Claudius had more than one reason for keeping out of the way when he heard that his nephew, the Emperor Caligula, had been assassinated, just after one o’clock on 24 January AD 41.

He had left the Games to go to lunch, before Caligula, with two senators who may or may not have been in the plot, and would have heard the rumpus below. If he had been complicit – and historians still disagree – Claudius might have been in danger from the Emperor’s enraged German bodyguard, if not, from the assassins, young nobs with no clear plan, save that the death of an Emperor was always, in the patrician mind, an opportunity to restore the Republic. So Claudius, who never pretended to be a hero, hid himself, but not very successfully. Maybe the Praetorian who spotted an expensive pair of sandals peeping from behind a curtain and discovered him – crying, ‘I have found a Germanicus!’ – did not have to search too hard. This officer, one Gratus, was a member of an élite, whose high pay and perquisites would be at risk were there not an Emperor in Rome, so he held on to this gibbering middle-aged man, comforted him, saluted him imperator and ordered a litter to convey him to the safety of the Praetorian barracks about three kilometres away.

There Claudius stayed, a ‘captive’ he said, but willing to be drafted, using a technique described by his most recent biographer as ‘disreputable, essentially infantile, but useful and adopted by others – by Henry II [of England for the murder of Beckett] and Elizabeth I [for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots] against internal threats (1170 and 1587) and by Reagan in the USA against Iran and Nicaragua – which consisted of allowing others to act or engineering them into it, while the principle remains “ignorant” of what is going on. Thus servants or subordinates have to take responsibility, eschewing the defence of superior orders.’ This process, which sounds so complicated, was invoked by Claudius, considered so simple-minded, in a matter of hours to make himself Emperor. However it happened, and the main authorities have different versions – to Suetonius he remains an idiot, to Josephus, inept and manipulated by that great family friend, Herod Agrippa (who had buried Caligula in a shallow grave) – it did happen, and forty-eight hours after he had been taken off to the barracks, the same Praetorians escorted him to the Palatine Hill, where he was invested with all the powers accorded to his predecessors.

The night of the assassination, chatting in the mess over a jar or two – if Claudius remained sober, it was the only night of his life, including his last, that he had – Claudius had promised a donative of 15,000 to 20,000 sesterces per guardsman and pro-rata for the officers. This enormous and unpredecented sum riveted the Praetorian Guard to his side. Each needed the other, the Praetorians had to have an Emperor and though Claudius was not the natural heir of Caligula, if anyone cared, he was the nephew of Germanicus and so linked to the founder, Augustus, for which connection many Romans did care. This gave him a lineal edge on his rivals: M. Vinicius, Caligula’s brother-in-law; V. Asiaticus, a rich man from Vienne near Lyons, of whom more will be heard; and Galba, in command of the legions in the Upper Rhine, who heard too late about the death of Caligula to make a move. From the barracks, therefore, Claudius had been able to send a message to the Senate, ‘that he had not sought power but he would not renege on an offer he had accepted, that he of all people understood the dangers of tyranny, that his rule would be just and allow room for all in his administration if he were accepted, vengeful if he were not’. The Senate had collapsed. Claudius knew his history – had he not written forty books about Rome? – he knew that force, sharply applied, was the best weapon in politics.

So, in his fifties, Claudius entered on what few could have thought ever would be his inheritance. He had always been the runt of the family; historians used to attribute his feebleness to polio but now cerebral palsy, coupled with slight spasticity, is thought to be the cause of his symptoms, which were a dragging right leg, a cracked raucous voice and, when excited, a running nose and an uncontrollable laugh. His hands shook slightly and he occasionally stuttered, the result perhaps, as with the late George VI, of a stupid nurse having bound his left hand, the one he preferred to use, behind his back. He performed better when seated, and since he stopped suffering from stomach cramps after his accession, part of his trouble must have been psychosomatic.

Awareness of his condition came to Rome with his coming of age, the assumption of the toga virilis at fourteen, before which a young Roman did not really count. In the case of a prince of the imperial house this ceremony was an occasion for a public party, as if, as it were, a prince of the House of Windsor were to be bar-mitzvahed in Trafalgar Square.43 (The wretched young Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus was given his toga virilis in the dead of night, muffled in a blanket, so apprehensive were the family of his public appearance.)

