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Ancient and modern

Like Theresa May, Claudius struggled to know who to trust

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

After the sacking of Gavin Williamson, a former No. 10 insider said of Theresa May: ‘One of Theresa’s big faults is that she basically doesn’t trust any other elected politicians. She places her trust in advisers and officials, because they are loyal to her.’ The Roman emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 ad) too found it hard to know whom to trust. He turned to an adviser of the previous emperor.

Claudius, nephew of the emperor Tiberius, was born in 10 bc but because of some disability (his mother Antonia called him a monster) he was never taken seriously by the imperial family. However, when the emperor Caligula was assassinated in 41 ad, Claudius was made emperor by the army. Since the senate strongly disapproved, Claudius could hardly trust them. But with no experience of power, to whom could he turn? Enter the Greek ex-slave Callistus.


Callistus (kallistos meant ‘very fine’) was a slave freed by the previous emperor Caligula to become part of his entourage. A shadowy figure, Callistus had been Caligula’s go-between, a fixer, a man who, having no skin in imperial politics, owed his position to Caligula and no one else. He is said to have pimped his daughter to him. With his taste for bribes, he amassed power and vast wealth — Pliny the Elder saw his dining room with its 30 pillars of onyx marble.

But Caligula was a dangerously capricious master, and perhaps Callistus, seeing the way the wind was blowing, was part of the conspiracy to kill him; he possibly even alerted Claudius. At all events, it was to Callistus that Claudius turned when he became emperor, making him in charge of justice and the courts (Callistus knew where the bodies, as it were, were buried). Further Greek freedmen followed: Pallas as treasury secretary, Narcissus i/c correspondence, Polybius i/c research. Here were ex-slaves, in charge of the law, finance and access! Senators were outraged but Claudius felt secure: these were men he could trust, and if he couldn’t, they knew what awaited them.

Like Claudius,  May has never felt really at home in the treacherous world of real politics. Her adviser Sir Mark Sedwill may be no Callistus — Williamson could disagree — but at least the Prime Minister and he know where his loyalty lies. Or else.


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