Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus (b. 10 BC, d. 54 A. D. ; emperor, 41-54 A. D. ) was the third emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. His reign represents a turning point in the history of the Principate for a number of reasons, not the least for the manner of his accession and the implications it carried for the nature of the office. During his reign he promoted administrators who did not belong to the senatorial or equestrian classes, and was later vilified by authors who did.
He followed Caesar in carrying Roman arms across the English Channel into Britain but, unlike his predecessor, he initiated the full-scale annexation of Britain as a province, which remains today the most closely studied corner of the Roman Empire. His relationships with his wives and children provide detailed insights into the perennial difficulties of the succession problem faced by all Roman Emperors. His final settlement in this regard was not lucky: he adopted his fourth wife’s son, who was to reign catastrophically as Nero and bring the dynasty to an end.Order now
Claudius’s reign, therefore, was a mixture of successes and failures that leads into the last phase of the Julio-Claudian line. Early Life (10 BC – 41 A. D. ) Claudius was born on 1 August 10 BC at Lugdunum in Gaul, into the heart of the Julio-Claudian dynasty: he was the son of Drusus Claudius Nero, the son of Augustus’s wife Livia, and Antonia, the daughter of Mark Antony. His uncle, Tiberius, went on to become emperor in AD 14 and his brother Germanicus was marked out for succession to the purple when, in AD 4, he was adopted by Tiberius.
It might be expected that Claudius, as a well-connected imperial prince, would have enjoyed the active public life customary for young men of his standing but this was not the case. In an age that despised weakness, Claudius was unfortunate enough to have been born with defects. He limped, he drooled, he stuttered and was constantly ill. His family members mistook these physical debilities as reflective of mental infirmity and generally kept him out of the public eye as an embarrassment. A sign of this familial disdain is that he remained under guardianship, like a woman, even after he had reached the age of majority.
Suetonius, in particular, preserves comments of Antonia, his mother, and Livia, his grandmother, which are particularly cruel in their assessment of the boy. From the same source, however, it emerges that Augustus suspected that there was more to this “idiot” than met the eye. Nevertheless, Claudius spent his entire childhood and youth in almost complete seclusion. The normal tasks of an imperial prince came and went without official notice, and Claudius received no summons to public office or orders to command troops on the frontiers
How he spent the voluminous free time of his youth is revealed by his later character: he read voraciously. He became a scholar of considerable ability and composed works on all subjects in the liberal arts, especially history; he was the last person known of who could read Etruscan. These skills, and the knowledge of governmental institutions he acquired from studying history, were to stand him in good stead when he came to power. His father died on campaign when Claudius was only one year old, and his brother, Germanicus, succumbed under suspicious circumstances in AD 19.
His only other sibling to reach adulthood, Livilla, became involved with Sejanus and fell from grace in AD 31. Through all this turmoil Claudius survived, primarily through being ignored as an embarrassment and an idiot. Claudius’s fortunes changed somewhat when his unstable nephew, Gaius (Caligula), came to power in the spring of 37 A. D. Gaius, it seems, liked to use his bookish, frail uncle as the butt of cruel jokes and, in keeping with this pattern of behavior, promoted him to a consulship on 1 July 37 A. D. At 46 years of age, it was Claudius’s first public office.
Despite this sortie into public life, he seemed destined for a relatively quiet and secluded dotage when, in January 41, events overtook him. The Early Years: Britain, Freedmen, and Messalina (AD 41 – 48) Among Claudius’s first acts was the apprehension and execution of Gaius’s assassins. Whatever his opinion of their actions, politics required that Claudius not be seen to condone men who murdered an emperor and a member of his own family. ] He also displayed immediate understanding of the centrality of the military to his position and sought to create a military image for himself that his prior sheltered existence had denied him.
Preparations got under way soon after his accession for a major military expedition into Britain, perhaps sparked by an attempted revolt of the governor of Dalmatia, L. Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus, in 42 A. D. The invasion itself, spearheaded by four legions, commenced in the summer of 43 and was to last for decades, ultimately falling short of the annexation of the whole island (if indeed that was Claudius’s final objective at the outset). This move marked the first major addition to the territory of the Roman Empire since the reign of Augustus.
