The physical weaknesses of Claudius and the influence lent to his wives and freedmen made him despised by the ancient authors, a point of view taken up by historians until the 19th century. Since then, the most recent opinions nuance these negative judgments and re-evaluate the importance of this emperor to consider him as a notable continuator of the work of his predecessors.
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The historians of the second century, Tacitus, Suetonius and Dion Cassius, are the most abundant sources available. They shaped the negative view of Claudius. Tacitus” Annals, his last work (probably composed under Trajan), follows chronological order year by year and extends from the death of Augustus to that of Nero, with a significant gap between the years 38 to 47 (books VII to X and the beginning of book XI, lost) which corresponds to the reign of Caligula and the first half of Claudius” reign. Suetonius was a biographer, who grouped events together without concern for chronology and studied the personality of each emperor in the Life of the Twelve Caesars. His Life of Claudius, combining positive and negative points, places him somewhat apart, between the “bad” emperors Tiberius, Galba and Domitian and the “good” princes with some defects, such as Julius Caesar and Vespasian. Suetonius, and Tacitus even more so, consider Claudius as unworthy to reign. Finally, Dion Cassius dedicates the sixtieth book of his Roman History to the reign of Claudius, which compensates for the gap in Tacitus” Annals. However, after the year 47, this history has only reached the modern era through extracts transcribed by Byzantine abbreviators, and may therefore be incomplete.
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Claudius belongs by his grandfather Tiberius Claudius Nero to the illustrious patrician family of the Claudii. The latter married Livia, and had two sons, Tiberius and Drusus the elder, before the emperor Augustus forced Livia, pregnant with Drusus, to divorce and marry him. They have no children, in spite of the rumour that Drusus was the illegitimate son of Augustus. Later, Augustus strengthens his ties with the Claudii by marrying Drusus to his niece Antonia the Younger, daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia the Younger. Drusus and Antonia have as children Germanicus, Livilla and Claudius, and perhaps two other children who died very young.
In 9 BC, his father Drusus died during his campaigns in Germania, his leg broken after a fall from a horse. During his public funeral, the Senate posthumously awarded him the nickname of Germanicus (victor over the Germans), which could be passed on to his sons. Claudius, then one year old, was raised by his mother Antonia who retired to the countryside and remained a widow. She describes this sickly child as a runt and sees in him a standard of stupidity. It seems that she ended up entrusting him to her grandmother Livia. Livia is not less hard, she often sends him short and dry letters of reproach. He is badly regarded by his family, more especially as his brother Germanicus has all the qualities which he does not have. He is entrusted to the surveillance of a “person in charge of beasts of burden”, charged to punish him severely at the least pretext.
Nevertheless, Claude does not seem to suffer from any infirmity in his moments of calm. Régis Martin summarizes by noting a serene character at rest, which can alternate with a series of tics during movements and under the blow of emotion. One then notices a weakness of the legs which can lead to claudication, uncontrolled head nodding, speech disorders, with sometimes runny nose and mouth, a tendency to deafness. On the other hand, the accusations of debility of mind cannot be taken into account in front of the intellectual qualities of Claude attested by his culture.
The will of Tiberius places Claudius as third line heir, as had Augustus, with all the same a bequest of two million sesterces, and recommends him and other relatives, to the armies, the Senate and the Roman people.
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Immediately proclaimed emperor, Caligula multiplied the demonstrations of filial piety, celebrated funeral ceremonies in the honor of Tiberius and his deceased parents Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, granted titles to his grandmother Antonia the Younger. Appointing himself consul suffect, he takes his uncle Claudius as colleague during two months, from July 1 to August 31, which makes him finally enter the Senate. Even if this promotion is the greatest possible honor for Claudius, it is late – he is 46 years old – and is not enough to give him the influence he could hope for. Moreover, he did not give all satisfaction in his functions, because Caligula accuses him of negligence in the follow-up of the installation of statues dedicated to his late brothers Nero and Drusus.
Suetonius reports Caligula”s changing attitude towards Claudius: he let him preside over some shows in his place, an opportunity to be acclaimed as “uncle of the emperor” or “brother of Germanicus”. But when Claudius was part of a delegation sent to Germania by the Senate to congratulate the emperor for having escaped a plot, Caligula was indignant that his uncle was sent to him as if he were a child to be ruled.
In 46 or 47, Claudius” son-in-law Pompey Magnus was executed for reasons that neither Suetonius nor Dion Cassius indicate but that modern historians suppose to be the will of Messalina and perhaps that of Claudius to eliminate a possible competition from their son Britannicus. The execution at the same time of Pompey”s father Crassus Frugi (en) and of his mother, is evoked only by Seneca, who makes Claudius responsible for it. Claudia Antonia was remarried to Messalina”s half-brother, Faustus Sylla, a less problematic son-in-law.
The extent of this succession of purges is not precisely known, but according to Suetonius and Seneca, Claudius during his reign would have pushed to the suicide or made execute thirty-five senators and more than three hundred knights. Among these victims, eighteen are identified by name, and only two died after 47. Renucci thus situates most of the eliminations as a continuation of the seizure of power in 41, and assumes that a hard faction of Caligula”s opponents did not join his successor.
