Claudius (10 BC - 54 AD)
Emperor: 41 - 54 AD
Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus (10 BC - AD 54) became the unlikely 4th emperor of the Julio-Claudian line after the violent murder of his nephew Gaius (Caligula). The reign of Claudius is important for several reasons. He stabilized the political environment by including provincials in the Senate rolls (even though he was vilified for it), and proved an effective re-establishment of the imperial line after the debacle of Caligula. He made several provincial annexations, including the conquest of Britain which brought vital new sources of precious metals under Roman control. Despite these positives, depending on one's perspective, of course, he was the first emperor to rise to his position through assassination and praetorian political intervention. Once the precedent was set, it became a regular occurrence throughout the principate period. Also of important note, Claudius was terribly slandered by the ancient sources, not only for his physical characteristics and mannerisms, but for his political activities. He propped up favorite free or freedmen into important positions of government authority and, at least on occasions, fell under the influence of various people of doubtful political agendas. Perhaps worst of all, Claudius ignored his own son in the imperial hierarchy, favoring the son of his 4th wife and niece, Agrippina. Claudius gave the world Nero, perhaps the worst of the Roman emperors, apparently from his own free choice, rather than continue the Julio-Claudian line with some semblance of stability.
Claudius was born at Lugdunum in Gaul to Antonia (daughter of Mark Antony and niece of Augustus) and Drusus Claudius Nero, the second son of Livia, Augustus' wife. His brother, the great Germanicus, would become one of the most popular figures in early imperial Rome, while Claudius was mired in near anonymity or family scorn, if not for one fateful assassination. Claudius was born with several birth defects, the cause of which are speculated (perhaps the tradition of family epilepsy, or cerebral palsy, etc.), but completely improvable. Despite his obvious family connections, these defects kept him labeled as far inferior, both physically and mentally. Even as a boy, he limped, drooled and stuttered profusely. In the tradition of Augustus, he was also commonly ill in his youth, and while it may be seen as miraculous that he could've survived in the cutthroat imperial world, it may have ensured his survival by virtue of being completely ignored. He was generally perceived as an idiot and was kept on the outskirts of the imperial family. Rather than assume his rights as a man upon the proper age he was kept under continued guardianship, like a young women of the time would have been. The majority of his early life was kept in complete seclusion, and he was not brought into the political fold the way 'normal' boys of the family line had been. Instead, Claudius prepared for the unlikely political power to come by reading and studying himself into perhaps one of the foremost historical scholars of the day. Among his works were 43 books of Roman history, 21 books of Etruscan history, and 8 on Carthage. Unfortunately, all of these along with an additional 8 autobiographical books (which have been recreated in the vastly popular fictional novels 'I, Claudius' and 'Claudius the God' by Robert Graves) are lost to history.
Politically, the only post that Claudius was appointed to before the accession of Caligula was that of a minor priest, or an augur. During the purges of Sejanus, under Tiberius' reign (Claudius' uncle), the Claudian family suffered heavily, with Caligula, his sisters and Claudius emerging as the only survivors of note. While Claudius was likely deeply involved in his own personal studies in the mid 40's of life, Tiberius died and Caligula's accession finally brought the family black sheep into the public spotlight. Caligula made his uncle a suffect consul in 37 AD, but seemed to do so out of a preference for Claudius' presence as a target of jokes and cruelty, rather than value his political skill or opinion. Regardless, within the fast and furious four years of Caligula's rule, Claudius must have established himself to some end politically, if only to set the stage for an effective reign of his own.
On 24th January AD 41, Caligula was cut down by members of the Praetorian Guard, and in the mayhem that followed Claudius was supposedly discovered hiding behind some curtains within the palace. In this version of the story, the one which Claudius himself seemingly preferred (which painted him as a completely innocent and unassuming victim, rather than a part of any plot), Claudius was carried off to the Praetorian camp to keep him safe, while the matter of true succession was formulated. Though the Senate attempted to gain control for itself, the Praetorians, whose viability depended on an Imperial regime in order to survive as a legitimate entity, remained loyal to the Principate concept. With the Praetorians, and therefore the bulk of the legions firmly behind Claudius, the Senate had no choice but to accept Claudius as the new 'emperor'. The bumbling, stumbling, drooling fool, as he was commonly known, had supposedly stepped out from behind the curtain into the most powerful and politically important position in the western world. However, though evidence is circumstantial at best, there is growing sentiment that Claudius himself may have had more involvement. While this can never be proven, the circumstances of the events just seem a bit too convenient. Regardless, he was shortly 'approved' to his new imperial position, and quickly set about a complete shake up of the status quo, and his own public perception.
