Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus or Claudius I was born on 1 August, 10 BC in Lugdunum in Gaul(modern-day Lyon, France)and died on 13 October, 54 AD (Tiberius Claudius Drusus from birth to 4 AD, then Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus from then until his accession). Claudius’ ashes were interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus on 24 October, after a funeral in the manner of Augustus.
Claudius was the 4th Roman Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, ruling from 24 January,41 AD to his death in 54 AD. Claudius was born to Drusus and Antonia Minor, he was the 1st Roman Emperor to be born outside Italia.
Claudius was considered a rather unlikely man to become emperor. Claudius was reportedly afflicted with some type of disability, and his family had virtually excluded him from public office until his consulship with his nephew Caligula in 37 AD. This infirmity may have saved him from the fate of many other Roman nobles during the purges of Tiberius’ and Caligula’s reigns. Claudius’ very survival led to his being declared emperor after Caligula’s assassination, at which point he was the last adult male of his family.
Despite his lack of political experience, Claudius proved to be an able administrator and a great builder of public works. Claudius’ reign saw an expansion of the empire, including the conquest of Britain. Claudius took a personal interest in the law, presided at public trials, and issued up to 20 edicts a day; however, he was seen as vulnerable throughout his rule, particularly by the nobility. Claudius was constantly forced to shore up his position—resulting in the deaths of many senators. Claudius also suffered tragic setbacks in his personal life, one of which may have led to his murder. These events damaged his reputation among the ancient writers. More recent historians have revised this opinion.
The historian Suetonius describes the physical manifestations of Claudius’ affliction in relatively good detail. Claudius’ knees were weak and gave way under him and his head shook. Claudius stammered and his speech was confused. Claudius slobbered and his nose ran when he was excited. The Stoic Seneca states in his Apocolocyntosis that Claudius’ voice belonged to no land animal, and that his hands were weak as well; however, he showed no physical deformity, as Suetonius notes that when calm and seated he was a tall, well-built figure of dignitas. When angered or stressed, his symptoms became worse. Historians agree that this improved upon his accession to the throne. Claudius himself claimed that he had exaggerated his ailments to save his own life.
The modern diagnosis has changed several times in the past century. Prior to World War II, infantile paralysis (or polio) was widely accepted as the cause. This is the diagnosis used in Robert Graves’ Claudius novels, first published in the 1930s. Polio does not explain many of the described symptoms, however, and a more recent theory implicates cerebral palsy as the cause, as outlined by Ernestine Leon. Tourette syndrome is also a likely candidate for Claudius’ symptoms.
On the personal front, the ancient historians describe Claudius as generous and lowbrow, a man who cracked lame jokes, laughed uncontrollably, and lunched with the plebeians. They also paint him as bloodthirsty and cruel, overly fond of both gladiatorial combat and executions, and very quick to anger (though Claudius himself acknowledged this last trait, and apologised publicly for his temper). To them he was also overly trusting, and easily manipulated by his wives and freedmen. But at the same time they portray him as paranoid and apathetic, dull and easily confused. The extant works of Claudius present a different view, painting a picture of an intelligent, scholarly, well-read, and conscientious administrator with an eye to detail and justice. Thus, Claudius becomes an enigma. Since the discovery of his “Letter to the Alexandrians” in the last century, much work has been done to rehabilitate Claudius and determine where the truth lies.
Claudius was born on the day of the dedication of an altar to Augustus. Claudius’ parents were Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia, and he had 2 older siblings named Germanicus and Livilla. Antonia may have had 2 other children who died young, as well.
Claudius’ maternal grandparents were Mark Antony and Octavia Minor, Caesar Augustus’ sister. Claudius’ paternal grandparents were Livia, Augustus’ 3rd wife, and Tiberius Claudius Nero. During his reign, Claudius revived the rumor that his father Drusus was actually the illegitimate son of Augustus.
In 9 BC, Drusus unexpectedly died, possibly from an injury. Claudius was then left to be raised by his mother, who never remarried. When Claudius’ afflictions became evident, the relationship with his family turned sour. Antonia referred to him as a monster, and used him as a standard for stupidity. She seems to have passed her son off on his grandmother Livia for a number of years. Livia was little kinder, and often sent him short, angry letters of reproof. Claudius was put under the care of a “former mule-driver” to keep him disciplined, under the logic that his condition was due to laziness and a lack of will-power. However, by the time he reached his teenage years his symptoms apparently waned and his family took some notice of his scholarly interests. In 7 AD, Livy was hired to tutor him in history, with the assistance of Sulpicius Flavus. Claudius spent a lot of his time with the latter and the philosopher Athenodorus. Augustus, according to a letter, was surprised at the clarity of Claudius’ oratory. Expectations about his future began to increase.
