The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 5
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire,” with a stable economy, a strong government and a superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a roller coaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Claudius, the bumbling Emperor who had extraordinarily poor taste in women.
Claudius: The Clumsy Emperor
Nobody expected Claudius to become emperor. Although he was the only surviving heir of Augustus and was the brother of the war hero Germanicus, Claudius was a figure of fun.
Left disfigured by a serious illness when he was very young, Claudius was clumsy and was the butt of his family’s jokes. When he dozed after dinner, guests pelted him with food and put slippers on his hands so that he would rub his eyes with his shoes when he woke up.
However, Caligula’s murder in 41 AD changed everything for Claudius. Unexpectedly, the family fool had become emperor. Discovered trembling in the palace by one of his own soldiers, he was clearly reluctant and afraid, yet he had good reason to be. Like his predecessors, Claudius could never be too sure of his position. Supported mainly by soldiers and courtiers, he had a rocky relationship with the Senate. Many senators supported the rebellion in the Balkans in 42 AD and they were part of many of the plots against his life.
Despite these dangers, Claudius was dedicated to his job, starting work just after midnight every day. It began to pay off; he made major improvements to Rome’s judicial system, passed laws protecting sick slaves, extended citizenship and increased women’s privileges. He also treated his people with unusual respect, apologizing to visiting pensioners when there were not enough chairs. Hardly surprising, then, that his biographer Suetonius wrote how this sort of behavior endeared him to the people.
Claudius had some real successes. Britain had resisted Roman rule for over a century, but was conquered by Claudius who created client kingdoms to protect the frontier. He had succeeded where Caesar had failed. This was the most important addition to the empire since the time of Augustus. Even this success, however, was not enough to protect him from political danger. Here, his worst enemies would turn out to be his own wives.
Claudius had simply awful taste in women. Although he adored his wife Messalina, she was extravagant and promiscuous, with a particular weakness for the servants. Claudius tried to turn a blind eye to her many affairs, but in 48 AD Messalina took a new lover, Gaius Silius, a nobleman. Their relationship was widely thought to be a cover for a plot and Claudius was urged to take action: “Act fast or her new man controls Rome!” Silius was killed and Messalina fled to a friend’s villa to decide how to get herself out of trouble but it was too late. The emperor was hosting a dinner party when he heard that his wife had died. Without asking how, he called for more wine.
The next year, Claudius decided to marry again surprising Rome by choosing his own niece, Agrippina. This was a bad mistake. Determined to make the most of her luck and happy to use any means necessary, Agrippina was about the only woman who could make Messalina seem a good catch.
Agrippina began her quest for power by persuading Claudius to bring back Seneca from exile so that he could become tutor to her own son, Nero, the boy she planned to make an emperor. Gradually, Agrippina removed all her rivals and convinced Claudius to disinherit his own son Britannicus. With Nero now the heir, the only remaining obstacle was Claudius himself. Agrippina took drastic action, as Tacitus reports, her weapon of choice was poisoned mushrooms delivered by a faithful servant.
Claudius appeared on the brink of death but began to recover. Horrified, Agrippina signed up the emperor’s own doctor to her cause. While pretending to help Claudius vomit his food, the doctor put a feather dipped in poison down his throat. As Tacitus said, “Dangerous crimes bring ample reward.”
Claudius was dead. Nero was emperor. This would prove interesting.