Among the first acts of Claudius was to stabilize his position and that of the dynasty that had suffered so terribly under Sejanus, Tiberius and Caligula. First he adopted the name of the imperial house, changing from Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus simply to Claudius Caesar Augustus. This was more than a case of changing names, however. Claudius did have direct relation to Augustus (through his sister Octavia) and therefore to Julius Caesar (through his sister Julia). By adopting the nomenclature he was more readily identified as a proper heir and legitimate ruler. He also had his grandmother Livia (mother of Tiberius) deified and recalled his two nieces, Julia and Agrippina, the one that he would eventually marry, from exile. Just prior to his rise to the throne, his young wife Messallina bore him a daughter named Octavia and a son who would eventually be called Britannicus.
While Claudius is probably best known for his invasion of Britain, some other events or imperial policies played a significant role in how he was remembered. His relationship with the Senate and the Roman aristocracy was off to a poor start from the beginning, thanks to the interference of the Praetorians. However, the policies of provincial inclusion and Romanization (as vital as they were to the health of the empire) were terribly unpopular in the Senate. Despite the great foresight in bringing Gauls and other provincial Celts into the Roman circle of citizenship and upper society (thereby 'Romanizing 'them), the elite scoffed at such ridiculous gestures. This gesture, however, not only brought Celtic aristocracy closer into ties with Roman authority (trickling down to the tribes of Gaul and Hispania), it likely gave great hope to other provincials of someday achieving the benefits of citizenship. It could be argued that this act is among the most important of the early Principate.
Much like his uncle Tiberius, Claudius proved to be a solid provincial administrator despite his troubles with Roman aristocracy. Under his watch several client kingdoms were annexed, thus circumventing the Augustan policy of non expansion, but only doing so with territory already considered Roman. Among these, the official annexation of Mauretania (though the process was begun under Caligula), Noricum, Lycia & Pamphylia, and Thracia was completed. Judaea too came under direct Roman rule with the death of Herod in AD 44. Of course, perhaps the most important event in the reign of Claudius was the conquest of Britain, but that will be addressed in the following chapter.
Though Claudius has been given credit for partially centralizing Roman government (credit that is largely being proven to be untrue), he certainly did dabble in some very minute details of his administration. He apparently saw the courts, and judging as a vital component of imperial duty. While applause can be given to his devotion and fulfillment of that duty his performance was another matter altogether. He was almost obsessed with spending time in court and ignored various festivals and celebrations of note in order to be present. He was accused of completely ignoring one side of a case, or for being particularly brutal in doling out punishments. Perhaps worst of all, Claudius adopted a policy of hearing many cases privately, with only the input of his own advisors to help sort things out. Therein lied the problem; his advisors were reviled freedmen who, in the view of the Roman social and political elite, had no business achieving such a station of importance.
These freedmen gained great influence over Claudius, along with his wives, but partly because there were few in the Senate who offered loyalty or support to him. While freedmen were a regular part of Imperial and elite households, maintaining positions of some import, no other emperor before or after relied upon them so heavily. This was revolting to the Senate and helps make clear why he was so widely despised. Even though it seems that men like Narcissus, Polybius, and Palla slowly wielded less and less power over time throughout Claudius reign, it's seemingly only because his 4th wife Agrippina filled that role in later years. To the Senate and later generations of Romans, this was merely a continuation of the mockery of Claudius' reign.
Even the ancients, fully understanding that they despised Claudius, still give a complimentary account of his public works achievements. The vital aqueducts, Aqua Claudia and Aqua Anio Novus, were completed during his rule. While both are some of the most spectacular visible ruins today, the Anio Novus was the longest and tallest of its day. In addition to these, Claudius continued his ventures into the public waterways building a new port, aptly named Portus, near Ostia. While the draining of the Fucine Lake turned into an enormous project and ultimately terrible outcome, it was among the most grand of all ancient Roman engineering attempts. Additionally, he introduced three new letters to the Latin alphabet (for the sounds v, ps, y) but these were excluded from use and mostly forgotten shortly after his death.
