Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Monarch Profile: Emperor Claudius
It is also true that if Claudius was less than perfect physically, there was certainly nothing wrong with him mentally (though one of the popular explanations for his symptoms is cerebral palsy). He was a very intelligent man, was very well read and (in another aspect that makes me partial to him) was a historian, writing histories of the Etruscans who preceded the Romans; as well as the greatest enemy the Roman Republic ever faced: the Carthaginians. He was also no less ambitious than the other members of his family but he was intelligent enough to know that power was not to be taken lightly and he appreciated the dangers that went along with it and even the pursuit of it. Some have attributed this to his witnessing of the rest of his family killing each other off in palace intrigues until Claudius was the only one left. However, this is easy to exaggerate and usually goes back to the story that the Empress Livia (aka Julia Augusta, Claudius’ grandmother) was a murderess who had half the imperial family poisoned. An entertaining story, but one with no facts to back it up. As far as we can tell most of those who died in the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius were simply the victims of time and chance and nothing more.
As most know, I am a big fan of Imperial Rome and an ardent defender of the original Julio-Claudian dynasty. For some, they have a bad reputation even to this day, but the facts rarely match the gossip that has become accepted “fact”. Augustus Caesar was a colossus and truly one of THE great men of history. Emperor Tiberius, while he did get a little nasty at the end, was a great soldier, a dutiful man and a capable ruler. Even Emperor Nero was not without his good points and while he, on the whole, deserves most of his bad reputation, a great deal has been exaggerated. Emperor Claudius we are just coming to, but then there is Caligula. With him there really is not much to say, the man was a horror. One day I may go into his story but for right now, suffice it to say that the end of the reign of Caligula was an extremely low point for the imperial monarchy. Not only was the Emperor murdered, his wife was murdered, his little daughter was murdered, his statues were smashed and his name was blotted out of the record books. His nearly four years in power were a nightmare that most wanted to forget. Claudius was by then 50-years old and was, supposedly, found hiding behind a curtain after this bloodbath and expected to be killed just like his nephew. However, a member of the Praetorian Guard found him and they hailed Claudius as Emperor of Rome.
To reassert imperial authority, Emperor Claudius first had the murderers of his nephew Caligula executed. Caligula had become an insane, perverted, sadistic nightmare on two legs, but he was an emperor and the law had to be upheld. Still, Claudius was astute enough to know that most viewed the assassination of his predecessor as a good thing and only those who had done the actual killing were put to death. To show that things would be different, Emperor Claudius destroyed his nephew’s stockpile of poisons, returned confiscated lands, burned the criminal records, repealed the laws which awarded the emperor the property of anyone convicted of treason and put an end to treason trials altogether. It was a smart as well as benevolent move to make. Because of what happened to his nephew, Emperor Claudius was also downright paranoid when it came to his personal security, but not without reason and when someone did act against him Claudius could be just as harsh as Tiberius had been.
It was really for the best as she was the greatest piece of “evidence” cited by those who believed that Emperor Claudius was a weak man who was ruled by his wife and his closest officials. This, however, is largely false and was likely “sour grapes” on the part of the traditional governing elite who were upset that Claudius filled high offices with freedmen (emancipated former slaves) who were often extremely intelligent and capable and whom he felt he could trust more than the usual power-hungry elite. It is also untrue that Emperor Claudius was some sort of republican at heart. He had no qualms about continuing the monarchy and, indeed, during his reign, further centralized power at the very top. He did, though, take a great interest in the justice system, often presiding over cases himself, and seeing that the government functioned smoothly. He is often criticized for his love of the games but in this he was no worse than any other average Roman of his time. His odd habits and paranoid behavior kept him from being as popular as he might have been but he gained a huge boost when his armies completed the conquest of Britain, the greatest expansion of Roman power since the imperial era began. He may have cut an odd figure at his triumph afterwards but all Romans took pride in the achievement.
After his death, Emperor Claudius was deified, the first emperor since Augustus to be so honored (not counting the self-deification of Caligula) and yet, despite being declared a god, one still has the impression that Emperor Claudius was not as appreciated as he should have been. He was a brilliant man, despite his disabilities, and for about thirteen years was a very capable emperor, a learned man and a man who took his duties and responsibilities seriously. He wrote his own autobiography (which has unfortunately been lost) and he took great care to ensure the survival of the Roman Empire and the imperial monarchy at a time of great crisis because he wanted peace and moderation to reign throughout the world. He wrote about caring for sick slaves and, of course, caused controversy by giving power to his freed slaves. His jokes may not have been funny and he may not have cut a fine figure but he was a good man, he kept order in Rome and the provinces, improved the infrastructure, left behind some magnificent buildings, expanded the empire by conquering Britain and the world was better off for his reign.