Robert Graves, Tacitus, and the Defenestration of Apronia

In the 23rd chapter of I Claudius, Claudius’ estranged wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, murders her sister-in-law, Numantina, the wife of their host, Plautius, her brother, by means of a nocturnal defenestration. However, in order for Claudius the narrator to be able to tell the story, Graves needs him to be “in the know” and so he has him stay with his brother-in-law Plautius while in Rome, the pretext being that he needs to steer clear of his agitated mother, Antonia Minor.

Claudius is unaware that Urgulanilla is also a guest at Plautius’, which gives Plautius an opportunity to play a trick him by alloting him a bedroom (“on the corridor nearly opposite” his own), which just happens to be occupied by Urgulanilla.

As Claudius prepares for bed there is suddenly “a heavy step” behind him, his lamp is blown out and a deep voice tells him to stay where he is. There is “a shuffling and grunting” as the occupant dresses, and then the lamp is lit to reveal Urgulanilla.

I had not seen her since Drusilla’s funeral and she had not grown any prettier in those five years. She was stouter than ever, colossally stout, and bloated-faced: there was enough strength in this female Hercules to have overpowered a thousand Claudiuses… (p. 234)

Claudius notices that he is marrying an ogress...

The reader of I Claudius, and certainly anyone who has seen the BBC television series, will remember that this Urgulanilla was foisted upon Claudius as a joke and as a favour from Livia to her grandmother, Urgulania.

The joke, as Graves represents it, was that Claudius, the lame, twitching “idiot” was being married to a giantess. The scene of their marriage and the mocking laughter of the marriage guests comes at the end of episode 3 of the I Claudius television series.

There is no record in the Roman histories of the circumstances of Claudius’ first marriage or of the stature of Urgulanilla, but, as we shall see, there is a reason why Graves wants to have a gigantic Urgulanilla in his novel.

Claudius’ presence gives Urgulanilla an occasion to revenge herself upon her brother for divorcing Numantina, the one person who Urgulanilla loves. Claudius, fearing that he will be strangled in his bed by Urgulanilla, tries not to fall asleep, especially after hearing Plautius go to bed because “with two doors between us he won’t hear my cries when Urgulanilla throttles me.” (p. 235) Struggle as he might, he dozes off and forces himself back awake.

There was a thud and a rustle of paper. The book had blown off the table on to the floor. The lamp had gone out; I was aware of a strong draught in the room. The door must be open. I listened attentively for about three minutes. urgulanilla was certainly not in the room.

As I was trying to make up my mind what to do I heard the most dreadful shriek ring out – from quite close it seemed. A woman screamed, ‘Spare me! Spare me! This is Numantina’s doing! O! O!’ Then came the bump of a heavy metal object falling, then the crash of splintering glass, another shriek, a distant thud, then hurried footsteps across the corridor. Somebody was in my room again. The door was softly closed and barred. I recognised Urgulanilla’s panting breath. (p. 235)

Claudius both knows what has happened and has been set up by Urgulanilla to be her alibi, not that it comes to a court case because the Emperor Tiberius believes that Plautius is guilty of the crime and so Urgulania (the grandmother), seeing the direction in which things are inevitably moving, sends Plautius a dagger so that his heirs would be able to keep his property if he did the decent thing.

A few weeks after reading that episode in I Claudius, I reached the same point in my reading of Tacitus’ Annals and was struck by how every detail mentioned by Tacitus had been used by Graves, and how Graves had weaved his imagination into the bare details.

