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Claudius
10 BC - 54 AD
 

 

Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus - commonly called simple Claudius - was Emperor of Rome from AD 41-54. At the time he raised to the Imperial throne by the army after the fall of Caligula, Claudius was considered by many to be somewhat retarded because he had a pronounced stammer. This was far from the case, however, and he soon flowered into one of the Empire's greatest leaders, finishing the job of subjugating the people of Britain which had been begun by Julius Caesar nearly a century before. He led the invasion of these 'distant isles' in AD 43 and achieved the surrender of the city of Camulodunum (Colchester) along with the submission of eleven British kings. They were, no doubt, somewhat overawed by the show of elephants which Claudius brought with him!

 

 

1. Appius Claudius, Roman patrician leader of the decemvirs (decemviri, commission of ten men) appointed in 451 BC to draw up a written code of laws, the Twelve Tables, in response to the agitation of the plebs. The traditions concerning these events are inextricably confused. The decemvirs, when reappointed for a second year, appear to have become oppressive, and Appius' conduct towards Virginia provoked their overthrow in 449. Appius was arrested but committed suicide before he was brought to trial (Livy 3. 33). To later Romans he came to symbolize aristocratic arrogance.

2. Appius Claudius Caecus (‘blind’), the famous Roman censor (in 312 BC), reputedly a proud and obstinate man with original and broad views. He used his censorship to extend membership of the senate to rich citizens of the lower classes, and even to the sons of freedmen. Their support as well as heavier taxation enabled him to build Rome's first aqueduct, Aqua Appia, and the Via Appia. In his old age, when blind, he successfully attacked the proposals of Pyrrhus for peace (279/8 BC), in a famous speech still circulated in Cicero's day. He is the first Roman prose-writer whose name is known to us. Cicero says that he was a notable orator, and that some of his funeral orations were still read. He composed aphorisms in Saturnian verse of which a few have survived; they include ‘a man is the creator of his own fortune’, faber est suae quisque fortunae.

3. Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus (10 BC–AD 54), son of the elder Drusus and Antonia, daughter of Mark Antony, the Roman emperor Claudius from 41 until his death. Hampered by some physical disability and the general belief that he was mentally deficient, he led a retired life and devoted himself to scholarship, producing a history of the reign of Octavian and another from the death of Julius Caesar, as well as histories of Etruria and Carthage, and an autobiography. None of these works has survived. When the emperor Gaius (Caligula) was murdered, Claudius was the only surviving adult male of the Julio-Claudian line, and was proclaimed emperor by the praetorian guard almost, it seemed, by accident, after being discovered in hiding, and against the wishes of the senate who wanted to restore the republic. Claudius took part in the invasion of Britain in AD 43 and was present at the capture of Camulodunum (Colchester). In 48 he divorced his wife Messallina, by whom he had a daughter Octavia and a son Britannicus, for her infidelity, and married his niece Agrippina, whose son Nero he adopted. It was generally believed that his death four years later was caused by a dish of mushrooms poisoned by Agrippina. His subsequent deification was the subject of a satire by Seneca (2), entitled Apocolocyntōsis.
 


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Introduction

Ti. Claudius Nero Germanicus (b. 10 BC, d. 54 A.D.; emperor, 41-54 A.D.) was the third emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. His reign represents a turning point in the history of the Principate for a number of reasons, not the least for the manner of his accession and the implications it carried for the nature of the office. During his reign he promoted administrators who did not belong to the senatorial or equestrian classes, and was later vilified by authors who did. He followed Caesar in carrying Roman arms across the English Channel into Britain but, unlike his predecessor, he initiated the full-scale annexation of Britain as a province, which remains today the most closely studied corner of the Roman Empire. His relationships with his wives and children provide detailed insights into the perennial difficulties of the succession problem faced by all Roman Emperors. His final settlement in this regard was not lucky: he adopted his fourth wife's son, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, who was to reign catastrophically as Nero and bring the dynasty to an end. Claudius's reign, therefore, was a mixture of successes and failures that leads into the last phase of the Julio-Claudian line.


Early Life (10 BC - 41 A.D.)

