Claudius: The Roman Emperor who conquered Britannia
Emperor Claudius was the fourth Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, but his rise to power was very different from that of his predecessors for no one imagined him ever becoming emperor. With a late start in life and politics, Claudius beat the odds and became one of the best emperors that the Roman Empire ever had, with his biggest conquest being the successful invasion of Britannia (large parts of present day Britain). The conquest of Britain was a feat that the even the great Julius Caesar failed to pull off.
His reign has been praised for being one of moderation and efficient administration, two very important things that had not been seen since the days of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. These and many more other things in the life of Claudius made his story indelibly etched into the history books.
So, how did this sickly and generally unlucky and unloved man restore Rome to its former glory and more? Read on to find out about his extraordinary life and reign.
Early Years: Birth into Nobility & Childhood
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus was born in the Roman city of Lugdunum (located in modern-day Lyon, France). He was from an extremely prominent family, one that had all connections in Roman high society.
Claudius was born to Nero Claudius Drusus, who was a renowned military officer, politician, and the brother of future emperor Tiberius. His mother was Antonia Minor, who was the daughter of Mark Antony, the Roman army general who served under Julius Caesar and played a pivotal role in Rome’s transition from republic to empire.
He had two older siblings named Germanicus and Livilla. Germanicus, a famed general, would later become the father of future emperor Caligula, whom Claudius eventually succeeded as emperor.
“A monster flung aside by nature”
Despite being born into the upper echelons of society, life was vastly different for the young noble. He was born with disabilities that many modern historians believe to have been either Tourette’s Syndrome or cerebral palsy. Claudius walked with a limp and he also stammered and drooled. His disabilities earned him a lot of scorn, surprisingly from his family members.
Antonia described her son as “a monster, a man whom Mother Nature had begun work upon but then flung aside.” She even referenced her son when insulting others, calling them “bigger fools than Claudius.” His paternal grandmother, Livia Drusilla, refused to have any relationship with him. Even his sister Livilla reportedly prayed to protect Rome from Claudius after it was revealed that he would become emperor.
During that period, it was fairly common for families to kill children born with disabilities. But for some reason, Claudius was spared. Perhaps it was because his family viewed him as stupid and non-threatening. Or it probably wouldn’t have been a good look on them had they killed him.
A student of Roman historian Livy
But there was more to Claudius than they knew, and he was certainly far from stupid. He excelled academically, and his achievements went unnoticed by his family until he was a teenager. By that time, most of his disabilities had disappeared.
His family placed him under the tutorship of the Roman historian Livy who taught the young boy history and speech writing. He also improved on his oratory skills.
An unattractive candidate in Roman politics
Under the tutelage of Livy, Claudius became a rather successful historian. But it seemed that though he had mostly rid himself of his physical disabilities, he experienced other setbacks, particularly in his attempts to secure a position in public service.
His first attempt occurred during the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Octavian (also known as Augustus). However, he received no position from the emperor, especially since Claudius’s historical account of the Civil Wars that took place after the assassination of Julius Caesar and Octavian’s accession to emperor appeared to be a bit critical of the new ruler. It wasn’t really surprising. After all, Claudius was the grandson of Mark Antony, the famed Roman general who committed suicide after Octavian defeated him in the Battle of Actium (31 BC) in Alexandria, Egypt.
Claudius paused his writings under the encouragement of his family but even though he decided to skip over those events later on, the damage had already been done. As a result, his family decided that he had no hope of ever holding public office, since he couldn’t even conform regardless of his alliances. Therefore, he lost any little relevance he held.
When Octavian died in 14 AD, Claudius’s uncle Tiberius became emperor. Thinking that he had a better shot of ever holding a position in public office, he appealed to his uncle but his request was denied. It seemed that despite his family treating him with disdain, he was quite popular with the general public and they seemed to like him. The Senate had requested that Claudius be invited to meetings where he could debate with the others. But Tiberius never allowed for that to happen. When that happened, Claudius gave up his dream of ever working in public service and focused more on his academic writings.
