January 25, 41 – October 13, 54 CE
August 1, 10 BCE
October 13, 54 CE
Claudius was born on August 1, 10 BCE in Lugdunum, Gaul. He was one of the most educated and enlightened rulers of Rome, who, despite his reluctance, received power by force. He was the son of a great chief, Drusus the Elder, who died when Claudius was only one year old and Antonia the Younger. His grandparents were: Mark Antony and Tiberius Claudius Nero, and his grandmothers: Octavia and Livia. He had two older siblings: Germanic and Claudia Julia Livilla.
Youth and the period to rule
Disability and removal from the public sphere
After his father’s unexpected death in 9 BCE, the role of educating the future emperor fell to his mother, Antonia. The numerous physical disabilities (drooling, stuttering, limping, susceptibility to diseases) with which Claudius was born were to prevent him from assuming any higher state office in the future. Roman lawyers referred to newborns with obvious physical defects as monstrum, rodigium or portentum. The term monstrum comes from the Latin word monstrare which can be translated as “sign”, “symptom”. So in the opinion of the then monstrum was a signal from the gods that there was a serious crisis in mutual relations. The word portentum comes from the word portare, meaning “to carry”. The Romans applied this concept to something to get rid of, including crippled children. As you can see, deformed children from birth had a “sewn-on patch” not favoured by the gods and could not count on taking public office. Although Claudius was born a monster he was spared his life.
Family members regarded Claudius’ bodily defects as a result of his mental impairment and therefore kept him out of the public world. From an early age, Claudius was ridiculed and humiliated even by his closest family. Antonia’s mother and grandmother Livia, in particular, treated him like an idiot. Mother used to call Claudius portentum. When she wanted to show contempt for someone’s stupidity, she used to say that this man was stupider than her son.
Education, development, marriage
At first, Claudius’ development fell, as previously mentioned, to his mother Antonia. However, at the age of two, he found himself under the influence of his grandmother Livia. With time, his interest in science and any exploration of knowledge was noticed. For this purpose, in 7 CE, Livy and Sulpicius Flavus were hired, who were to instil in him all the information about the history, which became a great hobby for him. Young Claudius was also taught by the stoic philosopher and orator Athenodorus Kananites. It was mainly thanks to him that Claudius acquired the ability to express himself well, despite his speech defect.
Being isolated throughout his childhood and adolescence, Claudius devoted his time to reading, gaining extensive knowledge, especially in the field of history and law.
Around 10-15 CE, Claudius married Plautia Urgulanilla. Previously, he was engaged twice:
- with Aemilia Lepida, a distant cousin – engagement broken for political reasons;
- with Livia Medullina – the relationship ended with the sudden death of the bride on her wedding day.
His son Claudius Druzus was born to him in connection with Urgulanilla, but he died of suffocation in the early years of his life. In 25 CE, Urgulanilla gave birth to a girl – Claudia, whom Claudius did not recognize as his daughter and ordered to leave her on the doorstep of the house. Urgulanilla was later accused by Claudius of complicity in the murder of her brother’s wife, indecency and adultery. In addition, the first wife often disregarded and humiliated Claudius. Immediately after these events, he divorced his wife.
During the reign of Octavian Augustus Claudius could not count on holding any public office. The first emperor cared for the good image of the imperial family and could not afford to appoint the disabled Claudius an official. When, in 14 CE, Octavian – the current emperor, new ruler – Tiberius let 23-year-old Claudius begin cursus honorum, the so-called “course of honor”. The young man received all consular decorations, but when he demanded them for another year, he was refused by Tiberius, which discouraged Claudius from public life. He decided to hide in his home and devote himself entirely to exploring his knowledge and creative activity.
In 28 CE Claudius married Aelia Petina, with whom he had a daughter, Claudia Antonia. Their marriage, however, was extremely short, which was caused by disagreements between the spouses.
With the death of Tiberius in 37 CE and the accession to the throne by Claudius’ nephew, Caligula, his life changed. The young emperor saw some benefits in the person of Claudius. To honour his late father, Germanicus, in 37 CE, Caligula appointed Claudius, next to himself, the second consul. The young emperor, however, was not kind to his uncle. He often insulted him, made fun of him and made fun of his flaws in public. Claudius, on the other hand, was intelligent enough to use his handicap to manoeuvre among the intrigues and conspiracies that were everyday life at the imperial court. Thanks to his seemingly harmless form, he survived the times of his nephew’s terror.