In the end, it was his work as a budding historian that destroyed his early career. According to Vincent Scramuzza and others, Claudius began work on a history of the Civil Wars that was either too truthful or too critical of Octavian. In either case, it was far too early for such an account, and may have only served to remind Augustus that Claudius was Antony’s descendant. Claudius’ mother and grandmother quickly put a stop to it, and this may have proved to them that Claudius was not fit for public office. Claudius could not be trusted to toe the existing party line. When he returned to the narrative later in life, Claudius skipped over the wars of the 2nd triumvirate altogether. But the damage was done, and his family pushed him to the background. When the Arch of Pavia was erected to honor the imperial clan in 8AD, Claudius’ name (now Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus after his elevation to paterfamilias of Claudii Nerones on the adoption of his brother) was inscribed on the edge—past the deceased princes, Gaius and Lucius, and Germanicus’ children. There is some speculation that the inscription was added by Claudius himself decades later, and that he originally did not appear at all.
Gratus proclaims Claudius emperor. Detail from A Roman Emperor 41AD, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Oil on canvas, c. 1871. When Augustus died in 14 AD, Claudius then 23 appealed to his uncle Tiberius to allow him to begin the cursus honorum. Tiberius, the new emperor, responded by granting Claudius consular ornaments. Claudius requested office once more and was snubbed. Since the new emperor was not any more generous than the old, Claudius gave up hope of public office and retired to a scholarly, private life.
Despite the disdain of the imperial family, it seems that from very early on the general public respected Claudius. At Augustus’ death, the equites, or knights, chose Claudius to head their delegation. When his house burned down, the Senate demanded it be rebuilt at public expense. They also requested that Claudius be allowed to debate in the senate. Tiberius turned down both motions, but the sentiment remained. During the period immediately after the death of Tiberius’ son, Drusus, Claudius was pushed by some quarters as a potential heir. This again suggests the political nature of his exclusion from public life. However, as this was also the period during which the power and terror of the Praetorian Sejanus was at its peak, Claudius chose to downplay this possibility.
After the death of Tiberius the new emperor Caligula recognised Claudius to be of some use. Caligula appointed Claudius his co-consul in 37 AD in order to emphasize the memory of Caligula’s deceased father Germanicus. Despite this, Caligula relentlessly tormented his uncle: playing practical jokes, charging him enormous sums of money, humiliating him before the Senate, and the like. According to Cassius Dio, as well a possible surviving portrait, Claudius became very sickly and thin by the end of Caligula’s reign—most likely due to stress.
On 24 January, 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a broad-based conspiracy (including Praetorian commander Cassius Chaerea and several Senators). There is no evidence that Claudius had a direct hand in the assassination, although it has been argued that he knew about the plot—particularly since he left the scene of the crime shortly before the event. However, after the deaths of Caligula’s wife and daughter, it became apparent that Cassius intended to go beyond the terms of the conspiracy and wipe out the imperial family. In the chaos following the murder, Claudius witnessed the German guard cut down several uninvolved noblemen, including friends of his. Concerned for his survival, he fled to the palace to hide himself. According to tradition, a Praetorian named Gratus found him hiding behind a curtain and suddenly declared him imperator. A section of the guard may have planned in advance to seek out Claudius, perhaps with his approval. They reassured him that they were not one of the battalions looking for revenge. Claudius was spirited away to the Praetorian camp and put under their protection.
The Senate quickly met and began debating a change of government, but this eventually devolved into an argument over which of them would be the new Princeps. When they heard of the Praetorians’ claim, they demanded that Claudius be delivered to them for approval, but he refused, rightly sensing the danger that would come with complying. Some historians, particularly Josephus, claim that Claudius was directed in his actions by the Judean King Herod Agrippa. However, an earlier version of events by the same ancient author downplays Agrippa’s role so it is not known how large a hand he had in things. Eventually the Senate was forced to give in and, in return, Claudius pardoned nearly all the assassins.
Claudius issued this denarius type to emphasize his clemency after Caligula’s assassination. The depiction of the goddess Pax-Nemesis, representing subdued vengeance, would be used on the coins of many later emperors. Claudius took several steps to legitimize his rule against potential usurpers, most of them emphasizing his place within the Julio-Claudian family. Claudius adopted the name “Caesar” as a cognomen — the name still carried great weight with the populace. In order to do so, he dropped the cognomen “Nero” which he had adopted as paterfamilias of the Claudii Nerones when his brother Germanicus was adopted out. While he had never been adopted by Augustus or his successors, he was the grandson of Octavia, and so felt he had the right. Claudius also adopted the name “Augustus” as the 2 previous emperors had done at their accessions. Claudius kept the honorific “Germanicus” in order to display the connection with his heroic brother. Claudius deified his paternal grandmother Livia in order to highlight her position as wife of the divine Augustus. Claudius frequently used the term “filius Drusi” (son of Drusus) in his titles, in order to remind the people of his legendary father and lay claim to his reputation.
