It’s August 1st, and that means it is the Emperor Claudius’ birthday – his 2022nd, to be precise. I’ve always had a soft spot for old Claudius. I’m sure Robert Graves and Derek Jacobi have quite a lot to do with that, but the narrative of the underdog who was sidelined and belittled for years but still became emperor anyway is inherently endearing. I also love the fact that he was a historian, just like me. Right now, in the thick of my research into receptions of Augustus, I would give anything to be able to read the history of the aftermath of Caesar’s death which he wrote (even though he was advised to omit the civil wars between Octavian and Antony which followed).
But I must say I’ve always found the date of his birthday just a little bit too convenient. I don’t have any evidence that he wasn’t born on August 1st, of course. But every time it comes up, I find myself unable to help thinking, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
The key evidence for Claudius’ birth-date comes from Suetonius, and it reads as follows:
Claudius was born at Lugdunum [= Lyon] on the Kalends of August [= August 1st] in the consulship of Iullus Antonius and Fabius Africanus [= 10 BC]; the very day when an altar was first dedicated to Augustus in that town.
Other sources, such as Cassius Dio and the military calendar from Dura Europos also confirm that August 1st was the date celebrated as Claudius’ birthday in antiquity. But that doesn’t necessarily prove that it was the real date of his birth. Everyone, including Claudius, could have been labouring (*boom-tish*) under a common illusion about it. There was no state-controlled system of birth registrations in the Roman empire, and indeed it’s perfectly clear from the ages recorded in documentary texts such as papyri and inscriptions that many people at that time had no idea how old they were or when exactly they had been born. Even within the imperial family that Claudius was born into, it would have been quite easy for a small number of adults to collude in perpetuating a falsehood about his date of birth – and what strikes me in this case is that there were some good reasons for Claudius’ family to want to do just that.
What I think is most important about the Suetonius passage, above, is the link which he draws between Claudius’ birth and the altar to Augustus dedicated in Lyon. Firstly, when Suetonius says that Claudius was born on ‘the very day’ (ipso die) that the altar was dedicated, he doesn’t really mean the same day, but the same date. We know from other sources that the altar was dedicated in 12 BC, not 10 BC – so two years before Claudius was born. What Suetonius is saying is that Claudius was born on the exact anniversary of the original dedication of the altar – i.e. August 1st. On one level, that’s just a coincidence, but by pointing out the link between the two events, Suetonius strongly suggests that he thinks it carries some kind of symbolic significance.
So let’s talk about this altar. It was the centre-piece of a large sanctuary, where a religious festival in honour of Augustus himself and the goddess Roma was held every year on the anniversary of its dedication – August 1st, as we’ve seen. Each year, the 60 communities which between them made up the populations of the three northern Gallic provinces would send one representative each to a provincial council based at the sanctuary, where they conducted sacrifices in honour of Roma and Augustus led by a high priest elected from amongst their number. In other words, this altar was the most important centre for the imperial cult in the whole of northern Gaul.
Meanwhile, the very reason why Claudius was born in Lyon in the first place was that his father, Drusus (younger son of Livia and step-son of Augustus) was at that time serving as governor of Gaul, and using the city as his administrative head-quarters. A late, and very brief, summary of books 138-9 of Livy’s History covers Drusus’ activities as a governor in Gaul, including the foundation of the altar at Lyon. This is what it says for the year 12 BC:
Agrippa, the son-in-law of Caesar [Augustus], died.
A census was organized by Drusus.
The Germanic tribes living on this side of the Rhine and across the Rhine were attacked by Drusus, and the uprising in Gaul, caused by the census, was suppressed.
An altar was dedicated to the divine Caesar at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône, and a priest was appointed, Gaius Julius Vercondaridubnus.
