13. The Reception of Claudius


Object type: Roman Aureus, ca. 44-45

Materials: Gold

Location: British Museum, AN R.6485

© Trustees of the British Museum


The coin is called "The Reception of Claudius"; it displays Claudius and a guardsman shaking hands.  The history is this: the Praetorian Guard, the elite group meant to protect Roman heads of state, had just slain the man they were charged to protect.  This was the tyrant Caligula, and killing him was the culminating act in a conspiracy that elevated Claudius to the Emperorship of Rome.  This is a small act, but it had major consequences.  The emblematic partnership between the togated statesman and the armored soldier signaled a clear turning-point in the history of Rome.  A certain deal was struck, and Claudius presided over a relatively long if not untroubled oasis of stability between the reigns of Caligula and Nero.

What makes this moment compelling is not merely that Claudius, with his limp and his odd habits, was an unlikely ruler; when he was tabbed as emperor, he was literally the last member of his family, and the only plausible candidate left.  It is moreover arresting because the outcome of the moment was clear to no-one.  Claudius seems by most accounts to have been kept in the dark, and so this moment, sealed by a handshake, might have seen history swerve in a number of different directions, not least Claudius's assassination.  In the end, something like politeness prevailed, at least between the guardsman and Claudius himself;  the partnership between military and government launched a long and ambitious series of campaigns, ultimately expanding Roman territory and remaking the imperial infrastructure.  

My interest in this coin is the way that it serves as a fund of discourse, condensing a world.  I want to talk a little bit about Merlin Donald’s notion of the “exogram.”  Physical changes to the brain are sometimes called “engrams,” which is a way of thinking about memory.  The basic idea is at least as old as René Descartes and Thomas Willis (Exhibit 4a): when the brain receives impressions from the nerves, certain physical changes take place.  Sometimes these changes were imagined to involve some sort of inscription; as the term itself remembers, such “brain traces” are often imagined, literally or metaphorically, to involve some sort of “tracing” activity.  In other cases, memory was understood as changes to what the brain is capable of doing, and image-like memories (or even ideas) are just some of the things it is capable of producing.  Understood this way, the brain is a spongelike system of tubes; spirits or fluids flow through its passages (see Exhibit 14).  In either case, however, the engram is a change that remembers past activity.  

“Exogram” means something like an external trace; these are markings made in external media, and that carry significance, much in the same way as the brain is changed by its experiences.  Such exograms, by extension, represent functionally similar traces in physical media, ways that we change our environments as a way of recording the past.

Merlin’s theory has been called overpowerful, which I think it probably is, for in the end it threatens to swallow up virtually all of human activity, including what we call “culture.”  And it isn’t clear, in this swollen state, that the theory has much to tell us, for obviously culture is there in part to remember the past.  But I nevertheless find the concept illuminating, for it can help us make sense of a set of related remarks that bubble up with regularity when writers are tackling the physical components of thought.  For thinkers have repeatedly observed that ideas seem to move from minds to things and back again, through the excogitative process described by Robert Hooke, and others.  The exogram provides, in other words, a touchstone for finding moments where writers have struggled with the seeming similarities of minds and environments, the places where objects have stood in for ideas, or ideas for objects.  When Robert Plot speaks of the traces of vanished Rome, or Robert Hooke of the grammar of a period, they are differently puzzling out the ways that thinking hinges naturally on physical media.  They are offering theories of the exogram.

Perhaps the period’s most important theorist of exograms (though, naturally, under a different name) was Joseph Addison, the statesman and belletrist best-known for his contributions to the Spectator.  Though the Spectator ran for only a couple of years, its influence is unmatched among daily papers; not even the first of its kind, it nevertheless set a new standard for style, seizing and educating a rapidly emerging set of readers, the newly leisured middle class.  Each issue was a single large sheet of paper, printed on both sides, containing a single essay and a handful of advertisements.  The bulk of these essays were penned by Addison and co-author Richard Steele, and, taken together, they ushered in new forms of politeness, a set of habits of deportment and discourse that were part of a more general shift of power from the monarchy to the elected officials of the republic.  In other words, The Spectator was part of what it meant to become a “public,” where cultural and political matters might be aired, discussed, and debated.  And it moreover helped to set the rules of this sort of activity, what we have come to call polite conversation.