He was a successful historian and he wrote extensively on Roman history and even the Roman alphabet. His works, which got lost over time, were sought after during his time. But Claudius didn’t have much going on for him and he started to fill his free time with womanizing, alcoholism, and gambling.
Caligula offers him a lifeline
When Tiberius’s son Drusus was killed by the head of the Praetorian Guard (i.e. the powerful private guard formed to protect the emperor and the imperial household) called Sejanus, many others speculated that Claudius was going to succeed him. But Claudius was quick to show his reluctance mostly out of the fear that Sejanus – who was probably the most feared person in Rome at the that time – would kill him too.
Claudius finally received the opportunity to work in the public office when his nephew Caligula succeeded Tiberius to the throne. In 37 AD, Claudius was made co-consul to the new emperor. But perhaps, he should have been careful about what he wished for. Caligula was a psychotic emperor who plunged Rome into a state of chaos. Their relationship was just as chaotic! Caligula found joy in making Claudius’s life miserable. If he wasn’t playing tricks on his uncle, he was either embarrassing him amongst the senators or mocking his disabilities. One time, Caligula encouraged his guests to throw olive stones and dates at Claudius after the latter fell asleep during a dinner party. Claudius lost so much weight during Caligula’s reign due to the overwhelming stress his nephew caused, probably to Rome and him as well.
The death of Caligula & Claudius’s surprising rise to the throne
Caligula’s reign was short-lived. He was assassinated during his fourth year by some members of the Senate and Cassius Chaerea, who was a tribune in the Praetorian Guard. But Cassius didn’t stop at killing Caligula. He also went after his wife and daughter in a bid to clear the entire family.
The assassination of Caligula brought on a lot of chaos in Rome, something which the conspirators hadn’t expected since the newly-deceased emperor was mostly thought of as inefficient.
Claudius was fearful for his life, especially after seeing the guards continue to kill friends and associates of his nephew who otherwise were not supposed to be included in the conspiracy.
A member of the Praetorian Guard called Gratus found Claudius hiding behind a curtain. But to Claudius’s surprise, Gratus and his associates knelt and declared him emperor!
But why did the Praetorian Guard tap Claudius, who by all accounts did not command any respect in Rome, as the emperor?
It’s possible that the very scheming and manipulative Praetorian Guard wanted someone they could exert control over.
And the reason why the Senate approved the decision of the Praetorian Guard was because the lawmakers were under a lot of pressure to find a new emperor. Claudius was certainly not their first choice though.
The unlikely good emperor of Rome
One of Claudius’s first tasks as emperor was to ensure that Caligula’s conspirators were executed for their actions. He also made modifications to his name, including “Caesar” and taking out “Nero.”
In similar fashion to the Egyptian pharaohs, he also called himself “Tiberios Klaudios, Autokrator Heqaheqau Meryasetptah, Kanakht Djediakhshuemakhet”, which means “Tiberius Claudius, Emperor and ruler of rulers, beloved of Isis and Ptah, the strong bull of the stable moon on the horizon.”
Claudius was also the first to be declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard instead of the Senate. He was also the first to bribe them in order to gain their support. He was a good ruler, and life in Rome was vastly different from the reign of his nephew, Caligula.
There are three main reasons why Claudius was considered a good emperor: he expanded Rome’s territories and economy; restructured the empire’s legal and judicial system; and oversaw many construction projects:
Expansion of Rome and the Conquest of Britain
Claudius set off to reverse much of the damage caused by Caligula’s reign. With the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard secured, he also transferred ownership of Macedonia and Achea back to the Senate. Caligula had previously seized those provinces from the Senate.
He then turned his attention towards an island north of Gaul known as Britannia (today’s Britain). Claudius decided to embark on a military campaign to conquer the land as a way to prove to the Senate that he was not a weak ruler and that he too could lead the Roman army into battles.