Claudius himself took part in the campaign, arriving in the war zone with an entourage of ex-consuls in the late summer of 43 A. D. After a parade at Camulodunum (Colchester) to impress the natives, he returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph in 44 A. D. His military credentials had been firmly established. The sources are united in portraying Claudius as a dupe to his imperial freedmen advisors as well as to his wives. It is possible that the hostile stance of the elite toward Claudius extended back into his reign — he was, after all, a usurper who had been foisted on the aristocrats by the soldiers.
If so, Claudius’s reliance on his freedmen may have stemmed from this circumstance, in that the ex-slaves were (as far as he was concerned) more trustworthy than the sullen aristocracy. For whatever reasons, there is no doubt that Claudius’s reign is the first era of the great imperial freedman. To be sure, the secretariat had existed before Claudius and members of it had achieved some prominence (notably Helicon and Callistus under Gaius), but the rise of powerful individuals like Narcissus, Polybius, and Pallas was a distinctive mark of Claudius’s reign.
The power of these men was demonstrated early on when the emperor chose Narcissus as his envoy to the legions as they hesitated to embark on their invasion of Britain. Apparently the freedmen were frequently to exert less beneficent influences throughout Claudius’s reign. In 38 A. D. Claudius had married Valeria Messalina, a blossom of a noble house with impressive family connections. Messalina bore him a daughter (Octavia, born in 39) and a son (Britannicus, born in 41): she was therefore the mother of the heir-apparent and enjoyed influence for that reason.
Messalina is portrayed as little more than a pouting adolescent nymphomaniac who holds wild parties and arranges the deaths of former lovers or those who scorn her advances; and all this while her cuckolded husband blunders on in blissful ignorance. What we can say is that either her love of parties (on the adolescent model) or her scheming (on the able courtier model) brought her down. While Claudius was away in Ostia in AD 48, Messalina had a party in the palace in the course of which a marriage ceremony was performed between herself and a consul-designate, C. Silius.
Whatever the intentions behind it, the political ramifications of this folly were sufficiently grave to cause the summary execution of Messalina, Silius, and assorted hangers-on (orchestrated, tellingly, by the freedman Narcissus). Claudius was now without a wife. The Rise of Agrippina and Claudius’s Death (48-54 A. D. ) The death of Messalina is presented as initiating a scramble among the freedmen, each wishing to place his preferred candidate at Claudius’s side as the new empress.
In the end, it was Pallas who prevailed when he convinced Claudius to marry Agrippina the Younger. The marriage took place within months of Messalina’s execution. Agrippina was a colorful figure with extensive and far-reaching imperial connections: she was the daughter of Claudius’s brother, Germanicus, and a sister of Gaius Caligula, by whom she had been exiled for involvement in the conspiracy of Gaetulicus; moreover, she had been married before. She therefore brought to the marriage with Claudius a son, Nero Agrippina’s ambitions for this son proved the undoing of Claudius.
The years between his marriage to Agrippina in 48 and his death in 54 were difficult ones for Claudius. Whether or not sources are right to portray him as a dupe of his wives and freedmen throughout his reign, there can be little doubt that Agrippina’s powerful personality dominated Claudius’s last years. Her position, openly influential in a manner unlike any previous empress, was recognized by those attuned to imperial politics, and she appears more and more prominently in official inscriptions and coins.
In 50 the Senate voted her the title “Augusta,” the first prominent imperial woman to hold this title since Livia — and the latter had only held it after Augustus’s death. She greeted foreign embassies to the emperor at Rome from her own tribunal, and those greetings were recorded in official documents; she also wore a gold-embroidered military cloak at official functions. It is a sign of her overt influence that a new colony on the Rhine bore her name.
Agrippina’s powerful position facilitated the advancement of her son Nero and was, in turn, strengthened by it. Claudius already had a natural son, Britannicus, who was still a minor. Nero, at 13, was three years older. Now Claudius began to advance Nero through various signs of favor, the most important being his adoption as Claudius’s son on 25 February AD 50. Henceforth he was known as Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus Caesar and known to posterity simply as “Nero”.
But Claudius openly advanced Nero in other ways, too: the emperor held the consulship in 51, which was the year Nero took the “toga of manhood,” and that event was itself staged several months before the customary age for Roman teenagers; Nero was granted imperium proconsulare outside the city, addressed the Senate, appeared with Claudius at circus games (while Britannicus appeared still in the toga of a minor), and was hailed as “Leader of the Youth” (princeps iuventutis) on the coinage; in AD 53 Nero married Claudius’s daughter, Octavia.