So Drusus has just had to suppress riots sparked off by his organisation of a census. That’s an age-old story, of course. The purpose of the census was to register both people and land-holdings for the purpose of taxation, and this was the first time it had ever happened in Gaul – still at that time a relatively newly-conquered province. In fact, the whole situation is rather similar to the surveys conducted for the Domesday Book in England in the wake of the Norman Conquest. Naturally, the locals were not very pleased at the prospect of suddenly becoming liable for a whole load of new taxes.
The summary of Livy doesn’t quite draw a causal link between the suppression of the riots and the foundation of the altar, but Cassius Dio does:
The Sugambri and their allies had resorted to war, owing to the absence of Augustus and the fact that Gauls were restive under their slavery, and Drusus therefore seized the subject territory ahead of them, sending for the foremost men in it on the pretext of the festival which they celebrate even now around the altar of Augustus at Lugdunum.
So the foundation of the altar, and the religious festival which took place there, seems to have been part of a programme of pacification following after the census and the riots which it has sparked. Dio is pretty cynical about Drusus’ behaviour, suggesting that he deliberately called leading representatives from the troubled communities to Lyon in order to get them out of the way and make suppressing the riots easier. Perhaps that was indeed his plan, but the move can also be seen in a more constructive light, especially from the perspective of the communities who were not rioting. Establishing the altar, and the council of community representatives who met there, would have helped to foster a new sense of collective identity for the peoples of northern Gaul, and to ensure that the focus of that identity was firmly fixed upon the emperor and Rome. It drew them into the new social and political order, ensuring that their leading representatives had a regular reason to go to Lyon and meet with the governor, and encouraging them to display loyalty to the emperor and the state while they were there.
So from the point of view of Augustus and the imperial family, the altar at Lyon was a very important tool in the careful, gradual transformation of northern Gaul from a fractious collection of loosely-federated tribes into a loyal and coherent Roman province. Picture the scene, then, in 10 BC – two years after the altar was founded. Drusus has just been dealing with another bout of unrest on the German frontier, this time led by the Chatti. Cassius Dio relates that Augustus himself came to Gaul himself during this period, where he was ‘tarrying in Lugdunensis’ while he monitored the progress of the campaigns. In other words, it is very probable that Augustus himself was actually staying in Lyon at Drusus’ family residence. Meanwhile, the annual festival is coming up, the representatives of the sixty Gallic communities are arriving in the city, and Drusus’ wife, Antonia, is heavily pregnant.
How very convenient it must have been, then, to be able to announce an imperial birth just at that moment. With the frontiers still needing constant attention, and all hopes of keeping them secure resting heavily on the continuing loyalty of the already-conquered Gauls, what better sign of a bright future could the imperial family wish for? How nice, how neat to be able to announce to the members of the Gallic council, as they conducted their annual worship of Augustus, that a new grand-nephew / step-grandson (for Claudius was both) had been born to him on that very auspicious day, carrying with him great hopes for the future of Augustus’ family – and hence of Rome, and hence of themselves as Roman Gauls. If Augustus was indeed there, perhaps he made the announcement himself, and maybe even held up the howling infant in front of the adoring crowds?
How nice, how neat: how rather too good to be true.
After all, could you tell the difference between a genuine new-born and a child born, ooh, anything up to a month earlier in an open-air sanctuary over the heads of massed representatives drawn from across Gaul? I know I couldn’t – and given how politically expedient it was for the imperial family to be able to announce a birth on that very day, I can’t help but be suspicious. No wonder they wanted to underline the link, now preserved in Suetonius’ text, between Claudius and the altar.
I can’t prove any of this at all. It is pure speculation. And of course it doesn’t matter, anyway. Time is arbitrary, and August 1st is as good a day to celebrate Claudius’ birth as any other. After all we are quite used to celebrating the Queen’s Official Birthday on a date which isn’t actually the anniversary of her birth, but which happens to be convenient.
Speaking personally, I’m happy to take August 1st at face value for Claudius’ birthday, because my own birthday is tomorrow, and that makes us birthday neighbours! But I do think it’s a nice example of the fun we can have in the very large gaps between the lines of Roman history – especially if we set off armed with a healthy dose of scepticism.