Claudius was born on 1 August 10 BC at Lugdunum in Gaul, into the heart of the Julio-Claudian dynasty: he was the son of Drusus Claudius Nero, the son of Augustus's wife Livia, and Antonia, the daughter of Mark Antony. His uncle, Tiberius, went on to become emperor in AD 14 and his brother Germanicus was marked out for succession to the purple when, in AD 4, he was adopted by Tiberius. It might be expected that Claudius, as a well-connected imperial prince, would have enjoyed the active public life customary for young men of his standing but this was not the case. In an age that despised weakness, Claudius was unfortunate enough to have been born with defects. He limped, he drooled, he stuttered and was constantly ill. His family members mistook these physical debilities as reflective of mental infirmity and generally kept him out of the public eye as an embarrassment. A sign of this familial disdain is that he remained under guardianship, like a woman, even after he had reached the age of majority. Suetonius, in particular, preserves comments of Antonia, his mother, and Livia, his grandmother, which are particularly cruel in their assessment of the boy. From the same source, however, it emerges that Augustus suspected that there was more to this "idiot" than met the eye. Nevertheless, Claudius spent his entire childhood and youth in almost complete seclusion. The normal rites de passage of an imperial prince came and went without official notice, and Claudius received no summons to public office or orders to command troops on the frontiers. When he assumed the toga virilis, for instance, he was carried to the Capitol in a litter at night; the normal procedure was to be led into the Forum by one's father or guardian in full public view. How he spent the voluminous free time of his youth is revealed by his later character: he read voraciously. He became a scholar of considerable ability and composed works on all subjects in the liberal arts, especially history; he was the last person we know of who could read Etruscan. These skills, and the knowledge of governmental institutions he acquired from studying history, were to stand him in good stead when he came to power.

It should not be forgotten that Claudius's wing of the family suffered terribly in the internal struggles for succession that racked the imperial house. His father died on campaign when Claudius was only one year old, and his beloved brother, Germanicus, succumbed under suspicious circumstances in AD 19. His only other sibling to reach adulthood, Livilla, became involved with Sejanus and paid the ultimate price in the wake of the latter's fall from grace in AD 31. Through all this turmoil Claudius survived, primarily through being ignored as an embarrassment and an idiot.

Claudius's fortunes changed somewhat when his unstable nephew, Gaius (Caligula), came to power in the spring of 37 A.D. Gaius, it seems, liked to use his bookish, frail uncle as the butt of cruel jokes and, in keeping with this pattern of behaviour, promoted him to a suffect consulship on 1 July 37 A.D. At 46 years of age, it was Claudius's first public office. Despite this sortie into public life, he seemed destined for a relatively quiet and secluded dotage when, in January 41, events overtook him.
 


Accession (24-25 January, 41 A.D.)

Arguably the most important period of Claudius's reign was its first few hours. The events surrounding his accession are worthy of detailed description, since they revealed much about the true nature of the Augustan Principate.

In the early afternoon of 24 January 41 A.D., the emperor Gaius was attending a display of dancers in a theatre near the palace. Claudius was present. Shortly before lunch time, Claudius took his leave and the emperor decided that he, too, would adjourn for a bath. As Gaius was making his way down an isolated palace corridor he was surrounded and cut down by discontented members of his own bodyguard. In the aftermath of the assassination -- the first open murder of a Roman emperor -- there was widespread panic and confusion. The German elements of the emperor's bodyguard, who were fiercely loyal to their chief, went on the rampage and killed indiscriminately. Soldiers of the larger Praetorian Guard began looting the imperial palace. According to the best-known tradition, some Guardsmen found Claudius cowering behind a curtain and, on the spot, they declared him their emperor and carried him off to their camp. In this story, a hapless Claudius falls into power entirely as a result of accident, and very much against his will. It is not hard to see why, with its implicit theme of recusatio imperii, it is the story of his accession that Claudius himself favoured. Vestiges, however, can be traced of another tradition that paints a somewhat different picture. In this version, the Guardsmen meet in their camp and discuss the situation facing them in light of Gaius's murder. Their pleasant, city-based terms of military service were in jeopardy. They needed an emperor. Fixing their intentions on Claudius as the only surviving mature member of the Julio-Claudian house, they sent out a party of troops to find him and bring him back to their camp so he could be acclaimed emperor, which is what happened. In this story, the elevation of Claudius to the purple was a purposeful plan on the part of the soldiers, even if Claudius remains a passive and reluctant partner in the whole process.