All of these are sure signs of preference in the ever-unstable imperial succession schemes. No matter what the reasons were, there can be little doubt that Nero, despite his tender age, had been clearly marked out as Claudius’s successor. Agrippina, according to Tacitus, now decided it was time to dispose of Claudius to allow Nero to take over. The ancient accounts are confused — as is habitual in the cases of hidden and dubious deaths of emperors — but their general drift is that Claudius was poisoned with a treated mushroom, that he lingered a while and had to be poisoned a second time before dying on 13 October 54 A.
D. At noon that same day, the sixteen-year-old Nero was acclaimed emperor in a carefully orchestrated piece of political theater. Already familiar to the army and the public, he faced no serious challenges to his authority. Claudius and the Empire The invasion and annexation of Britain was by far the most important and significant event in Claudius’s reign. But several other issues deserve attention: his relationship with and treatment of the aristocracy, his management of the provinces and their inhabitants, and his judicial practices, and his building activities.
Claudius’s relationship with the Senate did not get off to a good start — given the nature of his succession — and it seems likely that distrust of the aristocracy is what impelled Claudius to elevate the role of his freedmen. During his reign, however, Claudius made efforts to conciliate Rome’s leading council, but he also embarked on practices that redounded to his detriment, especially those of sponsoring the entrance men considered unworthy into the Order and hearing delicate cases behind closed doors (in camera). 5 senators and several hundred Knights were driven to suicide or executed during the reign.
The vilification of Claudius in the aristocratic tradition also bespeaks a deep bitterness and indicates that, ultimately, Claudius’s relationship with the Senate showed little improvement over time. His reviving and holding the censorship in 47-48 is typical of the way the relationship between Senate and emperor misfired: Claudius, no doubt, thought he was adhering to ancient tradition, but the emperor-censor only succeeded in eliciting odium from those he was assessing.
Claudius was remembered (negatively) by tradition as being noticeably profligate in dispensing grants of Roman citizenship to provincials; he also admitted Gauls into the senatorial order, to the displeasure of the snobbish incumbents. Both of these practices demonstrate his concern for fair play and good government for the provinces, despite his largely inactive reign: In the organization of the provinces, Claudius appears to have preferred direct administration over client kingship. Under him the kingdoms of Mauretania, Lycia, Noricum, and Thrace were converted into provinces.
Stable kingdoms, such as Bosporus and Cilicia, were left untouched. One feature of Claudius’s reign that the sources particularly criticize is his handling of judicial matters. While he was certainly diligent in attending to hearings and court proceedings — he was constantly present in court and heard cases even during family celebrations and festal days — the sources accuse him of interfering unduly with cases, of not listening to both sides of a case, of making ridiculous and/or savage rulings, and of hearing delicate cases in closed-door private sessions with only his advisors present.
Finally, there are Claudius’s building activities. Public building was essential for Roman emperors, and ancient accounts of individual reigns routinely include mention of imperial munificence. Matters hydraulic account for Claudius’s greatest constructional achievements, in the form of a new aqueduct for the city of Rome, a new port at Portus near Ostia, and the draining of the Fucine Lake. The sources are at pains to highlight the almost catastrophic outcome of the latter project, but its scale cannot be denied. Suetonius’s assessment that “his public works were grandiose and necessary rather than numerous” is entirely correct.
Conclusion In addition to his scholarly and cautious nature, he had a cruel streak, as suggested by his addiction to gladiatorial games and his fondness for watching his defeated opponents executed. He conducted closed-door trials of leading citizens that frequently resulted in their ruin or deaths — an unprecedented and tyrannical pattern of behavior. He had his wife Messalina executed, and he personally presided over a court in the Praetorian Camp in which many of her hangers-on lost their lives. He abandoned his own son Britannicus to his fate and favored the advancement of Nero as his successor.
At the same time, his reign was marked by some notable successes: the invasion of Britain, stability and good government in the provinces, and successful management of client kingdoms. Claudius, then, is a more enigmatic figure than the other Julio-Claudian emperors: at once careful, intelligent, aware and respectful of tradition, but given to bouts of rage and cruelty, willing to sacrifice precedent to expediency, and utterly ruthless in his treatment of those who crossed him. Augustus’s suspicion that there was more to the timid Claudius than met the eye was more than fully borne out by the events of his unexpected reign.