Documentaries and Hollywood historical depiction films seem to focus on the infamous and cruel emperors of ancient Rome; but two benevolent and wise emperors stand out: Marcus Aurelius and Claudius, both learned men and students of philosophy. William Shakespeare, a student of classical history, used the name of Claudius for his fictitious monarch in the tragic play, Hamlet.
Claudius' full name until 41 AD/CE was born as Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus, later when becoming emperor his name changed to Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. He was born on August 1st, 10 BCE in Lugdynum (today Lynon) in Gaul and died on October 13th, 54 AD/CE ruling Rome as emperor from 41 to 54 AD. He was the first emperor born outside of Italy.
Claudius was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus, a successful Roman general, nephew of the emperor Tiberius and grandson of Livia Drusilla, wife of emperor Augustus.
Part of the family of the imperial family, he was an embarrassment because of his unattractive appearance, clumsiness, and what was considered a coarse manner. In his youth he suffered from ill health and disabilities from birth, walking with a limp, slightly deaf, and spoke with a lisp. Kept away from the public and important functions, he became absorbed in study and under the tutelage of Livy, the historian, who recognized the young Claudius interest in historical studies.
Claudius wrote a pamphlet in defense of Cicero, a republican politician and orator, who ended up being executed by the triumvirs.
In 37 AD/CE, Claudius shared consulship with his nephew Caligula. When the purge of many nobles and members of the imperial family occurred when Tiberius and Caligula reigned, he was saved because he was not considered a threat to their power. After Caligula was assassinated, Claudius was declared Emperor by the Praetorian Guard, being the last man of his family and historians say bribed by Claudius.
Despite lack of experience, Claudius became an efficient administrator and benevolent emperor. He was fascinated with architecture and building, constructing new roads, aqueducts, and canals across the Empire. While Julius Caesar invaded Britannia, and later Caligula attempted to conquer the Celts on the British Isle, Claudius succeeded in the conquest, establishing and making Londinium a commercial center, which would later become known as London.
Claudius was interested in law and presided at public trials, issuing up to twenty edicts a day.
Nobles considered Claudius vulnerable, which resulted in the deaths of many senators who plotted against him. Ancient writers would write about this, which damaged his reputation among historians until recently when focusing upon other sources and sides of the story.
He wrote prolifically about history: 20 Etruscan historical books and 8 books of Carthaginian history, all written in Greek for some reason. He also wrote an autobiography and an historical treatise on the Roman alphabet with suggestions of reforming written Latin. Later, when he became emperor he tried to implement those ideas, but failed. Claudius was fond of the dice game and wrote a rule book on how to play. Unfortunately, all his written works were lost. It is believed his first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, an Etruscan descendent, and her family provided Claudius with historical material.
When it was time for Claudius to receive toga viralis, (toga of manhood) a procedure normally bestowed upon an imperial son led by his father (or guardian) to the Forum in a public ceremony, instead he was carried in a litter to the Capitol at night with no one around except his guardian and personal servants. His childhood was a lonely one which is why he occupied most of his time reading.
Claudius was 23 years old when Augustus died in 14 AD, he appealed to his uncle Tiberius to allow him the honor of public office, cursus honorum, which Tiberius granted him consular duties. While the imperial family and nobles held Claudius in contempt, he had gained respect from the general public. The equites (knights) chose Claudius to head their delegation and be allowed to debate in the Senate. Tiberius turned the request down.
After the death of Tiberius, the new emperor was the infamous Caligula, son of Germanicus. He appointed Claudius as his co-consul in 37 AD. Caligula, true to his nature, treated Claudius with disdain, constantly tormenting him, playing cruel jokes upon him, charging him huge sums of money, and humiliating him before the Senate.
According to Cassius Dio, Claudius became so stressful, he became sickly and lost a lot of weight towards the end of Caligula's reign.
Caligula was assassinated in a popular conspiracy led by the Praetorian commander, Cassius Chaerea and several senators. No evidence has been found that Claudius was part of the assassination plot, although historians argue that he was aware of it; due to the fact Claudius left the scene of the crime just before his nephew was murdered. However, the instruments of the assassination may have waited until Claudius left – so the argument among scholars and historians continue.
After the chaotic murder of Caligula, which included his wife and daughter, Claudius was witness to the murder of noblemen, some being his friends. He hid in the palace, and according to tradition, a Praetorian named Gratus found him hiding behind a curtain, and who declared him princeps. [Josephus Antiquitates, ludiacae XIX, Dio Rom. History LX 1.3]
Claudius was taken to a Praetorian camp where he was protected. When the Senate convened, a debate began about the change of government, and when they learned that the Praetorians had demanded that Claudius be emperor, they demanded he be brought for their approval. Claudius sensed danger and refused. Josephus, Jewish-Roman historian, claimed that Claudius and his actions were directed by King Herod Agrippa, the Judaean monarch. [Josephus Ant. Lud. XIX]
The Senate concede and Claudius pardoned most of the senatorial assassins.
Claudius began his reign by adopting the name 'Caesar', replacing the name 'Nero', which legitimized his office with the populace.
During the reign of Claudius the provinces of Thrace, Noricum, Pamphylia, Lycia, and Judea were annexed. After defeating rebel forces begun when Caligula reigned, the annexation of Mauretania was completed. Claudius must have impressed the Britons because after the province of Britannia was established at Camulodunum, a large temple was dedicated in his honor.
Having made himself familiar with law through reading extensively, Claudius settled disputes in Rome as well as the provinces. He was benevolent in several ways, freeing the island of Rhodes from Roman rule for their good faith and exempted Troy from taxes. In his famous Letter to the Alexandrians, he affirmed the Jewish rights in the city of Alexandria, but forbade them to move in more families in order to pacify the Greek population.
