Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Monarch Profile: Emperor Claudius

Amongst all the emperors of Rome, Claudius has a very unique story; the malformed fool who became the ruler of the world, so it is no wonder that he has been the subject of a great deal of literature and even his own television series (which is quite good despite being littered with historical inaccuracies). Claudius was only the fourth Roman emperor and the first to be born outside of Italy. He was born Tiberius Claudius Drusus on August 1, 10 BC in Lugdunum or what is now Lyons, France. His father was Drusus, the son of Livia Drusilla by her first husband, with whom she was already pregnant when she married the Emperor Augustus. Likewise, on his maternal side, he had illustrious ancestry as well, his mother Antonia being the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, the sister of Caesar Augustus. Yet, despite this lofty lineage, Claudius was a disappointment from the very beginning -even his mother was not terribly fond of him. When he was simply sitting still one might not notice anything wrong with him but when he moved it became very noticeable that something was not quite right and his disabilities would mark him as the object of shame and ridicule for most of his life.

What exactly was wrong with Claudius? We have descriptions but can only speculate as to the underlying cause. In fact, given what a competent emperor he eventually became, some have suggested there was never much wrong with him at all and that he was simply very adept at ‘playing the fool’ in order to survive. That is a tempting idea but it is beyond the realm of probability that he could have kept up such an act for so long from the very beginning of his life. Claudius was a mess to look at. He walked not so much with a limp (as often described) but an overall uneven balance, jerking his limbs and lurching back and forth. He had a very pronounced speech impediment, tended to drool at times, always seemed to have a runny nose and, according to some, was also hard of hearing and prone to twitch. All of this tended to put people off as did his habit of telling odd jokes that no one but him seemed to understand or find amusing. Still, the image some have of Claudius as the locked away, shy, disabled innocent is totally incorrect. The family were embarrassed by him and did not like to appear in public with him, but Claudius was no introvert. As he got older he enjoyed drinking, gambling and womanizing as much as any other privileged Roman youth.

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.

All that being said, it certainly helped Claudius remain unscathed that most viewed him as a simple-minded fool who was no threat to anyone. Rather than a possible contender for the purple, he more often seemed to be viewed as a victim for ridicule and jokes. He had kept fairly distant from actual politics until being named consul by his nephew Gaius, aka the Emperor Caligula. He was more than up to the job but we may never know if he was appointed consul because of his intellect or as some sort of joke along the lines of Caligula famously appointing his horse to high office. Whatever the case, it was fortunate for all that Claudius survived to become Emperor of Rome and that his boat was not swamped in the tidal wave that brought down his nephew.

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.

The downfall of Caligula had been seized upon by the senate as an opportunity to take back power and restore the republic. They hoped that the urban cohorts would back them but the Praetorian Guard had already declared Claudius the new emperor (again, some suggest as a joke to highlight their own power) and Emperor Claudius solidified their allegiance with a generous bribe. When the urban cohorts defected to Claudius and the monarchist camp it was clear that the senate had been checked and republican rule would not be returning. In this, Claudius has often been portrayed as a hapless pawn but that is certainly not true. He knew what he was doing and worked quickly and cleverly to secure his newfound position. Despite what some romantics may think, a return to the republic would not have been good for anyone. True, there had been plenty of intrigue and bloodshed since the beginning of the reign of the Caesars but this was almost exclusively within the imperial family and household. Under the republic, the same had gone on but on a far wider scale, involving coalitions of senators and generals with their own armies, devastating the Roman world from end to end. For Rome, the empire meant peace and stability.

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.

Perhaps the biggest problem Claudius had was his wife, the infamous Messalina. She soon became notorious for both arranging the murder of those who displeased her as well as immense amounts of adultery. As usual, malicious writers were quick to embellish Messalina to epically wicked proportions with stories of her as a murderous nymphomaniac, poisoning or framing for some capital offense those who would not share her bed, of her organizing wild orgies and even working at a brothel under an assumed name. It remains something of a mystery how all of this went on (though the more lurid tales are probably fabrications) without Emperor Claudius taking action. They say the husband is the last to know, but surely someone so paranoid about plots and intrigue would have had some clue. Was he aware but willingly ignorant or was he perhaps so enamored of his beautiful young wife that he refused to believe the evidence in front of him? Whatever the case, Messalina became ever more brazen in her behavior until she finally went too far and actually married one of her lovers while the emperor was away. Claudius thought it a plot to overthrow him but, if it was, it came to nothing. He was rushed to the Praetorian Guard camp and Messalina and her lover were promptly executed, though unlike her accomplice, the empress was not allowed to see her husband for fear that she might melt his resolve and convince him to spare her life.

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.

Emperor Claudius also sought to bring the provinces of the Roman Empire outside Italy closer together and he was unusually generous in granting citizenship and appointed non-Romans to the senate (something extremely rare but not unprecedented as Julius Caesar had done the same). Unfortunately, women continued to be a problem for him. After the heartbreak and betrayal he felt over Messalina, Claudius had no desire to marry again but he was finally persuaded to accept his niece Agrippina (the younger sister of Emperor Caligula) as his wife. For Claudius, this proved a big mistake. Gossip soon began to circulate that Agrippina was simply Messalina “part two”. Her schemes, however, were mostly devoted to securing the succession of her son from a previous marriage over that of Britannicus, the son of Claudius and Messalina. She was ultimately successful and her son, by then known as Nero, was given the title “Prince of Youth” and married to Claudius’ daughter Octavia. With that done, Agrippina arranged for Emperor Claudius to be poisoned and he died on the night of October 13/14 54 AD. He was succeeded by his step-son, Emperor Nero, just as Agrippina had planned though she might have regretted her efforts before it was all over.

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.

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