Claudius: The Unlikely and Reluctant Emperor

30.11.2018 |

Episode #5 of the course The mad world of the Roman emperors by James Wareing


Today, we will learn about the Emperor Claudius and if he could overcome an inauspicious start to his reign. Claudius, like his uncle Tiberius, did not have the natural appearance of a man destined to be emperor. He suffered from a limp and a speech impediment and was not initially accepted by the senate as emperor upon the death of Caligula. In fact, it is alleged that he was found trembling behind a curtain by a soldier before being proclaimed emperor after Caligula’s murder.

Early on in his life, he was seen as an outcast by his imperial family and was often left to his own devices, considered neither fit nor likely to rule. He was a prolific writer before becoming emperor, writing historical works in both Latin and Greek. Claudius did nothing to repair the original animosity of the senate. He hired many Greek freedmen to assist him in official duties, circumventing the senate with men of a far lower rank.


Claudius Reveals His Hidden Cruelty

He also became popular with the people, often putting on extravagant shows and gladiatorial contests. However, these games also revealed a crueller streak in the emperor, who often revelled and encouraged the death of the gladiators, often at his own behest. His abuse of power and resulting cruelty was also extended to court cases, many of which he liked to preside over himself, often with no regard to the facts of the case. The most notable of these was that of Valerius Asiaticus, whom Claudius ordered to be conducted in his own bedroom, resulting in Valerius being driven to commit suicide.

Suetonius describes how paranoid he was, relating how “there was nothing for which he was so notorious as timidity and suspicion.” He would be accompanied by soldiers at banquets and would insist on anyone visiting him to be searched. In fact, he was so concerned for his own safety, he often threatened to abdicate, both privately and to the senate, bemoaning his lack of safety.


An Effective Administrator Yet Mired by His Choice in Women

He proved to lived up to his scholarly reputation and became an efficient administrator. He improved the judicial system, making the system fairer, as well as creating more rights for women and slaves. Claudius became the first Roman emperor to make Britain a province and personally attended the capturing of Colchester in AD 43. He also expanded Rome’s empire into the north of Africa, while consolidating previous gains made in German provinces.

A weakness of Claudius’s turned out to be the wives he chose. His first wife, Messalina, was promiscuous, and although Claudius tolerated this for a while, it was rumored that one of her lovers, Gaius Silius, was conspiring with her to overthrow Claudius. Both were killed, but as it transpired, his next wife, his niece Agrippina, was no safer option for him.



Agrippina was said to be ambitious for her son, Nero, to ascend to the throne. It is apparent that she was a dominating figure for the weak Claudius. Her face began to appear on coinage, and she was even given the title of Augusta, only previously endowed once, and then only posthumously to Livia (Augustus’s) wife. Claudius even began to favour Nero to be his successor over his own son, Britannicus. It is widely suspected that the culmination of Agrippina’s ambitions was the death of Claudius, apparently poisoned by a mushroom, and the ascension of Nero to be the emperor of Rome. Tacitus, commenting on Agrippina’s scheming, remarked that “dangerous crimes provide great reward.”

Tomorrow, we shall learn about the man for whom all of Agrippina’s scheming was designed, the emperor Nero, who exceeded Claudius in his mad extravagance.


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Recommended book

I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Born 10 B.C. Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 by Robert Graves


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