Claudius came to power with no military experience and faced a raft of military issues across the Empire.
Claudius also inherited a disturbed situation in North Africa. Suetonius Paulinus was campaigning against the Moors. He won a victory sufficient for the senate to offer Claudius a triumph, which Claudius declined. He did, though, accept triumphal ornamenta (Dio, 60. 8). The next stage of the war was led by Hosidius Geta who campaigned in a desert region (Dio, 60.9). The victory was not conclusive, but it allowed a fragile peace to be made and for Claudius to form two small provinces, Mauretania Tingitana and Mauretania Caesariensis. Trouble spilled over into Numidia.
In Germany (Dio, 60. 8.7), two separate campaigns were underway against the Chauci and the Chatti. These wars came to an end in 41 . We don’t have Tacitus’s detailed account for 37-47 and so we are in danger of missing military events from that period; Dio’s account is not the fullest for this period either. But when the Tacitean narrative resumes in 47, various regions of Germany were at war. The Cherusci asked Rome for the return of a member of their royal family, Italicus, as a king, their royal house being virtually destroyed by civil war. Claudius obliged, but Italicus was resisted and more civil war followed. The Chauci engaged in piratical activities, but were defeated by the Romans. The Roman general Corbulo, who was the half-brother of Caesonia, the murdered wife of Caligula, was on campaign in Lower Germany against the Frisii.
Claudius, however, did not want to go beying the Rhine (Tacitus, Annales 11. 16-19) and Corbulo reluctantly returned from campaign (20). In 50 (Tacitus, Annales 12. 27–30) problems broke out in Uppper Germany, with the Chatti attacking Roman positions and the Suevi throwing out their long-term king and an ally of Rome.
If Corbulo’s intervention appears to mark a more aggressive imperial policy, the new direction was not pursued long. Claudius appears to have wished to avoid commiting resources into the German conflicts. Nevertheless, the frontier areas were disturbed and on a scale which suggests that the problems in the various tribes were not coincidental. It seems possible that either in response to Roman pressure or to other factors, the entire region became unstable. In spite of Corbulo’s old-fashioned ambitions, Claudius favoured caution.
The Eastern frontier was also unsettled throughout Claudius’ reign. Gaius had imprisoned a king of Armenia, but Claudius released him and sent him back. This Mithridates found the Parthians divided and conflict spreading through the region. In alliance with Romans and with the support of Claudius, he was able to secure Armenia. Meanwhile, Parthia divided and there was civil war. The seeming, Vardanes, was then murdered and some of the Parthians turned to Rome for support (Tacitus, Annales 11 8-9; 10). Claudius sent the Parthians a king (Meherdates) (Tacitus, Annales 12 10-22). Since there was already a king, the Romans, under Cassius, attempted to put their own man on the throne. The campaign went badly wrong, with the result that the whole of the Eastern frontier was thrown into chaos. In 51, the problems worsened in the client kingdoms of Iberia and Armenia. Another king was murdered and the Romans found themselves uncertain as to whether to intervene. A short campaign dissolved. Into the gap left by the Roman inaction, the Parthians intervened (Tacitus, Annales 12 44-49; 50-51).
The East was in this disturbed situation in 54, when Claudius died.
Claudius was reluctant to alter fundamentally the political settlement of the East. Roman policy was essentially pacific, willing to exploit divisions in the region, but unwilling to commit significant military forces.
If one looks through the Roman sources for after the Augustan period, there is very little discussion of strategy, as we might understand it. Emperors were either militarily active or passive. There was a general view that an emperor should be energetic and engage in imperial conquest, but most emperors, most of the time appear to have been reluctant to commit major forces to grand campaigns of imperial conquest.
Claudius’s invasion of Britain looks exceptional in the history of the first century AD. It even looks exceptional when compared with the rest of Claudius’s reign. It may look unusual in part because grandiose schemes of conquest proposed by Gaius and Nero came to nothing.
There were possible limiting factors.
- Claudius’s conquest of Britain was achieved without a substantial increase in the size of the army. Indeed, after the Augustan period, the army probably crept up in numbers rather than seeing any substantial rise in manpower.
- If you employ troops, you have to pay for them, and that might be a limiting factor.
- Also, one needs a general and any general who achieved significant success might be seen as a potential rival. Augustus made extensive use of family members as commanders. The other emperors of the first century did not have trusted family members they could use. They might have been to find men such as Corbulo, whom they could use, but were they willing to take the risks?
- What were the risks? If an invasion went wrong, an emperor might lose, for example, four legions. They’d have to be quickly replaced, putting strains on the military system.
Claudian policy was aggressive in Africa and Britain, and possibly so in Germany. But there were limits and fighting major wars in two theatres (if we count Britain as one) was perhaps just too risky.
In Britain Administration Early Politics