Britannia was an interesting choice, considering the fact that the great Roman general and dictator Julius Caesar himself failed to conquer the territory. Therefore, Claudius saw the conquest of Britannia as a way to etch his name in the history books.
So, two years into his reign, in 43 AD, he embarked on his conquest of Britannia along with 40,000 troops and war elephants. It was a successful endeavor and he returned home triumphantly. In fact, his return marked the start of Roman Triumph celebration since becoming an empire. An arch was erected in his honor, and the people recognized him as the one who “brought barbarian peoples beyond Ocean for the first time under Rome’s sway.”
Aside from conquering Britannia, he also expanded the empire further into the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, and Mauritania.
Claudius also boosted the empire’s economy, setting it up to thrive for many years after the end of his reign. Most of Rome’s economic success has been attributed to him.
Restructuring of Rome’s legal system
From his childhood, Claudius had studied a lot and was extremely smart. He was well-versed in many subjects, including history, rhetoric, and law. So, it’s no surprise that he had extensive knowledge of law and Rome’s existing legal system.
His reign and his understanding of law came at a crucial time for the empire, as its population had grown bigger and its legal structure needed to be rearranged to accommodate the growing numbers.
His first task was to ensure equality and fairness in the courts. He did so by extending court sessions, ensuring that both parties in a trial remained in Rome until the matter was decided, and increased the minimum age requirement of jurors to 25 years. As a result, the legal system became more robust.
Next, he ensured that there was religious freedom in Rome’s eastern provinces to reduce conflicts. This move helped in reducing the number of religion-based court cases. Those reforms also made it easier for further expansions.
Emperor Claudius is credited with elevating the role of freedmen in Roman societies. These were former slaves who had no say in society and were generally prevented from partaking in certain activities. But Claudius changed that for them, giving them roles in public offices to help manage the newly-acquired territories.
Claudius also embarked on several construction projects across the empire. In his early years as emperor, he oversaw the construction of two huge aqueducts, which brought more water into Rome. He built new roads in Rome’s territories, which boosted trade and spread Roman culture to the outer regions.
The Emperor also decided to focus on the scaling up agriculture, ensuring that the empire received more grain during a drought, which in turn reduced food riots. He constructed a canal which made it easier for Rome to receive more grain.
The other side of Emperor Claudius
In general, Claudius was an efficient ruler considering he was initially regarded as weak. But there was also a darker side to him, one that made him quite similar to the emperors before him. He could be ruthless at times and also suffered from bouts of paranoia and anger outbursts. Because of that he was quick to have any enemy executed.
According to the historian Cassius Dio, Claudius always instructed his guests to be searched by his guards “for fear they might have a dagger”; and he always ensured he had guards with him during banquets. Additionally, he was not particularly fond of the Jews living in Rome. When they caused unrest, he banished them from the city.
Claudius’s Personal Life and Spouses
Claudius, though an efficient ruler, was not that great in his relationships and had a string of bad luck following him when it came to women. He was first betrothed to a girl and it fell apart when the girl’s family was embroiled in a humiliating political situation. His second attempt at a betrothal also failed when his bride died on their wedding day after getting struck with an illness.
The emperor then went on to marry four more times. Not much is known about his first two wives – Plautia Urgulanilla and Aelia Paetina – but it is said that he had children with them. With Plautia, he fathered a son called Claudius Drusus who died when he was a teenager shortly after his betrothal to the daughter of Sejanus. Their marriage ended when Claudius accused Plautia of adultery and suspected murder.
With Aelia, who was likely to be the adopted daughter of Sejanus, he had a daughter called Claudia Antonia. Their marriage likely ended as a result of political reasons. Some historians on the other hand maintain that Claudius was mentally and emotionally abused by her.
