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Emperor Claudius: 12 Facts About An Unlikely Hero

Driven into isolation in his youth, Emperor Claudius was an academic who came to politics later in life. A fair and competent leader, he expanded the Empire and successfully led the famous conquest of Britain.

Portrait of Emperor Claudius, 54-68 AD, Seattle Art Museum and Roman Onyx Cameo Portrait of Emperor Claudius, 41-54 AD, Christie’s
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Portrait of Emperor Claudius, 54-68 AD, Seattle Art Museum and Roman Onyx Cameo Portrait of Emperor Claudius, 41-54 AD, Christie’s

 

Fourth Emperor of Ancient Rome from (r. 41 AD – 54 AD), Emperor Claudius was the most unlikely leader the Empire had ever encountered. Born with a series of disabilities, his family kept him hidden away, convincing him he would never become Emperor. But when his young nephew Caligula’s wasteful, ruinous reign was cut unexpectedly short, Claudius was next in line for the throne. Taking to the role with surprising aptitude, he astonished everyone by successfully restoring Rome to its former glory days, and will be forever remembered for his heroic bravery in leading the conquest of Britain.

1. When He Was Young, Emperor Claudius Was Ridiculed By His Family

Nephew to Emperor Tiberius and grandson of Mark Antony, Claudius was born with a number of physical ailments which included tremors, a limp, a runny nose and frothing at the mouth, which historians now think might have been a form of Cerebral Palsy. Labeling him weak and embarrassing, his family kept him away from the public eye, and did all they could to stop him taking the throne. Tampering with official documents, they pushed his name far down the line of succession, and actively discouraged him from training in politics. His cruel nephew, Caligula, was even said to have ridiculed him at parties, encouraging guests to throw olive and date stones at him. 

 

Cuirass Bust of Emperor Caligula, Rome 37-41 AD, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
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Cuirass Bust of Emperor Caligula, Rome 37-41 AD, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

 

2. He Was An Accomplished Historian

When he was denied access to a political career, Claudius immersed himself in books for long hours. His intellect greatly impressed the historian Livy, who suggested he become a writer. He went on to produce a whole series of books on Roman history. He wrote about the Etruscans, the Roman Alphabet and the history of the Roman Republic so far. His great knowledge of history and government made him an excellent leader when the time finally came.

 

3. Caligula Helped Claudius Move Into Politics

Unusually, Claudius’ arrogant nephew Caligula drew him into politics. In one of the few decent decisions he ever made, the young and inexperienced Caligula saw in the 46-year-old Claudius a wise mentor, and appointed him as a co-consul. Following the brutal assassination of Caligula by the Praetorian Guard, Claudius was found quivering behind a curtain by the Praetorian Guard, and they immediately proclaimed him the new Emperor, at the age of 50.

 

4. Claudius Bribed The Praetorian Guard

Roman marble relief of the Praetorian Guard in full uniform, The Louvre 
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Roman marble relief of the Praetorian Guard in full uniform, The Louvre

 

After witnessing the Praetorian Guard’s uprising against Caligula, Claudius recognized the power they truly had over Rome. To keep his position as Rome’s ruler safe, he bought favor from the Praetorian Guard, giving each member an additional 15,000-sesterce donation in return for their loyalty. 

 

5. Miraculously, Claudius Recovered From His Disabilities

Many of Caligula’s physical disabilities seemed to improve or even vanish following his rise to power. Claudius even later claimed some of his symptoms were faked. Some historians also suggest Claudius may have helped plan Caligula’s death, suggesting his rise to power might have been planned after all.

 

6. The Conquest of Britain Was His Greatest Legacy

Map showing the stages of the Romans conquest of Britain
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Map showing the stages of the Romans conquest of Britain

 

Claudius successfully led one of the most important military invasions of the 1st century: the conquest of Britain. He dispatched 40,000 troops and a series of war elephants across the English Channel, and eventually overthrew the Catuvellauni tribal leader Caratacus. Following his triumphant return, he was praised as the man who “brought barbarian peoples beyond the Ocean for the first time under Rome’s way.” On his return from England following the conquest of Britain, the emperor was honored with a triumphal arch on the Via Flaminia, which was called The Arch of Claudius. Although it is now lost, the inscription for the arch is held at the Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy. 

