The Roman Emperor Claudius

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Podcast Transcript

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known to history as Claudius, was the fourth Emperor of Rome. 

Of the emperors that came before him and all those who came after him, he was the most unlikely of emperors. 

Up until the moment he became emperor, no one during his entire life seriously thought of him as emperor material. When he became emperor, he surprised everyone. 

Learn more about Emperor Claudius and his surprising rise to power on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Claudius was born Tiberius Claudius Drusus in the year 10 BC into the Roman imperial family. 

His father was Dursus, an extremely competent and popular commander. Drusus gain fame by fighting Germanic tribes in the north. Drusus may have been one of only four Roman generals in history to have achieved its greatest and rarest military honor, the Spolia opima

The Spolia opima was only awarded to a general who defeated another enemy general in single combat and then looted their armor and weapons. 

Drusus was the son of Livia and her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero. When Livia married Augustus, Augustus adopted Drusus and his brother, the future emperor Tiberius. 

On Claudius’ mother’s side, he also had an impeccable pedigree. His mother was Antonia Minor, the youngest daughter of Marc Antony, and Octavia, the sister of Augustus. 

Despite being a member of the imperial family, Claudius was not like his other relatives.

For his entire life, Claudius was shunned, ostracized, and ridiculed by his own family. 

The reason for this was that Claudius was what we would call today disabled. 

We aren’t exactly sure what ailment inflicted Claudius as the Romans were not very good at diagnosing such things. 

From what historians tell us, his knees were weak, and he would walk with a limp. His head would often shake from side to side, and he would stammer when he talked, sometimes appearing confused. 

If he became angry or agitated, his condition would worsen, slobbering with a runny nose. 

He was also hard of hearing. 

By all accounts, he had no visible physical deformities. 

Subsequent historians have tried to diagnose what afflicted Claudius. A popular theory was that he suffered some illness as a child, perhaps something like polio or measles, which then affected him for the rest of his life.

Current theories posit that he may have had cerebral palsy or Tourette’s syndrome. 

Romans of that time had no empathy or understanding of people with disabilities. In their view, people like Claudius suffered these ailments due to a lack of willpower or intelligence. 

As such, Claudius was an embarrassment to the imperial family. 

His father, Drusus, died when he was only two years old. His mother, Antonia, supposedly described him as “a monstrosity of a human being, one that nature began and never finished.” 

His sister Livilla reportedly prayed to the gods that Claudius would never become emperor. 

His mother basically abandoned raising Claudius and passed him off to his grandmother Livia. She was only marginally better. They eventually hired a mule driver to look after him under the theory that he just needed discipline. 

His family assumed that because of his physical ailments, Claudius must have been stupid.

As we will see, Claudius, was, actually, anything but. 

All of the other young men in the imperial family were given civil or military assignments to prepare them for a future career in politics. 

Claudius was not. 

As a teenager, Claudius took an interest in history, and the Roman historian Livy was hired to tutor him. He befriended the stoic philosopher Athenodorus as well as the future king of Judea Herod Agrippa who was raised in the imperial court.

Not only was Claudius, not an idiot, he proved to be highly intelligent. Something that his grandfather, the emperor Augustus, might have realized before he died. 

With an ability to focus on history and not having any other obligations, he began to write a history of the Roman civil wars that took place a generation before him. 

These were the civil wars that brought his family to power.

What Claudius wrote never saw the light of day, and copies of it never survived, but by all accounts, what he wrote was a brutally honest account of the rise to power of Julius Caesar and Augustus. 

It was, in fact, too honest. It didn’t conform to the narrative that the imperial family was trying to create. It reminded everyone in the family that Claudius was also the grandson of Marc Antony, the mortal enemy of Augustus. 

The history probably ruined whatever chances he had at holding public office. 

At the age of 23, Augustus died, and his uncle Tiberius ascended to the imperial throne. Claudius made an appeal to allow him to begin ascending the cursus honorom, the series of public offices elite Romans would hold on the way to becoming consul. 

Tiberius declined to give Claudius any office, and Claudius retired to private life. 

He continued his historical writing, creating works on the history of the Latin alphabet, Carthage, the Etruscans, and the Roman Republic. The historian Tacitus claimed to use the works of Claudius for his writings. 

Meanwhile, the political intrigue that surrounded the imperial throne swirled around Claudius, but he remained immune to everything, as no one saw Claudius as a threat. 

Claudius’ older brother, Germanicus, was eventually tapped to succeed Tiberius. Germanicus was very charismatic, a successful general, and was extremely popular with the people. 

He was killed under suspicious circumstances, possibly poisoned. Many people believed that Tiberius had him killed because of his popularity, or it may have been his right-hand man Sejanus who did it to remove a rival. I’ll refer you to my episode on Sejanus and his very sudden and dramatic downfall.

Tiberius’ son Drusus also died under mysterious circumstances. 

When Tiberius himself died in the year 37, the imperial crown passed to Tiberius’s nephew, the son of Germanicus, and the nephew of Claudius….Caligula. 