In 39 CE, Claudius married Valeria Messalina. They had two children with her: Octavia (born 40 CE) and Britannia (born 41 CE). Messalina was Claudius’ worst and most beloved wife. Ancient sources portray Messalina as a nymphomaniac organizing orgiastic games and condemning ex-lovers or those who dare to refuse her promotions to death. According to Roman historians, she once decided to compete with a professional prostitute. The women competed on the issue that would be able to hold more lovers in one night. In one of these 24-hour competitions, Messalina was set to win after working with 24 partners.
She was eventually lost by the formal ceremony of marriage with Gaius Silius, held in the absence of Claudius, who was in the port of Ostia. Narcissus, the emperor’s liberator, disclosed this to Claudius and oversaw the execution of Messalina in 48 CE. Claudius did not fully believe all the charges against her.
When Caligula turned into a bloodthirsty despot under the influence of Suetonius, Claudius began to pretend to be a fool and a jester, thanks to which the young emperor did not see in him a real enemy and political opponent. Claudius’ intelligent attitude saved him from the dangers of an internal struggle for power in the imperial family. No one predicted that he could play any political role.
Suetonius says, however, that there were situations that suggested Claudius would assume power in the future. The following incident took place during his consulate with Caligula.
It was only under his nephew Gaius, who in the early part of his reign tried to gain popularity by every device, that he at last began his official career, holding the consulship as his colleague for two months; and it chanced that as he entered the Forum for the first time with the fasces, an eagle that was flying by lit upon his shoulder.
– Suetonius, Claudius, 7
Ascend to the throne
The long and cruel reign of Caligula led to the despot being finally murdered on January 24, 41 CE. After Caligula was murdered, in the ensuing confusion some of the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard decided to proclaim Claudius, the only adult representative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Soldiers and important personalities feared the reaction of Caligula’s guard of 300 powerfully built Germans who had no qualms about killing the population. Supposedly, when Claudius was found behind a curtain, the praetorians raised Claudius and made him emperor, against his will. The Germans entered the box in which Claudius was, knelt down and promised him faithful service and protection. Despite initial opposition, the Senate, aware of its powerlessness over the soldiers, approved his status. For the first time, the true character of the principate was so clearly revealed – the power of the emperors was based on military strength, and the times when the will of the senate was of importance are irrevocably over.
This is how Suetonius takes overpowered by 50-year-old Claudius:
Having spent the greater part of his life under these and like circumstances, he became emperor in his fiftieth year by a remarkable freak of fortune. When the assassins of Gaius shut out the crowd under pretence that the emperor wished to be alone, Claudius was ousted with the rest and withdrew to an apartment called the Hermaeum; and a little later, in great terror at the news of the murder, he stole away to a balcony hard by and hid among the curtains which hung before the door. As he cowered there, a common soldier, who was prowling about at random, saw his feet, intending to ask who he was, pulled him out and recognized him; and when Claudius fell at his feet in terror, he hailed him as emperor. Then he took him to the rest of his comrades, who were as yet in a condition of uncertainty and purposeless rage. These placed him in a litter, took turns in carrying it, since his own bearers had made off, and bore him to the Camp in a state of despair and terror, while the throng that met him pitied him, as an innocent man who was being hurried off to execution. Received within the rampart, he spent the night among the sentries with much less hope than confidence; for the consuls with the senate and the city cohorts had taken possession of the Forum and the Capitol, resolved on maintaining the public liberty.31 When he too was summoned to the House by the tribunes of the commons, to give his advice on the situation, he sent word that “he was detained by force and compulsion.” But the next day, since the senate was dilatory in putting through its plans because of the tiresome bickering of those who held divergent views, while the populace, who stood about the hall, called for one ruler and expressly named Claudius, he allowed the armed assembly of the soldiers to swear allegiance to him, and promised each man fifteen thousand sesterces; being the first of the Caesars who resorted to bribery to secure the fidelity of the troops.