The possibility has to be entertained that Claudius was a far more active participant in his own elevation than either of these traditions let on. There is just reason to suspect that he may even have been involved in planning the murder of Gaius -- his departure from the theatre minutes before the assassination appears altogether too fortuitous. These possibilities, however, must remain pure speculation, since the ancient evidence offers nothing explicit in the way of support for them. On the other hand, we can hardly expect them to, given the later pattern of events. The whole issue of Claudius's possible involvement in the death of Gaius and his own subsequent acclamation by the Praetorian Guard must, therefore, remain moot.

Despite the circumstances that brought him there, the hours following Claudius's arrival at the Praetorian Camp and his acceptance as emperor by the Senate are vital ones for the history of the Principate. Events could have taken a very different course, but that they worked out as they did speaks volumes as to how far seven decades of the Augustan Principate had removed Rome from the possibility of a return to the so-called free Republic.

News of Gaius's death prompted a meeting of the Senate. Initially, there was talk of declaring the Republic restored and dispensing with emperors altogether. Then, however, various senators began proposing that they be chosen as the next princeps. Debate was in progress when news reached the senators that the Guard had made the decision for them: Claudius, the soldiers' choice, was sitting in the Praetorian Camp. The main historical difficulty in what happened next is due to confusion in Josephus's account (which is the fullest). In one version, the Senate sent two tribunes to the Camp to demand that Claudius step down. Once in the Camp, however, the tribunes were cowed by the ardent support for Claudius among the soldiers and instead requested that he come to the Senate to be ratified as emperor. In Josephus's alternate version, however, Herod Agrippa is summoned by the senators and employed as an envoy between the Camp and the Senate. Clearly, Josephus is conveying two traditions about these events, one Roman (featuring the tribunes), the other Jewish (highlighting the role of Herod Agrippa). Suetonius, naturally enough, follows the Roman tradition, as does Dio in his main account; interestingly, the latter shows awareness of some participation on the part of Herod Agrippa in a later passage.

Regardless of how the negotiations were conducted, the Senate quickly realized it was powerless in the presence of several thousand armed men supporting Claudius's candidacy. The impotence that the esteemed council had experienced time and again when dealing with the military dynasts of the Late Republic was once more revealed to all, and the meeting dissolved with the fate of the Empire left undecided. When the Senate met again later that night in the Temple of Jupiter Victor, it found its numbers much depleted, since many had fled the city to their country estates. The senators assessed their military strength: they had three or four urban cohorts under the command of the City Prefect, numbering perhaps 3,000 men. With these, they occupied the Forum and Palatine. Plans were laid to arm some ex-slaves to provide reinforcements. By these actions the senators were accepting that supreme power in post-Augustan Rome could be achieved only by military force; all questions of legal niceties were irrelevant. But the Senate could not control their troops -- they all deserted to the Praetorian Guard, with whom they shared the Camp.

Now completely powerless, the senators hurried off to the Praetorian Camp to pay their respects to Claudius. On 25 January 41 A.D. Claudius was formally invested with all the powers of the princeps, becoming Ti. Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. (Since Claudius had no legal claim to it whatsoever, the appearance of "Caesar" in his imperial name marks the first step in this word's transmutation from a family name to a title denoting ruler, and so begins a tradition that stretches into the modern era with "Kaiser," "Czar," and possibly "Shah.")

These events have been treated in some detail because of their immense historical importance. Gaius was the first emperor of Rome to be openly murdered, and Claudius's accession marks the first overt and large-scale intrusion of the military into post-Augustan politics. The basic fact of the Principate, which had always been implicit in the Augustan settlement but heretofore carefully disguised, was now made plain: the emperor's position ultimately rested not on consensus but on the swords of the soldiers who paid him homage. From one perspective, the Principate had been revealed for what it truly was -- an exercise in managing the military's loyalties, and not a form of government rooted in law and consensus. The Senate, in attempting to block Claudius with troops of their own, had acquiesced in this structure of power. For ever afterward, emperors sat on the throne on the sufferance of the troops they commanded, and a loss of army loyalty necessarily entailed a loss of power, usually accompanied by the loss of the incumbent's life. But the harder lessons in these realities lay in the future; for the moment order had been restored, and Claudius embarked on his reign in relative security.