Claudius punished those who falsely claimed Roman citizenship by making it a capital offense. Any freedman found to be falsely claiming membership of the Roman equestrian order were sold back into slavery.
Claudius also wrote several edicts concerning everything from medical advice to moral judgments. One famous one concerned slaves. Master had previously abandoned slaves that were ill at the temple of Aesculapius on Tiber island to die instead of providing them with medical assistance and care, reclaiming them if the survived. Claudius decreed that slaves who were abandoned and recovered from their illness would be free. Masters who chose to kill slaves rather than care for them were to be charged with murder.
In the fragments of a surviving speech, Claudius reprimanded the senators for their reluctance to debate bills he introduced. He also put Imperial provinces of Macedonia and Achaea back under control of the Senate and allowed the Senate to issue its own bronze coinage, the first time since Augustus. Claudius also refused to accept titles his predecessors bestowed upon themselves and the Senate, which included Imperator.
Claudius refused the request of Alexandrian Greeks to dedicate a temple to his divinity and restored days lost for festivals and deleted extra celebrations added by Caligula, no doubt decadent. He backed the emphasis upon the Eleusinian mysteries, practiced by so many during the Republic. He expelled foreign astrologers and supported Roman soothsayers (haruspices). He was drastic about eradication of Druidism because it was not compatible to the Roman state religion.
As aforementioned and according to Suetonius, Claudius was fond of games. He displayed enthusiasm over the gladiatorial events just as the public crowd did. Claudius created games to be held in honor of his father on his birthday. Annual games were also held in honor of his accession as emperor, taking place at the Praetorian camp where Claudius was officially proclaimed Emperor. He organized the Secular Games that marked the 800th anniversary of the founding of Rome. Claudius also introduced naval battles as well as other public games and shows. He restored and adorned venues around Rome and the old wooden barriers of the Circus Maximus were replaced with marble adorned with gold. He rebuilt Pompey's Theatre after it was destroyed by fire (Pompey itself was destroyed in 79 AD).
Claudius did not have much luck with marriage, being married four times and two failed betrothals.
Plautia Urgulanilla was his first wife and gave birth to a son, Drusus, who died in his early teens. Claudius divorced her for adultery and suspected she murdered her sister-in-law Apronia.
At 28, Claudius married Aelia Paetina and they had a daughter, Claudia Antonia. The marriage became a political liability, but historians have concluded that Aelia was guilty of emotional and mental abuse towards Claudius.
Years after divorcing Paetina, when Claudius was 38 years old, he married Valeria Messalina, his first cousin once removed. She gave birth to a daughter, Claudia Octavia, and a son, Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, later known as Britannicus, was born just after Claudius' accession as emperor. Messalina was habitually unfaithful to Claudius, a nymphomaniac, who allegedly (as told by Tacitus) once competed with a prostitute to see who could have the most sexual partners in one night. She was also guilty of manipulating her position in order to gain wealth. Messalina married her lover, Gaius Silius in a public ceremony while Claudius was at Ostia. That drove Claudius too far and Silius, Messalina, and most of her inner circle of friends were executed.
Once again, Claudius married again, after the attempted coup d'etat by Silius and Messalina. He married Agrippina the Younger who had a son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus 'Nero', the last males of the Imperial family. Nero and Britannicus was made joint heirs, Nero being the elder.
While Claudius had a reputation for his generosity and consideration of the plebeians, he was quick to anger and was fond of the bloody gladiatorial combat events and executions. Medical analysis of his symptoms indicate that Claudius was born with cerebral palsy. The symptoms diminished and sometimes disappeared when he was calm, but increased when he got excited. Historians state he was too trusting, being easily manipulated by wives and freedmen. For the most part he is depicted as a person of intelligence, scholarly, well-read and an able administrator who paid attention to detail and promoted justice. The discover of his Letter to the Alexandrians has helped in reconstructing his true personality. In that study, historians have found that Claudius retained much of what Livy, his tutor, had taught him and elements of the administration of Julius Caesar was dominate in his policies. The latter in the fact that he was well-read in Roman history. His politics was more attuned to the Roman Republic period and during his tenor building and restoring was his passion along with religious reform.
Ancient historians believed that Claudius was murdered by poisoning and died on October 13th, 54 AD. Some state he was in Rome, while others state he was in Sinuessa. Nearly all of the ancient historians implicate his wife, Agrippina, as the instigator of his murder. It may have been over his planned succession to be Britannicus rather than Nero, thus weakening her chance of power. Sometimes ancient historians relied upon gossip rather than truthful events. Claudius was cremated and his ashes were interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus on October 24th, 54 AD.
As time went by, Claudius was mostly forgotten and his books lost.
Barrett, A. A. Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire. New Haven, 1996.
Braund, D. Augustus to Nero: A Sourcebook on Roman History, 31 BC - A.D. 68. London, 1985.
Ehrhardt, C. "Messalina and the Succession to Claudius." Antichthon 12 (1978): 51-77.
Levick, Barbara. Claudius. New Haven, 1990.
Wellesley, K. "Can You Trust Tacitus?" GaR 1 (1954): 13-33.
Wiseman, T.P. Flavius Josephus: Death of an Emperor. Exeter 1991.
Keppie, Lawrence Understanding Roman Inscriptions, 2002.
Suetonius and Donna W. Hurley, Suetonius: Diuus Claudius, Cambridge Latin Classics, 2001.
Bauman, Richard A., Women and Politics in Ancient Rome, 1994.