Among the biggest challenges for Claudius, despite the animosity of contemporaries, was winning over and maintaining the loyalty of the legions. His continuation of Caligula's war in Mauretania and eventual annexation helped establish some military credential, but events would show that Claudius needed far more. In AD 42 the governor of Dalmatia, L. Arruntius Scribonianus, revolted against Claudius with the two legions under his command, at the instigation of some prominent Senators. Though the revolt would only last 4 days before the legions returned their loyalty to the Emperor the case was clear that Claudius had trouble looming on the horizon. After conducting a series of trial resulting in the death of 35 Senators and a couple hundred Equites as a result (certainly further alienating him from the aristocracy) Claudius looked to potential military glory to solve his problems. A campaign was planned for AD 43 that would achieve this goal, bring vast mineral wealth (tin, iron, etc.) within Roman control, and stretch the empire to the very limits of the western world.
The Claudian Invasion of Britain
In the near century that followed Caesar's invasions of Britain (55 and 54 BC), the political climate of the Celtic tribes that maintained loyal relationships with Rome slowly deteriorated. While some call Caesars invasions a failure, the fact that they resulted in a century of tribute, profitable trade, and subservient political attitudes from the tribes to Rome must account for something. However, the more removed Caesar was from the memory of the Celtic tribes, the less stable the relationship between Rome and Britain remained. Rome could ill afford a break in the trading relationship that provided invaluable metals such as silver, tin and iron and immense profits for other 'commercial' industries such as wine making and pottery. An abundance of lead ore had also recently been discovered and it was an important material to Romans in many industries.
An invasion had long been planned, as far back as the botched attempts of Caligula just a few years earlier, to deal with apparent affronts to Roman allied tribes. These proved to be too costly, dangerous or perhaps just truly unnecessary for the time, however, and the British political situation would continue to destabilize (from a Roman perspective). By the time Claudius came to power, not only was King Verica (descendent of Caesar's ally Commius) of the allied Atrebates calling to Rome for help against neighboring tribes, but Claudius was conveniently in need of military glory to secure the loyalty of the legions. Verica's pleas provided a convenient excuse to not only gain this glory, but to distract the Roman Senate from political differences of opinion. Making matters even more persuasive, the Rhine and Danube borders of Germania were largely quiet, and the empire was largely at peace. The invasion could take place without stripping troops from other vital areas.
In AD 43, Aulus Plautius, former governor of Pannonia and a manned deemed trustworthy by Claudius, was selected to lead the overall campaign. 4 known legions were gathered, and put through rigorous drilling, in order to weed out those who were unfit. Legio II Augusta, IX Hispana, XIV Gemina and XX Valeria Victrix were all to take part, with II Augusta under the command of the future emperor Vespasian. The legions totaled 20,000 active legionaries, with an additional 20,000 to 30,000 in auxilia forces. The initial channel crossing was set to take place early in the campaign year, but dismay among the troops caused considerable problems. Roman infantry had long been known to have misgivings about naval crossings, but sailing to the mysterious island of Britain, where even the great Caesar had faced considerable problems, was another matter entirely. The situation was eventually resolved through the intervention of Claudius' freedman advisor Narcissus, but the affair was delayed for some time.
Nevertheless, the bulk of the force seems to have landed near Rutupiae, or modern Richborough. Though some evidence exists of additional landing places, there is no question that Richborough developed into the main entry port in provincial Britain with it acting as a sort of ancient version to Ellis Island in New York harbor. Regardless, the initial landings took place, mostly unopposed. Tribal resistance under Caratacus (also Caractacus) king of the Catuvellauni, and his brother Togodumnus, was slow to react and the Romans were able to gather in force. The Britons had little choice but to allow the invaders into their lands, until such time as an appropriate force could be gathered. Tribal divisions and diverse loyalties made resistance a trying affair. While many opposed Roman occupation, leadership squabbles certainly made a unified front difficult to achieve. Other less influential tribes welcomed Roman arrival and supported their cause, if only with the belief that doing so would increase their own power. The socio-political environment of tribal Britain made the Roman strategy easy to understand. Aulus Plautius would make his campaign one of divide and conquer, much like Caesar had done in Gaul a century earlier.