Harried by constant deadlines, Addison, in the second year of the periodical, reached back to an early philosophical essay he had penned while at Oxford.  He hastily broke up this single longish treatise into eleven separate essays, publishing them in eleven consecutive issues, thereby, among other things, buying himself a few weeks.  Taken together, these essays are called “The Pleasures of the Imagination,” and they not only isolate Addison’s thoughts about his own thinking processes; they also inspired numerous further treatises, including Mark Akenside’s twin epic poems of similar titles.  Among other things, Addison's treatise was the first major attempt to justify pleasure within an empiricist philosophy, to link sensations of joy and delight to sensory impressions.  And it is for this reason, as a very early essay in aesthetics, that Addison’s “Pleasures” was among the most influential philosophical treatises in eighteenth-century England.  Perhaps only John Locke’s Essay Concerning Understanding had a wider influence.

Yet, for all its attempts at transparency, “The Pleasures of the Imagination” can seem opaque to modern-day readers.  This is in part because Addison meant “imagination” in a very different way than we mean the word today.  Perhaps his imagination even worked differently from ours.  For Addison, the imagination isn’t particularly creative—at least not in the way we mean it now.  He does not mean what we would probably mean—ie dreaming of absent things, whether real or not.  Addison's imagination has powers halfway between the stage of a theater and its prop room.  It in other words is very much like a workshop in a museum (a theory mooted by Robert Hooke, see Exhibit 11), for it is the place in the mind where one of two things happens.  The imagination is where sensory perceptions are first received and vetted by the understanding; similarly, the imagination is where the same perceptions are later called up, compared, combined, contrasted, or divided.  As such, by the imagination’s “pleasures,” Addison means to name the pleasures that accompany seeing an artwork, or an expanse of open terrain.  They are also the pleasures that accompany remembering those same visions.  Finally, they are the pleasures that come when a view summons up memories of similar views, or other things with which that view might be connected.

Addison therefore offers among the clearest statements of the general proposition that the mind is a collection.  Imagination is its central resource, the space where a curator-like intellect receives, sorts, summons up, and contemplates its many objects.  It is in this light that another detail about Addison’s life, one that mainly gets swept under the rug, becomes luminescent.  Addison was a collector of coins.  (He was also a gardener, see Exhibit 14.)  In fact, his longest-running project, stretching from his early days at Oxford (where he also began his philosophical papers) to the last years of his retirement was his collection of coins.  He seems to have tinkered with the catalogue accompanying them, on and off, for most of his adult life.

It is because he understands the mind essentially as a curatorial machine that Addison developed an early theory of exograms.  Addison even has a word for the exogram.  It is “hint.”  Addison subscribed to a physicalist theory of mentation.  If pressed, he would have agreed that thinking is tied to brain states; in other words, he held that mentation, especially in its faculties of memory and imagination, isn’t the property of an immaterial soul, but rather something tied to fluid processes in the brain.  It is a system he may have learned from Thomas Willis (Exhibit 4a); thinking is mostly the work of fluids coursing through the brain’s passages.  It is unclear from his account exactly how he imagines this to work, but it seems that these passages are like associative links between ideas.  In other words, such a mind has places, where ideas are stored, and these places are linked by passages, through which ideas are associated each to each.  The imagination is the central station that presides over them all, possibly like Thomas Willis’s “callous body,” the brain’s theater and control room.

It is in considering how the imagination responds to impressions that Addison develops a theory of the hint.  A hint may be a word, an idea, or an object, but it has the power to kick off an explosion of brain activity.  The brain, Addison remarks, “takes a hint,” and is led into unexpected vistas, fully realized landscapes, glorious gardens of the imagination.  Hints are in this sense like nutshells; not every brain can recognize every one, and nearly anything can, in the right light, provide one.  The world is in other words full of hints; hints are everywhere around, waiting for the right person to stumble upon them.  And it is worth pausing to remember another thinker for whom the “hint” was an important concept.  This was Robert Boyle, one of the key members of the Royal Society, and perhaps the most important experimental philosopher when it came to early empirical work in England.  For Boyle, like Addison, the best thinking begins with little details, which expand, through the mind’s natural propensities, into large vistas or revised views of things.

