Pallas (freedman)

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Marcus Antonius Pallas (c. 1–63) was a prominent Greek freedman and secretary during the reigns of the Roman Emperors Claudius and Nero. His younger brother was Marcus Antonius Felix, a procurator of Iudaea Province. According to Tacitus, Pallas and Felix descended from the Greek Kings of Arcadia.

Pallas was originally a slave of Antonia Minor, a daughter of Mark Antony and niece of Emperor Augustus. Pallas took her name when freed. Josephus mentions him as the slave sent by Antonia to deliver evidence to the emperor Tiberius concerning the murder of his son Julius Caesar Drusus by Sejanus. Antonia probably manumitted Pallas between the years of 31 and 37, when he would have passed the minimum age for freedom. He is listed as owning land in Egypt during that period, possibly as a reward for his servitude. When Antonia died in 37, he became the client of her son, Claudius, as tradition dictated at the death of a former master and patron.

As a freedman, Pallas rose to great heights in the imperial government. From the beginning of Claudius' reign, the senate was openly hostile to him, which forced him to centralize powers. The daily maintenance of the empire was too much for one man, so Claudius divided it up amongst his trusted freedmen. Pallas was made secretary of the treasury. He did this job with such efficiency that Cornelius Scipio proposed before the Senate that he be rewarded. The position apparently enabled Pallas to reward himself as well, as he is later listed as one of the richest men of the time by Pliny the Elder. The historians do admit that he never embezzled directly from the imperial account, and his wealth may have come from his financial acumen. Some ancient historians claim that he was able to control the emperor through his high-ranking position, but this is probably not the case. When his brother Felix was recalled to Rome to stand trial for maladministration, Pallas could not prevent him from being banished, though he was at the height of his career. Nor could he prevent his fellow freedman-administrator Polybius from being executed for treason.

In the second half of Claudius' reign, Pallas chose to support Agrippina the Younger as a new empress after the fall of Empress Messalina. Tacitus notes his intent to reunite the Julian and Claudian families through the marriage, and prevent either a future husband of Agrippina or Agrippina herself from claiming the throne. But the ancient authors also state that the real reason for his choice was that Pallas and Agrippina were lovers. Modern historians suggest that their relationship was strictly business, and they helped each other with mutual goals. Pallas' influence on Agrippina was real and became well-known, but he continued to advise Claudius on matters of state. He was the source of a law that stated that a free woman who married a slave would remain free if the master approved.

According to Tacitus, Tiberius Claudius Narcissus, another powerful freedman at the court, hoped to bring down Agrippina by revealing her alleged affair with Pallas, which would also have undermined the position of her son Nero. Narcissus had allied himself with Britannicus, Nero's principal competitor for the succession. When Nero succeeded Claudius, Narcissus was arrested and executed. Pallas retained his position in the treasury for a time. It is suggested that he assisted Agrippina in murdering Claudius, since he was sure of his future security. This security did not last long. In 55, Nero dismissed Pallas from service, tired of having to deal with any allies of Agrippina. He further accused Pallas of conspiring to overthrow him and place Faustus Sulla, the husband of Claudius' daughter Claudia Antonia, on the throne. Seneca, who was prominent in Nero's circle, came to Pallas' defense at the trial and got him acquitted. Pallas did not elude Nero's wrath forever, and was killed on Nero's orders in 63 - possibly to gain access to his large fortune, part of which was his by right as Pallas' official patron. Some money must have gone to Pallas' family, as a descendant of his became consul in 167.

Pallas is a character in Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius; in the TV series, he is portrayed by Bernard Hepton.

Sources[edit]

  • Oost, S.V. "The Career of M. Antonius Pallas." American Journal of Philology 79 (1958). 113-139.