Concern or compassion for the disabled is a modern phenomenon. The Romans, sensitive to physical beauty and outward perfection, showed only distaste for the ‘ill-met knight’, which was all at first Claudius ever became. His mother referred to him as a ‘monstrosity of a human being, one that Nature began and never finished’. Seneca, particularly, sneered. His grandmother Livia could not bear to look him in the face. His great-uncle Augustus was more circumspect and Suetonius quotes three letters between them about how to deal with Claudius and his problem. In the first, Augustus worries whether he is in full possession of his faculties and if he might make a fool of himself (and the family) if allowed into the imperial box at the Games; in the second he says he will ask young Tiberius Claudius to dine every afternoon rather than leave him to his tutors all the time, and in the third he is amazed that he can speak so well in public. Nevertheless Augustus gave him no serious position and no serious money, naming him in his will ‘an heir of the third degree’. During his years in the shadows Claudius endured social and political frustration, aggravated by poverty and illness. Though hailed cheerfully by the crowd at the Games, as a Germanicus, he was mocked and snubbed by his equals, who amused themselves by throwing date and olive stones at him at Caligula’s dinner parties, even when he shared a consulship with their host, and when he fell asleep they put slippers on his hands, so that he rubbed his eyes with them when he woke up. He was made a member of two down-market priesthoods and once picked up a perquisite of forty gold coins, which the family considered quite enough. Twice Tiberius refused his request for a minor magistracy but did leave him a small interest in his will.

Claudius spent his time scribbling at his histories; for recreation he pursued women and indulged in a lot of food, wine and gambling, convinced he could beat the system. (He wrote a book about that too.) Like Caesar and Caligula, Claudius was married four times; first to one Plautia Urgulanilla, by whom he had two children. He divorced her in AD 24 for adultery and, unbelievably, suspicion of murder. Then there was a non-starter who died on her wedding day but whose brother emerged later as a minor conspirator against him. Next was Aelia Paetina, relation of Sejanus, the favourite of Tiberius, and obviously selected by him. He was not important enough to have played any part in the downfall of his wife’s relative and simply kept his head down, pretending to be, as he explained to the Senate, during the reign of Caligula, a fool. Once Emperor, he became successively the sexual target of the two most notorious women in Roman history, Messalina and Agrippina. Alone of the five rulers in this book, not the faintest whiff of homosexuality attaches to his name.44

Of all the Emperors so far, Claudius was the most insecure. Augustus, who invented the role, accumulated the necessary powers but his titles, ‘Augustus’ and ‘Father of the Country’, had been voted to him and were expressions of his popularity, constantly renewed. Tiberius had been designated by Augustus, Caligula was nothing if not of the imperial blood, but Claudius was almost an alien, a usurper inducted by a massively bribed Praetorian Guard, which he paid with gold coins, struck again and again, one depicting him shaking hands with a guardsman and another with the barracks as a background. Nevertheless Claudius has been called by modern historians the ‘first Roman Emperor’ because for the first time the public and private personae of the princeps were fused into one man – an Emperor. Tiberius referred to himself as: ‘master of his slaves, imperator of the armies and princeps among senators’ and observed these distinctions. In the reigns of Caligula and Claudius their power increased, and, worse, was increasingly unquestioned. ‘The Conscript Fathers’, the senators, guardians of governmental propriety, had become obsequious, terrified and, because they had less and less to do, bored. The manner of the accession of Caligula and Claudius had demonstrated that only the supreme post in Rome had to be filled. Any autocrat prefers his own creatures to do his bidding, so Emperors chose their own men, not their equals, for positions of authority. A freedman was – this was the rule – dependent, therefore dependable, unlike knights and senators who might consider themselves, in their hearts, as competent as an Emperor to rule.

At first a champion of the equestrian order, to which he had for so long belonged, Claudius quickly became alienated from them and, suspecting their ambitions, connived at or engineered their executions. He was the paradigm of a man ‘willing to wound and yet afraid to strike’ – or to do the striking himself. His final tot was chilling – thirty-five senators and 321 knights. He was abetted in this grisly exercise in self-defence by his third wife, who started as a well-connected nymphet of fifteen and galloped into becoming a bloodthirsty, power-crazy nymphomaniac, who finally had to be put down.

