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A Pleasant Tragedy To Stir Our Blood
This year, for my contribution to International Lego Classicism Day, I wanted to tell you the story of Princess Claudia of Britain, a key figure in the spread of early Christianity, and an important link between Rome and Britain. Never heard of her? That’s because she never really existed. It’s one of my favourite classical Not-History stories.
Princess Claudia was a well-known ‘historical’ figure in Victorian Britain. She appeared in a lot of books about the rise of Christianity in Roman Britain, and was trotted out as a moral exemplar for young women. Her story wasn’t new; religious scholars had been talking about her for over 200 years. But where did she come from – and where did she disappear to?
The answer to the first question is that she was built – much like a Lego minifigure! – from several components. All of the components seemed to fit together – as long as people were willing to use some imagination…!
Initially, ‘Princess Claudia’ was constructed from a rather implausible link between Martial and the New Testament. Both Martial and St. Paul mention a ‘Claudia’ with a connection to a man named ‘Pudens’. Neither name was particularly unusual; but in the seventeenth century it was theorised that Martial’s Claudia (who was marrying his friend Pudens) was the same woman as St. Paul’s Claudia (mentioned with – although perhaps not married to – a Pudens). If true, that meant that Martial and St. Paul had a female acquaintance in common. Unlikely, given the circles they moved in? Yes. But wouldn’t it be interesting…?
Furthermore, Martial talks about a ‘British Claudia’ in another poem; and if she were the same Claudia too, then that would mean that a British woman was in Rome, associating with both Martial’s circle and St. Paul’s.
What an interesting woman she would be…
This possibility fascinated scholars, particularly scholars in the Church. They had questions. The biggest ones were: who was this British Claudia, and how did she come to Rome?
Scholars answered those questions in one of two ways: using an inscription from Roman Britain, and using Tacitus.
Tacitus mentions a British king, Caractacus (sometimes known in later literature as Caradoc), who was held captive in Rome, and who made a speech before the Emperor Claudius. Given this, scholars theorised that our British Claudia might be the daughter of Caractacus – and that would explain her presence in Rome. It would also make her a princess.
Other scholars in the 18th century disagreed. An inscription was discovered in Britain which linked a Pudens with King Cogidubnus, a client king in the time of Claudius. So maybe Claudia was his daughter. Whatever the case, she was still royalty.
This ingenious linking of separate components gave historians a British Royal at the place where Classics and Church History met. Claudia was used widely by British writers to bolster claims of imperial British superiority – for a time, at least. Eventually, towards the end of the nineteenth century, people started asking embarrassing questions about how plausible all of this was. Unable to defend the connections, writers quietly dropped Princess Claudia from their schoolbooks, and she faded from public view.
(If you want to know more about Claudia, or follow up any of the references that I haven’t given, check out my open-access article on her for New Voices in Classical Reception Studies.)
So that’s where Princess Claudia came from – and where she went. But I promised you a story, with Lego… so if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.
Claudia, by Mrs Frederick Prideaux
This is my favourite treatment of the Claudia story. Published in 1865, it’s a very long poem by Fanny Ash Prideaux, a writer of narrative poetry who went by the name ‘Mrs Frederick Prideaux’. The poem charts the trials and tribulations of Claudia (and an assortment of secondary characters) over a five-year period from the end of Claudius’s reign to the early days of Nero’s. It’s a very Christian story, chock-full of improving moral lessons. Here are some extracts for your amusement.
Here is our introduction to the eponymous Claudia, in Claudius’ Rome, as she hurries to the house of a Jewish friend to give a Dire Warning.
… – a fair young girl, –
Half child, half woman, – all her delicate face
Flushing with eagerness, all her features strung
To some set purpose, – sprang into the room.
Her bearing had a wild and sylvan grace
That seemed most strange in one whose raiment spoke
Of noble lineage. For her tunic, woven
Of finest Syrian wool, bleached by the dews
Of summer nights upon the emerald plains
That frame Damascus, was all bordered round
With Tyrian purple; and was looped above
On each fair shoulder with a gleaming pearl,
Large as a linnet’s egg; and over this
Hung loosely draped about her slender form
A robe of equal richness; and her hair, –
Crisp, golden hair that ran in rippled waves
Back from her rounded temples, – flowed behind
Into a silken network, strung as thick
With pearls as autumn gossamers with dew;
Her very feet, that trod the homely floor
With such a dainty firmness, were encased
In shoes of creamy kid skin, rough with pearls.
Mrs Prideaux, as you can see, is not a fan of the full stop.
Our heroine, Claudia, is the child of the seedy Roman governor Plautius (once stationed in Britain) and his virtuous Christian wife Pomponia, who is kept under guard so that she won’t cause trouble. But there are tantalising suggestions that Claudia may not in fact be their child…
Claudia is also a Christian, like her mother. She is forced to attend a dinner party held by her dastardly father, featuring several big names from Claudian Rome :
“Last night, as I have said, did Plautius feast
Three of his chosen friends, mere boys to him;
For lately he has seemed to honour such
More than his grey compeers. One of the three
Was Martialis, of the Spanish race,
Of a most witty and most wanton tongue,
For ever stringing all things in the world
On slender threads of epigram. With him
Came his compatriot and fellow poet,
Lucanus; of a grave and modest mien,
But with an eye to shrink from. And the third
Was Pudens, of the order of the knights.”
