Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (The Gourdification of the Divine Claudius)


Seneca's Works / Monday, April 2nd, 2018
Apocolocyntosis, from a 9th-century manuscript of the Abbey library of Saint Gall.

The Apocolocyntosis (divi) Claudii, literally The Gourdification of (the Divine) Claudius, is a political satire on the Roman emperor Claudius, probably written by Seneca the Younger. It is one of only two examples of Menippean satire from the classical era that have survived, the other being Petronius’ Satyricon. The title plays upon “apotheosis”, the process by which dead Roman emperors were recognized as gods.

Authorship

“Apocolocyntosis” is Latinized Greek, and sometimes transliterated Apokolokyntosis. In the manuscripts the anonymous work bears the title Ludus de morte Divi Claudii (“Play on the death of the Divine Claudius”). The title Apokolokyntosis (Attic Greek Ἀποκολοκύντωσις , “Gourdification”, or sometimes, anachronistically, “Pumpkinification”) comes from the Roman historian Cassius Dio (who wrote in Greek).

Cassius Dio attributed authorship of a satirical text on the death of Claudius, called Apokolokyntosis, to Seneca the Younger. Only much later was the work referred to by Cassius Dio identified (with some degree of uncertainty) with the “Ludus” text. Most scholars accept this attribution, but a minority hold that the two works are not the same, and that the surviving text is not necessarily Seneca’s.

One of the scholars that attributes the work to Petronius is Gilbert Bagnani. See his Arbiter of Elegance: A study of the Life & Works of C. Petronius (1954).

Plot

The work traces the death of Claudius, his ascent to heaven and judgment by the gods, and his eventual descent to Hades. At each turn, of course, Seneca mocks the late emperor’s personal failings, most notably his arrogant cruelty and his inarticulateness. After Mercury persuades Clotho to kill the emperor, Claudius walks to Mount Olympus, where he convinces Hercules to let the gods hear his suit for deification in a session of the divine senate.

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Proceedings are in Claudius’ favor until Augustus delivers a long and sincere speech listing some of Claudius’ most notorious crimes. Most of the speeches of the gods are lost through a large gap in the text. Mercury escorts him to Hades. On the way, they see the funeral procession for the emperor, in which a crew of venal characters mourn the loss of the perpetual Saturnalia of the previous reign.

In Hades, Claudius is greeted by the ghosts of all the friends he has murdered.

These shades carry him off to be punished, and the doom of the gods is that he should shake dice forever in a box with no bottom (gambling was one of Claudius’ vices): every time he tries to throw the dice they fall out and he has to search the ground for them. Suddenly Caligula turns up, claims that Claudius is an ex-slave of his, and hands him over to be a law clerk in the court of the underworld.

Context

Seneca had some personal reason for satirizing Claudius, because the emperor had banished him to Corsica. In addition, the political climate after the emperor’s death may have made attacks on him acceptable. However, alongside these personal considerations, Seneca appears also to have been concerned with what he saw as an overuse of apotheosis as a political tool.

If an emperor as flawed as Claudius could receive such treatment, he argued elsewhere, then people would cease to believe in the gods at all. A reading of the text shows Seneca was not above flattery of the new emperor Nero – such as writing that he would live longer and be wiser than the legendary Nestor.

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