Messalina married Claudius in AD 39, when he was fifty. She was the great-great-granddaughter of Augustus’ sister, the patient Octavia, and also his first cousin once removed. Her mission in her (short) life was to ensure that her son, born Tiberius Claudius Caesar Germanicus, later Britannicus, should become Emperor. She had a good chance. Coins were struck at his birth with the legend spes augusta – the hope of the dynasty – but because her husband might not survive for her child’s majority, she had to eliminate the opposition; so she embarked on a policy of murder. Her first victim was Julia Livilla, exiled sister of Caligula, married to M. Vinicius, a candidate for the principate (so why not again?). She then pursued another Julia, daughter of Tiberius’ son Drusus (poisoned by Sejanus), a blameless lady who nevertheless was guilty of having a son and was therefore a contender. She was accused by Messalina of immorality (!). Then she destroyed a prefect of the guard who was about to report her sexual goings-on to Claudius and at the same time created a vacancy for one of her favourites.

Because of her husband’s doubtful title to the throne, many were the claimants to Messalina’s vengeful and often lethal attention, not just from the family but from the descendants of the famous names of the Republic, like Sulla, Pompey and Crassus, who, precisely because they were not related, imagined they could offer Rome a fresh start. At first Claudius tried to conciliate them with high office but over the years these high-born grandees were destroyed, usually through the indirect technique at which Claudius became so adept and his wife so co-operative.

No conspiracy can have been so unreal, bizarre and revealing of this infernal couple as that of Appius Silanus. One night, Claudius revealed to the Senate, his freedman Narcissus burst into his bedroom and announced he had just had a dream in which Silanus had decided to assassinate him. The distinguished nobleman, summoned to the palace in the early hours, admitted his intentions and had been duly executed. Claudius presented Narcissus’ dream as cut-and-dried evidence of a plot. It was said that Messalina was piqued because Silanus had refused her sexual advances and had put up Narcissus to this murderous farce. The episode shows the easy access of private, and therefore now public, servants to the Emperor, and that the closer they were to the royal person, like the grooms of the bedchamber of Henry VIII or Louis XIV, the greater their influence. The secret and unjustifiable execution of Silanus provoked a revolt by the Governor of Dalmatia, put down in five days but giving Messalina the opportunity of her most notorious killing, of the husband of her best friend in childhood, who had been an associate of Silanus, with the words: ‘It doesn’t hurt, Paetus.’ Getting rid of her stepson-in-law, who had married Claudius’ daughter and was therefore a possible rival, was no problem. He was killed, in flagrante delicto with a male lover.

Messalina’s most ambitious coup was to engineer the death of Valerius Asiaticus, the rich and bumptious Gaul45 who had married into the Roman patriciate and considered himself to be imperial material. His wife had had an affair with Caligula and her sister, famous for her emeralds, had briefly married him. Asiaticus was quite a figure in Rome; his family had entertained every important Roman touring Gaul over the years, including the Emperor’s mother, which may be why Claudius was reluctant to execute him. But Messalina was implacable. Asiaticus owned the gardens of Lucullus, the successful general and stylish gourmet, and she coveted them. Asiaticus was brought to the palace in chains and charged with homosexuality, a charge invoked in the absence of any other. Claudius had a mind to acquit, so a compromise was reached. Asiaticus was allowed to choose the manner of his death.

The prefect who arrested him was given one and a half million sesterces and made up to praetor. Again, the trial had been intra cubiculum, behind closed doors in the privacy of the palace, and the victim was not just a wealthy Gaul who was disliked for his extravagance – he spent too much on Games – but the son-in-law of a powerful family, one of whose members was found at a morning levee with a sword hidden in his toga. Under torture, which Claudius had once forsworn, he revealed nothing, but his attempt showed the extent of the alienation of Rome’s upper classes. Messalina’s downfall, according to Tacitus, was due to her own madness – furor. She fell in love – she was only in her early twenties – with a handsome young consul-designate, Silius, swamped him with presents, and ‘married’ him at the vendange of AD 48 in a bacchic ceremony. All Rome knew and Narcissus and his clique of freedmen decided that so should the Emperor, both out of loyalty and because they thought Messalina capable of setting up her lover asprinceps, and replacing them.

