Claudius I – The Wisest Fool in Rome



“What an artist the world is losing in me!” – Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (August 1, 10 B.C.E. – October 13, 54)

As news of Caligula‘s assassination spread, the senate gathered in haste, several of them ready to press their own claims to the succession, other urged that the moment had come to restore the republic.
Though the praetorian guard had its own ideas as to who should take the throne. Claudius, Caligula’s feeble-minded uncle, had been dragged from his hiding place in the palace to the praetorian camp, where he was promptly hailed as emperor, and then marched back to the senate, who had no choice but to confirm their decision.
But the soldiers had chosen better than they knew. Claudius had spent his life the almost forgotten, half-witted brother of the great Germanicus. But now in office he proved extremely conscientious. His intentions were excellent, and his political theory, if derived wholly from books, was intelligent. He was ‘the wisest fool’ in Rome, but he kept his wisdom for the state, while his domestic follies made him a figure of contempt to his contemporaries and ridiculous to posterity.
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (August 1, 10 B.C.E. – October 13, 54)

Claudius was already fifty years old when he began his reign (AD 41- 54). Throughout the period the empire enjoyed general prosperity and there were few complaints from the provinces. Claudius held firmly to the belief that the existing border was to be maintained but not extended.

Military expeditions conducted against the aggressive German tribes of the Chauci and Catti – who had probably absorbed the Cherusci – were completely successful, though not followed by any attempt of annexation.
Within the empire the practice of extending full Roman citizenship to favoured communities was actively developed.
Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, “Proclaiming Claudius Emperor”
But the main achievement of the reign of Claudius was the organized conquest of the south of Britain.
Had Claudius stayed true to Augustus’ advice not to expand the empire, this was the one time he broke with it. Was it either to prove himself worthy to his contemporaries in a bid to shake off his image as a half-wit, or simply because the threat of a largely unknown kingdom off the coast of Gaul was too serious to go unchecked, Claudius in AD 43 sent forth a giant invasion force under the command of Aulus Plautius. Claudius himself took the field at one time and the entire expedition was resounding military success.
It is however to the credit of Claudius that when the brave Caractacus, the leader of the Britons, was sent to Rome as a captive, he was granted an honourable liberty by the emperor.
But unhappily the feature of Claudius’ reign most annoying to the public of the time, was the influence of freedmen, for the most part Greeks, who won his confidence, and by the successive wives who plotted against him while they fooled him as they pleased.

In AD 48 Claudius finally rid himself of Messalina, a wife who had disgusted Roman society with her constant betrayal and ridicule of her husband, until alas his eyes had been opened to the fact. The place vacated by Messalina was secured by the emperor’s ambitious niece, Agrippina the younger, sister of Caligula, widow of Domitius Ahenobarbus and the mother of the young Nero.

Right from the beginning Agrippina set out to see her son Nero become heir to the imperial throne. Alas he was persuaded to adopt Nero as his own son. Nero being three years the senior to Claudius’ own son Britannicus meant that Agrippina had achieved her ambition.
But then as signs became apparent that Claudius was inclining to Britannicus rather than Nero Agrippina sought the advice with a certain Locusta, a woman of not only a shady, if not evil reputation, but also a known expert in poisons.
Claudius died suddenly. Nero, nor Britannicus, succeeded him.
Gemma Claudia; on the left Claudius and Agrippina, on the right Germanicus
The historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 71 – 135 C.E.) describes the physical manifestations of Claudius’ affliction in relatively full detail.His knees were weak and gave way under him and his head shook. He stammered and his speech was confused. He slobbered and his nose ran when excited. The Stoic Seneca the younger (c. 4 B.C.E.– 65 C.E.) states in his Apocolocyntosis that Claudius’ voice belonged to no land animal, and that his hands were weak as well; however, he showed no physical deformity, as Suetonius notes that when calm and seated he was a tall, well-built figure of dignitas. When angered or stressed, his symptoms became worse. Historians agree that this improved upon his accession to the throne.Claudius himself claimed that he had exaggerated his ailments to save his own life.
The modern diagnosis has changed several times in the past century. Prior to World War II, infantile paralysis (or polio) was widely accepted as the cause. This is the diagnosis used in Robert Graves’ Claudius novels, first published in the 1930s. Polio does not explain many of the described symptoms, however, and a more recent theory implicates cerebral palsy as the cause of his symptoms, as outlined by Ernestine Leon.Tourette syndrome is also a possible candidate.
Concrete Roman coin (Claudius’ period) found in Colchester, Essex
“Letter to the Alexandrians” in the last century, much work has been done to rehabilitate Claudius and determine where the truth lies.

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