Because he was proclaimed emperor on the initiative of the Praetorian Guard instead of the Senate — the 1st emperor thus proclaimed — Claudius’ repute suffered at the hands of commentators (such as Seneca). Moreover, he was the 1st Emperor who resorted to bribery as a means to secure army loyalty. This is not entirely how it seems. Tiberius and Augustus had both left gifts to the army and guard in their wills, and on the death of Caligula the same would have been expected, even if no will existed. Claudius remained grateful to the guard, however, issuing coins with tributes to the praetorians in the early part of his reign.
Model of the Temple of the divine Claudius, erected in Colchester after the conquest of Britain.Under Claudius, the empire underwent its first major expansion since the reign of Augustus. The provinces of Thrace, Noricum, Pamphylia, Lycia, and Judea were annexed under various circumstances during his term. The annexation of Mauretania, begun under Caligula, was completed after the defeat of rebel forces, and the official division of the former client kingdom into 2 imperial provinces. The most important new conquest was that of Britannia.
In 43 AD, Claudius sent Aulus Plautius with 4 legions to Britain (Britannia) after an appeal from an ousted tribal ally. Britain was an attractive target for Rome because of its material wealth — particularly mines and slaves. It was also a safe haven for Gallic rebels and the like, and so could not be left alone much longer. Claudius himself traveled to the island after the completion of initial offensives, bringing with him reinforcements and elephants. The latter must have made an impression on the Britons when they were used in the capture of Camulodunum. Claudius left after 16 days, but remained in the provinces for some time. The Senate granted him a triumph for his efforts, as only members of the imperial family were allowed such honours. Claudius later lifted this restriction for some of his conquering generals. Claudius was granted the honorific “Britannicus” but only accepted it on behalf of his son, never using the title himself. When the British general, Caractacus, was finally captured in 50 AD, Claudius granted him clemency. Caractacus lived out his days on land provided by the Roman state, an unusual end for an enemy commander, but one that must have calmed the British opposition.
Claudius conducted a census in 48 AD that found 5,984,072 Roman citizens, an increase of around 1, 000,000 since the census conducted at Augustus’ death. Claudius had helped increase this number through the foundation of Roman colonies that were granted blanket citizenship. These colonies were often made out of existing communities, especially those with elites who could rally the populace to the Roman cause. Several colonies were placed in new provinces or on the border of the empire in order to secure Roman holdings as quickly as possible.
Coins of this type were first issued to commemorate the birth of Claudius’ son Britannicus in 41 AD. Claudius personally judged many of the legal cases tried during his reign. Ancient historians have many complaints about this, stating that his judgments were variable and sometimes did not follow the law. Claudius was also easily swayed. Nevertheless, Claudius paid detailed attention to the operation of the judicial system. Claudius extended the summer court session, as well as the winter term, by shortening the traditional breaks. Claudius also made a law requiring plaintiffs to remain in the city while their cases were pending, as defendants had previously been required to do. These measures had the effect of clearing out the docket. The minimum age for jurors was also raised to 25 in order to ensure a more experienced jury pool.
Claudius also settled disputes in the provinces. Claudius freed the island of Rhodes from Roman rule for their good faith and exempted Troy from taxes. Early in his reign, the Greeks and Jews of Alexandria sent him 2 embassies at once after riots broke out between the 2 communities. This resulted in the famous “Letter to the Alexandrians,” which reaffirmed Jewish rights in the city but also forbade them to move in more families en masse. According to Josephus, he then reaffirmed the rights and freedoms of all the Jews in the empire. An investigator of Claudius’ discovered that many old Roman citizens based in the modern city of Trento were not in fact citizens. The emperor issued a declaration that they would be considered to hold citizenship from then on, since to strip them of their status would cause major problems. However, in individual cases, Claudius punished false assumption of citizenship harshly, making it a capital offense. Similarly, any freedmen found to be impersonating equestrians were sold back into slavery.
Numerous edicts were issued throughout Claudius’ reign. These were on a number of topics, everything from medical advice to moral judgments. 2 famous medical examples are 1 promoting Yew juice as a cure for snakebite, and another promoting public flatulence for good health. One of the more famous edicts concerned the status of sick slaves. Masters had been abandoning ailing slaves at the temple of Aesculapius to die, and then reclaiming them if they lived. Claudius ruled that slaves who recovered after such treatment would be free. Furthermore, masters who chose to kill slaves rather than take the risk were liable to be charged with murder.
Claudius embarked on many public works throughout his reign, both in the capital and in the provinces. Claudius built 2 aqueducts, the Aqua Claudia, begun by Caligula, and the Anio Novus. These entered the city in 52 AD and met at the famous Porta Maggiore. Claudius also restored a 3rd, the Aqua Virgo.
