Disfigured, awkward and clumsy, Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD / Reigned 41 – 54 AD) was the black sheep of his family and an unlikely emperor. Once in place, he was fairly successful, but his poor taste in women would prove his undoing.
|Bust of Claudius in later life
Nobody expected Claudius to become emperor. Although he was the only surviving heir of Augustus and was the brother of the war hero, Germanicus, Claudius was a figure of fun.
The black sheep
Left disfigured by a serious illness when he was very young, Claudius was also clumsy and coarse , and was the butt of his family’s jokes. When he dozed after dinner, guests pelted him with food and put slippers on his hands so that he’d rub his eyes with his shoes when he woke up.
Caligula’s murder in 41 AD changed everything for Claudius. Unexpectedly, the family fool had become emperor. Discovered trembling in the palace by one of his own soldiers, he was clearly reluctant and afraid.
He had good reason: like his predecessors, Claudius could never be too sure of his position. Supported mainly by soldiers and courtiers, he had a rocky relationship with the Senate. Many senators supported the abortive rebellion in the Balkans in 42 AD and they featured in many of the plots against his life.
Despite these dangers, Claudius worked hard at his job, starting work just after midnight every day. It began to pay off: he made major improvements to Rome’s judicial system, passed laws protecting sick slaves, extended citizenship and increased women's privileges.
He also treated his people with unusual respect, apologizing to visiting pensioners when there were not enough chairs. Hardly surprising, then, that Suetonius wrote how this sort of behavior endeared him to the people.
Conquering the Brits
Claudius had some real successes. Britain had resisted Roman rule for over a century, but was conquered by Claudius, who created client kingdoms to protect the frontier. He had succeeded where Caesar had failed. This was the most important addition to the empire since the time of Augustus.
Trouble and strife
Even this success, however, was not enough to protect him from political danger. Here, his worst enemies would turn out to be his own wives.
Claudius had simply awful taste in women. Although he adored his wife, Messalina, she was extravagant and promiscuous, with a particular weakness for the servants.
Claudius tried to turn a blind eye to her many affairs, but in 48 AD Messalina took a new lover, Gaius Silius, a nobleman. Their relationship was widely thought to be cover for a plot and Claudius was urged to take action: “Act fast or her new man controls Rome!"
Silius was killed and Messalina fled to a friend's villa to decide how to get herself out of trouble. It was too late. The emperor was hosting a dinner party when he heard that his wife had died. Without asking how, he called for more wine.
The next year, Claudius decided to marry again, surprising Rome by choosing his own niece, Agrippina.
This was a bad mistake. Determined to make the most of her luck and happy to use any means necessary, Agrippina was about the only woman who could make Messalina seem a good catch.
Agrippina began her quest for power by persuading Claudius to bring back Seneca from exile so that he could become tutor to her own son, Nero, the boy she planned to make an emperor.
Speeding things up
Gradually Agrippina removed all her rivals and convinced Claudius to disinherit his own son, Britannicus. With Nero now heir, the only remaining obstacle was Claudius himself. Agrippina took drastic action: as Tacitus reports, her weapon of choice was poisoned mushrooms, delivered by a faithful servant.
Claudius appeared on the brink of death, but began to recover. Horrified, Agrippina signed up the emperor's own doctor to her cause. While pretending to help Claudius vomit his food, the doctor put a feather dipped in poison down his throat. As Tacitus said, "Dangerous crimes bring ample reward."
Claudius was dead. Nero was Emperor. This would prove interesting.
Where to next:
Enemies and Rebels – Boudicca and Britain
Writers - Seneca