Claudius: Rome’s Accidental Emperor

Picture the scene: it’s January 24, 41 AD and Rome is in chaos. The tyrant emperor Caligula has just been stabbed to death outside the Palatine Games. In the city, his wife has been murdered and his baby daughter had her head dashed open against a wall. In this tense, bloody atmosphere, no-one knows what will happen next. Will the Republic be restored, or will a new emperor be found to take the throne? At the height of this uncertainty, a soldier in the Praetorian Guard sweeps aside a palace curtain and finds Caligula’s useless uncle cowering in fright. 

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But the Guard don’t kill the old man. Instead they proclaim uncle Claudius Emperor.

Born into the imperial household in the days of Augustus, Claudius was a sick, feeble child never destined to amount to much. Yet through a quirk of fate he became the only candidate able to take the throne following Caligula’s murder. Hounded by assassination attempts, surrounded by people conspiring against him, Claudius nonetheless became one of the greatest rulers in Roman history. Join us today as we plunge into the unlikely story of Rome’s accidental emperor.  

Claudius

The Family of Blood

On August 1, 10 BC, the Roman town of Lugdunum (now Lyon, France) prepared to welcome the latest member of the imperial household into the world. From the moment of his birth, Claudius – or, to give him his full name, Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus – was one of the best connected people in the whole of Rome.

His father was the popular general Nero Claudius Drusus, while his mother was Antonia the Younger. If that doesn’t sound so impressive, wait until you hear the next part. His grandmother on his father’s side was the wife of the current emperor Augustus. On his mother’s side, he was descended from Mark Anthony. Not only that, but his uncle was the future emperor Tiberius. His older brother was Germanicus, the future father of Caligula. Claudius wasn’t just born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was born practically suckling a whole cutlery set.

Unfortunately, he was also born with a mysterious disability.

We say “unfortunately” because ancient Rome was not somewhere that viewed the disabled kindly. The Roman ideal was to be a strong male who excelled at both athletic feats and oratory. Being able to do only one of those things was acceptable. But neither? Boy, would you be in for a bad time. 

And a bad time is exactly what young Claudius had. 

He limped. He stammered. His head twitched oddly. He was known to dribble. For a family that prided itself on being the most perfectly Roman of all Romans, this was beyond embarrassing. Claudius’s mother called him “a monster of a man, not finished but merely begun by Dame Nature.” His grandmother refused to speak with him.

Five layered onyx, depicting Claudius with Agrippina Minor (left) and Germanicus with Agrippina Maior (right).
Credit: Gryffindor – Own work, CC BY 2.5

It’s said that when poor Claudius came to dinner, the rest of the family would throw food at him and jeer, mocking him for his disability. If that sounds horrific, just know that Claudius was one of the lucky ones.  In those days, it was not uncommon for Romans to simply kill disabled children. The only reason the imperial family didn’t do so is because that would’ve been an even bigger embarrassment.

But while Claudius was disabled, he was by no means the idiot his parents thought he was. The boy was insightful, intelligent. A born academic. At first, no-one really noticed. After Claudius’s father died in 9 BC he was dumped with a tutor who tried to beat his disability out of him.

But, eventually, Augustus noticed Claudius’s love of reading and, in 7 AD, decided to hire the historian Livy as his new tutor.

This was an excellent move.

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Livy didn’t try to beat Claudius until his disability went away. He gave him stacks of books to read, encouraged him to write, even helped him prepare and deliver speeches. As young Claudius started to come out of his shell, he began to earn begrudging respect from his relatives – no mean feat when you remember those relatives were all assholesYet, even now, the imperial family kept Claudius from holding any public office. In private, they all agreed he should never, ever be allowed to become emperor. You can almost imagine the Fates looking down on these pompous mortals and struggling not to laugh.

From Bad…

The tortured chain of events that would eventually lead to Claudius becoming emperor began on 19 August, 14 AD. That day, Augustus passed away after four decades on the throne.  In the wake of the First Citizen’s death, Claudius’s uncle Tiberius became emperor.

