Claudius: the Caesar never meant to be emperor

Abigail Cline Appler
Augusta University, Augusta, GA

 

Claudius hiding behind the curtain
Detail from the painting A Roman Emperor 41AD
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema [Public Domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (10 BCE- 54 AD) was Roman emperor from AD 41 to 54.  During his reign, he completed the Roman conquest of Britain, expanded construction projects across the Empire, and quelled numerous coups, one of which involved his own wife. Though considered the most successful Julio-Claudian emperor after Augustus, he is perhaps most famous because of his physical disabilities. It is often popularized that Claudius received his name from the Latin verb claudicare, “to limp,” when in fact the words are etymologically unrelated. Claudius was born from the Claudii clan, and it is only cruel coincidence that he was so aptly named.

In The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Caius Suetonius Tranquillus wrote that

when [Claudius] walked, his weak knees gave way under him and he had many disagreeable traits both in his lighter moments and when he was engaged in business; his laughter was unseemly and his anger still more disgusting, for he would foam at the mouth and trickle at the nose; he stammered besides and his head was very shaky at all times, but especially when he made the least exertion.1

While it was once believed that Claudius suffered from poliomyelitis, it is now believed that he suffered from the congenital disorder cerebral palsy.2 Caused by hypoxia of the brain, this movement disorder is not hereditary and appears early in childhood.  Suetonius gives evidence to support this diagnosis when he writes that “throughout almost the whole course of his childhood and youth he suffered so severely from various obstinate disorders that the vigor of both his mind and his body was dulled…”1 Furthermore, Suetonius tells that Claudius’ mother, Antonia, often called him “a monstrosity of a human being, one that nature began and never finished.” This may imply that his disability had been noticed shortly after his birth.

The royal family regarded these physical disabilities as evidence of mental infirmity and excluded Claudius from public life and political office. When attending gladiatorial games, Claudius was forced to wear a cloak to hide his impairment. During his ascension to manhood, the ceremony was held at midnight to avoid public view. Claudius was placed far down the line of succession. When his own sister heard that he might one day be emperor, she “openly and loudly prayed that the Roman people might be spared so cruel and undeserved a fortune.”1

Rome did experience a cruel and undeserved fortune, but it was not at the hands of Claudius. In AD 37, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, more commonly known by his childhood nickname, Caligula, ascended the throne. While history may remember Claudius for his infirmities, Caligula is remembered for his atrocities. Driven by either insanity or political threat, he began to execute members of the royal family, but spared his uncle Claudius for his own amusement. In Annals of Rome, Lucius Cassius Dio writes that Caligula “would have killed Claudius, had he not entertained a contempt for him, since the latter partly by nature and partly with intention gave the impression of great stupidity.”3 Despite the appointment of Claudius as co-consul in AD 37, Caligula tormented and publicly humiliated his uncle, having him pelted with olives, whipped by jesters, and even thrown into a river.  The stress inflicted by Caligula destroyed Claudius’ health, leaving him gaunt and sickly. The disability that had once ostracized Claudius from his family now made him a target. But it would soon make him emperor.

In the aftermath of Caligula’s assassination and the slaughter of the imperial family, Claudius cowered behind a curtain.  There, the Praetorian Guards, fresh from their recent regicide, discovered him and declared him their emperor. The circumstances surrounding his ascension remain a debate for many historians. Did the Praetorian Guards spare Claudius because they saw him as a fool they could control? Or did Claudius have a more active role in the assassination of Caligula, knowing he might be next in line to the throne? Though there is no evidence that Claudius had a direct hand in the coup, it is entertaining to think of Claudius as a quiet man waiting to revenge himself on his abusive nephew.

Claudius’ reign began not only with the first open murder of a Roman emperor, but also with the first Roman emperor chosen by the military. The Roman Senate, on hearing of Caligula’s death, debated about dismantling the empire and returning to a republic. However, when they heard that the Praetorian Guards supported Claudius, they demanded he be delivered to them for approval. Aware of the danger of complying, Claudius refused and stayed with the guards. The Senate realized it was powerless to fight several thousand armed men supporting Claudius. Championed by the soldiers, Claudius accepted the laurel of emperor with trembling hands.