Throughout Italy and the provinces he built roads and canals. Among these was a large canal leading from the Rhine to the sea, as well as a road from Italy to Germany — both begun by his father, Drusus. Closer to Rome, he built a navigable canal on the Tiber, leading to Portus, his new port just north of Ostia. This port was constructed in a semicircle with two moles and a lighthouse at its mouth. The construction also had the effect of reducing flooding in Rome.
The port at Ostia was part of Claudius’ solution to the constant grain shortages that occurred in winter, after the Roman shipping season. The other part of his solution was to insure the ships of grain merchants who were willing to risk traveling to Egypt in the off-season. Claudius also granted their sailors special privileges, including citizenship and exemption from the Lex Papia-Poppaea, a law that regulated marriage. In addition, he repealed the taxes that Caligula had instituted on food, and further reduced taxes on communities suffering drought or famine.
The last part of Claudius’ plan was to increase the amount of arable land in Italy. This was to be achieved by draining the Fucine lake, which would have the added benefit of making the nearby river navigable all year-round. A tunnel was dug through the lake bed, but the plan was a failure. The tunnel was not large enough to carry the water, and crooked, which caused it to back up when opened. The resultant flood washed out a large gladiatorial exhibition held to commemorate the opening, causing Claudius to run for his life along with the other spectators. The draining of the lake was revisited many times in history, including by emperors Hadrian and Trajan, and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the Middle Ages. It was finally achieved by the Prince Torlonia in the 19th century, producing over 160,000 new acres of arable land. Prince Torlonia expanded the Claudian tunnel to 3 times its original size.
Because of the circumstances of his accession, Claudius took great pains to please the Senate. During regular sessions, the emperor sat amongst the Senate body, speaking in turn. When introducing a law, he sat on a bench between the consuls in his position as Holder of the Power of Tribune (The emperor could not officially serve as a Tribune of the Plebes as he was a Patrician, but it was a power taken by previous rulers). Claudius refused to accept all his predecessors’ titles (including Imperator) at the beginning of his reign, preferring to earn them in due course. Claudius allowed the Senate to issue its own bronze coinage for the first time since Augustus. Claudius also put the imperial provinces of Macedonia and Achaea back under Senate control.
Claudius set about remodeling the Senate into a more efficient, representative body. Claudius chided the senators about their reluctance to debate bills introduced by himself, as noted in the fragments of a surviving speech:
“If you accept these proposals, Conscript Fathers, say so at once and simply, in accordance with your convictions. If you do not accept them, find alternatives, but do so here and now; or if you wish to take time for consideration, take it, provided you do not forget that you must be ready to pronounce your opinion whenever you may be summoned to meet. It ill befits the dignity of the Senate that the consul designate should repeat the phrases of the consuls word for word as his opinion, and that every one else should merely say ‘I approve’, and that then, after leaving, the assembly should announce ‘We debated’.”
It is not known whether this plea had any effect on discourse.
The reverse reads “EX SC PP OB CIVES SERVATOS”, meaning “Senatus Consulto” (approved by the Senate), “Pater Patriae” (to the father of his country), “Ob Cives Servatos” (For having saved the citizens).In 47 AD he assumed the office of Censor with Lucius Vitellius, which had been allowed to lapse for some time. Claudius struck the names of many senators and equites who no longer met qualifications, but showed respect by allowing them to resign in advance. At the same time, he sought to admit eligible men from the provinces. The Lyons Tablet preserves his speech on the admittance of Gallic senators, in which he addresses the Senate with reverence but also with criticism for their disdain of these men. Claudius also increased the number of Patricians by adding new families to the dwindling number of noble lines. Here he followed the precedent of Lucius Junius Brutus and Julius Caesar.
Despite this, many in the Senate remained hostile to Claudius, and many plots were made on his life. This hostility carried over into the historical accounts. As a result, Claudius was forced to reduce the Senate’s power for efficiency. The administration of Ostia was turned over to an imperial Procurator after construction of the port. Administration of many of the empire’s financial concerns was turned over to imperial appointees and freedmen. This led to further resentment and suggestions that these same freedmen were ruling the emperor.