From the first issues in 4142 AD, the emperor is depicted with his father Drusus or his mother Antonia the Younger on gold, silver or bronze series issued in Rome and Lugdunum. His son Britannicus appears from his birth in 41 on coins with the inscription Spes Augusta (“Augustus Hope”). Other sesterces strikes from 4243 show his brother Germanicus and then his wife Agrippina the Elder. Finally, bronzes struck in Rome in 42 show the founders of the imperial lineage, Augustus and on the reverse Livia that Claudius has just made divine.
Victory is an obligatory condition for the recognition of the power. But Claudius at his advent cannot boast any personal military exploit or of his generals. He celebrates those of his father by issues with the profile of Drusus with the reverse side a triumphal arch, an equestrian statue between two trophies and the inscription DE GERMANIS. From 46 and until 51, Claudius celebrates his conquest of Brittany with coins with the identical reverse, and the mention DE BRITANN(is).
Allegories related to Claudius” politics appear on coins from the beginning of his reign in 4142. The coins LIBERTAS struck in Rome showing a woman holding a pileus (cap of freedom) announces not freedom in the modern sense but the end of the tyranny of the previous reign, and its absence under Claudius. Another allegory is remarkable because no coin has appeared before, and it is not taken up by any of Claudius” successors: CONSTANTIA, issued in gold, silver and bronze, shows a standing woman holding a torch and a cornucopia, or standing and helmeted, holding a long sceptre, or sitting on a curule chair, raising her right hand to the height of her face. No cult of this deified virtue exists in Rome, and this allegory is obviously personally linked to Claudius. It seems risky to link the CONSTANTIA to a precise event of the reign, it refers rather to a Stoic notion of coherence of conduct and fidelity to one”s commitments, an official affirmation of a program of good government.
No more under the Republic than under the Empire, the Senate had no operational capacity to administer the Empire: only a treasury, the Aerarium, with limited financial means, no administrative or technical staff nor offices, except for archives. Under the Republic, magistrates and provincial governors were assisted by their staff, slaves and freedmen, while quaestors managed their treasury. Augustus organized the management of the imperial provinces which he administered by his legates and that of his private domains on this model, with the freedmen and the slaves of his house, the domus Augusta. He created to manage the collected incomes an imperial fund, the fiscus, parallel to the Aerarium. Claudius inherited this embryonic administration and developed it by specializing offices, each under the authority of a freedman of the domus Augusta.
Under the reign of Claudius, the Empire experienced a new expansion, which had been limited since the time of Augustus. Territories already under Roman protectorate were annexed: Noricum, Judea after the death of its last king Herod Agrippa I in 42, Pamphylia and Lycia in 43, following a local revolt and the murder of Roman citizens. After the assassination by Caligula of the king of Mauretania Ptolemy, and the insurrection of one of his freedmen, Ædemon in 40, the agitation of the Moorish tribes continued in 42 and 43. In 43, the former kingdom was divided into two provinces, Caesarian Mauretania and Tingitan Mauretania.
In 46, the Romans intervened in Thrace, whose assassination of king Rhémétalcès III by his wife was followed by a revolt against the Roman supervision. The historical testimonies on the conflict are late and reduced to some passages in Eusebius of Caesarea and George the Syncelle. The conquered kingdom is divided in two, the north is attached to Mésie and a new province of Thrace is created. This annexation pushes back the border on the Danube and secures the imperial provinces of Macedonia and Achaia, of which Claude gives the control to the Senate.
On the Rhine front, Claudius remained on the defensive strategy advocated by Augustus and followed by Tiberius, especially since several legions based in the Rhine provinces were now engaged in Britain. The Germanic peoples sometimes tried to make looting incursions into the Empire, followed by Roman reprisals. In 47, the legate of Germania inferior Corbulon hunted the pirates based at the mouth of the Rhine, brought back the Frisians in a vague Roman protectorate, and intervened against the Chauques. Claudius awarded him the triumphal ornaments, an honorary conclusion accompanied by the order not to prolong his military campaign beyond the Rhine.Corbulon then occupied his troops in digging a canal between the Rhine and the Meuse. The strategic organization of the Rhine sector was completed. Claudius completed the crossing of the Alps through the Brenner Pass, linking Italy to Germania and thus putting the finishing touches to the work begun by his father Drusus.
Claude shows, with regard to the provincials, an opening of spirit and a benevolence which one notes in his famous speech on the opening of the Senate to the Gallic notables and also by measures ignored of the ancient authors and punctually traced by various epigraphic sources. The historian Gilbert Charles-Picard estimates that this innovative attitude comes from the double Greek and Latin culture of Claude, perfectly bilingual, and of his historical erudition which inspires him a sympathy for the overcome people.
From literary sources and a few epigraphic inscriptions, a number of provincial governors have been identified by historians, a sample that only partially covers the Empire. Nevertheless, it can be seen that few governors appointed by Caligula were maintained under Claudius, and that the latter were men trusted by Claudius or his friends. If some governors are new men, a great number are senators resulting from the old Roman nobility. In the imperial provinces which depended on the emperor, the competent governors were kept in office for four or five years, and sometimes rewarded with triumphal ornaments, while the governors of senatorial provinces only served for one year, with a few exceptions such as Galba, proconsul of Africa for two years to restore order, or others in Achaia and Crete.