The Early Years: Britain, Freedmen, and Messalina (AD 41 - 48)

Among Claudius's first acts was the apprehension and execution of Gaius's assassins. Whatever his opinion of their actions, politics and pietas required that Claudius not be seen to condone men who murdered an emperor and a member of his own family. He also displayed immediate understanding of the centrality of the military to his position and sought to create a military image for himself that his prior sheltered existence had denied him. Preparations got under way soon after his accession for a major military expedition into Britain, perhaps sparked by an attempted revolt of the governor of Dalmatia, L. Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus, in 42 A.D.. The invasion itself, spearheaded by four legions, commenced in the summer of 43 and was to last for decades, ultimately falling short of the annexation of the whole island (if indeed that was Claudius's final objective at the outset). This move marked the first major addition to the territory of the Roman empire since the reign of Augustus. Claudius himself took part in the campaign, arriving in the war zone with an entourage of ex-consuls in the late summer of 43 A.D. After a parade at Camulodunum (Colchester) to impress the natives, he returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph in 44 A.D. His military credentials had been firmly established.

The sources are united in portraying Claudius as a dupe to his imperial freedmen advisors as well as to his wives. It is possible that the hostile stance of the elite toward Claudius extended back into his reign -- he was, after all, a usurper who had been foisted on the aristocrats by the soldiers. If so, Claudius's reliance on his freedmen may have stemmed from this circumstance, in that the ex-slaves were (as far as he was concerned) more trustworthy than the sullen aristocracy. For whatever reasons, there is no doubt that Claudius's reign is the first era of the great imperial freedman. To be sure, the secretariat had existed before Claudius and members of it had achieved some prominence (notably Helicon and Callistus under Gaius), but the rise of powerful individuals like Narcissus, Polybius, and Pallas was a distinctive mark of Claudius's reign. The power of these men was demonstrated early on when the emperor chose Narcissus as his envoy to the legions as they hesitated to embark on their invasion of Britain. According to our sources, the freedmen were frequently to exert less beneficent influences throughout Claudius's reign.

In 38 A.D. Claudius had married Valeria Messalina, a scion of a noble house with impressive familial connections. Messalina bore him a daughter (Octavia, born in 39) and a son (Britannicus, born in 41): she was therefore the mother of the heir-apparent and enjoyed influence for that reason. In the sources, Messalina is portrayed as little more than a pouting adolescent nymphomaniac who holds wild parties and arranges the deaths of former lovers or those who scorn her advances; and all this while her cuckolded husband blunders on in blissful ignorance. Recently, attempts have been made to rehabilitate Messalina as an astute player of court politics who used sex as a weapon, but in the end we have little way of knowing the truth. What we can say is that either her love of parties (on the adolescent model) or her byzantine scheming (on the able courtier model) brought her down. While Claudius was away in Ostia in AD 48, Messalina had a party in the palace in the course of which a marriage ceremony was performed (or playacted) between herself and a consul-designate, C. Silius. Whatever the intentions behind it, the political ramifications of this folly were sufficiently grave to cause the summary execution of Messalina, Silius, and assorted hangers-on (orchestrated, tellingly, by the freedman Narcissus). Claudius was now without a wife.


The Rise of Agrippina and Claudius's Death (48-54 A.D.)

In our sources, the death of Messalina is presented as initiating a scramble among the freedmen, each wishing to place his preferred candidate at Claudius's side as the new empress. In the end, it was Pallas who prevailed when he convinced Claudius to marry Agrippina the Younger. The marriage took place within months of Messalina's execution. Agrippina was a colorful figure with extensive and far-reaching imperial connections: she was the daughter of Claudius's brother, Germanicus, and a sister of Gaius Caligula, by whom she had been exiled for involvement in the conspiracy of Gaetulicus; moreover, she had been married before. She therefore brought to the marriage with Claudius -- which necessitated a change in the law to allow uncles to marry their brothers' daughters -- a son, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus. Agrippina's ambitions for this son proved the undoing of Claudius.