Several coup attempts were made during Claudius’ reign, resulting in the deaths of many senators. Appius Silanus was executed early in Claudius’ reign under questionable circumstances. Shortly after, a large rebellion was undertaken by the Senator Vinicianus and Scribonianus, the governor of Dalmatia and gained quite a few senatorial supporters. It ultimately failed because of the reluctance of Scribonianus’ troops, and the suicide of the main conspirators. Many other senators tried different conspiracies and were condemned. Claudius’ son-in-law Pompeius Magnus was executed for his part in a conspiracy with his father Crassus Frugi. Another plot involved the consulars Lusiius Saturninus, Cornelius Lupus, and Pompeius Pedo. In 46 AD, Asinius Gallus, the grandson of Asinius Pollio, and Statilius Corvinus were exiled for a plot hatched with several of Claudius’ own freedmen. Valerius Asiaticus was executed without public trial for unknown reasons. The ancient sources say the charge was adultery, and that Claudius was tricked into issuing the punishment. However, Claudius singles out Asiaticus for special damnation in his speech on the Gauls, which dates over a year later, suggesting that the charge must have been much more serious. Asiaticus had been a claimant to the throne in the chaos following Caligula’s death and a co-consul with the Statilius Corvinus mentioned above. Most of these conspiracies took place before Claudius’ term as Censor, and may have induced him to review the Senatorial rolls. The conspiracy of Gaius Silius in the year after his Censorship, 48 AD, is detailed in the section discussing Claudius’s 3rd wife, Messalina. Suetonius states that a total of 35 senators and 300 knights were executed for offenses during Claudius’ reign. Needless to say, the necessary responses to these conspiracies could not have helped Senate-emperor relations.
Claudius was hardly the first emperor to use freedmen to help with the day-to-day running of the empire. Claudius was, however, forced to increase their role as the powers of the Princeps became more centralized and the burden larger. This was partly due to the ongoing hostility of the senate, as mentioned above, but also due to his respect for the senators. Claudius did not want free-born magistrates to have to serve under him, as if they were not peers.
The secretariat was divided into bureaus, with each being placed under the leadership of one freedman. Narcissus was the secretary of correspondence. Pallas became the secretary of the treasury. Callistus became secretary of justice. There was a 4th bureau for miscellaneous issues, which was put under Polybius until his execution for treason. The freedmen could also officially speak for the emperor, as when Narcissus addressed the troops in Claudius’ stead before the conquest of Britain. Since these were important positions, the senators were aghast at their being placed in the hands of former slaves. If freedmen had total control of money, letters, and law, it seemed it would not be hard for them to manipulate the emperor. This is exactly the accusation put forth by the ancient sources. However, these same sources admit that the freedmen were loyal to Claudius. Claudius was similarly appreciative of them and gave them due credit for policies where he had used their advice. However, if they showed treasonous inclinations, the emperor did punish them with just force, as in the case of Polybius and Pallas’ brother, Felix. There is no evidence that the character of Claudius’ policies and edicts changed with the rise and fall of the various freedmen, suggesting that he was firmly in control throughout.
Regardless of the extent of their political power, the freedmen did manage to amass wealth through their positions. Pliny the Elder notes that several of them were richer than Crassus, the richest man of the Republican era.
Claudius, as the author of a treatise on Augustus’ religious reforms, felt himself in a good position to institute some of his own. Claudius had strong opinions about the proper form for state religion. Claudius refused the request of Alexandrian Greeks to dedicate a temple to his divinity, saying that only gods may choose new gods. Claudius restored lost days to festivals and got rid of many extraneous celebrations added by Caligula. Claudius reinstituted old observances and archaic language. Claudius was concerned with the spread of eastern mysteries within the city and searched for more Roman replacements. Claudius emphasized the Eleusinian mysteries which had been practiced by so many during the Republic. Claudius expelled foreign astrologers, and at the same time rehabilitated the old Roman soothsayers (known as haruspices) as a replacement. Claudius was especially hard on Druidism, because of its incompatibility with the Roman state religion and its proselytizing activities. It is also reported that at one time he expelled the Jews from Rome, probably because the appearance of Christianity had caused unrest within the Jewish community. Claudius opposed proselytizing in any religion, even in those regions where he allowed natives to worship freely. The results of all these efforts were recognized even by Seneca, who has an ancient Latin god defend Claudius in his satire.
According to Suetonius, Claudius was extraordinarily fond of games. Claudius is said to have risen with the crowd after gladiatorial matches and given unrestrained praise to the fighters. Claudius also presided over many new and original events. Soon after coming into power, Claudius instituted games to be held in honour of his father on the latter’s birthday. Annual games were also held in honour of his accession, and took place at the Praetorian camp where Claudius had first been proclaimed emperor. Claudius performed the Secular games, marking the 800th anniversary of the founding of Rome. Augustus had performed the same games less than a century prior. Augustus’ excuse was that the interval for the games was 110 years, not 100, but his date actually did not qualify under either reasoning. Claudius also presented naval battles to mark the attempted draining of the Fucine lake, as well as many other public games and shows.
At Ostia, in front of a crowd of spectators, Claudius fought a whale trapped in the harbor.