Claudius was careful to limit the abuses of the governors. To fight against those who were too late in taking up their post, he imposed that all new governors leave Rome before the first of April to go to their provinces. He also forbade governors to serve two terms in a row, a practice designed to avoid legal proceedings in Rome. This measure allowed the citizens they had wronged to impeach them at the end of their assignment. In the same way, the legates who accompanied the governors had to stay in Rome for a certain time before leaving for another mission, the time it took for an accusation to be formulated against them.
Claudius also settled the question of responsibility for tax disputes in the provinces, whether imperial or senatorial: the collection of revenues for the imperial treasury, the fiscus, was carried out by procurators appointed by the emperor, while the handling of disputes was in principle the responsibility of the provincial governor. In 53, Claudius gave the procurators of the fiscus the right to judge disputes and had this transfer of judicial authority ratified by the Senate. This measure was criticized by Tacitus, who noted the erosion of the judicial power that had previously belonged to the praetors and therefore to the senators, to the benefit of the knights and freedmen of the emperor.
Claude tries to remedy the abuses of use of the imperial post office by people not having right there, the cursus publicus, whose load weighed heavily on the cities as the inscription of Tegea in Achaïe indicates it.
Claudius carried out a census in 48 which counted 5,984,072 Roman citizens, an increase of nearly one million since the one conducted at the death of Augustus.
Claude shows a remarkable opening for the concession of the Roman citizenship: he naturalizes on a purely individual basis of many Orientals. The creation of Roman colonies or the promotion of Latin cities to the status of colonies naturalized collectively their free residents. These colonies were sometimes formed from pre-existing communities, especially those that included elites who were able to rally the population to the Roman cause. In recognition, these cities inserted the name of Claudius in their toponym: Lugdunum became the Colonia copia Claudia Augusta Lugudunum, Cologne the Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium.
Naturalization by military promotion is another way opened by Claude. In law, citizenship was required for the enlistment of legionaries, but local recruitment brought into the army many peregrines, provincials without citizenship rights, as legionaries with a fictitious citizenship right or as auxiliaries. Claudius generalized the granting of citizenship by awarding it by military diploma at the end of the service for the auxiliary soldier, for his concubine and their children.
This generosity towards the provincials arouses the annoyance of senators, like Seneca who claims that Claudius “wanted to see in toga all the Greeks, the Gauls, the Spaniards and the Bretons”. Claudius was nevertheless rigorous and required that the new citizens knew Latin. In individual cases of usurpation of citizenship, Claudius could, according to Suetonius, be severe and have offenders beheaded, or return freedmen who usurped the rank of knight to their slave status.
The pragmatism of Claudius appears in the edict preserved by the Tabula Clesiana, by which he finds a realistic solution to the situation of the Anaunes (it), a tribe close to Trent. An envoy of Claudius had discovered that many inhabitants had obtained the Roman citizenship abusively. After investigation, and rather than crack down, the emperor declared that from that day on they would be considered as holding full citizenship: depriving them of their illegally acquired status would have caused more serious problems than the breach of the rule.
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Claudius and Rome
In 49 AD, Claudius extended the urban perimeter of Rome (the pomerium) and included the Aventine. He followed an ancient custom which wanted the extension of the territory subjected to the Romans to authorize the extension of the limits of the city of Rome, justified for Claude by the conquest of Brittany. However, if one follows Seneca, this right is valid only for the annexations carried out in Italy, which puts in doubt the legitimacy of the extension of Claude.
Like his predecessors, Claudius held the imperium, which gave him the right to judge, and the tribunitian power, which made him the recipient of appeals from condemned citizens. Contrary to his predecessors, Claudius assiduously exercises his attributions. He sat in the forum from morning to evening, sometimes even on holidays or religious dates, traditionally off. He judged a great number of cases, personally or in the company of a consul or a praetor. Suetonius admits the quality of some of his judgments but, as usual, he concludes negatively, alternately circumspect and perceptive, or dizzy and hasty, sometimes with a lightness that resembled madness”, opinions that he illustrates with examples that most often turn Claudius into ridicule.
In addition to his personal activity as a judge, Claudius took several measures to improve the functioning of the judiciary and to reduce the congestion of the courts of Rome, in the face of the multiple legal abuses and the inflation of the volume of cases. To limit the length of legal proceedings, he obliged judges to close their cases before the courts became vacant. It increases the capacity of the courts by extending the length of sessions to the whole year. To fight against the dilatory maneuvers of plaintiffs who were absent after having brought their accusation, while they obliged the accused to remain in Rome and lengthen the procedure, Claudius obliged these plaintiffs to remain, also, in Rome during the treatment of their cases, and enjoined the judges to render a sentence against them in case of unjustified absence.
Pierre Renucci explains the congestion of the courts by the surge of trials in maiestas under Tiberius, originally against the Roman people, then against the person or the image of the emperor. The legal reward for the accusers, which gave them a quarter of the property of the condemned man, encouraged denunciation for even the most trivial reasons, such as drunken talk or careless jokes. Without returning on the legal provisions of the setting in charge, Claude puts a stop to the trials of maiestas by defying the slanderers.
Claudius arbitrated disputes in the provinces which were submitted to him, such as the affair of Alexandria. At the beginning of his reign, the Greeks and the Jews of Alexandria each sent him an embassy following riots between the two communities. In response, Claudius had two Greek agitators from Alexandria executed and wrote a Letter to the Alexandrians which refused to take sides on those responsible for the uprisings but warned that he would be implacable against those who would take them up again; he reaffirmed the rights of the Jews in this city but forbade them at the same time to continue to send settlers there en masse. According to Josephus, he then recognized the rights and freedoms of all the Jews in the empire.
