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Becoming Emperor

Before being Emperor

Like Gaius, from many perspectives Claudius seemed an unpromising candidate for the imperial position. As the son of Antonia and Drusus, he might have been expected to follow the brilliant career path of his elder brother, Germanicus. But he was likely born (in Lugdunum in 10 BC) with a disability. He also appears to have been chronically ill. He was thought unsuitable for political office and was not even allowed to manage his own domestic affairs.

Suetonius (Claudius 4) quotes letters from Augustus to Livia worrying as to what should be done about him. Whatever his physical frailties, the imperial family judged that he was mentally well-equipped. He was educated and although Augustus complained about his conversational style, he could give fluent and reasoned speeches. Nevertheless, public attitudes towards disability were not compassionate. Unlike his brother and his father, he was not advanced to political prominence nor sent to lead Rome’s armies. Tiberius gave him consular honours, but not the consulship itself. He played a role in the ceremonies around the interment of Germanicus’s ashes, but was not prominent in the subsequent actions against Piso. He lived out the Tiberian period in relative obscurity: he was favoured by the equestrians and as a member of the imperial was the target of occasional senatorial grants of honours, but otherwise had no serious role (Suetonius, Claudius 4-6).

This changed with the accession of Gaius and his elevation of his family members. Claudius was rewarded with a consulship and designated as consul for four years later. Under previous emperors, such honours effectively signalled the designation of an heir. Claudius was also to preside over games in place of Gaius. Such honours raise the question as to whether Claudius was already heir to the imperial throne. If so, the rather peculiar story of the future emperor being plucked from behind a curtain needs reassessment.


Alma Tadema: A Roman Emperor Claudius (1871) Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Behind the Curtain

What did Claudius know about the assassination of Gaius?

Such conspiracies leaked and rumours flew. Dio (59.29) claims that nearly everyone knew, but nearly everyone wanted Gaius dead.

The immediate aftermath of the assassination was chaotic. The assassins had secured the urban cohorts, but the German bodyguard, nor the Praetorian Guard. The assassins and the senators took control of several important locations, but the Germans rioted and some soldiers began to prowl the city and loot.

There are three different versions of Claudius’s elevation. In Dio (60.1) , soldiers looting the palace cam across him hiding somewhere. In Suetonius (Claudius 10), he flees from the theatre to a room called the Hermaeum, and was there discovered hiding behind curtains.In Josephus, Antiquities 19.2, Claudius had gone home and was then carried by soldiers on their own initiative. But in Antiquities 19.3, Claudius is reported as having been found hiding in a corner. None of these stories suggest a man preparing himself for high office.

  • Did Claudius think the assassins might also target him, as senior surviving member of the Julio-Claudian family?

Whatever the case, Claudius was hurried off to the praetorian camp.

It is possible that the senators were not aware that Claudius was with the praetorians. Josephus reports grand speeches by the consul proclaiming a return to liberty. The watchword given to the guard was also liberty. The account points to the readiness of the senators to return to a Republic. But on leaving the senatorial meeting Chaerea gave orders for the murder of Caesonia, Gaius’s wife, and their infant daughter. It seems as if only at this moment did he become concerned that an heir to Gaius would emerge.

Rome was now in a state of crisis. The praetorians had Claudius but the senators had their own cohorts. There was a considerable chance that the future of Roman would be decided in street fighting. But Claudius had the advantage. He secured the loyalty of the praetorians with a vast gift of 15,000 sesterces per soldier (in Suetonius) or 20,000 sesterces in Josephus, remembering that the annual pay of the ordinary legionary was only 900 sesterces.

He also had Herod Agrippa to negotiate for him. Agrippa was in an odd position. He was a Jewish King and technically an outsider in Roman politics. But he was close to Gaius and Claudius and had spent much time in the imperial palace. It looks as though he made friends among the senators and he was regarded as an honest broker in the negotiations that followed.

What mattered in the end was the troops. Claudius had more of them. The senators may have wanted a restoration of Republican government, but there was no enthusiasm among the ordinary people. It looks as though support for the senatorial group melted away.

Chaeraea and some of the leading conspirators were executed, not for killing Gaius, but for Caesonia and Drusilla, and for a supposed intent to kill Claudius. Otherwise Claudius attempted to impose an amnesty. He released those imprisoned by Gaius, revoked charges of maiestas and burnt papers relating to the charges, but in the presence of the senators so that there was not fear that they would be rediscovered.

Yet, there is little doubt that the reign began with insecurity and uncertainty. The senators and the emperor had every reason to distrust each other. The calls for liberty may have gone away, but the sentiments likely remained. Claudius had no experience of working with the senate. He may have felt their hostility. It took him thirty days before he was secure enough to visit the senate (Dio 60.3.2). He had no military experience and no connection to the troops outside Rome. He needed to secure military and political prestige.

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