10 B.C.-A.D. 54
Emperor of Rome
Claudius was a most unlikely Roman emperor. Hindered by severe physical disabilities, and viewed with disdain by members of his large imperial* family, he held no position of responsibility in his youth or early adulthood. Yet his appearance belied his intelligence and political sharpness. He completed the conquest of Britain begun by Julius Caesar almost a century before and made Britain an imperial province*. At home, he actively dispensed justice. Claudius was a moderate ruler, especially when compared to the cruel and vain Nero, who succeeded him.
Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus was born in Gaul, in the area that is now the French city of Lyons. He was the youngest child of the military hero Drusus and Antonia, the daughter of Marcus Antonius. His grandfather was the emperor Augustus and his uncle was Tiberius. Claudius’s physical symptoms—a speech defect, a limp, and a tremor—might have been the result of cerebral palsy. In his own time, however, Claudius was regarded as simpleminded and was, therefore, kept out of the public eye. He led a quiet, scholarly life, writing accounts of Augustus’s reign as well as histories of Etruria and Carthage. When the emperor Caligula was murdered in A.D. 41, he left no direct heirs. The only surviving adult male of the family was Caligula’s uncle, Claudius. The Praetorian Guard* quickly declared the reluctant Claudius emperor even as the Senate was discussing the restoration of the republic.
As emperor, Claudius surprised many people. Despite his lack of experience, he personally took part in the invasion of Britain in A.D. 43 and thus strengthened an already solid bond with the military. Living conditions and chances for promotion improved for the soldiers in Claudius’s army. At home, he upgraded the harbors and drained the marshes. He urged senators to pay greater attention to their duties, but made little attempt to rule with their advice. He instituted new laws and made efforts to carry out existing laws. He was concerned about inheritance and property rights, sedition (treason), and the rights of slaves, women, and minors. He also spoke out for the admission of Gauls to the Senate and the extension of citizenship to conquered peoples. The civil service was improved through Claudius’s establishment of departments for the handling of government business, and freedmen were put in charge of the administration of the government.
Claudius was married four times. Two of his later wives, Messalina and Agrippina, were politically powerful and schemed for more power within the imperial household. Claudius’s death in A.D. 54 may have been the result of poisoning by Agrippina. Her son (and Claudius’s stepson), Nero, inherited the throne. (See also Armies, Roman; Government, Roman; Rome, History of.)
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* Praetorian Guard elite and politically influential corps that served as the emperor's bodyguard