Why does no one remember Emperor Claudius?

Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/art-sculpture-ancient-italic-3230736/
Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/art-sculpture-ancient-italic-3230736/

Claudius was the emperor of Rome from AD 41 to 54 and replaced the notorious emperor Caligula. Claudius was not intended to be emperor and he seems to have preferred a low profile rather than the power and fame that came with the imperial throne.


Despite this, Claudius proved himself to be a capable leader and will be the first emperor to conquer parts of the British Isles.


Today, however, very few people remember Claudius. This is probably because the emperors immediately before and after him are more famous for their cruelty: Caligula and Nero.


In this article, we will explore the life and achievements of the emperor Claudius, and examine why he deserves a more prominent place in the history of the early Roman empire.

Birth and family

Claudius was born with the name Tiberius Claudius on the 1st of August, 10 BC, at Lugdunum (now Lyon, France). His father was Nero Claudius Drusus, who was the brother of the emperor Tiberius. This meant that Claudius was born into a powerful and influential family.


However, it was Claudius' older brother, called Germanicus, who was more famous. Germanicus was born in 15 BC and would grow to become a successful general of the Roman army.


Unfortunately, when Claudius was only one year old, his father died suddenly after a fall from his horse. He was then raised by his mother, Antonia the Younger, who was the daughter of the famous general Mark Antony.

Early life

As a young child, Claudius fell ill, but it is not clear what exactly caused it. When he recovered, he had developed a limp, was partly deaf and, according to some ancient sources, would sometimes drool and stammer nervously.


When it became clear that these symptoms would remain for his entire life, Antonia became deeply embarrassed by her son, and Claudius was intentionally excluded from public life. In the ancient world, physical deformities were considered to be a curse from the gods, and the imperial family did not want any negative rumours developing around their members.


As Claudius grew older, Antonia became cruel towards her son, and would often call him a 'monster' in his presence. Eventually, he was sent away to live with his grandmother, Livia, who was the wife of the emperor Augustus. Livia treated the young Claudius with a bit more kindness and provided him with an education. Claudius is said to have been an avid reader with a particularly interested in history and Roman law. These interests would stay with him throughout his life.


By the time he was a teenager, his family noticed that Claudius' symptoms were not as severe as they had been and thought that he might be able to take on some political duties. in AD 9, the Roman historian Livy was hired as his tutor in an effort to prepare him for a political career.


Claudius began writing his own history of Rome, but when the current emperor Augustus read early versions of it, he was angered that Claudius had been critical of his time in power. As a result, Claudius' family once more became embarrassed by him and once more considered him unfit for politics.


Despite being hurt by the rejection of his written work, Claudius still desired to show that he was capable in politics. However, several formal requests to Augustus to allow him to stand for election were rejected.

Life during the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula

When Augustus died in AD 14, Claudius' uncle Tiberius became emperor. Claudius may have believed that his uncle would treat him more kindly than the previous emperor, but once more, his requests to enter into politics were consistently rejected by Tiberius.


The new emperor was more interested in progressing the career of Claudius' brother, Germanicus, who was experiencing increasing success as a commander on the battlefields of Germany. It was becoming clear that Germanicus was potentially being groomed as Tiberius' heir to the throne.


In AD 19, Germanicus died suddenly while in the eastern Mediterranean, and it was rumoured that he had been poisoned. A few years later, Tiberius' own son died and the emperor became a recluse on the island of Capri. This left Claudius in Rome, where he developed positive working relationships with the Roman Senate, which would benefit him later in life.


Then, in AD 37, Tiberius died. The man that replaced him was the son of Germanicus, called Caligula. The new emperor was initially well-liked by the Roman people, as he was the son of their favourite general. However, Caligula was particularly cruel to his uncle Claudius, because he considered him to be 'a fool'.


Caligula was the first emperor to allow Claudius to enter politics and made him co-consul in AD 37. Unfortunately, whenever the emperor was in public with Claudius, even when on official duties, Caligula made a point of playing practical jokes on him and taunting him for his physical deformities in front of the Senate.


Despite his early popularity, Caligula quickly became unpopular with his people. His high spending and inability to relieve starvation caused by drought meant that the Roman people turned against him.


Then, in January AD 41, three members of the praetorian guard cornered and killed Caligula, followed by his wife and baby daughter. However, Claudius appears to be spared, even though he was Caligula's uncle, perhaps because he wasn't seen as a legitimate threat.

Claudius' reign

On the same night that they had killed Caligula, the praetorian guard found the fifty-year old Claudius hiding behind a curtain in the palace. They thought that Claudius would make a good puppet for their political ambitions, so they declared him as the next emperor. This meant that Claudius was the first Roman emperor to be born outside of Italy.