I elsewhere discuss Addison's importance to the history of gardening (Exhibit 14)-- and elaborate on some of the ways that walking out, which is to say, "digressing," was important to his thinking about thinking.  For now, I just want to notice that Addison's understanding of the "hint" helps us understand the importance of this particular coin to Addison’s theories of brainwork.  The coin appears in Addison’s Dialogues on the Usefulness of Ancient Medals—which is the closest thing we have to a catalogue of his collection; this means that he likely owned a copy of the coin itself.  The Dialogues are posed as a conversation between three friends, as they pore over medals in a cabinet.  Actually, the dialogues begin with the three friends on a stroll, sauntering along a straight path along a river, with views like "alleys" cut in trees and hedgerows-- not unlike the ones behind Magdalen College still called "Addison's Walk" (Exhibit 14); the coins in the cabinet are offered as a substitute for an actual walk with various views.  Driven indoors by the heat, the three companions rummage through drawers, prompted to speak by the medals they find, and finding medals new medals as prompted by the turns their conversation takes.  It rapidly becomes clear that the catalogue of medals might as well be a catalogue of the combined intellects of the three men, who are all well versed in classical culture, for their conversation loops out between medals into their combined sites of classical learning.  In other words, their talk, which is already a substitution for a walk, becomes a series of linguistic strolls.  They digress.

Addison’s three discoursing companions only touch on the politics the coin records.  They are struck instead by the lion’s skin the soldier wears as a headdress.  This is a kind of nutshell.  The lion's skin is clearly not the purpose of the coin; it is something caught up, as if by accident, in the image the coin conveys.  And it sparks a long philosophical ramble.  Their interest in this curious headgear launches a discussion of lions in the classical Mediterranean region—where found, how slain, what significant of—then of lion’s skins generally, of Hercules’s costume as it is described historically, and of the dress of soldiers considered transhistorically.  The discussion does not end there; without having exhausted the topic of unusual clothing, Cynthio, one of Addison’s speakers, “cannot forbear remarking” on the “usual Roman habit.”  The three companions find themselves reciting a moment in the Aeneid, in which Juno demands that the Romans, in memory of the fall of Troy, must forever after “wear the same habits” as their Trojan ancestors.  This is a digression, constructed between friends, equally as magnificent and wide-ranging as anything in Robert Plot's History of Oxfordshire.  The passage from the Aeneid becomes the excuse to introduce a new coin—linked evidently only by association with Virgil—thus signaling the end of one digression, and the immediate beginning of the next.

Each medal is, in other words, a hint, and the speakers take these hints as excuses to talk.  And each entry in the conversation, each speech or expression, is also a hint, leading the speakers back on the trail to the drawers of medals they collectively consider.  Word to medal, thing to idea, they are linked each to each by association.  This, Addison reminds us, is where their pleasure comes from.  The Dialogues are in other words a series of chained digressions, endlessly looped one after another.  This is the special genre of the museum, and, as becomes clear, this is an immensely pleasurable activity; it stretches over three days, ended each day only by nightfall.

I will finally just note that it is in this set of dialogues that Addison offers another telling metaphor, one that tells us that we are fully embedded in an ecology.  He remarks on the mind of a collector; the collector’s mind contains, he suggests, drawers of medals, just like his cabinet.  His dreams are filled with the same emblems as the coins he studies.  But this is only the most obvious way that Addison’s coins are the stuff of thought, for they also anchor a kind of digressive thinking that loops into and out of the world of things.  Engram and exogram are in this sense interchangeable as “hints” to good conversation, and conversation, with its rules of politeness, is the curatorial activity that makes possible the establishment of people thinking together, of the publics that were among the great achievements of Addison’s age.