– Suetonius, Claudius, 10
The painting shows the moment of discovery of Claudius hidden behind a curtain. Then he is proclaimed emperor by the praetorians.
After assuming power, Emperor Claudius tried at all costs to forget about the few days in which the change of the system was thought:
As soon as his power was firmly established, he considered it of foremost importance to obliterate the memory of the two days when men had thought of changing the form of government. Accordingly he made a decree that all that had been done and said during that period should be pardoned and forever forgotten; he kept his word too, save only that a few of the tribunes and centurions who had conspired against Gaius were put to death, both to make an example of them and because he knew that they had also demanded his own death. Then turning to the duties of family loyalty, he adopted as his most sacred and frequent oath “By Augustus.” He had divine honours voted his grandmother Livia and a chariot drawn by elephants in the procession at the Circus, like that of Augustus; also public offerings to the shades of his parents and in addition annual games in the Circus on his father’s birthday and for his mother a carriage to bear her image through the Circus and the surname of Augusta, which she had declined during her lifetime.
– Suetonius, Claudius, 11
Governments, reforms and wars
He awarded prize money to the praetorians and also cancelled the newly introduced taxes. He also announced an amnesty. He dismissed from exile, among others Caligula’s sisters – Liwilla and Agrippina the Younger. In addition, on the initiative of Claudius, the confiscated goods were returned to their former owners, slaves and informers were punished. He forbade the organization of lawsuits for insulting majesty. Claudius turned out to be a modest and accessible ruler, not caring about honouring his name. According to sources, he did not use the title “Emperor”, he also refused to accept excessive honours.
Naturally, as emperor, he had to hide his shortcomings. When he performed in the Senate, he covered his head with his hoodie to hide her trembling. He was also allowed to sit during meetings, as this position counteracted his tendency to sway passively. What, however, could not be hidden is an uncertain step, slurred speech and shaking hands.
Characteristic for the reign of Claudius is the increasing role of the liberators in exercising power. The emperor, distrusting the senatorial circles, entrusted the liberationists with the main role in the administration and in the adjutant council. Several of them, Narcissus, Callistus, Polybius, and Pallas have gained very influential positions. Nevertheless, Claudius remained faithful to his republican ideals, which he showed through his respect for the senate. In addition, he did not fill liberators in the magistracy, so as not to raise objections from senators who did not see them as equals. The liberators occupied mainly positions in Claudius’ secretariat, which was divided into offices. And so Narcissus sat in the correspondence office, Pallas in the treasury office, Callistus in the law office, and Polybius was in charge of all other matters.
Claudius, wishing to gain military credibility with his power, undertook an expedition to Britain in 43 CE. He sent Aulus Plautius at the head of 4 legions to Britain (Britannia), a land especially attractive because of its many mines and many slaves. Another reason for the invasion was the question of sheltering Gallic rebel groups on the island, thus remaining unpunished against Roman authorities. Claudius appeared on the island only after the main part of the offensive on the island had ended. To increase the strength of his troops, he took with him reinforcements and specially imported war elephants1. The battles fought on the island quickly brought results and after a few months, the senate guaranteed Claudius the right to triumph. In addition, the emperor was awarded the title of Britannicus, which was used by his son Britain. Fighting on the island continued until 50 CE, when the British chief, Caratacus, was finally captured and imprisoned.
Upon his return to Rome, Claudius celebrated his triumph in 44 CE. During this time, Roman troops managed to capture new provinces: Judea, Licia, Noricum, and Thrace. Campaigns were carried out during the reign of Caligula, but it was only during the reign of Claudius that it was possible to conquer these lands.
Claudius during his reign made many investments in the state. He built two aqueducts: Aqua Claudia, started under Caligula, and Anio Novus, which in 52 CE merged with Porta Maggiore in Rome. In addition, he renewed Aqua Virgo.
Claudius also drew attention to the issue of transportation. For this purpose, many roads and canals were built, and too dilapidated fragments were restored. It is worth mentioning here the investments started by Claudius’ father Druzus: the built canal leading from the Rhine to the sea and the road from Italy to Germany. Closer to Rome, Claudius built a navigable canal on the Tiber to the new port, Portus.