 

Claudius and his wife Agrippina from a wall relief in the Sebasteion, source: Cambridge, image via Egisto Sani
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Claudius and his wife Agrippina from a wall relief in the Sebasteion, University of Oxford, via Egisto Sani

 

A series of relief panels celebrating Claudius’ victory were also carved into the huge Julio-Claudian Sebasteion Temple. In one panel, Claudius was portrayed as a naked warrior striking a death blow to the female figure, who represents Britannia. Another important surviving document from the conquest is the Cippus of the pomerium of Emperor Claudius, celebrating the expansion of the Roman Empire, held in the Vatican Museum.

 

7. Claudius Expanded The Roman Empire

As well as leading the conquest of Britain, Claudius also expanded the Roman Empire into Lycia, Thrace, Judea, Noricum, Pamphylia and Mauretania. In fact, when a census was carried out at the end of his reign, it proved Rome had gained more than 1 million citizens since the time of Augustus. 

 

8. He Once Fought A Killer Whale

Drawing of the battle Claudius staged with an orca, or killer whale in the harbour of Ostia, by artist Jan van der Straet, 1590, courtesy CooperHewitt-Smithsonian
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Drawing of the battle Claudius staged with an orca, or killer whale in the harbour of Ostia, by artist Jan van der Straet, 1590, courtesy CooperHewitt-Smithsonian

When a killer whale became trapped in the harbor of Ostia, legend has it that Claudius set up a show for the Roman people, engaging his army in a bloody battle with the beast to demonstrate their awesome power.

 

9. He Was Married Unsuccessfully Four Times

Statue of Valeria Messalina, holding Britannicus, her son with Claudius, courtesy Louvre
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Statue of Valeria Messalina, holding Britannicus, her son with Claudius, courtesy Louvre

 

Claudius had four different wives, but none of his marriages worked out well. His first and second marriages, to Plautia Urgulanilla and Aelia Patina, both ended in divorce. Valeria Messalina, his third wife, was notorious across Ancient Rome for her scandalous affairs, and she even embroiled herself in murder plots. After arranging a mock-marriage with her lover, the consul designated Gaius. The emperor feared they were planning to seize power and had them both executed. In his fourth wife, Agrippina, Claudius met his match. Sometimes referred to as “the mother of Rome,” she was a dangerous, beguiling beauty, with a sharp tongue and a quick temper. She had grand aspirations for her son, Nero, manipulating Claudius to place him as heir to the throne over his own son.

 

Marble bust of Agrippina (Minor), fourth wife to Claudius, Landesmuseum Württemberg
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Marble bust of Agrippina (Minor), fourth wife to Claudius, Landesmuseum Württemberg

 

10. He Died Under Suspicious Circumstances

In 54 A.D., when he was 63 years old, Claudius mysteriously died of unknown circumstances just after eating a plate of mushrooms. Many sources say Agrippina was to blame, accusing her of feeding him poisoned food. Some say she became increasingly worried when Claudius began questioning his decision about making her son Nero next in line to the throne, so dispatched of him before he could change his mind.

 

11. The Extraordinary Life of Claudius Was Immortalized

I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, 1934
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I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, 1934

 

The extraordinary life of the emperor was immortalized in the novel I, Claudius by Robert Graves in 1934. It was adapted into a BBC television series in 1976, starring the British actor Derek Jacobi as Claudius and John Hurt as the deranged Caligula. Tracking the history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Graves’ novel is a largely fictionalized story, but it has done much to promote the fantastical tales surrounding the life of Emperor Claudius.’

 

12. Emperor Claudius’ Legacy Was Ruined By His Step-son Nero

Emperor Claudius (left) and Emperor Nero (right), Marble busts of father and son
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Emperor Claudius (left) and Emperor Nero (right), Marble busts of father and son

 

Sadly, Claudius’ successor and son Nero was shallow and narcissistic, unraveling much of his step-father’s hard won achievements.

 


Rosie Lesso
About the Author

Rosie Lesso

Rosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organisations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.


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