Claudius could claim to be the legitimate successor to Caligula because he was the previous emperor's uncle. His first act was to immediately put to death the praetorian guards who killed the previous emperor, including their ringleader, Cassius Chaerea, as a way of proving that he was holding people to account for illegal actions. This tactic seemed to work and, with the return of law and order in Rome, he brought relative calm to the city.


Not wanting to only be known for punishment, but also for rewards, Claudius paid the soldiers of the praetorian guard that had proclaimed him as emperor 15,000 sesterces (a type of Roman coin) to each one.


Claudius proved to be a surprisingly effective leader despite his earlier exclusion from public life. He did much to improve the infrastructure of Rome. He built roads, canals, and aqueducts, as well as restoring public buildings that had fallen into disrepair.


One of his most lasting accomplishments was the construction of the Claudian Aqueduct, which supplied Rome with water for over 400 years.


He also tried to relieve the suffering of the Roman poor. He constructed a new port at Ostia, established an imperial civil service, and launched agrarian reform. He imported food to feed the people during major food shortages that occurred throughout the country during a lengthy drought.

Invasion of Britain

He also expanded the Roman empire by conquering Britannia (modern-day England and Wales) in AD 43. This was a significant accomplishment, as no Roman emperor had ever before set foot on British soil. The last Roman to have invaded this region was Julius Caesar, during his Gallic Wars in the 50s BC. 


The invasion was led by a commander called Aulus Plautius with four Roman legions.  They landed in Kent and made their way to London. The Britons, led by a man called Caratacus, put up a brave fight but were ultimately no match for the Roman army. Caratacus was captured and brought to Rome as a prisoner.  


Claudius himself travelled to Britannia in AD 44 to oversee the subjugation of the Britons and establish the province of Britannia. When he returned to Rome, he celebrated a triumph with a grand procession, even though he had not personally commanded any of the troops in the conquest. However, the Roman people were thrilled to see a triumph again, since it had been 30 years since one had been held. The conquest of Britannia was a major military accomplishment and helped to solidify Rome's power.


Even though Claudius achieved a lot and brought stability back to Rome following Caligula, some Romans questions his legitimacy as emperor. Rumours of his mental limitations continued, and Claudius learnt to become cautious around other potential challengers to his throne. When he had to, Claudius had to act ruthlessly to show others that he was not to be underestimated.


In AD 42, a rebellion against Claudius was led by Scribimanus, the governor of Upper Illyricum. When the emperor learned of it, he moved quickly to crush the uprising. Claudius had 35 senators and 400 other people executed or forced to commit suicide to dissuade others from trying similar revolts.


Claudius is also famous for expelling the Jewish people from Rome in AD 49 after they were accused of aiding the encouraging rebellion. It is not clear how much Claudius knew about the Jews at the time, but any threat to his power needed to be dealt with decisively.

Marriage and women

Unfortunately, Claudius' reign was not without its scandals. According to a number of ancient writers, the women in his life exerted significant control over him. 


His wife Messalina was known for her promiscuity, and she even married one of her lovers while Claudius was still alive. She had given Claudius a son, called Britannicus. Messalina planned with her lover, Gaius Silius, to kill Claudius and put Britannicus in power so that they could serve as regents. 


However, the plot was uncovered, and Claudius was swift in exacting vengeance. He ordered Messalina to commit suicide. When she failed to do so successfully, she was stabbed to death by Claudius' soldiers.


Following Messalina's death, Claudius married a woman called Agrippina the Younger. She was the sister of Caligula and daughter of Germanicus. However, Agrippina seemed to only want to use Claudius as a way of getting her own son, called Nero, declared as heir to the throne. Nero was Agrippina's son to a previous marriage and questions remained about whether Agrippina genuinely loved Claudius, or was simply manipulating him into marriage. 

Death and legacy

Agrippina constantly pressed Claudius to adopt her son Nero and to name him as his successor. In AD 54, Claudius finally relented, and Nero was adopted into the imperial family. 


Following the announcement of Nero's adoption, Claudius died suddenly in October of that same year, leading many to suspect that he had been poisoned by Agrippina, apparently by a bowl of poisoned mushrooms. The historical record does not definitively say whether or not this is true, but it is certainly possible. After his death, Nero succeeded Claudius as emperor and went on to rule for 14 years. 


As an emperor, Claudius achieve a lot in his 13 years in power. He expanded Rome's borders, reestablished economic and social stability in Rome, and managed to do so without being hated by the Senate. Very few emperors in the first century AD achieved all of these things, even when they were in power for longer.


Unfortunately, since both Caligula and Nero were known for their lavish lifestyles, their cruelty, and even their 'madness', Claudius is often forgotten. However, many of his decisions, such as the invasion of Britain, would have long-term impacts on both Roman, and western European, history for over 2000 years. For these reasons, he deserves to be remembered much more than those rulers before and after him.

Further reading