In contrast to his judicial action, his legislative achievements were praised by ancient authors. Claudius worked for the restoration of morals, wishing to make rank coincide with wealth, honorability and prestige. Thus, in the spectacles, the senators and the knights find privileged places.
Claude takes very many edicts on the most various subjects, of which Suetonius quotes an anthology, of which some derisory, such as the authorization of the flatulences during the banquets, an on-dit peddled with the conditional by Suetonius, but nevertheless abundant quoted.
More seriously, Claudius translated into several laws the evolution of the customs of his time in favor of the improvement of the fate of the slaves and the emancipation of the women. A famous decree dealt with the status of sick slaves; until then, masters abandoned sick slaves at the temple of Aesculapius in the Tiberine Island and recovered them if they survived. Claudius decided that cured slaves would be considered freed and that masters who chose to kill their slaves rather than take this risk would be prosecuted for murder. For the first time in antiquity, the killing of a sick slave by his master was considered a crime.
Other decrees of note concern women”s rights: Claude abolished, for wives, the guardianship of a member of their family of origin, an exemption that existed only for mothers of more than three children. Another decree remedied an injustice in inheritance law by placing the mother married sine manu among the heirs of her child, when he died without having made a will.
In parallel with these emancipatory decisions, Claudius strengthened the prerogatives of the Pater familias, whether over the property of his family or by reinforcing his authority more generally.
From the beginning of his reign, which was marked by a famine in Rome, Claudius was insulted by the forum crowd and pelted with bread croutons. It is necessary to know that in Rome, some 200 000 poor citizens receive a free allocation of wheat, provided by the Roman State, largely imported from the provinces, and materially ensured by the care of the emperor. Claudius immediately decided to take measures to encourage the arrival of wheat in Rome, even during the winter, a season of storms and stoppage of navigation: he promised to take charge of losses caused by shipwrecks, thus becoming the insurer of merchant ships. The shipowners of trade ships obtained legal privileges, such as citizenship and exemption from penalties for single people and couples without children according to the Papia-Poppea law.
Claudius also redefined the responsibilities of supply: he entrusted the operations of distribution to the population to a procurator called ad Miniciam, named after the portico in Rome where it was carried out. The port administration of Ostia and the transport of wheat to Rome were under the responsibility of the quaestor, a junior magistrate in office for only one year. Claudius replaced him with a procurator whom he appointed and maintained according to his competence. Finally, Claudius did not hesitate to travel himself to monitor the arrival of wheat in Ostia.
Apart from the renovation of Pompey”s theater and the construction of marble barriers at the Circus Maximus, Claudius launched or continued major construction projects to improve the supply of Rome. These works, whose financing was only possible thanks to imperial finances, lasted for years and left works that Pliny the Elder described as “marvels that nothing surpasses” (“invicta miracula”).
Claudius ensured the water supply of Rome by restoring in 45 the Aqua Virgo, damaged under Caligula; he continued the construction of two aqueducts, the Aqua Claudia, which had been started under Caligula, and the Aqua Anio Novus. These two works, respectively sixty-nine and eighty-seven kilometers long, reached the city in 52, joining at the Porta Maggiore. The restoration and the construction of these two aqueducts cost 350 000 000 sesterces, more than any other evergetic work known by the epigraphy, and spread out over fourteen years.
In Rome he had a navigable canal dug on the Tiber that led to Portus, his new port, located three kilometers north of Ostia. This port is built in a semicircle around two breakwaters, with a lighthouse at its mouth.
Claudius also wished to increase the arable surface in Italy. He took up Julius Caesar”s project of draining Lake Fucin, by emptying it through a canal of more than five kilometers drifting to the Liris. The excavation work lasted eleven years, under the supervision of Narcissus. The work is completed with the drilling of the tunnels of Claude until the basin of the lake, but the expected emptying is a failure: the emptying emissary is higher than the bottom of the lake and does not empty it completely, spoiling the inauguration organized by Claude.
Claude shows himself conservative of the official religion, and makes decree that the pontiffs take care that the knowledge of the ancient rites preserved by the Etruscan haruspices is not lost. He rehabilitated ancient practices, such as reciting the formula of the fetishes during treaties with foreign kings. He himself, as pontifex maximus, applied himself to ward off bad omens, by having festivals announced if the earth shook in Rome, or by having propitiatory prayers recited and dictated to the people from the tribune of the Rosters if a bird of ill omen was seen on the Capitol.However, he avoided excesses of religious formalism, and put a brake on the excessive repetition of celebrations in case of a defect in the unfolding of the ritual prescriptions. It decrees that a celebration which went badly can be repeated only once, which puts an end to the abuses caused by the contractors of spectacles which benefit from these multiplications and even provoke them.
He refused the request of the Greeks of Alexandria who wished to dedicate a temple to him, arguing that only the gods could choose new gods. He re-established some holidays that had fallen into disuse and cancelled many foreign celebrations instituted by his predecessor Caligula.
Claudius was concerned about the diffusion of oriental mystery cults in the City and looked for Roman equivalents. For example, he wanted to establish in Rome the Eleusis Mysteries.