Now, Tiberius was a weird choice. He was about as popular as a rectally inserted cactus, and had only been adopted by Augustus because he had no other heirs. Perhaps realizing that Emperor Butt-Cactus would be a disaster, Augustus had tried to mitigate things by making Tiberius in turn adopt Claudius’s dashing older brother Germanicus. That way, no matter how painful Tiberius was for Rome’s metaphorical backside, the soothing hemorrhoid cream of Germanicus would never be far behind.

Unfortunately, Tiberius was a guy who believed in all pain, no gain.

L’empereur Claude, Hendrick ter Brugghen, Schloss Caputh

In 19 AD, Tiberius had Germanicus assassinated. In the aftermath, he had all of Germanicus’s relatives either killed or imprisoned. Well, we say “all”. But there were two conspicuous relatives this sentient, spiky suppository forgot about. The first was Claudius, who Tiberius considered too weak and useless to even bother killing.

The second was Germanicus’s son: a pre-teen boy who went by the nickname Caligula. And that was basically how the rest of Tiberius’s reign went.

Throughout the 20s AD, the emperor conducted purge after purge. Each time, he spared both useless Claudius and helpless Caligula. That’s not to say Tiberius liked his stammering nephew. He kept Claudius alive because he didn’t see him as a threat, but also made sure to keep him miserable.

When the senate tried to let the poor guy join, Tiberius personally vetoed it for the good of the empire. On the other hand, the emperor also made a choice that was very much not for the good of the empire. In 32 AD, Tiberius was reaching the end of his life and needed an heir. His son Drusus had died the decade before, and he needed someone to fill the boy’s little boots.

He chose Caligula.

Technically, he made Caligula his co-heir alongside Caligula’s cousin, but you don’t need to bother learning heir number 2’s name, because Caligula quickly made sure their was no second heir to worry about. That done, he smothered Tiberius with a pillow in 37 AD – at least, according to tradition – and had himself declared sole emperor.

Since you’ve doubtless already seen our Caligula video – and, if not, do we have a glorious Roman clickhole lined up for you – you already know that Caligula’s reign was extremely not-fun for everyone in Rome.

But not for Claudius.

Almost as soon as Caligula took the throne, he had his uncle elevated to consul, the first position of power the now-47 year old had held. To this day, nobody really knows why Caligula showed Claudius such favor. Theories range from “he wanted to keep his potential enemies close” to “dude, he’s Caligula, he’s completely cuckoo.”

Yet even now a dark cloud was forming that threatened to block Claudius’s unexpected ray of sunshine.

In December that year, Caligula’s sister Agrippina the Younger gave birth to a son. She called him Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. But you know him by a different name: Nero.

… to Worse

While Caligula had taken a shine to Claudius, that didn’t mean the older man was safe from his nephew’s whims. By all accounts, Caligula treated Claudius more like a court jester than a relative, pushing him in the river for fun and forcing the poor guy to rack up huge debts funding Caligula’s lifestyle. Still, considering what happened to most people in Caligula’s orbit, Claudius got off relatively lightly.

This was the emperor who forced parents to watch their children being tortured to death. The emperor who banished his own sister, Claudius’s niece Agrippina the Younger, to a remote island where she had to catch sponges for a living.

By the way: Agrippina the Younger? Remember that name.

Claude proclaimed emperor, by Charles Lebayle

Anyway, Claudius’s life under Caligula continued to be a weird mix of awful and kinda OK. In 38 AD,  he married Valeria Messalina, an influential member of the court, and, in 39 AD, the couple had a daughter: Claudia Octavia. Yet this wasn’t exactly true love.

Messalina married Claudius because he was her ticket into the imperial household. The moment they’d tied the knot she systematically began committing adultery with everything with a pulse. The fact he was being cuckolded on an almost hourly basis only added to Rome’s general impression that Claudius was comically useless. But it was this comical uselessness that made Caligula treat his uncle more like a pet than a rival.

And it wouldn’t be long before the poor, abused dog bit back at its master.

By 41 AD, the knives were out for the mad emperor. In this case, literally. On January 24, Caligula was stabbed to death outside the Palatine Games. In the city, his wife and daughter were assassinated in their home. But the conspirators had been so focused on killing Caligula that they hadn’t planned for what came next.  The result was that Rome slid into near anarchy that day. In the senate, emergency debates were even held on restoring the Republic.