The years between his marriage to Agrippina in 48 and his death in 54 were difficult ones for Claudius. Whether or not sources are right to portray him as a dupe of his wives and freedmen throughout his reign, there can be little doubt that Agrippina's powerful personality dominated Claudius's last years. Her position, openly influential in a manner unlike any previous empress, was recognized by those attuned to imperial politics, and she appears more and more prominently in official inscriptions and coins. In 50 the Senate voted her the title "Augusta," the first prominent imperial woman to hold this title since Livia -- and the latter had only held it after Augustus's death. She greeted foreign embassies to the emperor at Rome from her own tribunal, and those greetings were recorded in official documents; she also wore a gold-embroidered military cloak at official functions. It is a sign of her overt influence that a new colony on the Rhine bore her name. Agrippina's powerful position facilitated the advancement of her son Domitius and was, in turn, strengthened by it. Claudius already had a natural son, Britannicus, who was still a minor. Domitius, at 13, was three years older. Now Claudius began to advance Domitius through various signs of favor, the most important being his adoption as Claudius's son on 25 February AD 50. Henceforth Domitius was known as Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus Caesar and known to posterity simply as "Nero". But Claudius openly advanced Nero in other ways, too: the emperor held the consulship in 51, which was the year Nero took the "toga of manhood," and that event was itself staged several months before the customary age for Roman teenagers; Nero was granted imperium proconsulare outside the city, addressed the Senate, appeared with Claudius at circus games (while Britannicus appeared still in the toga of a minor), and was hailed as "Leader of the Youth" (princeps iuventutis) on the coinage; in AD 53 Nero married Claudius's daughter, Octavia. All of these are sure signs of preference in the ever-unstable imperial succession schemes. The main difficulty for modern scholars lies in how to explain Claudius's favouring of Nero over his natural son, Britannicus; the reasons remain a matter of intense debate.

No matter what the reasons were, there can be little doubt that Nero, despite his tender age, had been clearly marked out as Claudius's successor. Agrippina, according to Tacitus, now decided it was time to dispose of Claudius to allow Nero to take over. The ancient accounts are confused -- as is habitual in the cases of hidden and dubious deaths of emperors -- but their general drift is that Claudius was poisoned with a treated mushroom, that he lingered a while and had to be poisoned a second time before dying on 13 October 54 A.D. At noon that same day, the sixteen-year-old Nero was acclaimed emperor in a carefully orchestrated piece of political theater. Already familiar to the army and the public, he faced no serious challenges to his authority.


Claudius and the Empire

The invasion and annexation of Britain was by far the most important and significant event in Claudius's reign. But several other issues deserve attention: his relationship with and treatment of the aristocracy, his management of the provinces and their inhabitants, and his judicial practices, and his building activities. Before looking at these subjects, however, we should note that the long-lived notion that Claudius initiated a coherent policy of centralization in the Roman Empire -- evidenced in the centralization of provincial administration and judicial actions, in the creation of a departmental bureaucracy, his interference in financial affairs, and so on -- has been decisively disproven by a recent biography of Claudius. Whatever actions Claudius took in regard to the various wings of government, he did so without any unifying policy of centralization in mind.

Claudius's relationship with the Senate did not get off to a good start -- given the nature of his succession and the early revolt of Scribonianus with its ensuing show trials -- and it seems likely that distrust of the aristocracy is what impelled Claudius to elevate the role of his freedmen. During his reign, however, Claudius made efforts to conciliate Rome's leading council, but he also embarked on practices that redounded to his detriment, especially those of sponsoring the entrance men considered unworthy into the Order and hearing delicate cases behind closed doors (in camera). In the last analysis, the figures speak for themselves: 35 senators and several hundred Knights were driven to suicide or executed during the reign. The posthumous vilification of Claudius in the aristocratic tradition also bespeaks a deep bitterness and indicates that, ultimately, Claudius's relationship with the Senate showed little improvement over time. His reviving and holding the censorship in 47-48 is typical of the way the relationship between Senate and emperor misfired: Claudius, no doubt, thought he was adhering to ancient tradition, but the emperor-censor only succeeded in eliciting odium from those he was assessing.