Like Augustus and Tiberius, Claudius was rather hostile to foreign religions. He forbade Druidism. He expelled from Rome the astrologers and the Jews, the latter for troubles that Suetonius attributes “to the instigation of a certain Chrestus”. The other ancient authors more or less agree with this provision. The Acts of the Apostles incidentally mentions this decree of removal while Flavius Josephus does not mention it. Dion Cassius minimizes its scope: “The Jews having again become too numerous to be expelled from Rome without causing trouble, he did not expel them, but forbade them to assemble and live according to the customs of their fathers. The motives and the reasons for Claudius” actions towards the Jews remain obscure at the present time. He seems to have acted essentially to maintain public order in Rome, disturbed by clashes between members of the community. In 41, he closed the synagogues; in 49, he expelled several Jewish personalities. Suetonius suggests that these incidents came from the Christians. On the other hand, Levick considers the hypothesis that Claudius was the author of the “decree of Caesar” punishing attacks on graves to be extravagant.
Claudius was opposed to conversions, whatever the religion, even in the regions where he granted the inhabitants freedom of belief. The results of all these efforts were recognized, and even Seneca, who nevertheless despised the old superstitious practices, defended Claudius in his satire the Apocoloquintosis.
Shows, circus games and theatrical performances, played an important role in public life in Rome. They were organized during religious ceremonies and festivals, and were an opportunity for the emperor to meet his people.
According to Suetonius and Dion Cassius, Claudius was passionate about the games of the amphitheatre. They make of him a cruel being, thirsty of blood, enjoying the spectacles of the gladiators and more still unworthy amateur of the mediocre spectacles of midday, devoted to the killings of condemned. Cruelty is one of the vices that the ancient authors underline to forge the character of a tyrant, but the assertions of Suetonius taken up by Dion Cassius are in contradiction with the writings of Seneca. The latter clearly condemns these staged murders. However, in his Apocoloquintosis, which charges Claudius with all the defects, Seneca makes no allusion to an attraction for bloody spectacles, hence Renucci”s doubt about this cruelty reported by Suetonius: reality or gossip?
Suetonius is more credible when he depicts Claudius” attitude during the shows he gives: he familiarly calls out to the spectators, circulates tablets with his comments on them, makes jokes and encourages the reactions of the audience, thus maintaining his popularity with the Roman crowd.
Among the games that Claude personally gives, two are exceptional for their size and rarity: the secular games and the naumachy of Lake Fucin.
The secular games of 47 mark the 800th anniversary of the foundation of Rome. As Augustus had also organized some in 17 BC, Suetonius ironizes on this secular character, and the formula of announcement of “games that nobody saw”, since some spectators attended the previous ones. However, André Piganiol underlines that the two games are not comparable, because Claudius creates a new type of celebration, the birthdays of Rome, different from the games of Augustus, expiatory of the disorders of a finished century and announcing the new century. At the time of one of the ceremonies, the young nobles carry out on horseback complex evolutions, and the applause of the crowd the most nourished are for the young Domitius Ahenobarbus, son of Agrippina the Young, last descendant of Germanicus and grand-nephew of Claude, at the expense of his son Britannicus, which can only worry the empress Messaline.
Another exceptional performance was organized in 52, for the inauguration of the diversion of the lake Fucin: a naumachy, a naval battle opposing two fleets and thousands of condemned, a spectacle that only Caesar and Augustus had shown before. Suetonius” narrative contains the only known quotation of the famous formula Morituri te salutant. And always according to Suetonius, Claudius makes a fool of himself by entering into a memorable anger when the extras refuse to fight, believing they have been pardoned.
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Claude and Lyon
Faint epigraphic clues make it possible to attribute to Claude some monumental achievements in his native city, such as the baths of the rue des Farges (50 to 60 AD). In the 18th century, the discovery of lead pipes bearing his name on the hill of Fourvière led to the belief that he was behind the aqueduct of the Gier, until another inscription linked him to Hadrian; Claude did create an aqueduct, that of the Brévenne or that of the Yzeron. Moreover, two fountains were built under his reign, the one on the site of the Incarnate Word and the one at Choulans.
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Private life of the emperor
The anecdotes collected by Suetonius and Dion Cassius to depreciate the private life of Claudius, who became emperor, abound, and change scale: his table excesses gathered up to six hundred guests. Even more scandalous, lured by the smell of cooking, Claudius abandoned the court where he was sitting to invite himself to the meal of the brotherhood of the Salians, thus revealing himself to be a slave to his appetites to the detriment of his judicial role.
The ancient authors forge for the posterity the image of a timid emperor, easily manipulated by his freedmen and his wife. The reputation which they give to Messalina is even worse. Juvenal”s satire describing Messalina leaving the imperial palace to prostitute herself in the lower quarters makes her the figure of uncontrolled and unlimited female concupiscence. In addition to the physical eliminations for which historians make responsible her jealousy and her greed, they lend her multiple lovers, that she chooses herself in all social classes. The men who refuse to submit to her desires are forced by trickery or force. Claude is depicted as the old fool of the comedies, deceived without his knowledge, sometimes even with his involuntary complicity, when Messaline asks him to order the mime Mnester to do what she will ask him.
