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Friday, 13 October 2017

Claudius - Roman emperor

Suspicious death of leader who conquered Britain


Claudius - as depicted in a marble bust at the  National Archaeological Museum in Naples
Claudius - as depicted in a marble bust at the
 National Archaeological Museum in Naples
The Roman emperor Claudius, whose reign was notable among other things for turning Britain into a province of the Empire, died on this day in 54 AD.

It is a widely held view that he was murdered, by poisoning, on the orders of his scheming fourth wife, Julia Agrippina, the mother of his successor, Nero, in one of the power struggles that at the time were ever present.

It is thought he ingested some poisonous mushrooms that his taster, the eunuch Halotus, had assured him were safe to eat, either at an official banquet on the evening of October 12 or at his first meal of the following day.

When Claudius began to show signs of distress, one version of the story is that his physician, Xenophon, pushed a feather into his throat, ostensibly to make him vomit, but actually to ensure that he did not recover by administering more poison, with which he had coated the feather.

There have been arguments that the poisoning story was nonsense and that, at 63, Claudius died from natural causes related to ageing. Yet Agrippina - sometimes referred to as Agrippina the Younger - seemed to have had a clear motive.

Beautiful and ambitious, she had seduced Claudius into marriage even though their coupling was against the law – he was her uncle – and even though after surviving one plot against him by his third wife, Valeria Messalina, Claudius had vowed never to marry again.

He had the Senate pass a special decree to authorise his union with Agrippina and was sufficiently besotted with her to trust there would be no repeat of Messalina’s attempt, with her lover, Gaius Silius, to instigate a coup.

Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero, who is thought to have ordered Claudius's murder
Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero, who
is thought to have ordered Claudius's murder
Agrippina was no innocent, however.  Her real motive was to persuade Claudius that Nero – otherwise known as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, one of the last male descendants of Augustus – was a better choice to succeed him than his own, younger son Britannicus, whom he had fathered with Messalina.

Claudius duly adopted Nero as his own and promised him the hand of his daughter, Octavia, in marriage.   As Britannicus grew up, though, there were suggestions that he might be reinstated as the emperor’s heir, which is thought to have been the reason Agrippina decided to take action.

She was determined that Nero would be proclaimed emperor while he was still young, with her acting as guardian, so that she could influence the way he ran the empire. The move backfired spectacularly when, as soon as he was old enough to govern in his own right, he had her murdered.

Claudius had been an unlikely emperor.  As a child and adolescent, he suffered from a number of physical ailments including tremors, a stammer, a limp, and foaming at the mouth. Historians have speculated that he may have had Tourette’s syndrome.

Even his own family mocked his afflictions. His mother described him as a “monstrosity” and Caligula - his nephew and predecessor as emperor – was relentlessly cruel to him.

Over time his handicaps eased and he had ambitions of a political career. But he was passed over time and again for public office and eventually took to filling his days with drinking, womanising and gambling, although he was intellectual enough in sober moments to spend long hours immersed in books, expanding his knowledge.

Later in life, he would produce many volumes of history, on Carthage, the Etruscans and the Roman Republic.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema's 1867 painting shows Claudius pleading for his life with the Praetorian Guard
Lawrence Alma-Tadema's 1867 painting shows Claudius
pleading for his life with the Praetorian Guard
Things changed when Caligula ascended to power at the age of 25 and, suddenly vulnerable when confronted with responsibility, turned to Claudius, then 46, to act as his consul.

In the event, Caligula was murdered by his own supposed protectors, the Praetorian Guard, in a sudden but seemingly long-planned coup in 41 AD.  Claudius is said to have cowered behind a curtain while the bloody deed was taking place and expected himself to be slain.

Instead, when he was discovered by soldiers, he was saluted as the new emperor and taken to a place of safety to prepare for office.

It took a substantial pay rise to ensure the support of the Praetorian Guard going forward but once installed Claudius proved a clever and effective leader.

Domestically, he improved the judicial system, encouraged urbanisation, revived several old religious festivals, organised a spectacular Secular Games and ordered the construction of a new port at Ostia.

But by far his most eyecatching achievements were in foreign policy, where he annexed several territories in Africa and Asia and succeeded where others before him had failed in launching and completing the conquest of Britain.

Assembling a force of 40,000 soldiers and accompanying war elephants, he targeted the tribal stronghold at what is now Colchester and captured their leader, Caratacus. 

He made a personal visit to Britain during the invasion and remained for 16 days before returning to a hero’s welcome in Rome.


The ruins of the Forum in Rome
The ruins of the Forum in Rome
A triumphal arch on the Via Flaminia was built in his honour, and he was hailed him as the man who “brought barbarian peoples beyond Ocean for the first time under Rome’s sway.”

Travel tip:

For a fine view across the ruins of ancient Rome towards the Colosseum in the distance, head for Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, next to the Palazzo Nuovo and Capitoline musuems, where there is a balcony that looks out across the ancient city.

Travel tip:

From the time of Augustus, who ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD, Roman emperors traditionally lived in an imperial palace atop the Palatine Hill, the central hill among the seven hills of ancient Rome.  The remains visible today are of at least three  palaces, built next to one another over the years, in which Augustus, Tiberius and Domitian lived.  The word ‘palace’ – palazzo in Italian – derives from the name of the hill.









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