The idea of such a coup might have entered her pretty head on noticing the popular favour shown to Agrippina, Caligula’s surviving sister, and her charming ten-year-old son, at the Trojan Games of AD 47. Since the already socially dextrous lad became the Emperor Nero, she may have had a point, but it was not one she lived to make. For once, Claudius reacted directly and fast. He saw the danger to his dignitas – we would say credibility – in his wife’s repudiation of himself and, since there were few officials in Rome he could trust to arrest her, he rushed up from Ostia and conferred with Narcissus, who took command of the Praetorian Guard for one day. With him, Vitellius and a consular who was a good friend of the Germanicus family, he proceeded to the house of Silius when Messalina intercepted their carriage. She played her ace – the children. Claudius trumped it with a list of her lovers.46 The carriage rolled on. Then it was stopped by the senior Vestal Virgin, demanding, as Rome’s leading feminist, a hearing for the Empress. Narcissus pushed her away with promises. The party checked out Silius’ house, was astohished by the number of imperial heirlooms Messalina had given her lover, and drove to the Praetorian barracks, Claudius’ ultimate ‘safe house’, where a drumhead court martial was convened. Silius was brought in and asked only for a speedy death. Messalina was found in the gardens of Lucullus and stabbed to death.

Claudius, for some reason, had told the Praetorians that they should kill him if he married again, but the execution of an Empress created a vacancy in the state which had to be filled. Factions at court fought for their candidates. Narcissus proposed Aelia Paetina, who was harmless and had once before been married to Claudius; Callistus suggested Lollia Paullina, very rich and briefly one of Caligula’s wives; but the favourite, and the choice of Pallas, the rising star among the Emperor’s freedmen, was Agrippina, daughter of the fondly remembered Germanicus and Vipsania, the beloved wife of Tiberius. That she was Claudius’ niece by blood, the daughter of his brother, was a modest drawback compared to the number of brownie points a shaky Emperor could pick from such a splendid connection. Claudius’ friend Vitellius assured him the choice would be welcomed by the people and canvassed his fellow senators, who removed the inhibition and recommended the match. The marriage, took place on 1 January AD 49. Claudius had been a widower for three months.

Agrippina was thirty-three, more adroit politically than Messalina and equally ruthless and determined that her son should succeed as Emperor. She moved fast. Claudius agreed that her ten-year-old Nero should be co-heir with his own son of seven, Britannicus; there were predecents. She wanted to marry her son to Octavia, Britannicus’ sister, his cousin; there were predecents here, too. She detached Octavia from her betrothed by accusing him of incest. She had Seneca recalled from exile and made him Nero’s tutor. She procured for herself the title of Augusta. All this within one year. By AD 51 Agrippina appeared to be wearing the trousers, as it were, at the palace – actually it was a military cloak, threaded with gold, in which she greeted ambassadors. Her face appeared on coins and, since she successfully advanced her own son at the expense of Britannicus, she was, as the mother of the future Emperor, the most powerful woman Rome had ever known.

In the power games at court, played with such ferocity by his women, against whom he railed quietly as he grew older, Claudius appeared to be something of a patsy, but in the areas of justice (where he was often eccentric), finance, legislation and administration of his Empire, Claudius was conscientious, efficient, innovative and powerful. He was an intelligent man who had studied Roman history and, when his own survival was not in question, he was just, tactful and considerate. His reforms were unpopular with his own class because he preferred procurators, his own people, to prefects, the Senate’s. His contribution to the streamlining of the imperial administration was not recognized until well after his death, though he was promptly deified. Because of his ailments he was interested in medicine and prone to give his subjects much homely advice, extolling the benefits, for instance, of farting. His almost daily attendance at court was deplored by the legal profession because his judgements were capricious, emotional and inconsistent. Once an exasperated advocate threw a briefcase at him. He did not mind. Then a superstitious orator, a knight from Gaul, let fall from his toga a snake’s egg, a Druidic good luck token. Claudius, terrified that the magic might affect him, waved him away to be executed. He panicked easily but his decisions were always sound if there was time for consideration.