Her last lover, the senator Caius Silius, is the cause of her end in 47. Summarized in a few lines by the abbreviators of Dion Cassius, mentioned by Suetonius, this episode is staged at length by Tacitus, who uses his rhetorical art to mix factual elements with comic traits and moralizing and political undertones. After the secular games of 47, Messalina falls in love with the senator Caius Silius, of close relatives of Germanicus, described by Tacitus as “the most beautiful of the young Romans”, whom she forces to separate from his wife. Still according to Tacitus, Silius gives in to Messalina, sure that his refusal would bring him death and also hoping for large rewards for his acceptance, which he obtains: without discretion, Messalina frequents assiduously the residence of Silius and even transfers there furniture, slaves and freedmen coming from the imperial house.
The liaison of the lovers culminates in their official marriage, a risk that Tacitus qualifies as fabulous, while being like the other historians persuaded of its authenticity. While Dion Cassius affirms that Messalina had the desire to have several husbands, Tacitus attributes the idea of this marriage to Silius, preferring risk to expectation, willing to maintain Messalina”s powers and to adopt her son Britannicus. Taking advantage that Claude stays in Ostia to supervise the arrivals of corn, Messaline remains in Rome. Her union with Silius is celebrated in the rules, according to a date announced in advance, with a contract signed before witnesses, ceremony with taking of the auspices, sacrifice to the gods and nuptial banquet. Suetonius is the only one to reveal a manipulation at the limit of the plausibility: Claude also signs the contract of marriage, because one makes him believe in a simulated marriage, intended to divert a peril which would have threatened it according to the omens. For Castorio, this element that Tacitus and Dion Cassius ignore is only a rumour without historical foundation, participating in the image of imbecility of Claude. In any case, the specialists of the Roman right consider that the marriage of Messaline, duly celebrated, has for effect the repudiation of Claude.
Instead of making themselves masters of Rome, the bride and groom lead in their gardens a festival of the grape harvests which turns to the bacchanal, implausible episode of the account of Tacite. The retaliation is organized by the freedmen Callistus, Narcissus and Pallas. Convinced that this marriage is going to make Silius the new emperor, they fear not to benefit from the same complaisance as with Claude. Another reason, by making condemn Polybe to death, one of theirs, Messaline broke their bonds of complicity. It is thus necessary for them to eliminate Messaline by preventing any meeting with Claude, that it could amadouer. According to Tacitus, only Narcissus acts, the two others remain passive, Pallas by cowardice, Callistus by prudence. Narcissus goes to Ostia, makes inform Claude of the remarriage of Messaline, and brings back to Rome his panicked master. They go towards the barracks of the praetorians, but, it seems by distrust towards one of the prefects of the praetorium, Claude entrusts the full military powers to Narcisse, for one day. After some words addressed to the soldiers on his misfortune, Claude returns to the palace and presides over an improvised court. Arrested on the forum, Caius Silius begs that his death be hastened. Other former lovers of Messaline were executed, including Mnester, who protested that he had only obeyed the order of Claudius. The repression also strikes the prefect of the vigils and a head of school of gladiators, which would indicate armed complicities, although of weak combative value vis-a-vis the prétoriens. Finally, Claude dines copiously; soon stuffed, he loses anger and lucidity, and asks for Messaline. Narcissus then takes the initiative to send soldiers to kill Messaline in the gardens which she had taken to Valerius Asiaticus. Then, the Senate decides the damnatio memoriae of Messaline, by the destruction of its statues and the hammering of its name on the inscriptions.
If Tacitus supports his scenario on the mad libido of Messalina and the fatalistic passivity of Silius, facing the blindness and the weakness of Claudius compensated by the reactivity of his freedman, a version accepted for a long time, some modern historians reject these stereotypes and reinterpret the course of the facts. Thus in 1934, Arnaldo Momigliano sees Caius Silius as the leader of a senatorial revolution, a plot accepted by Messalina, who feels threatened by the rise in popularity of Agrippina”s son. An original revision was proposed in 1956 by Jean Colin, who refuses to see a real plot or marriage between Messalina and Silius. As Tacitus describes it, while Claudius is in Ostia, they celebrate the festival of the grape harvest, during which, according to Colin, Messalina follows a ritual of Bacchic initiation, similar to a wedding ceremony. Narcissus would then have presented to Claude this initiation like a true marriage threatening his power and obtained the elimination of Messaline and Silius. Castorio remarks that this ingenious thesis requires a Claude grossly duped, a caricature that historians no longer admit. But it is necessary to note that in spite of more than fifty years of research on incomplete and biased writings, the historians could not propose a reconstitution acceptable by a majority of their fellow-members.
The disappearance of Messaline aroused new matrimonial ambitions in the imperial house, each freedman had his candidate: Pallas supported Agrippina the Younger, the last living child of Germanicus, Calliste was for Lollia Paulina, daughter of a consul and childless, finally Narcissus proposed a remarriage with Ælia Pætina, formerly repudiated by Claudius but blameless. Claudius leaned towards Agrippina, but marrying his niece was considered an incest and forbidden by the Roman custom. But Claudius easily obtained from the Senate a new law authorizing him to marry Agrippina, “in the best interest of the State”.
