The Early Life of Emperor Claudius

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Ruling from 41 AD to 54 AD, Claudius was the fourth Emperor of Rome. 

Claudius was born on August 1, 10 BC as Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, near Lugdunum, in Gaul on the day of dedication for an altar to Augustus.

The Childhood of Emperor Claudius

In 9 BC, Claudius’s father contracted an unknown illness and died while campaigning in Germania, leaving Claudius to be raised by his mother, Antonia, who never remarried. Around this time, Claudius seems to have become afflicted with some type of disability. As a result, his family wanted little to do with him and his mother used him as a standard for stupidity. When Claudius reached his teens, his symptoms waned and the family began to take notice of his scholarly interests. In 7 AD, the Roman historian Livy was hired as Claudius’s tutor. He was also taught by the Greek philosopher Athenodoros, who had taught Augustus. Augustus was reported to have been impressed by the clarity of Claudius’s oratory, and his future prospects began to increase.

However, Claudius’s work as a budding historian also sabotaged his early career. Exactly what happened is not known for certain, but Claudius is known to have been writing a history of the Civil Wars that was either too truthful or too critical of Augustus. In either case, it was too early for such a work, and Claudius’s mother and grandmother intervened. Claudius would return to this work later in his life, but skipped the wars of the Second Triumvirate entirely. In the meantime, the damage was done and Claudius was once again pushed into the background.

Following the death of Augustus, in 14 AD, Claudius appealed to his uncle, Emperor Tiberius to let him begin the Cursus Honorum, or the Course of Honour, which was the path followed by all Roman politicians. Tiberius responded by granting Claudius consular ornaments, but ignored Claudius’s repeated requests for political office. Deciding that Tiberius was not going to be any more generous than Augustus, Claudius gave up his political ambitions and retired to a life of scholarship.

In spite of the disdain of the Imperial family, Claudius had won the respect of the general public very early in his life. At the funeral of Augustus, Claudius was chosen to head the delegation of the Equestrian Order, which was composed of Rome’s newest aristocrats. After Claudius’s house burned down, the Senate demanded that it be rebuilt and paid for with public funds. The Senate also requested that Claudius be allowed to debate in the Senate. Both of these motions were denied by Tiberius, but the fact that they were made in the first place, is an indication of how Claudius was regarded by the Roman people. Following the death of Drusus, Claudius was touted by some factions as a possible successor to Tiberius. However, as this was during the purges of Tiberius and the conspiracy of Sejanus, Claudius chose to downplay this possibility.

After the death of Tiberius, Emperor Caligula saw possibilities in Claudius. In 37 AD, Claudius served as Consul along side Caligula, who used Claudius to emphasize the memory of Germanicus. However, Caligula also teased and tormented Claudius, making him the butt of practical jokes and embarrassing him in front of the Senate. The Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that Claudius began to look thin and sickly towards the end of Caligula’s reign. This was most likely due to stress.

The Ascension of Emperor Claudius

On January 24, 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated, the victim of a broad-based conspiracy. There has never been any evidence to suggest that Claudius was actively involved in the plot against Caligula. However, it has been argued that he was aware of the plot, as he left the scene of the crime just before Caligula was assassinated. In the ensuing chaos, Claudius watched as several uninvolved nobles were cut down, several of who were his friends. The primary sources state that he fled back to the Imperial palace upon witnessing this. According to tradition, Claudius was found by the Praetorian Guard, hiding behind a curtain. Some modern historians believe that the Praetorian Guard planned this in advance, and smuggled Claudius out of the city.

Following the death of Caligula, the Senate met and began debating a change in government. However, the debate quickly devolved into an argument over which Senator was to become the next Emperor. When the Senate was informed that the Praetorian Guard was supporting Claudius, they demanded that Claudius be brought before the Senate for approval. Claudius refused believing that the Senators were preparing a trap. According to Josephus, the actions of Claudius were directed by Herod Agrippa, the King of Judea. However, in other sources, Josephus downplays the role of Herod in the ascension of Claudius. In either case, the Senate was forced to give in and accept the rule of Claudius.

Sources

Levick, Barbara. Claudius. Yale University Press. New Haven, 1990.

Suetonius.The Life of Claudius. Apr.13/10

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