CLAUDIUS (41 - 54 AD)



The emperor Claudius

…was the first emperor to be chosen by the imperial guard (the praetorian guard) - but not the last. His age and disposition did not prevent his reign being modestly effective. He attempted to compensate for his lack of military background with a successful invasion of Britain. His personal life was dominated by his wives, the insatiable Messalina, and the ambitious Agrippina. He was the first emperor since Augustus to be made a god after his death.


Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus Caesar: born 1 August 10 BC at Lugdunum, Gaul, son of Nero Claudius Drusus (38 - 9 BC), brother of Tiberius, and Antonia (36 BC - AD 37), daughter of Mark Antony. Became emperor in AD 41. Married [1] Plautia Urgulanilla (one son, Drusus, d. c. AD 26, and one daughter, Claudia); [2] Aelia Paetina (one daughter, Antonia); [3] Valeria Messalina (one son, Tiberius Claudius Britannicus, AD 41 - 55, and one daughter, Octavia, d. AD 62); [4] Agrippina. Died 12 October AD 54. Deified in AD 54.

After the assassination of Caligula, members of the imperial guard came across his uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain. They carried him off to their camp and made him an offer: to be their nominee as emperor. Obviously feeling that to be emperor was better than death, Claudius accepted and promised a special bonus in return, thus creating a precedent which future aspirants had to follow.

Member of the imperial guard

Member of the imperial guard. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

In the absence of any other obvious candidate, the senate confirmed the choice of the imperial guard. Claudius was then 50. He was a scholar, but had no experience of administration. He was lame, he had a tic, and he stammered. In history and in the accounts of ancient historians, he comes across as a mishmash of conflicting characteristics: absent-minded, hesitant, muddled, determined, cruel (by proxy), intuitive, wise, and dominated by his wife and his personal staff of freedmen. He was probably all of these. If his choice of women was disastrous, there are other instances of this failing on the part of public figures. And he may, with sound reasoning, have preferred the advice of educated and trained executives from abroad to that of potentially suspect aristocratic senators, even if some of those executives did use their influence to their own advantage. It was a thoroughly sound if not glittering rule, which lasted almost fourteen years; even if it did end in violence, at least it was by poison at the hands of his wife, not by the dagger of a political assassin.

Claudius revived the office of censor, which had fallen into disuse, and took on the job himself, introducing into the senate several chiefs from Gaul. He reorganized and rationalized the financial affairs of the state and empire, setting aside a separate fund for the emperor’s private and household expenses. Almost all grain had to be imported, mainly from Africa and Egypt. To encourage potential importers and to build up stocks against winter months and times of famine, he offered to insure them against losses on the open sea. To make unloading easier and to relieve congestion in the Tiber, he carried out a scheme originally proposed by Julius Caesar and constructed the new port of Ostia on the coast.

Merchant ships

Black-and-white mosaic of two merchant ships and lighthouse. (VRoma: Square of the Guilds, Ostia: Barbara McManus)

Claudius’s most far-reaching initiative led to the first successful full-scale invasion of Britain: a potentially hostile and possibly united nation just beyond the fringe of the existing empire presented a threat which could not be ignored. Besides, Claudius, for so long the butt of his family and peers, wanted a piece of military glory.

Celtic Britain

The principal tribes of Britain at this time. (From Antony Kamm, Scotland in Roman Times, Scottish Children’s Press 1998)

The force which sailed in AD 43 was a formidable one, even by Roman standards. Whether its leader, Aulus Plautius, had instructions to call on Claudius if he got into difficulties or simply to invite him over to preside at the kill is not clear. He did, however, get into difficulties. Though Togodumnus, son of Cunobellinus (Cymbeline), king of the Catuvellauni, whose capital was Colchester, had been killed, this acted as a spur to other tribes to unite in a determination to avenge his death.

In Rome preparations had already been made, including the mobilization of an elephant corps. Claudius handed over the administration of affairs to his consular colleague, and travelled overland, by river transport, and by sea to meet up with his troops, who were encamped by the river Thames. Assuming command, he took Colchester, and subdued many other tribes. He was in Britain just sixteen days. Plautius followed up the advantage gained, and was from AD 44 to 47 governor of this newest province in the empire. When Caratacus (brother of Togodumnus) was finally captured and brought to Rome in chains, Claudius pardoned him and his family.

Coin celebrating Claudius' conquest of Britain

Gold aureus of Claudius celebrating his British victory. The senate granted him the title of Britannicus and authorized him to celebrate a triumph. (Hunterian Museum)

Claudius was married four times; in spite of his physical disadvantages he was more successful in fathering children than any of his imperial predecessors. At his succession, he was into his third marriage, to Messalina, who three weeks later had a son. Eventually she was discovered too many times in flagrante delicto, and in AD 48, aged about 24, she was executed.


Head and upper body of life-sized statue of Messalina (c. AD 45), with her infant son, afterwards known as Britannicus, the title having been conferred on him by the senate at the same time as on his father. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Speculation was rife as to who would be the next imperial consort. It turned out to be Agrippina, Caligula’s sister and Claudius’s own niece, to marry whom he had first to have a law enacted to permit such a union. By a former marriage Agrippina had a teenage son, later known as Nero. She persuaded Claudius formally to adopt Nero, and to give Nero his daughter Octavia in marriage. Then she poisoned him.

Coin with Nero and his mother Agrippina

Gold aureus of AD 54, the first year of Nero’s reign, showing the new emperor and his mother. He later had her murdered. (Photo © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow )


Claudius. A touch of weakness in the face, perhaps, but no doubt about the intelligence. (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples: René Seindal)


Pen portrait of Claudius

“He was not short of either authority or dignity when he was standing up or sitting down, still less so when he reclined: he was tall but not lanky, and good-looking, with a fine crop of white hair and a well-set neck. But his knees were so weak that he staggered as he walked, and his habits were embarrassing whether he was indulging in domestic or business affairs. He had an indecent laugh, and when he was annoyed he foamed disgustingly at the mouth and his nose ran. He stammered, and his head twitched the whole time, but faster when he was actually engaged in the slightest activity. He was always ill, until he became emperor. Then his health improved marvellously, except for attacks of stomach-ache, which he said even made him think of suicide.” (Suetonius, Claudius 30, 31)

Believe it or not:

The Latin alphabet at this time consisted of 21 letters. Claudius invented three new letters which are found in inscriptions but did not enter common use.