Claudius: From Court Fool to Emperor of Rome


Ridiculed and ignored by the imperial family because of poor health and deficiency of social skills, Claudius rose to be an exemplary ruler.

Under Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus- the name he took as emperor – the Roman Empire expanded territorially; undertook massive engineering works and improved the application of the law system, even though Claudius sometimes didn’t strictly followed legal precepts..

The ostracism suffered by Claudius proved to be a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to survive the massive purges of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that followed the assassinations of the two previous rulers: Tiberius and Caligula.

Claudius’ Youth

Born Tiberius Claudius Drusus on August 1 10 BC, his name was changed to Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus when he was four years old. He would be known as such until his accession to the throne. The place of his birth was Lugdunum (today’s Lyon) in Transalpine Gaul, which would make him the first monarch of Rome to be born outside Italy.

His parents were Claudius Drusus, son of Livia – Augustus’ third wife – and Antonia, daughter of and Augustus’ sister Octavia Minor.

His father died when he was one year old and he was at first brought up by a mother who considered him mentally challenged. Antonia gave him to his grandmother, Livia, who was a bit more sympathetic.

However, by the time Claudius was about 10 he began showing an interest in history and oratory and that somewhat changed his family’s perception. It was his scholarly pursuit of history that got him in trouble with Augustus, for Claudius was too critical of the emperor in his account of the civil war that brought the monarch to power.

The only honor Augustus bestowed upon his nephew was that of official soothsayer (Augur); a politically unimportant post.

Tiberius didn’t treat Claudius any better. He appointed his nephew consul but never assigned him any tasks. Tiberius would not even allow Claudius to participate in the Senate’s debates. Discontented, Claudius withdrew to his reserved, scholarly life.

Life under Caligula and Ascension to the Throne

Even though Claudius commanded enough respect from the Senate, the Praetorian Guard and the common citizens – at least enough to be considered an heir after Tiberius death – he was emphatic about his lack of interest in the crown.

Enter Caligula, Claudius’ nephew. Trying to gain support from those who backed his uncle, Caligula selected Claudius as co-consul, but made fun of the older man at any opportunity, both privately and in public.

Eventually, in January 41 BC, Caligula was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. As legend has it, fearing for his life, Claudius hid behind a curtain in the palace. Found trembling by a guard, the soldier kneeled and proclaimed Claudius emperor. It might have been that the Praetorian Guard had planned to hand the crown to Claudius anyway.

Initially the Senate wanted to return Rome to a republican form of government, but since they could not agree on who would lead them, the Praetorian backing of Claudius settle the matter.

Emperor Claudius

The new ruler’s first act was to pardon those Senators who had participated in the plot against Caligula. This was considered recompense for having confirmed Claudius.

Claudius embarked on a large construction program. Two aqueducts, the Anio Novus and the Aqua Claudia (this last one begun by Caligula) were built, and a third one restored.

Roads and canals were constructed or improved; Rome was beautified and a new port to facilitate the import of grain was built at Portus.

Fresh conquests and territories – Britannia, Trace, Noricum, Lycia, Judea and Pamphylia – were added to the empire.

Furthermore, Claudius won even more favor from the citizenry when he sponsored various and numerous gladiatorial events and abolished a tax on food that had been established by Caligula.

Claudius was married four times . While he did away with the first two wives, the last two proved a bit more problematic. His third wife was Valeria Messalina, whom he married when he was 50. She was unfaithful – maybe a nymphomaniac -, ambitious, cruel, calculating and plotted to kill anybody, including the emperor , who stood in the way of her son, Britannicus, inheriting the throne of his father. She was finally put to death on Claudius’ orders.

The fourth wife of Claudius was a sister of Caligula, Agrippina the Younger. She too was considered beautiful, ambitious and ruthless, as well as domineering. She took total control over the elderly Claudius and got him to name her son, Nero, as his successor rather than Britannicus.

There is some disagreement about where and how Claudius died on October 13, 54 AD. The most accepted premise is that he died in Rome, poisoned with mushrooms, as part of a plot masterminded by Agrippina to get Nero to power.