For the Praetorian Guard, this was worrying. The private guard of the imperial household, they effectively got all their power from the system of emperors. Revert back to a republic, and they were done for. What they needed was a new emperor. Someone who could take Caligula’s place on the throne. Ideally a relative. Ideally someone weak, who could be manipulated.

They found their candidate in the most unlikely place.

At the moment the bloodshed erupted, Claudius had been in the imperial palace. Fearing he might be next, he’d hidden behind a curtain. And there he was still cowering when a Praetorian Guardsman yanked it back, looking for all the world like he was going to stab the old man.

But there was no more bloodshed that day. No murder of Caligula’s uncle.

Instead, Claudius watched in dumbfounded silence as the Praetorian Guard knelt and hailed him as their new emperor. Now, powerful as they were, the Praetorian Guard couldn’t just unilaterally declare Claudius emperor. If the senate had really wanted to restore the republic, there would’ve been very little all these guys now kneeling around a curtain could’ve done about it.

But the senate was too divided. So when the Praetorian Guard presented their candidate, there was no united force to stop them. The day Claudius was declared emperor, you could almost hear the city groan. Really? This idiot?

But Claudius wasn’t an idiot. These grumbling Romans didn’t know it yet, but “doddering” Claudius was going to become the greatest emperor since Augustus.

Stepping Stones to Greatness 

If you’d been a Roman citizen in the early days of Claudius’s rule, you probably would’ve felt like things were off to a bad start. One of Claudius’s first acts was to bung the military a hefty bribe to stop them rebelling against him.

But that still wasn’t enough, because in 42 AD the governor of Dalmatia decided to go into rebellion regardless! This was pretty embarrassing for Claudius, especially as some senators sided with the rebel governor, but it wasn’t fatal. At the last moment, the governor’s troops rebelled against him and the would-be revolutionary was forced to commit suicide.

Still, it’s not like Claudius could crack down on the dissenters or anything.

In this period, the senate was calling the shots. They declared that Caligula’s statues should be torn down, and they mostly were. They blocked Claudius’s attempts to bring Caligula’s assassins to justice, allowing only the head conspirator to be executed. By the way, if you’re wondering why Claudius went after the guys who did him a favor by icing Caligula, it was mostly about precedent.

Everyone had benefited from Caligula dying. But you couldn’t have people thinking that assassination was a legit way to remove an emperor. 

I mean, this was Ancient Rome, not Ancient Ro- oh right. Well, nevermind. The other big mistake Claudius made in his early reign was, oddly, to show mercy. Remember Agrippina the Younger? Caligula’s sister, Claudius’s niece, and Nero’s mother who got exiled to that random island?

Well, Claudius brought her back to Rome. Pardoned her. Set her up with a new husband to look after both her and Nero. In the long run, this would prove to be a fatal move. By the end of 42 AD Claudius was so insecure in his position that it was entirely possible there would be yet another new emperor within the year.

What Claudius needed was a major victory. A military conquest that would show the world he was more than just a doddering old man. Luckily, he had just the place in mind.

Nearly a century ago, the great Julius Caesar had failed to conquer a rain-soaked island north of Gaul. That island’s name was Britannia. And Claudius was gonna bring it into the Roman empire. There’s a lot we don’t know about Claudius’s conquest of Britannia in 43 AD. Our only real source is Cassius Dio, who was born over 100 years after the invasion. But we do know that there were two major battles with the Britons, finally leading to the establishment of a crossing point on the Thames.

We also know that Claudius personally went to Britannia just in time to lead his troops to victory, a move that won him major plaudits back in Rome. We know, too, that he wasn’t the only emperor involved in the war. The future emperor Vespasian was among the commanders in Claudius’s army. On his own initiative he conquered the southwest of Britain all the way to modern-day Exeter.

By the end of 43 AD, Claudius had done what even Julius Caesar couldn’t. He’d pacified the south of this rainy island. While there would be trouble with the Britons in the future – Boudicca launched her famous revolt in 60 AD – for now, Claudius was riding high. Back in Rome, Claudius was awarded a triumph. For the first time, the average Roman in the street was looking askance at the emperor and saying “hey, this dude ain’t so bad.”

