Claudius by questioning the common representation of Claudius’ court as an “ aula Saturnalicia ”, an expression inspired by the image Seneca transmitted of Claudius as princeps Saturnalicius ( Apoc. 8. 2). Such representation is understood as based upon a stereotypical and not historical description of women of the imperial family (Messalina and Agrippina) and of some imperial freedmen (like Callistus, Pallas and Narcissus). Moreover, the criticisms of Claudius’ court resulted from a negative view of the court in general as a place of corruption by ancient authors. This vision, consequently, prevented the analysis of the court in a positive way, that is, as an effective instrument of government that benefitted both the emperor and its members.
The main hypothesis keeping the three parts of the book together is that, under Claudius, it is already possible to speak of an aristocratization of the court, even if the court had not yet reached the degree of institutionalization achieved in the second century AD. Anne-Claire Michel thus tries to nuance the conclusions of Aloys Winterling, as she states that the presence of the upper fringe of Roman society in court is the very condition of its effectiveness. In fact, her prosopographical approach to the court of Claudius points in this direction. However, it might be appropriate to qualify somewhat the emphasis that the author gives to the connection between the existence of the court and the stability of imperial power. It should be noted that the court is also the main place of instability between aristocrats and the princeps, since it could eliminate and make emperors.3
Anne-Claire Michel’s book will certainly be a source of inspiration for more detailed studies on the aula Caesaris. Its methodology for a prosopography of the imperial court should be applied for the study of the Julio-Claudian period as a whole so that we could have a better understanding of court dynamics as well as of the continuities and ruptures in the short run.
1. A. Wallace-Hadrill, “The imperial court”, in A. K. Bowman, E. Champlin, A. Lintott (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 10: The Augustan Empire, 43 B.C. – A.D. 69 (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 283-308; A. Winterling, Aula Caesaris: Studien zur Institutionalisierung des römischen Kaiserhofes in der Zeit von Augustus bis Commodus (31 v.Chr.-192 n.Chr.) (München, 1999).
3. As remarked, for instance, by A. Winterling, “A Court without ‘State’. The aula Caesaris ”, in A. Winterling, Politics and Society in Imperial Rome (Malden, 2009), p. 89-90.