Claudius is a difficult emperor to understand. After the excesses of Gaius and the severe problems under Tiberius, it must have been tempting for the Romans to regard anyone else as an improvement. The modern historical tradition on Claudius has tended to be quite favourable, especially in comparison with his successor Nero. Some of the complaints in the ancient material about Claudius are also difficult for moderns to take seriously: aristocratic anguish that he relied heavily on his freedmen so evidently depend on elitist values and social prejudices that one is immediately put out of sympathy with the complainant.
Claudius was yet another different sort of emperor. He was more authoritarian, more openly imperial, than Tiberius. He was less grotesque in his political dealings than Gaius. If anything, he looked back to Julius Caesar for his political inspirations. As emperor, he was a reformer of systems. As a political leader, his position appears to have been fragile: he came to the throne with little background and less support. He was faced with military opposition. He was perhaps the first emperor since the very early days of the Augustan regime to advertise his connections with the praetorian guard. We know of few conspiracies, but have high figures for those killed.
The sources are also difficult. Claudius’s reputation seems to have been damned in the immediate aftermath of his death by those close to Nero and the major historical sources are, in varying degrees, hostile. They are also, in key elements of the political narrative, very difficult to believe. The stories that circulated around the fall of his wife, Messalina, are especially problematic, feeling more like scurrilous myth-making gossip than anything else.
In part, our difficulties were probably shared by ancient interpreters of the reign. It looks as though Claudius brought politics and decision-making more into the imperial household and relied less on the senators. The consequence of such a shift was likely to move political decision-making behind closed doors. Once decision making becomes secret, it is much more difficult to know who decided what; anyone unsettled by an imperial decision might be prone to blame the imperial freedmen or the emperor’s wives rather than the emperor himself.
This reliance on the household was probably responsible for Claudius’s reputation as a weak emperor, but
- Was he really weak?
- How can we understand the household nature of the politics of the regime?
- Was it a departure to give such prominence to the imperial women?
- How do we relate Claudius’s military and administrative actions to his political persona?
The reign raises issues of gender politics (with regard to his wives) and social politics (with regard to his freedmen). It also makes us wonder about the nature of the imperial regime: how important in the end were the senators? Did Claudius bypass them?
- Becoming Emperor
- Into Britain
- Claudius and the Plebs
- Household Administration
- Military Matters
- Claudius and his Women
- Death of the Emperor