Here is Tacitus’ account of the incident:

Per idem tempus Plautius Silvanus praetor incertis causis Aproniam coniugem in praeceps iecit, tractusque ad Caesarem ab L. Apronio socero turbata mente respondit, tamquam ipse somno gravis atque eo ignarus, et uxor sponte mortem sumpsisset. non cunctanter Tiberius pergit in domum, visit cubiculum, in quo reluctantis et impulsae vestigia cernebantur. refert ad senatum, datisque iudicibus Vrgulania Silvani avia pugionem nepoti misit. quod perinde creditum quasi principis monitu ob amicitiam Augustae cum Vrgulania. reus frustra temptato ferro venas praebuit exolvendas. mox Numantina, prior uxor eius, accusata iniecisse carminibus et veneficiis vaecordiam marito, insons iudicatur. (IV. 22)

At about the same time Plautius Silvanus, the praetor, for unknown reasons, threw his wife Apronia out of a window. When summoned before the emperor by Lucius Apronius, his father-in-law, he replied incoherently, that he had been sound asleep and so knew nothing, and that his wife must have suddenly decided to kill herself. Tiberius went straight to the house and inspected the bedroom, where the signs of her struggle and of her forcible ejection could be seen. He reported this to the Senate, and as soon as judges had been appointed, Urgulania, the grandmother of Silvanus, sent her grandson a dagger. This was regarded as equivalent to a hint from the emperor, because of the intimacy between Augusta and Urgulania. The accused, frustrated in his attempt with the dagger, had his veins opened. Shortly afterwards Numantina, his former wife, was charged with driving her husband insane by magical incantations and potions, but was acquitted.

Every detail mentioned by Tacitus is there in the episode in Graves’ I Claudius, even “uxor sponte mortem sumpsisset”. However, instead of protesting that his wife must have committed suicide, Graves has Plautius protest in the immediate aftermath that Apronia must have been pulled out of his arms and thrown through a high window by the witchcraft of Numantina, which, in Tacitus’ account, is an accusation that is raised by his family or friends only after his death. Then, Graves picks up the thread of Tacitus’ narrative, but notice the little additional details, such as the candelabra wrenched from the ceiling, the “high” hole in the window, and how Apronia “leaped”…:

At dawn he was taken before the Emperor by Apronia’s father. Tiberius cross-examined him severely. He said now that while he was sound asleep she had torn herself from his arms and leaped across the room, shrieking, and crashed through the window into the courtyard below. Tiberius made Plautius accompany him at once to the scene of the murder. The first thing he noticed in the bedroom was his own wedding-gift to Plautius, a beautiful Egyptian bronze-and-gold candelabra taken from the tomb of a queen, now lying broken on the ground. He glanced up and saw that it had been wrenched from the ceiling. He said: ‘she clung to it and it came down. She was being carried towards the window on somebody’s shoulders. And look how high up in the window the hole is! She was pitched through, she did not jump through.’

So where did Graves get the idea that Urgulanilla had murdered Apronia?

It was most likely from a passing comment of Suetonius’ in his account of the life of Claudius, that,

Cum utraque diuortium fecit, sed cum Paetina ex levibus offensis, cum Vrgulanilla ob libidinum probra et homicidii suspicionem.

He divorced both of these wives, Paetina for trivial offences, but Urgulanilla because of scandalous lewdness and the suspicion of murder.

Did Guillaume Rouillé's illustration of Plautia Urgulanilla in his Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum suggest to Graves that she was a woman of stature?

In his own translation of Suetonius, Graves combines two sentences of Suetonius’ text, and puts it like this:

His first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, whose father had won a triumph, he divorced for scandalous misbehaviour and the suspicion of murder; his next, Aelia Paetina, daughter of an ex-consul, he also divorced, for slighter offenses. (p. 199)

From these details we can imagine how Graves connected the “suspicion” that Urgalanilla had committed murder and the death of Apronia, and realized that Urgalanilla would have had to have been of gigantic stature to have carried out the murder, and that Claudius should be present in some way in order to write about it in his autobiography.

That left the problem of why on earth Claudius would have married an ogress in the first place. Again, the hint in Tacitus of her grandmother’s intimacy with Livia provided Graves with a good pretext; that Livia would have been doing her friend a favour by marrying her unprepossessing granddaughter to her idiot grandson, and having a good laugh at their expense.