Immediately empress, Agrippina obtains honours that Messaline had not received: she receives the title of Augusta and coins are emitted with her portrait as well as others showing the young Nero. She made raise the exile of Seneca and entrusted him the education of his son. She broke Octavia”s engagement to Lucius Silanus, by having him accused of incest with his own sister, and then betrothed Nero to Octavia. Finally, she eliminates her rival Lollia Paulina by accusing her of having consulted magicians on the marriage of Claudius. The latter made her exiled by the Senate for this dangerous project, then she was forced to commit suicide. Finally in 50, pretexting the examples of Augustus and Tiberius who had prepared their succession on two young heirs, Agrippina makes adopt her son by Claudius, the young Domitius Ahenobarbus becomes Claudius Nero, brother of Britannicus and his elder of three years. In 53, Nero married Octavia and made at sixteen years his first performance in the Senate, by pronouncing an erudite speech in favor of the exemption of taxes of Troy, city ancestor of the Romans, then another in favor of the islands of Rhodes, to grant them the internal autonomy. In 54, Agrippina strengthens still its position by making condemn the maternal grandmother of Britannicus Domitia Lepida that it finds too familiar with Nero, by accusing it to have practised bewitchments and created disorders in Calabria with its slaves.
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Claudius inherited from Caligula numerous properties in and around Rome, including many horti (gardens) grouped in three districts of the capital, to the north, to the east and on the right bank of the Tiber. To the north, on and between the slopes of the Pincio and the Quirinal, are the Sallustiani horti, very close to the center of Rome. To the east, on the Esquiline, Claudius had several estates, including the horti Maecenatis; not far from there were the horti Maiani and Asiniani. Along the Tiber are the horti Agrippinae.
Claudius also took possession of the Domus Augustana located south-west of the Palatine, built in several stages and with a poorly known outline. The center of this complex includes the House of Augustus itself, a temple of Apollo, a quadriportico, two libraries and several architectural elements that are very poorly known: the house of Tiberius, a temple of Magna Mater, an Aedes caesarum and the Ludi palatini. The later constructions, notably under the Flavians, largely destroyed the previous buildings.
When he inherited this complex, Claudius proceeded to two symbolic actions to reinforce his legitimacy through these buildings. When he was awarded the naval crown by the Senate, he displayed it on the top of his house, alongside the civic crown received by Augustus. Moreover, in 49, he redefined the Romulan pomerium, especially on the Palatine, in order to refer, like Augustus, to the founding myths of Rome.
During his reign, Claudius undertook several modifications of the imperial palace. He had the central cryptoporticus surmounted by one floor, with a waterproofed floor, a garden and a marble basin. In the Domus Tiberium, he created a summer triclinium with a luxurious decoration in the IVth Pompeian style, the baths of Livia would have been started under Claudius.
According to Suetonius and Tacitus, in the months before his death, Claudius regretted his marriage to Agrippina and the adoption of Nero; he openly lamented his “impure, but not unpunished” wives and considered giving his manly toga to Britannicus, although he was not yet old enough. If Dion Cassius affirms that Claudius wants to eliminate Agrippina and to designate Britannicus as his successor, the other authors are less clear on the intentions of Claudius. He was sixty-four years old and his health had deteriorated. According to Suetonius, he feels that his end is near, makes his will and recommends to the senators to take care of his sons.
Claude died on the morning of October 13, 54, after a feast finished in drunkenness and drowsiness, followed by a painful coma during the night. All the ancient authors who speak about the death of Claude evoke the thesis of the poisoning with a dish of mushrooms. Tacitus, Suetonius and Dion Cassius accuse Agrippina of being the instigator, Flavius Josephus reports on rumours that appeared quickly. Seneca, Agrippina”s protégé, is of course an exception and speaks of a natural death.
But some details on the circumstances of the death vary. Suetonius exploits various sources, and notes that Claudius died in Rome, during the traditional meal of the Augustan sodales, or during a banquet in the Palace. The effect of the poison is described by Suetonius according to the two versions he has collected: either a single ingestion causes dazedness and loss of speech, then death after a long agony, or Claudius knows a respite, rejects part of his meal by vomiting and diarrhea, before receiving a new poisoned dose. If Dion Cassius reports a poisoning in a single attempt, Tacitus retains only the second version, with the use of a feather introduced by the physician Xenophon in the gullet, allegedly to help Claudius vomit and coated with a violent poison. This last detail is doubtful, because no ancient poison is known to act by direct contact with the mucous membranes.
The death of Claudius is one of the most debated episodes. Some modern authors doubt that Claudius was poisoned and have spoken of madness or old age. Ferrero attributes his death to a gastroenteritis. Scramuzza recalls that it is a commonplace to make of every emperor the victim of a criminal act, but admits the thesis of the poisoning. Levick hypothesizes a death caused by the tensions generated by the conflict of succession with Agrippina but concludes that the course of events makes the assassination more probable. Medically, several details provided by the ancient authors, the inability to speak but the persistence of sensitivity to pain, diarrhea, semi-comatose state, are consistent with symptoms of poisoning. Other authors, however, point out that it could be food poisoning or accidental poisoning or infarction. While it remains difficult to say with certainty what caused Claudius” death, Eugen Cizek notes a significant anomaly in the imperial circular announcing Nero”s accession: it mentions Claudius” death only very briefly, which is contrary to all custom.
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Apotheosis and posterity
The day after the death of Claudius, Agrippina consigns Britannicus in its apartments and presents Nero to the praetorians, this last one promises a donativum equivalent to that which had given his father. Then he pronounces a speech in front of the Senate, which awards him the imperial titles and decrees the apotheosis of Claude.