Well buckle up, ancient Romans, because, for a while at least, things are gonna keep getting better.

Changing Attitudes

Today, Claudius’s reign is best remembered for territorial expansion and for the fact he wasn’t either Caligula or Nero. But there were domestic triumphs, too, and they went beyond merely building aqueducts. Claudius was the first emperor since Augustus to really shake up the bureaucracy. 

While Tiberius had contented himself with the odd purge, and Caligula had just done whatever wacky stuff popped into his mind, Claudius tried to seriously reform the empire. One of his key achievements was to introduce Gauls into the Senate. Gaul had been under Roman rule for the best part of a century, but the Senate was still reserved for those born on the Italian peninsula. 

That was all fine and dandy when you were a small conquering force of Italian groups, but when you were a vast multinational empire, it was less than ideal.

Claudius was the one who broke the taboo on letting non-Italians into the lawmaking process. Although it caused a massive fight at the time, it likely saved the empire in the long run. Claudius also championed the rights of slaves and ex-slaves, bringing in a law that made it illegal to kill your slave for no reason.

To modern ears that might sound like one of those things that should really go without saying, but before Claudius there had been nothing to stop a Roman citizen coming home from a bad day at the forum and stabbing their slave to death. In tandem with this decree, Claudius began promoting freedmen inside his own court. He made ex-slaves head of his correspondence, head of the palace treasury, and placed them in other positions too numerous to count.

For the senate, this was just another outrage.

These guys were former slaves, the lowest of the low! And now here they were, among the emperor’s closest advisors! Perhaps its no surprise malicious rumors began to spread that the freedmen were really the ones controlling Claudius, and not the other way around. Not that Claudius was a perfect ruler, even if you agreed with all this stuff he was doing.

He was prone to issuing odd decrees, such as the ruling he passed that farting in public was good for you. 

Emperor Claudius, guys. History’s first proponent of “better out than in”. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed as an ancient Roman to say that Claudius was doing a bad job. Oh, sure, the senate stank of imperial butt gas half the time now, but stuff was otherwise measuarbly better. 

Finances were again on a sound footing after Caligula’s excess. The judiciary was functioning well, with Claudius even personally hearing cases and granting clemency where the law demanded unduly harsh punishment. Yet despite all these undoubted improvements, the Roman elites just could not get over the fact that Claudius was… well, Claudius. He still limped. He still stammered. His wife still cheated on him.

And, for the toxically macho Romans, that was simply too much.

In his years in charge, Claudius was forced to put over 300 people to death for plotting against him.  Pretty much every week brought some new assassination plot or planned rebellion. Yet Claudius dodged them all, wandering obliviously through the drawn daggers like Buster Keaton in a hurricane.

But while Claudius was becoming an expert at avoiding assassination attempts, there was one he wouldn’t see coming until it was far too late.

Goodbye, Uncle

In 47 AD, Agrippina the Younger’s wealthy husband dropped dead in mysterious circumstances, leaving the emperor’s niece in need of a new man. This was fortunate timing, because the emperor was about to be in the market for a new wife.  OK, so remember Claudius’s wife Messalina, the one who kept cheating on him?

Well, she was still cheating on him like she was trying to break some sort of record. Which she possibly was.  It’s said Messalina and a famous Roman prostitute had a competition to see who could sleep with the most men in a single day. Messalina won. But Messalina’s plans went further than just getting her kicks behind Claudius’s back. 

Like everyone else, she was still convinced the emperor was an idiot, to the extent that she actually married another man in a lavish ceremony in the heart of Rome.

The plan was that she would kill Claudius and her new husband assume the throne.  Instead, word of this incredibly not-secret secret marriage got back to the emperor, who was all like “wait, what? That’s a stupid plan” and had Messalina killed. And so it was that Claudius became single again just as Agrippina was looking for a new squeeze.

Now, if you’ve already seen our Nero video – and, yes, we did these emperors out of order. Just trying to keep you on your toes – you’ll know Agrippina was a woman desperate to secure herself against future poverty.

However, the way she went about it was all sorts of eww.