The first major battle of the campaign (and perhaps one of the most important in British history) took place on the shores of the River Medway (though some contend that it may have been the Arun). Caratacus and Togodumnus gathered their considerable forces but were unable to resist the superior tactical and strategic abilities of the Romans. In a terrific battle that reportedly lasted two days, where Germanic Batavi auxilia, who swam the river to surprise the British rear guard, played a vital role, the British forces were eventually outmanned and forced to retreat. Caratacus was forced back to the Thames, and Togodumnus was eventually killed in ensuing actions. Apparantly the popularity of Togodumnus was such among the British warriors however; that they had a new resolve to resist the invaders and Plautius was 'forced' to dig in. This provided a convenient excuse for Platius to send to Rome and ask Claudius to come to Britain in person to conduct the campaign.
Though a couple months had passed while Claudius made his own preparations, Plautius certainly was in a position where he was forced to await the Emperor's arrival, before a final assault could be launched. There may be some truth that the Romans were bogged down and lacked morale, of which Claudius' arrival would certainly help, but the idea that experienced Roman generals needed his military advice in any way is completely ludicrous. Regardless, Caludius eventually arrived, bringing up to 38 war elephants with him, as well as heavy artillery and (some evidence suggests) detachments of the 8th Legion. Claudius took command, and with this superior strength overwhelmed the resistance and Caratacus was forced to flee into modern Wales with his army. In a period of only 16 days, Claudius captured Camulodunum, where the first Roman capital was established, and received the surrender of up to 11 British tribes. The Emperor returned to Rome where he celebrated a grand triumph, received the title Britannicus, and left his generals in Britain to complete the conquest.
Though southern Britain would be largely subjugated relatively quickly, Roman control would spread slowly over the next 20 years. Men such as Vespasian built reputations as excellent generals and spread Roman hegemony in numerous and sometimes difficult campaigns. While Claudius had already celebrated his triumph in Rome, the exhausting work of Romanizing Britain was only just beginning. While it would eventually become an ideal province (especially in the south), a great deal of trouble lay ahead. This trouble would culminate in the revolt of Boudicca in the early 60's AD, and Britain wouldn't fall to complete Roman rule until the arrival of Gnaeus Julius Agricola some 20 years later.
Messalina, Agrippina and the Death of Claudius
By AD 38, and prior to his rise to Emperor, Claudius was married (for the third time) to the 15 year old Valeria Messalina. The young 'empress' was portrayed historically as not much more than a court nymphomaniac who used her sexual prowess to influence the influential. She did, however give Claudius two children: Octavia (AD 39) and Britannicus (AD 41). Though stories of wild parties, intrigue and murder follow Messalina from the ancient sources, some modern scholars have painted her as an astute player in the political world of the time. Either way, she was well known for various sexual escapades, regardless of her own motivation, and other scheming while the stuttering Claudius was either completely unaware of refused to see it. She used her power to favor friends and punish her enemies (not all that unusual really) and had Claudius banish, and eventually execute his niece Julia (the sister of Caligula who had already been recalled once before) for adultery with L. Annaeus Seneca. Seneca, the author and influential politician was also exiled to Corsica for a time and would later have his revenge by publishing the scathing satirical attack on Claudius: Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii (Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius).
After 10 years of marriage the plot thickened beyond promiscuity, however. What may have been a plotted coup attempt came to fruition while Claudius was away in Ostia c. AD 48. Messalina declared herself divorced from Claudius and was married in a somewhat private ceremony to a designated Consul for the following year, C. Silius. Although the wedding arrangements had been made privately, the wild party that followed the ceremony helped give away the secret. Certainly Silius would've been aware of the danger in such a move, considering he was marrying the emperor's wife and his own influential (read as dangerous) status as a descendent of an Augustan general. Perhaps the idea was to replace Claudius and act as regents until the youthful Britannicus could come of age. Regardless, whether it was an actual coup attempt or a semi secret love affair, word reached Claudius (largely through his powerful freedmen) and after some consternation Messalina was eventually put to death. A large number of 'conspirators' joined Messalina's fate lending support to the idea that at least Claudius viewed it as a coup attempt whether it was in reality or not.
