Claudius the God: Was Phaemon’s dog right?

Claudius the God asks us to consider whether it is right to support Claudius as he descends into despotism – not just for the characters in the story, but also for ourselves as readers – as illustrated by a fable about the moral choices of a dog.

At the end of Claudius the God, the second volume of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, the titular character is at the deathbed of his deputy Vitellius. Claudius, a strong – but lapsed – supporter of the restoration of the Republic, asks his friend, a principled man, why he continued to work for the Emperor despite his own republican tendencies. Vitellius’ last words are simply ‘Phaemon’s dog was right.’ At first, Claudius struggles to identify the reference – indeed, Phaemon is one of Graves’ few invented characters – but he eventually tracks down a book that contains the story of Phaemon’s dog:

It appears that Phaemon the philosopher had a little dog whom he had trained to go to the butcher every day and bring back a lump of meat in a basket. This virtuous creature, who would never dare to touch a scrap until Phaemon gave it permission, was one day set upon by a pack of mongrels who snatched the basket from its mouth and began to tear the meat to pieces and bolt it greedily down. Phaemon, watching from an upper window, saw the dog deliberate for a moment just what to do. It was clearly no use trying to rescue the meat from the other dogs: they would kill it for its pains. So it rushed in among them and itself ate as much of the meat as it could get hold of. In fact it ate more than any of the other dogs, because it was both braver and cleverer.

Here, Graves is asking a question of the reader. How can we continue to sympathise with Claudius even as he descends into despotism and all but gives up his desire to see liberty returned to Rome? Phaemon’s dog chose to make the best of a bad situation by eating as much of the meat as it could, but did it make the correct choice? Although Claudius attempts, at first, to use his position for good, successive wives and councillors manipulate him throughout his reign into committing purges and instituting oppressive laws. All the while, he convinces himself that everything he does is in the best interests of the empire. In spite of this, we are prepared to blame Messalina or some other sinister party for his actions: we do not want to admit that even poor old Claudius has been corrupted by the very power he once sought to abolish. However, he is an effective administrator, and, upon his accession to the throne, we firmly believe that Rome is far better off under him than under another emperor who does not share his morals, or republican values.

The fact is, like Vitellius, we recognise that the Republic is dead – not only from our vantage point thousands of years in the future, but also because we know that if Claudius, an honourable, avowed republican cannot let go of imperial power, we cannot possibly expect anyone else to do so. Indeed, in the chaos following Caligula’s assassination, as the Senate is buoyed by renewed hope that they can finally restore the Republic, proceedings degenerate quickly, and even before the Praetorian Guard can introduce Claudius as emperor, several senators have put their own names forward for that title. A number of characters remark, including Livia Drusilla, that all hope of restoring the Republic had died as soon as Augustus became emperor. As a result, it is better for Romans to work within the system to make the best out of a bad situation – i.e. imperial, rather than senatorial rule – rather than to stubbornly continue moralising about republican values.

Claudius was Phaemon’s dog because he recognised that the empire was better off under his diligent administration than being torn to shreds by greedy Senators after the last scraps of imperial power; Vitellius was Phaemon’s dog because he knew he could do something good and worthwhile working for Claudius even if he fundamentally despised the monarchy. This story, devised entirely by Graves, is the perfect apologia for collaborating with a despotic regime. Although our sympathy for Claudius is created by the narrative, we want and need to support him – he is a narrator of whose company we have grown to enjoy, whose morals we respect, and who we want to continue to like even as he becomes exactly the person he never wanted to be. In many ways, we are Claudius’ willing collaborators.

As with all parables, we are invited to ask whether Phaemon’s dog had other options. Claudius, who is invested in justifying his regime, fails to do so, but the reader might easily consider that the moral position is for the dog to fight off its assailants or to try and rescue the meat, even if it meant certain death. Although we know that Claudius is a clever and industrious ruler, we also know that he is operating within the same system that bred Tiberius and Caligula. It may be justifiable to collaborate and make the best of a bad situation when an emperor like Claudius rules, but is it so when sadists and murderers sit the throne? If becoming Phaemon’s dog means survival, it is, at least, understandable.

Claudius was remembered by his contemporaries as an indolent, often arbitrary despot. The evidence tells us this was not the case; Graves’ interpretation of the character is probably closer to the truth than that of Suetonius. In Claudius the God, he goes to his grave confident – thanks to a misunderstood prophecy – that his successor Nero will be the last Caesar. In his own way, he remained a lifelong republican. We know, however, that Phaemon’s dog had taken too many bites from the meat: the Republic was never restored.

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