After Caligula’s death and his own ascent to the throne, the ailments of both Claudius and Rome improved. Claudius undertook public works in the capital and in the provinces that were described as “great and essential rather than numerous.”1 They include two aqueducts, a road from Italy to Germany, a canal leading from the Rhine to the sea, and a canal from the Tiber to help reduce flooding in Rome.

Claudius also dramatically expanded the Roman Empire in a manner not seen since Augustus. The infirm emperor succeeded where even Julius Caesar had failed by completing the conquest of Britain. He dispatched 40,000 troops and several war elephants across the English Channel and, after visiting Britain to witness his triumph, returned to Rome in a hero’s procession.  The provinces of Thrace, Noricum, Pamphyllia, Lycia, and Judea were also annexed during his reign.

Despite his stammer, Claudius personally heard and judged cases in court. Ancient historians criticized his handling of judicial matters: “in hearing and deciding cases, he showed strange inconsistency of temper, for he was now careful and shrewd, sometimes hasty and inconsiderate, occasionally silly and like a crazy man.”1 But he did issue important edicts, ranging from moral judgements to medical advice. On hearing that masters had abandoned ailing slaves to die at the temple of Aesculapius only to reclaim them if they recovered, Claudius decreed that slaves who recovered would be free. If any master killed his slaves rather than abandon them or provide medical treatment, he was guilty of murder. Claudius is even said to have thought of an edict “allowing the privilege of breaking wind quietly or noisily at table, having learned of a man who ran some risk by restraining himself through modesty.“1

Despite his achievements, the senate resented Claudius’ ascension to power. He made efforts to placate the senate, even placing Macedonia and Achaea back under their control. Nevertheless, the senate remained hostile to Claudius, and numerous plots on his life were made during his reign. Claudius’ son-in-law was executed for taking part in a conspiracy, and so was his third wife, Messalina. Suetonius states that during Claudius’ reign, 35 senators and 300 knights were driven to suicide or executed.  This only increased the hostility of the senate.

Claudius’ reign began and ended with the assassination of an emperor. Although the senate had tried many coups, it was ultimately poor marital relations that led to Claudius’ death. Ancient historians write that Claudius’ wife, Agrippina, poisoned the emperor with either deadly mushrooms or a toxin-laced feather to hasten her son’s ascent. In AD 54, Claudius died and his adopted son, Nero, was proclaimed emperor.

Claudius’ disabilities may have hindered his early life, but he survived two imperial purges and multiple assassination attempts because people underestimated him. The success of his reign saw the expansion of the empire, ambitious infrastructure projects, and reformation of the government. Historians describe Claudius as an intelligent, scholarly, and conscientious administrator, also quick to anger and to execute.  In the fictional autobiography I, Claudius and its BBC Television adaptation, Claudius is depicted as stuttering and clumsy, but also intelligent and cunning.4 This is perhaps the most well-known portrayal of Claudius for he was an enigmatic emperor who continues to puzzle historians. Even Augustus himself suspected there was more to Claudius than met the eye, “in important matters, where his mind does not wander, the nobility of his character is apparent enough.”1

 

References

  1. Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Rolfe JC, trans. Vol II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1914.
  2. Levick B. Claudius. Yale University Press; 1993.
  3. Cocceianus CD, Foster HB. Dio’s Annals of Rome. Pafraets book Company; 1906.
  4. Graves R. I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius. RosettaBooks; 2014.

 


 

ABIGAIL CLINE APPLER, PhD, received her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Georgia. She is currently a third-year medical student at the Medical College of Georgia with an interest in Dermatology, medical education, translational research, and medical ethics. She currently resides in Augusta, Georgia with her husband, John Hunter Appler.