With the death of Messalina, Claudius' freedmen vied for supreme influence over the emperor by supporting various marriage prospects as replacements. In the end, the freedman Pallas won the competition but also assigned Claudius and the empire to a terrible twist of fate. The candidate who won was his own niece, Agrippina (the Younger), sister of Caligula. Likely having little to do with anything other than political connotations (she was the great granddaughter of Augustus) the marriage between uncle and niece (AD 49) required a change in the law. She had been previously married to Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus, a powerful Republican family in its own right, and came to Claudius with a son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (Nero). This is significant in that Agrippina was highly motivated regarding the advancement of her son and would exert great influence over Claudius and the government of Rome in order to achieve her ends.
Ahenobarbus was 4 years older than Claudius' natural son Britannicus and Agrippina convinced Claudius that adopting her son was better for the preservation of the principate. Thus, Ahenobarbus became Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus Caesar and would eventually be advanced over Britannicus as Claudius' heir. To further solidify that position, Agrippina had the fiance of Claudius daughter prosecuted in order to make her available to marry Nero. A potential rival marriage candidate for Claudius, Lollia Paulina, was driven to suicide, and Agrippina would exert such authority as to be declared an official living Empress (or Augusta). Only Livia (wife of Augustus) had been so before, and only after her death. According to the ancient sources, between her rise and Claudius' death in 54 AD, Agrippina systematically took control of the Imperial government while Claudius was left to appear as a figurehead in front of his wife's real power. She wore a military cloak at official state functions, greeted foreign embassies in the capacity of full imperial authority, appeared prominently on coinage and had her dictations recorded in official government documentation.
Perhaps most importantly, Agrippina used her influence to surround and protect her position with men loyal to her and her son. Seneca, who despised Claudius but kept it in check, was recalled and installed as Nero's tutor. Back in Rome he used his brilliant political skill to influence the imperial court to Agrippina's wishes. Additionally, her own choice of Sextus Afranius Burrus was appointed as the all important Praetorian Prefect and as a second tutor for Nero, with the obvious ramifications that suggests. Meanwhile the young Nero continued to be advanced as the heir to Claudius while Britannicus languished behind, virtually invisible compared to Nero. He was granted full imperial authority outside the city (where Claudius retained singular control in theory) addressed the Senate, appeared with Claudius at the games (obvious indication of his role as heir) and was inscribed as such on imperial coinage.
By 54 AD, according to the ancients, Agrippina was secured enough in her position, and that of her son, that she no longer needed Claudius to rule the empire. Tacitus suggests that Claudius resisted the final steps to secure Nero as heir, and Agrippina, rather than wait him out, decided to take matters into her own hands. On October 13, AD 54, Claudius died while attending a feast. Though the reports are conflicting all indicate that he was poisoned by tainted mushrooms, even though Claudius had reached the venerable age of 64 (quite advanced for the ancient world, though not uncommon among the aristocracy) and had shown a history of poor health. Regardless, the scheming of Agrippina proved fruitful and the 16 year old Nero was immediately hailed as the new Emperor without any consideration for the much younger Britannicus.
Claudius was quickly deified without resistance, despite his poor relationship with the Senate, though his Imperial cult received little attention under Nero's reign. Claudius' reign is subject to much debate of course. Was he the pitiful, bumbling, murderous and spiteful fool described by the ancients, or the highly intelligent, excellent administrator, yet susceptible dupe to his advisors and wives as portrayed by Robert Graves in his well regarded novels? The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Claudius advanced the Empire through the conquest of Britain and made citizenship more inclusive through provincial enrollment. He built great public works and generally kept the peace, certainly earning at least the respect, if not the admiration of the people. Claudius is either remembered as this quality fourth member of the Julio-Claudian line who stabilized the principate after the death of Caligula, or the cruel bumbling butcher who also left the world with the incompetent and disastrous Nero as the heir to the throne.
Did you know...
Claudius married four times. His first two marriages, to Plautia Urgulanilla and Aelia Paetina, ended in divorce. His third wife, Messalina, was put to death on his orders. His last wife was his niece Agrippina, who was the mother of his successor, the notorious Nero.
Did you know...
The emperor Claudius was the protagonist of the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. The books are written from a first-person perspective, giving the impression of having been written by Claudius himself as his autobiography.
Did you know...
Claudius was the fourth emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Did you know...
Legend states that when the Praetorians came to kill her (by order of her son, Nero the emperor following Claudius), Agrippina pulled back her clothes and ordered them to stab her in the belly that had housed such a monstrous son.