“ A killer whale was actually seen in the harbor of Ostia, locked in combat with the emperor Claudius. Ostia had come when he was completing the construction of the harbor, drawn there by the wreck of a ship bringing leather hides from Gaul, and feeding there over a number of days, had made a furrow in the shallows: the waves had raised up such a mound of sand that she couldn’t turn around at all, and while she was pursuing her banquet as the waves moved it shorewards, her back stuck up out of the water like the overturned keel of a boat. The emperor ordered that a large array of nets be stretched across the mouths of the harbor, and setting out in person with the praetorian cohorts gave a show to the Roman people, soldiers showering lances from attacking ships, one of which I saw swamped by the beast’s waterspout and sunk. — From “On Natural History” by Pliny the Elder”
Claudius also restored and adorned many of the venues around Rome. The old wooden barriers of the Circus Maximus were replaced with ones made of gold-ornamented marble. A new section of the Circus was designated for seating the senators, who previously had sat among the general public. Claudius rebuilt Pompey’s Theater after it had been destroyed by fire, throwing special fights at the rededication which he observed from a special platform in the orchestra box.
The general consensus of ancient historians was that Claudius was murdered by poison — possibly contained in mushrooms or on a feather — and died in the early hours of 13 October, 54 AD. Accounts vary greatly. Some claim Claudius was in Rome while others claim he was in Sinuessa. Some implicate either Halotus, his taster, Xenophon, his doctor, or the infamous poisoner Locusta as the administrator of the fatal substance. Some say he died after prolonged suffering following a single dose at dinner, and some have him recovering only to be poisoned again. Nearly all implicate his final wife, Agrippina, as the instigator. Agrippina and Claudius had become more combative in the months leading up to his death. This carried on to the point where Claudius openly lamented his bad wives, and began to comment on Britannicus’ approaching manhood with an eye towards restoring his status within the royal family. Agrippina had motive in ensuring the succession of Nero before Britannicus could gain power.
In modern times, some authors have cast doubt on whether Claudius was murdered or merely succumbed to illness or old age. Some modern scholars claim the universality of the accusations in ancient texts lends credence to the crime. History in those days could not be objectively collected or written, so sometimes amounted to committing whispered gossip to parchment, often years after the events, when the writer was no longer in danger of arrest.
Model of ancient Rome showing the Temple of Claudius, built by Vespasian. The Aqua Claudia aqueduct runs next to it, and the Colosseum sits adjacent. Claudius was deified by Nero and the Senate almost immediately. Those who regard this homage as cynical should note that, cynical or not, such a move would hardly have benefited those involved, had Claudius been “hated”, as some commentators, both modern and historic, characterize him. Many of Claudius’ less solid supporters quickly became Nero’s men. Claudius’ will had been changed shortly before his death to either recommend Nero and Britannicus jointly or perhaps just Britannicus, who would be considered a man in a few months.
Agrippina had sent away Narcissus shortly before Claudius’ death, and now murdered the freedman. The last act of this secretary of letters was to burn all of Claudius’ correspondence—most likely so it could not be used against him and others in an already hostile new regime. Thus Claudius’ private words about his own policies and motives were lost to history. Just as Claudius has criticized his predecessors in official edicts (see below), Nero often criticized the deceased emperor and many of Claudius’ laws and edicts were disregarded under the reasoning that he was too stupid and senile to have meant them. This opinion of Claudius, that he was indeed an old idiot, remained the official one for the duration of Nero’s reign. Eventually Nero stopped referring to his deified adoptive father at all, and realigned with his birth family. Claudius’ temple was left unfinished after only some of the foundation had been laid down. Eventually the site was overtaken by Nero’s Golden House.
The Flavians, who had risen to prominence under Claudius, took a different tack. They were in a position where they needed to shore up their legitimacy, but also justify the fall of the Julio-Claudians. They reached back to Claudius in contrast with Nero, to show that they were good associated with good. Commemorative coins were issued of Claudius and his son Britannicus—who had been a friend of the emperor Titus. When Nero’s Golden House was buried, the Temple of Claudius was finally completed on Caelian Hill. However, as the Flavians became established, they needed to emphasize their own credentials more, and their references to Claudius ceased. Instead, he was put down with the other emperors of the fallen dynasty.
The main ancient historians Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio all wrote after the last of the Flavians had gone. All 3 were senators or equites. They took the side of the Senate in most conflicts with the princeps, as well as the senator’s views of the emperor. This resulted in biases, both conscious and unconscious. Suetonius lost access to the official archives shortly after beginning his work. Suetonius was forced to rely on second-hand accounts when it came to Claudius (with the exception of Augustus’ letters which had been gathered earlier) and does not quote the emperor. Suetonius painted Claudius as a ridiculous figure, belittling many of his acts and attributing the objectively good works to his retinue. Tacitus wrote a narrative for his fellow senators and fit each of the emperors into a simple mold of his choosing. Tacitus wrote Claudius as a passive pawn and an idiot—going so far as to hide his use of Claudius as a source and omit Claudius’ character from his works. Even his version of Claudius’ Lyons tablet speech is edited to be devoid of the emperor’s personality. Cassius Dio was less biased, but seems to have used Suetonius and Tacitus as sources. Thus the conception of Claudius as the weak fool, controlled by those he supposedly ruled, was preserved for the ages.
