All Told a Nice Emperor Claudius

ClaudiusOn this day in 10 BC, the Roman Emperor Claudius was born. Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Well, 80% of Claudius’ life was just surviving. We all know Claudius from the BBC television show I, Claudius where he was portrayed as a smart, learned, and decent man who stuttered—played by Derek Jacobi. (Side note: Jacobi believes that the books were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford rather than Robert Graves.) By modern standards, Claudius was not quite as nice a guy, but by the standards of Roman Emperors of his time, he was above average.

According to Wikipedia, Claudius’ ailments were not confined to his stutter:

The historian Suetonius describes the physical manifestations of Claudius’ affliction in relatively good 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 he was excited. The Stoic Seneca states in his Apocolocyntosis that Claudius’ voice belonged to no land animal, and that his hands were weak as well.

No one actually knows what was wrong with Claudius. Graves (Edward de Vere) thought he had Polio. Since then, people have suggested cerebral palsy and even Tourette syndrome. None of those are especially compelling. The cerebral palsy combined with a generally sickly nature makes a certain amount of sense. But if you look at representations of him, you don’t see any of the look of palsy in his lips.

There is an interesting disconnect between Claudius’ writing and what many contemporaries said about him. He was described as cruel, for example. I can’t really imagine an Emperor of that time not doing some things to get that label. And he certainly had a lot of enemies. The Senate did not want him as the new emperor. But they were just fighting to see ought to be in charge. Claudius was really the only person with a good claim to be emperor, plus he had the army behind him. Nonetheless, he spent a long time trying to appease the Senate. Still, he retained many enemies. And various factions in the Senate tried to take him out of power over the years. So I tend to think Claudius just had bad press.

Regardless of his personality, he was a smart guy and a quick study. He administered the empire quite well. This is especially notable considering that throughout his rule he had something of a tenuous grip on power. Of course, his personal life was a bit of mess. He was married four times. And his last wife was Agrippina the Younger, whose son from a previous marriage would become Nero, Claudius’ successor. The main thing about Agrippina is that she has always been suspected of poisoning Claudius. I’m not so sure. Claudius was 63 when he died, with a 13 year reign. Both those numbers are on the high side for Roman Emperors.

So happy birthday Claudius, you slobbering, stuttering, magnificent bastard!

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