Claudius is thus the first deified emperor after Augustus. This divinization is commemorated by a coinage. Agrippina built a temple dedicated to his cult, the Temple of Divine Claudius, on a huge terrace built on the Caelius. Nero abolished this cult after the death of Agrippina and transformed this temple into a nymphaeum dominating the Domus aurea. Vespasian restored it and re-established the cult of the divine Claudius.
The divinization of Claude is celebrated in several provinces, but its worship does not last, except in some cities which owe him a particular favour, such Asseria (en) in Dalmatie.
According to Levick, the men of letters completely ignored this divinization, played with it or mocked it, such as Gallion, the brother of Seneca, who declared that Claudius was pulled up to heaven with a hook, like the criminals who are thrown into the Tiber. Dion Cassius reports that Nero, Agrippina and Gallion later joked about the death and apotheosis of Claudius, declaring that mushrooms were indeed a dish of the gods, since he had become a god thanks to them. Seneca in his turn added a satire parodying the apotheosis of Claudius, the Apocoloquintosis.
Having reasons to hate him and tutor of Nero, Seneca leads the reaction against the memory of Claudius. He composed the speech of investiture to the Senate of Nero enumerating a list of political failures attributed to Claudius, making it possible to show to the senators worried about their prerogatives that Nero takes into account the faults of his predecessor. This text has the same goal as the first Bucolica, written by Calpurnius Siculus: to announce a new golden age where the Senate would have its full place in the conduct of the state. Seneca, with De Clementia also takes part in this literary and political operation. In the Apocoloquintosis, he stages a series of successive condemnations that Claudius undergoes and which are as many questionings of his political legitimacy, of his policy of granting the Roman citizenship and of opening the Senate to the provincial elites.
Successor of Nero, Vespasian sees in Claudius a valuable predecessor. Indeed, he began his political career with Claudius in 51 and is like him in lack of legitimacy and close to the people. When he promulgated the Lex de imperio Vespasiani, he placed him alongside Augustus and Tiberius to legitimize his actions. Thus, Claudius is represented with Augustus in the monuments of the Capitol of Vespasian of Brescia.his son Titus, raised alongside Britannicus, raises the memory of the latter, and by extension that of Claudius. Like his father, he resumed the cult of Claudius and completed his temple at the expense of the Golden House of Nero. Vespasian and Titus lead a policy of inspiration close to that of Claudius, and reinforce a part of the Claudian legislation: the loan to the minors, the connections between free women and slaves, for the demolition of buildings. They also repaired the Aqua Claudia.
During his reign, the emperor”s image was disseminated in proportion to his status, and thus on the same scale as his predecessors. On the other hand, the analysis of this collection of portraits has long suffered from its very negative reputation. It was only at the end of the 20th century that specialists began to re-evaluate the artistic production dedicated to him, on a par with other Roman emperors.
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The portraits of Claude in antiquity
Since literary descriptions of the emperor were unanimously negative, art historians have long neglected the study of Claudius” portraits; after the pioneering work of Meriwether Stuart in 1938, it was not until the 1980s that new work overcame preconceptions. It seems that even in 2018, “the importance of figurative testimonies, whose richness and variety are surprising, still seems to be underestimated.” Thus, Claudius is the last Julio-Claudian not to have been the subject of a volume in the collection Das römische Herrscherbild. A volume is in preparation in 2018 under the direction of Anne-Kathrein Massner.
The coins are the main source of information for the study of the imperial portrait; they represent a very characteristic physiognomy: voluminous skull cap, powerful neck, protruding ears, drooping eyelids and fleshy lips. This makes it possible to identify Claudius in statuary. Moreover, Claudius” head is very regularly surmounted by a corona civica, indicating that his accession avoided a civil war; after Augustus, Claudius is the most regularly crowned in statuary and glyptics of all the Julio-Claudian emperors.
The scientific consensus in 2018 recognizes in Claude”s portrait three official types that follow each other chronologically, even if their respective durations are still subject to debate.
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Claude in modern and contemporary painting
Claudius is a subject exploited from time to time in classical painting, always by taking up without distance the texts of the ancient authors, and thus representing him largely to his disadvantage, for example in Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1871. Later, the subject of the Grand Prix de Rome of 1886 was the same extract from Suetonius narrating the passage of Claudius hidden behind a hanging. Charles Lebayle won this prize. The life of Claudius is also a source of inspiration in Lematte”s 1870 painting, The Death of Messalina.
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Claude in movies and television
Claudius has interested scriptwriters and filmmakers much less than other emperors such as Nero or Caligula: “The character of Claudius is indeed a double victim of Suetonius” ferocious portrait: too much of a buffoon to be tragic, not monstrous enough to be edifying, Claudius has long been confined to the role of stooge for his entourage.
His character is played by the actor Derek Jacobi in I Claudius Emperor, a successful mini-series of the BBC, centered around the life of the Emperor Claudius, drawn from the books I Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves that the director Josef von Sternberg had also tried to bring to the screen in 1937 under the title I, Claudius.
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Title at his death
When he died in 54 AD, Claudius had the following title:
A temple was dedicated to Claudius at Camulodunum (Colchester), the first capital and first Roman colony in the province of Brittany.
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