As time passed, Claudius was mostly forgotten outside of the historians’ accounts. Claudius’ books were lost first, as their antiquarian subjects became unfashionable. In the 2nd century, Pertinax, who shared his birthday, became emperor, overshadowing any commemoration of Claudius. In the 3rd century, the emperor Claudius II Gothicus usurped his name. When Claudius Gothicus died, he was also deified, replacing Claudius in the Roman pantheon.
Claudius’ love life was unusual for an upper-class Roman of his day. As Edward Gibbon mentions, of the 1st 15 emperors, “Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct”—the implication being that he was the only one not to take men or boys as lovers. Edward Gibbon based this on Suetonius’ factual statement that “He had a great passion for women, but had no interest in men.” Suetonius and the other ancient authors actually used this against Claudius. They accused him of being dominated by these same women and wives, of being uxorious, and of being a womaniser.
Claudius married 4 times. Claudius’ 1st marriage,to Plautia Urgulanilla, occurred after 2 failed betrothals (The 1st was to his distant cousin Aemilia Lepida, but was broken for political reasons. The 2nd was to Livia Medullina, which ended with the bride’s sudden death on their wedding day). Urgulanilla was a relation of Livia’s confidant Urgulania. During their marriage she gave birth to a son, Claudius Drusus. Unfortunately, Drusus died of asphyxiation in his early teens, shortly after becoming engaged to the daughter of Sejanus. Claudius later divorced Urgulanilla for adultery and on suspicion of murdering her sister-in-law Apronia. When Urgulanilla gave birth after the divorce, Claudius repudiated the baby girl, Claudius, as the father was one of his own freedmen. Soon after (possibly in 28 AD), Claudius married Aelia Paetina, a relation of Sejanus. They had a daughter, Claudia Antonia. Claudius later divorced her after the marriage became a political liability (although Leon (1948) suggests it may have been due to emotional and mental abuse by Aelia).
In 38 AD or early 39, Claudius married Valeria Messalina, who was his 1st cousin once removed and closely allied with Caligula’s circle. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to a daughter Claudia Octavia. A son, first named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, and later known as Britannicus, was born just after Claudius’ accession. This marriage ended in tragedy. The ancient historians allege that Messalina was a nymphomaniac who was regularly unfaithful to Claudius — Tacitus states she went so far as to compete with a prostitute to see who could have the most sexual partners in a night — and manipulated his policies in order to amass wealth. In 48 AD, Messalina married her lover Gaius Silius in a public ceremony while Claudius was at Ostia. Sources disagree as to whether or not she divorced the emperor first, and whether the intention was to usurp the throne. Scramuzza, in his biography, suggests that Silius may have convinced Messalina that Claudius was doomed, and the union was her only hope of retaining rank and protecting her children. The historian Tacitus suggests that Claudius’s ongoing term as Censor may have prevented him from noticing the affair before it reached such a critical point. Whatever the case, the result was the execution of Silius, Messalina, and most of her circle. Claudius made the Praetorians promise to kill him if he ever married again.
Despite this declaration, Claudius did marry once more. The ancient sources tell that his freedmen pushed 3 candidates, Caligula’s former wife Lollia Paulina, Claudius’s divorced 2nd wife Aelia, and Claudius’s niece Agrippina the younger. According to Suetonius, Agrippina won out through her feminine wiles. The truth is likely more political. The coup attempt by Silius probably made Claudius realise the weakness of his position as a member of the Claudian but not the Julian family. This weakness was compounded by the fact that he did not have an obvious adult heir, Britannicus being just a boy. Agrippina was one of the few remaining descendants of Augustus, and her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (later known as Nero) was one of the last males of the imperial family. Future coup attempts could rally around the pair, and Agrippina was already showing such ambition. It has been suggested in recent times that the Senate may have pushed for the marriage to end the feud between the Julian and Claudian branches. This feud dated back to Agrippina’s mother’s actions against Tiberius after the death of her husband Germanicus, actions which Tiberius had gladly punished. In any case, Claudius accepted Agrippina, and later adopted the newly mature Nero as his son.
Nero was made joint heir with the underage Britannicus, married to Octavia and heavily promoted. This was not as unusual as it seems to people acquainted with modern hereditary monarchies. Barbara Levick notes that Augustus had named his grandson Postumus Agrippa and his stepson Tiberius joint heirs. Tiberius named his great-nephew Caligula joint heir with his grandson Tiberius Gemellus. Adoption of adults or near adults was an old tradition in Rome when a suitable natural adult heir was unavailable. This was the case during Britannicus’ minority. S.V. Oost suggests that Claudius had previously looked to adopt one of his sons-in-law to protect his own reign. Faustus Sulla, married to his daughter Antonia, was only descended from Octavia and Antony on one side — not close enough to the imperial family to prevent doubts (that didn’t stop others from making him the object of a coup attempt against Nero a few years later). Besides which, he was the half brother of Messalina, and at this time those wounds were still fresh. Nero was more popular with the general public as the grandson of Germanicus and the direct descendant of Augustus.