If you know anything about Caligula, you know that he is widely regarded as one of the worst emperors in history. Caligula will be the subject of a future episode as there is a lot to say about him, and there have been modern attempts to reconsider just how bad of emperor he really was.

With respect to Claudius, however, Caligula offered him a new opportunity to enter public life. 

In the year 37, Caligula appointed himself as consul and Claudius as his co-consul. In theory, it was to honor his father and Claudius’ brother Germanicus, but it might just have been to mock Claudius.

Throughout the reign of Caligula, he tormented Claudius. He picked on him, played jokes on him, and humiliated him in front of the Senate. Claudius, in many ways, served the role of court jester. 

As terrible as Caligula was to Claudius, he was pretty terrible to everyone around him.  It eventually caught up to him on January 24, 41, when he was assassinated by members of his Praetorian Guard.

They didn’t just kill Caligula, they also killed his wife and daughter and several other high-ranking Romans. Claudius was witness to much of it, and fearing that they might be looking to wipe out the entire imperial family, Claudius hid in the royal palace.

According to legend, the Praetorian Guards found him hiding behind a curtain. Upon finding Claudius, they proclaimed him emperor and took him to their camp for protection. 

While the Praetorian Guard had proclaimed Claudius as emperor, the rest of the Senate was arguing amongst themselves about who should be emperor. 

When they found that the praetorians had elevated Claudius, it was a done deal. Claudius had the army on his side.

This entire affair has been debated by historians for centuries. Was Claudius aware of the assassination plot? Was he actually the one behind it? Did the praetorian guard proclaim him emperor because they thought he could be easily manipulated? 

We do know that Claudius quickly consolidated his power. He executed some of the top conspirators but gave a general amnesty to everyone else. He gave a hefty bonus to the praetorian guard. 

Most surprisingly, many of the physical ailments that Claudius suffered throughout his life either disappeared or greatly diminished when he became emperor. 

Claudius himself later explained that he exaggerated his condition so he would never be considered a threat or put in harm’s way. 

As emperor, Claudius proved himself to be a very capable administrator. He expanded the empire for the first time in decades since Augustus. Most famously, under his reign, Rome conquered much of the island of Great Britain. 

He would hear legal cases personally and pass judgment. He was responsible for several major public works projects, including the creation of two aqueducts to Rome. 

He created a new port in Ostia for grain shipments from Egypt. He provided insurance for vessels carrying grain to ensure that there was a steady supply in Rome year-round. 

He reformed the Senate and Roman religious practices. 

He was extremely fond of gladiatorial games and attended them regularly. He would watch games for hours in rapt attention and would cheer with the rest of the crowd, which was highly unusual for an emperor.

Claudius’ personal life was pretty much a disaster. He was married four times.

His first marriage ended in divorce when he accused his wife of adultery.

His second marriage ended when his wife unexpectedly died on their wedding day.

His third marriage was to a woman named Messalina. History has not been kind to Messalina. She was reported to have been scheming and manipulative. She was also, how shall I put this to keep the show very family-friendly, very, very, very promiscuous. 

She eventually was married to another man while still married to Claudius, aka the Roman emperor. This was seen as a plot to take the throne, and Messalina and her lover were both executed. 

His final wife was his niece and the daughter of his brother Germanicus, Agrippina the Younger.

Agrippina had been previously married and had a son named….Nero. 

By all accounts, Agrippina was also manipulative and did whatever she could to have Nero named the successor to Claudius.

Spoiler Alert: she was successful. 

Claudius ultimately met his demise on October 13, in the year 54, at the age of 63. He reigned for 13 years. 

His death was under suspicious circumstances, and some believe that Agrippina poisoned him. According to one story, he died after eating a poisoned mushroom. In another version, the poison didn’t work, so his doctor, acting under orders from Agrippina, shoved a feather dipped in poison down his throat.

Still, other historians think he died of natural causes. 

His adopted son Nero succeeded him as emperor at the age of 16, which as history shows us, almost never works out.

Nero went down in history as an emperor on a par with Caligula, the pair serving has horrible bookends to the reign of Claudius. 

Nero had Claudius’ only son Brittanicus murdered at the age of 13, within a year of taking power. 

Nero later killed his own mother, Agrippina, who tried to control him. 

Claudius was truly a paradox and unlike any other Roman emperor. He was never trained or prepared to become emperor, yet by all accounts, he did a very good job. 

Despite being a member of the imperial family, he was very lowbrow in his tastes, enjoying gladiatorial games and gambling, and often cavorted with plebeians. 

He was quick to anger like many emperors, but he also recognized his weakness and would apologize after his angry outbursts.

Despite having grown up being ridiculed by his own family about his intelligence, he proved the be the greatest intellectual emperor other than Marcus Aurelius.

Most significantly, Claudius was physically disabled and the leader of the world’s largest empire—something which simply did not happen at this point in history. 

In the end, he managed to ascend to the position of emperor by not drawing attention to himself and by hiding behind a curtain.