By Victor Davis Hanson
The Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54 AD, was never supposed to be emperor. He came to office at age 50, an old man in Roman times. Claudius succeeded the charismatic, youthful heartthrob Caligula—son of the beloved Germanicus and the “little boot” who turned out to be a narcissist monster before being assassinated in office.
Claudius was an unusual emperor, the first to be born outside Italy, in Roman Gaul. Under the Augustan Principate, new Caesars—who claimed direct lineage from the “divine” Augustus—were usually rubber-stamped by the toadyish Senate. However, the outsider Claudius (who had no political training and was prevented by his uncle Tiberius from entering the cursus honorum), was brought into power by the Roman Praetorian Guard, who wanted a change from the status quo apparat of the Augustan dynasty.
The Roman aristocracy—most claiming some sort of descent from Julius Caesar and his grandnephew Octavian (Caesar Augustus)—had long written Claudius off as a hopeless dolt. Claudius limped, the result of a childhood disease or genetic impairment. His mother Antonia, ashamed of his habits and appearance, called the youthful Claudius “a monster of man.” He was likely almost deaf and purportedly stuttered.
That lifelong disparagement of his appearance and mannerisms probably saved Claudius’s life in the dynastic struggles during the last years of the Emperor Augustus and the subsequent reigns of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula.
The stereotyped impression of Claudius was that of a simpleton not to be taken seriously—and so no one did. Claudius himself claimed that he feigned acting differently in part so that he would not be targeted by enemies before he assumed power, and to unnerve them afterwards.
Contemporary critics laughed at his apparent lack of eloquence and rhetorical mastery, leading some scholars to conjecture that he may have suffered from Tourette syndrome or a form of autism. The court biographer Suetonius wrote that Claudius “was now careful and shrewd, sometimes hasty and inconsiderate, occasionally silly and like a crazy man.”
Roman intellectuals hated Claudius, who hit back blow-for-blow at them for their slights and snark, and showed no mercy to plotters and conspiracists. After Claudius’s death, the court toady and philosopher Seneca—pal of Claudius’s successor, the sinister and murderous Nero—wrote a cruel satire on Claudius’s supposed crudity and buffoonery. Seneca’s Apocolyncotosis (The “Gourdification” of the Divine Claudius) mocks Claudius’s halting speech and off-putting mannerisms. He also poked fun at Claudius’s lowbrow friends, and his penchant for crass popular entertainment.
Later Roman historians, drawing on now lost contemporary accounts of Claudius, reflect the same prejudices. In the biography of Suetonius and throughout the Annals of the historian Tacitus, the accidental emperor Claudius comes off as little more than an impulsive bumbler, an accidental emperor who came to power on a fluke and whose lack of Julian elegance made him more a buffoon than the head of the global Roman Empire of some 60 million citizens.
Claudius’s 50 years of private life before becoming emperor were also the stuff of court gossip and ridicule. He would marry four times and was often flattered and manipulated by younger women.
Modern historians, however, have corrected that largely negative view and ancient bias.
Claudius’s rule of some 13 years as emperor was marked by financial reforms and restoration after the disastrous reign of the spendthrift Caligula. Claudius-haters like Seneca, Suetonius, and Tacitus focused mostly on Claudius as the uncouth outsider—and overlooked what he had done for Rome after the disasters of the Caligula regime.
The empire under Claudius grew and was largely at peace. Rome annexed Britain, and added a variety of border provinces in the east. While court insiders and gossipers ridiculed Claudius’s supposed ineptness, he nonetheless assembled one of the most gifted staffs of advisers and operatives—many of them freed slaves—in the history of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties.
Claudius was foremost a builder and a pragmatist. Some of the Roman Empire’s most impressive archaeological remains (such as the Aqua Claudia and Aqua Anio Novus aqueducts and the reconstituted port at Ostia) date from his reign, as he focused on constructing new infrastructure and improving Roman roads, bridges, ports, and aqueducts.