Arnaldo Momigliano states that during the reign of Tiberius — which covers the peak of Claudius’ literary career — it became impolitic to speak of republican Rome. The trend among the young historians was to either write about the new empire or obscure antiquarian subjects. Claudius was the rare scholar who covered both. Besides the history of Augustus’ reign that caused him so much grief, his major works included an Etruscan history and 8 volumes on Carthaginian history, as well as an Etruscan Dictionary and a book on dice playing. Despite the general avoidance of the imperatorial era, he penned a defense of Cicero against the charges of Asinius Gallus. Modern historians have used this to determine both the nature of his politics and of the aborted chapters of his civil war history. Claudius proposed a reform of the Latin alphabet by the addition of 3 new letters, 2 of which served the function of the modern letters W and Y. Claudius officially instituted the change during his censorship, but they did not survive his reign. Claudius also tried to revive the old custom of putting dots between different words (Classical Latin was written with no spacing). Finally, he wrote an 8 volume autobiography that Suetonius describes as lacking in taste. Since Claudius (like most of the members of his dynasty) heavily criticised his predecessors and relatives in surviving speeches, it is not hard to imagine the nature of Suetonius’ charge.
Unfortunately, none of the actual works survive. They do live on as sources for the surviving histories of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Suetonius quotes Claudius’ autobiography once, and must have used it as a source numerous times. Tacitus uses Claudius’ own arguments for the orthographical innovations mentioned above, and may have used him for some of the more antiquarian passages in his annals. Claudius is the source for numerous passages of Pliny’s Natural History.
The influence of historical study on Claudius is obvious. In his speech on Gallic senators, he uses a version of the founding of Rome identical to that of Livy, his tutor in adolescence. The detail of his speech borders on the pedantic, a common mark of all his extant works, and he goes into long digressions on related matters. This indicates a deep knowledge of a variety of historical subjects that he could not help but share. Many of the public works instituted in his reign were based on plans first suggested by Julius Caesar. Levick believes this emulation of Caesar may have spread to all aspects of his policies. Claudius’s censorship seems to have been based on those of his ancestors, particularly Appius Claudius Caecus, and he used the office to put into place many policies based on those of Republican times. This is when many of his religious reforms took effect and his building efforts greatly increased during his tenure. In fact, his assumption of the office of Censor may have been motivated by a desire to see his academic labors bear fruit. For example, he believed (as most Romans) that his ancestor Appius Claudius Caecus had used the censorship to introduce the letter “R” and so used his own term to introduce his new letters.
Probably the most famous fictional representation of the Emperor Claudius were the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God (released in 1934 and 1935) by Robert Graves, both written in the first-person to give the reader the impression that they are Claudius’ autobiography. Graves wrote it in employed fictive artifice to suggest that they were recently discovered, genuine translations of Claudius’ writings. Claudius’ extant letters, speeches, and sayings were incorporated into the text (mostly in the 2nd book, Claudius the God) in order to add authenticity.
In 1937 director Josef von Sternberg made an unsuccessful attempt to film I, Claudius, with Charles Laughton as Claudius. Unfortunately, the lead actress Merle Oberon suffered a near-fatal accident and the movie was never finished. The surviving reels were finally shown in the documentary The Epic That Never Was in 1965, revealing some of Laughton’s most accomplished acting. The motion picture rights have been obtained by Scott Rudin, with a theatrical release planned for 2010.
Graves’s 2 books were also the basis for a 13 part British television adaptation produced by the BBC. The series starred Derek Jacobi as Claudius, and was broadcast in 1976 on BBC2. It was a substantial critical success, and won several BAFTA awards. The series was later broadcast in the United States on Masterpiece Theatre in 1977. The DVD release of the television series contains the “The Epic that Never Was” documentary.
Claudius has appeared on film on several other occasions, including in the 1979 motion picture Caligula, the role being performed by Giancarlo Badessi in which the character was depicted as an idiot, in complete contrast to Robert Graves’ portrait of Claudius as a cunning and deeply intelligent man. On television, the actor Freddie Jones became famous for his role as Claudius in the 1968 British television series The Caesars while the 1985 made-for-television miniseries A.D. features actor Richard Kiley as Claudius. There is also a reference to Claudius’ suppression of one of the coups against him in the movie Gladiator, though the incident is entirely fictional.
In literature, Claudius and his contemporaries appear in the historical novel The Roman by Mika Waltari. Canadian-born science fiction writer A. E. van Vogt reimagined Robert Graves’ Claudius story in his 2 novels Empire of the Atom and The Wizard of Linn.
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