As early as the reign of Augustus (r. 31 BCE – 14 CE), the emperors of Rome had adopted the powers wielded by the office of the Censor. The Roman Censor had duties such as organizing censuses, evaluating the membership of Roman societal classes (including the Senate), and keeping an eye on financial practices in Rome. With such powers, it is easy see why the emperors wanted to absorb the duties of the Censor for themselves.
As suggested by the name “Censor,” the holders of this office were additionally tasked with keeping immorality and excessive indulgence under control in Rome. It was an ironic role for the emperors, as many among their ranks led lives of unimaginable debauchery and wastefulness. Nevertheless, a few of the emperors took their role as a moral Censor seriously. Others, however, half-heartedly made a show of condemning extravagance while simultaneously emptying the treasury to fund massive public entertainment.
Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) was one of those ironic Roman rulers who held the role of Censor, but also hosted magnificent shows of all kinds. For example, according to Suetonius (c. 70-130+), Claudius used gladiators to recreate in Rome the realistic siege and pillaging of a town, and he even inaugurated the completion of a canal project by holding a mock sea battle on Fucine Lake.
According to Suetonius, Emperor Claudius did carry out at least one memorable action specifically in his role as Censor, although even this was done with a flair of showmanship. One day, Claudius apparently decided it was time to make a public display against extravagance. With this in mind, the emperor headed to the Sigillaria (a market street) and searched for something that was particularly decadent. After perusing the wares, he finally picked an ornate silver-plated chariot and had it rolled out to a public space. Then, with the curious eyes of the Roman people watching, Emperor Claudius reportedly had his soldiers hack the expensive chariot to pieces. With his duty as censor apparently complete, Claudius went back to planning his next great gladiatorial extravaganza.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Chariot of the mascarade des artistes français in Rome c. 1748. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.