Claudius was remembered (negatively) by tradition as being noticeably profligate in dispensing grants of Roman citizenship to provincials; he also admitted "long-haired" Gauls into the senatorial order, to the displeasure of the snobbish incumbents. Both of these practices demonstrate his concern for fair play and good government for the provinces, despite his largely sedentary reign: under Claudius are attributed the first issues of standing orders (mandata) from emperor to governor. In the organization of the provinces, Claudius appears to have preferred direct administration over client kingship. Under him the kingdoms of Mauretania, Lycia, Noricum, and Thrace were converted into provinces. Stable kingdoms, such as Bosporus and Cilicia, were left untouched. A good example of the pattern is Herod Agrippa I. This client prince had grown up at Rome and had been awarded tetrarchic lands in Galilee by Gaius (Caligula). As we saw above, he had been involved in the accession of Claudius and, as a reward for services rendered, he was granted Judaea and Samaria in addition to his former holdings. He fell from grace, however, when he suspiciously extended Jerusalem's walls and invited other eastern kings to a conference at Tiberias. He died suddenly in 44 A.D., after which his former kingdom again came under direct Roman rule.

One feature of Claudius's reign that the sources particularly criticize is his handling of judicial matters. While he was certainly diligent in attending to hearings and court proceedings -- he was constantly present in court and heard cases even during family celebrations and festal days -- the sources accuse him of interfering unduly with cases, of not listening to both sides of a case, of making ridiculous and/or savage rulings, and of hearing delicate cases in closed-door private sessions with only his advisors present. The most celebrated and infamous of the latter cases is that of Valerius Asiaticus, the Gallic ex-consul and one-time friend of Claudius, who fell from grace in 47, reputedly at Messalina's instigation. His case was heard in the emperor's bedroom and Asiaticus was forced to suicide. Even if a survey of surviving rulings by Claudius do not show him making silly decisions, his judicial practices caught such attention that Seneca's Apocolocyntosis ends with a courtroom scene with Claudius as the accused: he is not allowed to make his defence, is convicted, and condemned to be a powerless courtroom clerk. Such an image must have been most pleasing to the senatorial imagination.

Finally, there is Claudius's building activities. Public building was de rigueur for Roman emperors, and ancient accounts of individual reigns routinely include mention of imperial munificence. Matters hydraulic account for Claudius's greatest constructional achievements, in the form of a new aqueduct for the city of Rome, a new port at Portus near Ostia, and the draining of the Fucine Lake. The sources are at pains to highlight the almost catastrophic outcome of the latter project, but its scale cannot be denied. Suetonius's assessment that "his public works were grandiose and necessary rather than numerous" is entirely correct.


Conclusion

Robert Graves' fictional characterization of Claudius as an essentially benign man with a keen intelligence has tended to dominate the wider public's view of this emperor. Close study of the sources, however, reveals a somewhat different kind of man. In addition to his scholarly and cautious nature, he had a cruel streak, as suggested by his addiction to gladiatorial games and his fondness for watching his defeated opponents executed. He conducted closed-door (in camera ) trials of leading citizens that frequently resulted in their ruin or deaths -- an unprecedented and tyrannical pattern of behaviour. He had his wife Messalina executed, and he personally presided over a kangaroo court in the Praetorian Camp in which many of her hangers-on lost their lives. He abandoned his own son Britannicus to his fate and favoured the advancement of Nero as his successor. While he cannot be blamed for the disastrous way Nero's rule turned out, he must take some responsibility for putting that most unsuitable youth on the throne. At the same time, his reign was marked by some notable successes: the invasion of Britain, stability and good government in the provinces, and successful management of client kingdoms. Claudius, then, is a more enigmatic figure than the other Julio-Claudian emperors: at once careful, intelligent, aware and respectful of tradition, but given to bouts of rage and cruelty, willing to sacrifice precedent to expediency, and utterly ruthless in his treatment of those who crossed him. Augustus's suspicion that there was more to the timid Claudius than met the eye was more than fully borne out by the events of his unexpected reign.


 

 

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