A Roman Emperor 41AD, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Throughout 48 AD, Agrippina set her sights on seducing her uncle Claudius. Of course, it takes two to tango, and Claudius was just as creepily open to the suggestion as Agrippina was. When they got married on New Year’s Day, 49 AD, the official reason was to unite the two branches of the imperial family. But Roman society at large was pretty sure it was just a convenient excuse for Claudius to live out his weird incest fantasies.

But not everyone saw the marriage as a PR disaster.

For the past decade, young Nero had been living with his mother, the two quietly biding their time. Now, that time had come. In 50 AD, Agrippina convinced Claudius to officially adopt Nero as his son. A year later, she pressured the emperor into naming Nero his heir.

Now, Nero was technically co-heir, alongside Claudius’s previous son Britannicus. 

But that hadn’t stopped Caligula from seizing power alone. And it wouldn’t stop Nero either. The last act came in 53 AD, when Agrippina made Nero marry Claudius’s daughter, Claudia Octavia. From having nothing just a few years beforehand, Agrippina and Nero had maneuvered their way into the heart of power. She was the emperor’s wife. He was the emperor’s adopted son and heir, and married to the emperor’s daughter.

It should’ve been blindingly obvious to anyone watching that Agrippina and the teenage Nero were preparing for a hostile takeover.

But, as he had been with Messalina, Claudius was blind to the flaws of his new wife. Oblivious to the danger he was in, it’s likely he never even realized what was happening. Agrippina and Nero made their move on October 13, 54 AD.

That day, Claudius abruptly died from a sudden sickness.

While it’s not certain what happened, tradition holds that Agrippina bribed a court taster to slip Claudius poisonous mushrooms. Whatever the truth, the moment the emperor was dead, Agrippina led Nero to the Praetorian Guard and had him declared sole ruler of Rome. And that was that. The reign of Claudius was over, and the time of Nero was here. 

And what a time it would be! As he grew older, Nero would get crazier and crazier until he finally…! But you’ll have to watch our Nero video for the rest of that story. As for Claudius, he was deified after his death, worshipped as a God by his former subjects.

Compared to the fates of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero, this was a bit of a win. 

Even Nero revoking Claudius’s deification in the 60s AD didn’t dent the accidental emperor’s popularity. A few years later, Vespasian would restore Claudius to his place in the pantheon.  At the end of all that excitement, then, what should we make of Claudius? Well, from one angle, he was still a bit of a disaster. Don’t forget: without Claudius marrying Agrippina, you don’t get Nero, arguably the worst emperor of all.

But, to look at it from another angle, his story is one of inspiration.

Here was a man born disabled into a society that routinely killed its disabled members, only to rise to the very top. Once he reached the top, he ruled with a sense of moderation and sanity not seen since the days of Augustus.  He made life in the empire fairer. He saw his subjects not as toys he could break on a whim, but as actual people.  In the end, Claudius may not have been a truly great emperor like, say, Trajan. But he was a good man. Decent, kind. Not cruel. Everything his successor would fail to be.

Perhaps that fact alone is enough to justify his place in history.

Sources

Excellent podcast series, a few episodes on Claudius here: https://thehistoryofrome.typepad.com/the_history_of_rome/2009/07/61-what-me-claudius.html 

Podcast on Claudius’s life (the following two episodes are also worth hearing): https://podcasts.google.com/?feed=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubGF0cm9iZS5lZHUuYXUvbWFya2V0aW5nL2Fzc2V0cy9wb2RjYXN0cy9yc3NmZWVkcy9jYWVzYXIueG1s&episode=NzZFNkMyRjYtRTVBOS00MjA5LUI4REUtNTU2OTg2RTEzQUUw&hl=en-CZ 

Podcast on Claudius’s early life: https://partialhistorians.com/2013/09/08/episode-12-claudius-an-imperial-life-with-unusual-twists/ 

Britannica’s biography: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Claudius-Roman-emperor 

Suetonius’s biography in full: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/suetonius/12caesars/claudius*.html 

(Father): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nero-Claudius-Drusus-Germanicus 

(Cerebral palsy): https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/death-emperor-claudius 

Biographics on Caligula: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zgJ1Cb99uA 

Biographics on Nero:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIW10E1xAOI 

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