Another, and perhaps the biggest undertaking was the drying up of Fucino Lake, which was done to obtain land for cultivation.
During his reign, Claudius carried out many reforms. He continued the transformations initiated by August in the religious, cultural, administrative and legal spheres.
In 48 CE, Claudius carried out a census of citizens that stated that 5,984,072 Roman citizens lived in the empire2. This meant that in just 40 years the number had grown by a million (according to Augustus’ census).
After Messalina’s death, the broken emperor did not think about remarrying. However, at the urging of his subordinates, Claudius changed his position. According to ancient writers, the emperor was presented with three candidates for a new empress: Lollia Paulina – Caligula’s ex-wife; Elia – the second wife of Claudius and Agrippina the Younger – the emperor’s niece. Ultimately, Agrippina was chosen, probably for political reasons and under pressure from the senate. Tacitus and Suetonius argued that Agrippina simply seduced Claudius and had a great influence on him from the beginning. Interestingly, according to Roman law, the marriage of Claudius and Agrippina was illegal, because the possibility of marrying a niece was excluded. Such behaviour was considered incestuous and disgraceful (incestum). They were usually punished with ruthlessness; in archaic times, incest was punishable by death – thrown from the Tarpeian Rock. In later times, the law was milder and the confiscation of property and deportation to the island were envisaged. In this situation, on the initiative of Vitellius (on Agrippina’s command) in 49 CE, the senate passed a new law – senatus consultum Claudianum.
Claudius married Agrippina the Younger in 49 CE, making her empress and his fourth wife. Her strong personality dominated the last years of the emperor’s reign. An expression of her increasing political role was the senate awarding her the title of Augusta. She also led to the seizure of Nero – her son from her first marriage, priority in the succession over the British – born son of Claudius. Nero was first adopted in 50 CE, and three years later he married the Emperor’s daughter Octavia. Claudius, who made many mistakes in his old age, became useless to his wife. In order to take advantage of the situation and place her son on the throne, Agrippina – according to sources – poisoned Claudius with a dish of mushrooms.
According to Tacitus:
So notorious, later, were the whole proceedings that authors of the period have recorded that the poison was sprinkled on an exceptionally fine mushroom; though, as a result of his natural p415 sluggishness or intoxication, the effects of the drug were not immediately felt by Claudius. At the same time, a motion of his bowels appeared to have removed the danger. Agrippina was in consternation: as the last consequences were to be apprehended, immediate infamy would have to be braved; and she fell back on the complicity — which she had already assured — of the doctor Xenophon. He, it is believed, under cover of assisting the emperor’s struggles to vomit, plunged a feather, dipped in a quick poison, down his throat: for he was well aware that crimes of the first magnitude are begun with peril and consummated with profit.
– Tacitus, Annals, XII.67
According to Suetonius, it is not known by whom the poison was administered.
That Claudius was poisoned is the general belief, but when it was done and by whom is disputed. Some say that it was his taster, the eunuch Halotus, as he was banqueting on the Citadel111 with the priests; others that at a family dinner Agrippina served the drug to him with her own hand in mushrooms, a dish of which he was extravagantly fond. Reports also differ as to what followed. Many say that as soon as he swallowed the poison he became speechless, and after suffering excruciating pain all night, died just before dawn. Some say that he first fell into a stupor, then vomited up the whole contents of his overloaded stomach, and was given a second dose, perhaps in a gruel, under pretence that he must be refreshed with food after his exhaustion, or administered in a syringe, as if he were suffering from a surfeit and required relief by that form of evacuation as well.
– Suetonius, Claudius, 44
According to the common opinion of historians, Agrippina the Younger poisoned Emperor Claudius. His removal opened the way for her son Nero to take power, which was her main goal. In order to achieve it, Agrippina the Younger had been preparing for it for several years, as evidenced by her moves.
Claudius died on October 13, 54 CE in Rome. The emperor is considered an educated ruler who cares about the people and customs; and on the other hand, for a suspicious, indecisive and subordinate man. It is difficult to clearly assess his entire figure. It is worth adding that he was the last known person who spoke the Etruscan language. During his reign, he tried to reform the alphabet by introducing three new letters.
After his death, he was counted among the gods as Divus Claudius.