10 Facts About Emperor Claudius | History Hit

10 Facts About Emperor Claudius

Richard Bevan

29 Nov 2021
A bust of the emperor Claudius from the archaeological museum in Sparta.
Image Credit: George E. Koronaios / CC

Claudius, born Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus, was one of Rome’s most famous and successful emperors, reigning from 41 AD to 54 AD.

After the short and bloody reign of Claudius’ nephew Caligula, who had ruled as a tyrant, Rome’s senators wanted to return to a more republican form of government. The powerful Praetorian Guard turned to an inexperienced and seemingly simple-minded man they thought could be controlled and used as a puppet. Claudius turned out to be an astute and decisive leader.

Claudius is often depicted with a pronounced limp and possessing a stutter, most famously in the award-winning 1976 BBC series I Claudius. These disabilities probably had some truth in them and his family humiliated and alienated him as a young man, with his own mother calling him a ‘monstrosity’.

Claudius was a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which comprised of 5 emperors – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Here are 10 facts about Claudius, the Roman Emperor who conquered Britain.

1. He was a keen scholar

The young Claudius never imagined he would become emperor and devoted his time to learning. He fell in love with history after he was assigned an influential tutor, the Roman historian Livy, who inspired him to pursue a career as a historian.

To avoid potential assassination, Claudius cleverly downplayed his chances of succession, focusing instead on his scholarly work on Roman history and appearing to his rivals be little more than a regal swot.

2. He became emperor after the assassination of Caligula

Claudius’ position ascended at the late age of 46 when his psychotic nephew Caligula became emperor on 16 March 37 AD. He found himself appointed co-consul to Caligula whose increasingly deranged behaviour made many around him fear for their lives.

Despite his political position, Claudius suffered bullying and degradation at the hands of his sadistic nephew who enjoyed playing jokes on his anxious uncle and extracting large amounts of money from him.

3 years later Caligula, along with his wife and children, were mercilessly assassinated by the Praetorian Guard in a bloody plot as Claudius fled to the palace to hide. It has been suggested by historians that Claudius may have been keen to see an end to his nephew’s disastrous rule and was aware of conspiracy plans to rid Rome of a tyrant who bankrupted the city.

A 17th-century depiction of the assassination of Emperor Caligula.

3. He was a paranoid ruler

Claudius became emperor on 25 January 41 and changed his name to Caesar Augustus Germanicus to legitimise his rule, becoming the most powerful man in the Roman Empire. He generously rewarded the Praetorian Guard handsomely for their assistance in making him emperor.

The 50-year-old’s first act of power was to grant an amnesty to all conspirators linked to the assassination of his nephew Caligula. Paranoia and realising how vulnerable he was to assassination himself led Claudius to execute many senators to shore up his position and eradicate potential plots against him.

Killing those he felt posed a threat has somewhat tarnished Claudius’ reputation as a balanced and efficient ruler who restored the finances of the Roman Empire.

4. He quickly aggravated the Roman Senate

Rome’s senators clashed with Claudius after he designated power to 4 characters – Narcissus, Pallas, Callistus and Polybius – a mixture of knights and slaves, who were given the means to govern provinces across the Roman Empire under the control of Claudius.

It was to be a move that was to start the first of many conflicts between Emperor Claudius and the Senate, resulting in several coup attempts against him, many of which were prevented by the loyal Praetorian Guard.

5. He conquered Britain

Claudius’ reign saw him add many provinces to his empire, but his most important triumph was the conquest of Britannia. Claudius began preparing for an invasion despite past failures by previous emperors such as Caligula. At first, his troops refused to embark due to fears of the savage Britons but after arriving on British soil the 40,000 strong Roman Army defeated the warrior Celtic Catuvellauni tribe.

During the violent Battle of Medway, Rome’s forces pushed the warring tribes back to the Thames. Claudius himself took part in the invasion and stayed in Britain for 16 days before returning to Rome.

Historian and archaeologist Simon Elliott discusses the Classis Britannica, Rome's regional fleet that patrolled the shores around Britannia.
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6. He was something of a showman

Although not unique for a wealthy all-powerful emperor, Claudius demonstrated a love for entertainment on a huge scale, particularly when it shored up his popularity with Rome’s citizens.

He organised huge chariot races and bloody gladiatorial spectacles, while at times enthusiastically participating with the crowd in its blood lust for violence. It is said that he staged an epic mock sea battle on the Fucine Lake, involving thousands of gladiators and slaves.

7. Claudius married 4 times

In total Claudius had 4 marriages. He divorced his first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, on suspicion that she was adulterous and plotted to kill him. Then followed a brief marriage to Aelia Paetina.

His third wife, Valeria Messalina, was notorious for her alleged sexual promiscuity and interest in arranging orgies. She is believed to have plotted to have Claudius slain by her lover, the Roman senator and consul-elect Gaius Silius. Fearing their murderous intentions, Claudius had them both executed. Messalina was slain by a guard when she failed to commit suicide.

Claudius’ fourth and final marriage was to Agrippina the Younger.

Georges Antoine Rochegrosse’s 1916 painting of the Death of Messalina.

Image Credit: Public Domain

8. He used the Praetorian Guard as his bodyguards

Claudius was the first emperor to be proclaimed as such by the Praetorian Guard and not the Senate and therefore felt obligated to keep the Imperial Roman army, who acted as bodyguards, on his side.

Claudius often resorted to bribery to keep the Guard grateful, showering them with gifts, coins and titles left in his will. It was a dangerous game to play due to the Praetorian Guard’s power and ability to kill who they wanted with impunity.

From Gladiator to Rome Total War to I, Claudius today the Praetorians are one of the most distinctive military units of Imperial Rome. It was their job to protect the Roman Emperor and his household, a task for which they hold a somewhat ‘chequered’ record (especially when we focus in on the Praetorian Prefects). But what do we know about this unit’s origins? How did this powerful force become protectors of the Emperor and his household? What other functions did they serve?
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9. He had strong opinions on religion

Claudius had strong opinions about state religion and refused anything he felt undermined the rights of ‘gods to choose new gods’. On this basis, he refused a request of Alexandrian Greeks to erect a temple. He was also critical of the spread of eastern mysticism and the presence of clairvoyants and soothsayers undermining the worship of Roman gods.

Despite accusations of anti-Semitism by some historians, Claudius reaffirmed the rights of Jews in Alexandria as well as reaffirming the rights of Jews in the Empire. In addition to these reforms, Claudius restored lost days to traditional festivals that had been eradicated by his predecessor Caligula.

10. He died under suspicious circumstances

Claudius ruled as emperor for 14 years despite continual conflicts with the Senate. He often dealt with those who conspired against him by having them executed. Claudius himself may have been murdered by his wife, Agrippina, known for her enthusiastic use of poison and who favoured her son Nero to rule.

Several theories have been put forward by historians, that Claudius was poisoned on the orders of Agrippina, his fourth wife. A less dramatic suggestion is that Claudius was simply unlucky when eating an unknown toxic mushroom.

Tags: Emperor Claudius

Richard Bevan