Now when she named that name the maiden blushed
And faltered for a moment; …
At the dinner party, Claudia overhears an Evil Plot against the Christians.
The idle nobles of Claudius’ court are bored by Agrippina and nostalgic for the Good Old Days (‘Her predecessor/Perchance did carry things a little too far,/At least she was imprudent. But the court/ Was twenty times more lively in her time’). So they’ve been stirring up trouble, and ‘planned a pleasant tragedy/To stir our blood’. They’ve been spreading rumours of a conspiracy among the Jews.
Emperor Claudius, responding to the rumours, is this very night intending to kill all the Jews and Christians in Rome.
Warned by the intrepid Claudia, the Christians flee, although many of the more traditional Jews choose to remain and are slaughtered (there’s a lot of screaming). The destination of choice for the escaping Christians is Britain, and many an Aeneid-like adventure they have on their way.
Claudia remains in Rome, and endures five long years in the house of her father who may not be her father (the hints come thick and fast). In that time, she meets Temptation, in the form of a voice which talks her through three possibilities for her future.
In the first, the Inner Voice encourages her to marry the young Roman Pudens. He’s a nice guy (for a heathen) and they get on well… Claudia is tempted, but she ultimately rejects Pudens on the basis that ‘I know that earthly joy/ For me as yet is a forbidden thing’.
This rejection may have come as a shock to Mrs Prideaux’s readers, who would have been expecting Claudia and Pudens to end up together, and who might well have been looking forward to a bit of ‘earthly joy’. The deliberate cancelling of the romantic storyline may have been what kept this book off the bestseller lists.
Claudia’s second Temptation is the voice of depression, which tells her that she is insignificant, unloved and might as well end it all now.
She rejects this one too.
Her third Temptation – and my personal favourite – is the inner voice of ambition. This voice mentions that she’s rather popular in Nero’s Court…
‘Tis said they speak of me at Caesar’s court;
That Martialis framed an epigram
Touching the gold locks and the violet eyes,
And how the Roman and the British dames
Disputed for the honour of my birth.
Strange things have happened in these days. Perchance
I yet might be Augusta…
The voice goes on to point out that she need not stop there, and offers her world domination: ‘deep within/ I feel the stirring of strange powers that mock/ At thrones and empires.’
I think I’d like to have that on a T-shirt.
Claudia gives some thought to becoming Empress Claudia – then rejects such a worldly ambition with horror, declaring ‘My feet have almost gone from under me:/ My steps have well-nigh slipped: the enemy/ Has fought against me furiously’.
After many, many pages of soul-searching, Claudia escapes her ‘father’ with the help of the British King Caradoc, who has been released from Rome. She begins to make her way to Britain, a land which she has always been able to see in her mind’s eye – for reasons which are still mysterious…
In the meantime, some of Claudia’s Christian friends have settled in Britain and have heard the tragic tales of the Britons who resisted the Romans. Among them is Queen Guendolen, the widow of King Caradoc’s elder brother, who lost her husband in battle, and whose young daughter, ‘little bright-haired Gladys’, was carried away years ago by the Romans.
Do you see where this is going…?
Guendolen sings a lament for little Gladys. It goes on for a while. Here’s a sample:
“O Gladys! Gladys! Gladys! come to me!
My soul cries after thee.
It cannot be that thou hast slipped aside
Into the life unseen, whose waters wide
Sweep round the life we see; for had’st thou died
Thy spirit in its parting agony
Had turned to me:
But not a sound or vision
Has warned my watching soul of thy transition.”
As it turns out, she’s right; Gladys is not dead. I can’t imagine that any reader at this point could have failed to figure out that Claudia is Gladys; and when Claudia/Gladys and her mother are finally reunited, even Guendolen doesn’t seem particularly surprised.
“I need no proof; thy eyes are his,
And all thy bright face and thy golden hair
Are his, my Owain’s. Here we dwelt in peace
Before the rising of the Cymric tribes,
And here, ’twas shown to me, we should meet again.
Upon the level turf beside the ford
Thy tender feet first tottered off alone,
Lured by some sunlit flower, and here thy hand
Shall stay my feet when tottering to the grave.”
And that’s the end of the story.
But what happens to Claudia? I hear you ask. Having unexpectedly rejected the hunky Pudens, does she get a happy ending? Well, Mrs Prideaux declines to tell us – at some length. She does offer some possibilities, though – none of which sound particularly appealing.
But as for Claudia: – how she kept her vow
Of service to her Lord: – whether apart
From tenderer earthly ties she followed close
Behind His bleeding feet, alone like Him; –
Or whether bent beneath a homelier cross
She moved in lower paths, and daily died
In daily discipline of household cares,
Sweetened by love whose sweetness symbols His; –
We know not: only knowing that her name,
Embalmed by purest saintship, lingers still
In old traditions as a blessed name.
The final word, I think, should go to Mrs Prideaux, who evidently worked hard on the ending of this poem. It’s not her fault that Morecambe and Wise came along a bit later and spoiled it.
Her tale is told: the legendary spring
That trickled from the summits of the past
Has poured its little urn, and all is still.
With thanks to Jasper Knowles, aged 8, for the loan of the Lego.
I promise to put it all back!