His third wife was a woman named Messalina. According to historians, she was cunning and committed several adulteries in their marriage. Claudius had her executed when she staged a mock marriage ceremony with one of her lovers Gaius Silius out of fear that they might try to kill him and make Gaius emperor.
Claudius and Agrippina the Younger
Agrippina the Younger, also known as Agrippina the Minor, was born to Agrippina the Elder and famous Roman general Germanicus, who was the brother of Claudius. Her siblings included Nero Julius Caesar, Drusus Julius Caesar, Gaius Caesar (Emperor Caligula), Julia Drusilla, and Julia Livilla. She was treated with disdain by Caligula for many years, including being exiled to a very remote island. Her ordeal did not end until Claudius ascended the throne.
Having been dealt a bad hand in his romantic life, Claudius decided not to get married again. However, he quickly changed his mind when his niece, Agrippina the Younger, became a widow. It’s said that when Claudius ascended the throne he ordered that Agrippina be brought back to Rome and pardoned her fully. Claudius and Agrippina tied the knot after the latter’s husband died in 47 A.D.
His marriage to Agrippina would end up being the biggest mistake of his life. Agrippina had a son from a previous relationship called Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known as Nero. She managed to convince the emperor to name Nero as his successor. This move quickly led to his downfall.
Death & Succession
With her son’s future secured, Agrippina’s plan to kill off Claudius was set in motion. Like his predecessors, although the cause of his death was unclear, it wasn’t natural. Historians like Cassius Dio believe that Agrippina killed her husband by feeding him poisoned mushrooms. Others say the poison was forced down his throat when it didn’t work the first time. Regardless of how he consumed the poison, most historians agree that Agrippina had a hand in Emperor Claudius’ death.
According to another historian Seneca, Claudius’s last words were “oh dear, oh dear, I think I have made a mess.” Because the poisoned mushrooms might have caused intestinal problems, many people believe that the Emperor might have soiled himself. Others believe the Emperor’s last words had a much deeper meaning, as he foresaw Nero’s reign being one of utter chaos. It’s also possible that Claudius uttered those words the moment he realized how his marriage to Agrippina caused his downfall.
Emperor Claudius died on 13 October 54 A.D. After his death, he was deified as a Roman god. He was succeeded by his adopted son and stepson, Nero. Claudius’s death spelt doom for the Roman empire as Nero’s ascension to the throne plunged Rome into a state of massive corruption and immorality, one that took several years to reverse.
Interesting Facts about Emperor Claudius
Here are some interesting facts about Claudius and his time as emperor of Rome:
He enjoyed watching Roman Games
Claudius enjoyed spending his free time watching races and gladiator fights and was reported to spend several hours in his seat so as to not miss anything important. He was also said to have joined the other spectators in counting the earnings of a victorious gladiator after a fight. He also famously organized a mock sea battle on Fucine Lake consisting of 19,000 men! He also once made a show of fighting a killer whale that had been washed ashore in Ostia. It’s said that Roman philosopher and author Pliny the Elder personally witnessed the event.
He entered politics in his forties
Claudius’s disabilities prevented him from holding any public office when he was much younger, especially since his family were embarrassed of him. He was 46 years old when Caligula made him his co-consul. Four years later, at the age of 50, he ascended the throne.
He might have had a hand in Caligula’s assassination
On January 24, 41 AD, Emperor Caligula was stabbed to death (by members of the Praetorian Guard) outside the Palatine Games. Although Claudius might not have had a direct hand in the plot to assassinate Caligula, it’s very likely that he was at least aware of it. That’s because he appeared to have left the area where his nephew was killed shortly before it happened.
Claudius might have faked his disabilities
Miraculously, Claudius’s illnesses disappeared when he was declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard and he even admitted to faking his disabilities as a means to protect himself. If the guards thought they had found someone to control, they had to think again because he was far more intelligent than they had assumed. It’s likely that he played the Praetorian Guard right into his hand to avoid dealing with the Senate in his bid to become emperor.