Juvenal invented the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ as the basic needs of the Roman populace, but it also expected public works from its rulers. Cicero distinguished between the useful and the decorative, the docks, aqueducts and walls, and the theatres, colonnades and temples (preferred, of course, by Caligula). Claudius obliged in the useful categories and added another of his own – maintenance – the sine qua non of civilization.

He turned Ostia, where he was working when the Messalina scandal broke, into a grain port with a lighthouse and a flood barrage. His most macro-economic project, still unfinished after eleven years and 30,000 navvies, was the draining of the Fucine Lake to recover farmland eighty-five kilometres from Rome. Like the Mahaveli Dam in Sri Lanka47 it was not a total success. He had trouble finding (doomed) players for the sea battle he wanted to stage, and the sluice gates the spectacle was designed to celebrate failed to sluice. Claudius repaired the aqueduct of Agrippa, which still supplies the fountain of the Trevi, and built two aqueducts, one eighty-seven kilometres long.

He strove with these public works to become, early in his reign (and remain), a ‘populist’ Emperor. He practised ‘walkabouts’ and picnicked with the plebs; as we have seen, he told them how to make vintage wine (a Roman skill which disappeared from Europe till the early eighteenth century) but he had not yet attempted the traditional imperial role, that of conqueror, and Rome was surprised when their fifty-three-year-old Emperor, a scholar with a dragging foot, a trembling hand and a wobbly tongue, decided to go to war.

Ignoring the advice, respected by Tiberius, of the dying Augustus, that the frontiers of the Empire should not be extended, Claudius decided to invade Britain. The south-east of England was no longer the foreign country it was for Julius Caesar 100 years before. Gaul, successfully Romanized (witness Asiaticus) had stronger tribal links with England than it has now. The Catuvellauni round Herts were Belgic as were the Atrebates in Berks and Hants, centred on Silchester, founded by Caesar’s once favourite Gaul, Commius. These tribes had a king, Cunobelinus (Cymbeline), who paid tribute to Rome, but when he died his sons did not, and one of them attacked a Roman ally who fled to Claudius for help. This was the excuse.

Four legions, from the Rhine and Pannonia, were assembled, topped up with auxiliaries and stiffened with a cohort from the Praetorian Guard. To impress the barbarians a few elephants were added to this force of 40,000 men which nevertheless, giving the usual reasons (vide Caligula), refused to embark. (Roman troops, we must remind ourselves, had to be convinced, as well as inspired, to go into action.) Claudius summoned Narcissus, the first freedman to address an army, who made them laugh, making unnecessary the exemplary executions planned by the generals.

Within a month, with Plautius as Commander-in-Chief, they had landed at Richborough and, after some fierce fighting in the Medway, had captured London and were able to send for Claudius, waiting in Boulogne. The Emperor, accompanied by a glittering entourage of powerful patricians he thought unsafe to leave in Rome – the Frugi, Silanus, Asiaticus and Vinicius, who all later became victims of Messalina – crossed the Channel and headed for Camulod-unum, where he held a sort of ‘durbar’. There he received the submission of the local chiefs (including a queen, Cartimandua, who controlled twelve tribes in the north). It was a long time before the inhabitants of Colchester saw another elephant.

Claudius only spent sixteen days in Britain, but he had been away from Rome, where the trusty Vitellius had been keeping watch, for five months and was determined on his return that the Roman world should know of his success. It did. Plautius was given a (rare) Triumph and in every city and town of the Empire peasants coming to market would see some sort of representation of Britannia, who became the symbol of that hitherto remote and unknown island. A marble relief has been recently discovered in Aphrodisias showing Claudius subduing her, and coins were struck with his new cognomen, ‘Britannicus’. As Barbara Levick writes: ‘The impact of the conquest throughout the Empire was considerable . . . a stroke of elegance and power for a new and underestimated Emperor, and its effects on the minds of his subjects, as its fame washed through the Empire and rippled even into its remotest provinces, incalculable.’

