Claudius's freedmen


Freedmen were men – usually Greeks – who had come to Rome. Rich Romans employed them as secretaries, accountants and doctors. After a time, these men gained their freedom and became ‘freedmen’, but they still tended to stay on as household officials. The Imperial household was no different … except that the emperor’s freedmen ran the Roman empire, not just the family estates.

Despite their importance, freedmen were social outcasts. They were despised as former slaves, and they were hated as foreigners.



The Primary Record

If there is one thing that has come down to us from the times, it is that Claudius’s freedmen were loathed with a passion.
When Nero gave his speech the Senate outlining ‘the shape of his future government’, one of his key promises was to reduce the influence of ‘a few powerful people’.
Seneca in Apocolocyntosis derided Claudius’s domination by his freedmen (at the end Claudius is condemned to work as a freedman).
All the contemporary writers criticise Claudius for giving them too much influence.  Dio complains: ‘His freedmen were puffed up with conceit’ and claims that Narcissus 'used to make fun of Claudius openly'.


But it is Tacitus and Suetonius who most condemn Claudius.
Tacitus – particularly in the chapters describing the fall of Messalina and the marriage to Agrippina – presents an emperor paralysed by weakness and indecision, and Narcissus and the freedmen in virtual control of the government.

And Suetonius states outright:

Wholly enslaved to freedmen and his wives, he acted, not as a princeps, but as a servant.   



Modern Interpretations

The Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano (1934) rejected this view of Claudius. He portrayed Claudius as an energetic, centralising ruler. For Momigliano, the freedmen were Claudius’s tools, not his masters:

The freedmen’s importance has led ancients and modern alike to suppose that the government must have fallen entirely into their hands. The falsity of this idea is obvious: the fact that Claudius organised this government is proof enough that his personality dominated it.


All modern historians agree that freedmen were VERY important in the reign of Claudius. Faced with a hostile Senate, they gave Claudius a body of administrators totally dependent upon, and therefore totally loyal to, the emperor (Barbara Levick, 1990).  They ‘dominated the civil service and the palace [and] amassed considerable wealth and a say in policy’ (Matthew Bunsen, 2009).

Richard Alston (1998) sees the imperial freedmen as part of an intentional strategy to move political debate from the senate to the imperial court; he points out that it was not just freedmen whom Claudius used in this strategy – the emperor also promoted provinicials, equestrians and loyal senators such as Vitellius.


But did Claudius's freedmen become so powerful that they dominated the emperor?


Josiah Osgood (2011) thinks it ‘unlikely, really impossible’.  Claudius was ‘not a totally weak-minded man’ and involved himself in the business of government much more than either Tiberius or Caligula.

‘The question thus becomes’, writes Osgood, ‘how to explain the existence of so hostile a later tradition’.


Looking at the question from the perspective of Nero’s reign, Miriam T Griffith (2002), however, tends to think that there is no smoke without fire. The complaints against Claudius’s freedmen had nothing to do with their actual jobs.  And in Nero’s reign there continued to be freedmen in the government … but there was no outcry against Nero.  The anger was not against freedmen-in-general, it was against CLAUDIUS’S freedmen … and the clear implication is that he gave them too much power and influence.




The fact is that your view on Claudius and his freedmen depends totally on your view of Claudius. If you think of him as a dynamic, hands-on, innovative ruler, then you find it impossible to admit that he was a pawn in the hands of his wives and freedmen. But, if you think of Claudius as a weak ruler … well you believe Suetonius.  





The following websites will help you complete the task:

You can read the summary-of-mentions sheet here.



Study the summary-of-mentions sheet.  You MUST remember to use 'resisting reading'.

Looking at the list of reported involvements of the freedmen, first make a list of everything they did during the reign of Claudius.  Then make FIVE key comments about their role and influence. 

Then click the yellow pointer to compare the comments that my pupils made:

  •  What roles did the freedmen play in Claudius's government:
    • •  Administration - Narcissus (Epistulis), Pallas (Rationibus), Callistus (Libellis), Polybius (Studiis = patronage). Narcissus was made quaestor, Pallas a praetor. Claudius even made one freedman a senator (having first promoted him to eques).
    • •  The Empire - Felix was governor of Judaea, other freedmen became proconsuls.
    • •  Millar (1977) proved that they were NOT modern civil servants, but courtiers - advisers and friends.
    • •  Pallas wrote his speech to the Senate seeking Nero's early elevation to the toga virilis.
    • •  They acted as Claudius's SS - Evodus killed Messalina, and even killed an ex-consul without orders from Claudius.
  •  Advantages: why did Claudius introduce freedmen so much into his government:
    • •  Levick (1990) points out that, excluded from the emperor's inner circle, Claudius had spent most of his social life with the imperial freedmen before he became emperor - they were his friends.
    • •  They were experts/professionals (instead of the 'amateur' senators) on government - part of Claudius's intentional move to a more efficient government (esp. in matters of money)
    • •  They owed everything to the Emperor, and when they lost his favour they lost their jobs and status; this made them VERY loyal (more so than the nobles, who simply turned rebellious when refused).
    • •   They Senate was very hostile to Claudius, especially at the start of his reign, so he was forced to rely on his freedmen.
    • • They took the blame for government decisions - to some extent this explains the different (more popular) tenor of Claudius's principate.
  •  Why were they so hated:
    • •  They were 'new men' of despised social rank: they had been slaves and were just freedmen. Neither they nor their family had any prestige. Claudius, much as he elevated freedmen in his government, passed laws (e.g. punishing freedmen who pretended to be eques) in their place.
    • •  They took the jobs of government which had hitherto been done by senators, and thus excluded them from influence and wealth.
    • •  They became enormously wealthy ... which aroused jealousy.
    • •  They acted 'above themselves' - Dio complained that ‘his freedmen were puffed up with conceit’; at Messalina's death, Narcissus upbraided her mother 'with a stream of slavish insults'.
    • •  They were believed to dominate and bully Claudius, who was said to be 'wholly enslaved' to them (Suetonius).
  •  To what extent was Claudius dominated by his freedmen:
    • FOR
    • •  Narcissus organised/dominated/overrruled Claudius during the execution of Messalina.
    • •  The freedmen debated and decided the marriage to Agrippina.
    • •  They took liberties with the emperor - Claudius allowed Narcissus to openly mock him; Claudius supported them when an ex-consul was killed without his orders.
    • •  Narcissus, Pallas, Posides, Harpocras and Polybius were given excessive honours.
    • •  Suetonius: 'wholly enslaved ... he acted as a servant not a princeps'; nb Miriam Griffith's point (2002) that freedmen did not provoke such an outrage in the reigns of any other emperors (so there MUST have been a reason).
    • •  They were government functionaries who owed their position and their power entirely to the emperor - they served at his discretion, and were MORE, not less, subject to him than the senators.
    • •  Claudius dismissed even prominent freedmen; e.g. he banished Felix and executed Polybius.
    • •  There were whole areas of where Claudius acted alone - e.g. the law and the conquest of Britain.
    • •  Josiah Osgood (2011): ‘really impossible’ - Claudius was ‘not a totally weak-minded man’ and involved himself in the government much more than previous emperors.
    • •  In the reign of Nero, Doryphorus had immense power and wealth - it was a natural concomitant of their job.


Now write an answer to the following question:

'Claudius was dominated by his freedmen.'  How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?

In your answer you should:

•  give a brief account of the functions and influence of Claudius's freedmen;

•  discuss to what extent Claudius was dominated by his freedmen;

•  show knowledge of the relevant sections of Tacitus and Suetonius;

•  consider how reliable you think these sources are.                                       [30]