In fact the victory was celebrated ahead of the conquest, because that required the military talent of Vespasian, who had particular difficulty in netting Caratacus (finally betrayed by his fellow monarch, the queen in the north). Claudius kept Caratacus for another celebration of the conquest of Britain in Rome in AD 51 when he made a splendid speech which earned him and Claudius, who pardoned him, much applause and which Tacitus records: ‘Had my lineage and rank been accompanied by only moderate success, I should have come to this city as a friend rather than as a prisoner . . . As it is, humiliation is my lot, glory yours. I had horses, men, arms, wealth. Are you surprised I am sorry to lose them? If you want to rule the world does it follow that everyone welcomes enslavement?’ Caratacus was as famous an enemy to the Romans as Vercingetorix, and just as eloquent, but thanks to Claudius he kept his life.

Claudius declared St Albans the capital of the new province – a province that later became a place to retire to, because of the low land-values and the amiability of the local servants. The Romans built roads – stretches of Watling Street and Ermine Street still survive – and thus enabled King Harold, 1,000 years later, to make his dash from Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire to Hastings. The Romans mined lead in the Mendips and later pearls, hunting dogs were exported, and 40,000 British prisoners-of-war were used to build the network of roads in Gaul, but finally the cost of monitoring the island was greater than the benefit to the Empire. Nero even considered withdrawal.

A Roman Emperor, like a President of the United States, was both commander-in-chief of the armies and in charge of foreign policy. Apart from the British expedition, Claudius did not visit his Empire, preferring to pad around Italy, but he was a passionate builder of roads (notably the 525-kilometre route over the Brenner Pass), and his vision of himself as ruler and pacifier of a world he wanted to be Roman – everyone should wear a toga, he said – was near to the truth.

He was less successful on the home front. Agrippina now had Nero’s aunt, Domitia Lepida, in her sights. Once beautiful, always rich, now ancient and depraved, she had had Nero to stay with her for two years while his mother, Agrippina, was in exile. She might therefore exert a rival influence, if and when (when?) Nero became Emperor. Domitia was charged with magic and letting her shepherd slaves run amok in Calabria, where she had huge estates. Nero had been persuaded that she favoured his cousin Britannicus, her grandson, and he actually appeared as a prosecution witness against his doting aunt. The Emperor sentenced her to death, despite the contrary advice of Narcissus.

All Roman historians describe the death of Claudius and accuse his wife of murder. (A modern historian has diagnosed a heart attack.) Here is a précis of Tacitus’ version, the most lively and likely. Agrippina employed an expert, one Locusta, ‘recently sentenced for poisoning but with a long career of imperial service ahead of her’. The Emperor’s taster, the eunuch Halotus, and his doctor Xenophon were also brought into the act. The poison was sprinkled on some mushrooms Claudius particularly liked and he consumed them happily. At first nothing happened – Claudius was either torpid or drunk – then he evacuated his bowels. Agrippina was aghast, but under the pretence of making him vomit, the doctor tickled his patient’s throat with a feather dipped in a quick-acting poison. (‘Xenophon knew that major crimes, though hazardous to undertake, are profitable to achieve.’) The Empress clung on to Britannicus, ostensibly for comfort but actually to prevent his leaving the room. She also detained the sisters. No announcement was made. The dead man was put under wraps and it was pretended the Emperor was very ill. Then at midday on 13 October, the propitious moment according to the astrologers, the palace gates were opened and there was Burrus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, well-primed ally of Agrippina, with a battalion, ready to acclaim Nero the new Emperor. A few Praetorians were heard to wonder where Britannicus might be, but Agrippina’s operation was too well oiled to be halted now, and Nero was conveyed to the Praetorian camp in a litter where he promised the usual donatives and was hailed Emperor; the Senate and the provinces followed suit. Agrippina had achieved her ambition, to secure the imperial throne for her son and have him accept her advisers, Burrus her strong man and Seneca her think-tank, as his own. Through him and them she would be able to rule the world for a time. When Nero was born, the astrologer had said: ‘He will be king and he will kill his mother.’ The first part of the prediction had come true.

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