Was Claudius an effective Roman Emperor?

Statue of Claudius

One of the most unusual Emperors in Roman history was Claudius (10-54 AD). Historians have divergent interpretations of Claudius, who ruled the Roman world for 13 years. While some view him as a buffoon and tragic-comic figure, others assert that he was a competent and effective Emperor. Who was Claudius? Claudius played an important role in the expansion, religious reforms and the administration of the Empire. He also introduced non-Italians into the Senate and fundamentally changed the character of the Roman elite.

Background

Rome in the first century AD was at the height of its powers. It controlled, either directly or indirectly much of Europe, large areas of the Middle East and tracts of North Africa. The Roman legions were the largest military force east of China and the Empire’s only real rival was the Parthian Empire. In general, local elites ably administered the Empires provinces because the Empire outsourced control of areas to locals.

There was also a growing Romanization of the provinces. Rome was enjoying an uninterrupted period of peace, thanks to the achievements of Augustus, who established an Imperial system, with Republican trappings to appease the sensibilities of the senatorial elite, that provided stability to Rome and its provinces. The man usually regarded as the first Emperor also found the Julian-Claudian dynasty. Augustus had been able to hand over power to his step-son Tiberius who proved to be an able administrator if an autocratic ruler.

However, under Tiberius, many members of the Julian-Claudian dynasty were either executed or exiled. After Tiberius died, he was succeeded by his grand-nephew, Gaius, better known as Caligula. He soon revealed himself to be extraordinarily unstable. He killed many members of the senatorial elite and continued the practice of Tiberius of killing or exiling his relatives to secure his position and power.[1]

Rome was a formidable power, but the position of the Emperor was often precarious and threatened by constant conspiracies by senators, generals and the machinations of their bodyguards the Praetorian Guard.

The career of Claudius

A romanticized view of Claudius being appointed Emperor by the Praetorian Guards

Claudius was born in 10 BC in Gaul, to Drusus and his wife Antonia, his grandfather was Mark Anthony, and his grandmother was Augustus's influential third wife. Therefore, he was a member of the Julian-Claudian dynasty. His father, the older brother of Tiberius, died in Germany. As Claudius grew it became clear that he had some form of disability, which angered his mother Antonia and she passed him to his grandmother Livia.[2] It appeared that he was slightly deaf, had a limp and had some developmental delays. It has been speculated that he suffered from Cerebral Palsy or Tourette’s Syndrome. Claudius condition improved somewhat in his teenage years, and he proved to be a capable scholar. [3]

The great Roman historian Livy was appointed his tutor and Claudius was to prove a capable historian, who later wrote many histories which are now sadly lost. His intellectual abilities did not lead him to become a public figure despite being a member of the Imperial family. However, his disabilities probably saved him from execution and exile unlike so many other members of his family during Tiberius’ reign. However, the accession of Caligula meant that Claudius was thrust into public life as a consul.

However, Caligula had contempt for Claudius, and he openly mocked and ridiculed him. The brutality and erratic behavior of Caligula led to his assassination by the Praetorian Guard. After they had killed the Caligula, they did not know how to proceed and in desperation appointed Claudius as the successor of Caligula because he was one of the last living members of the Julian-Claudian dynasty. Suetonius called his assumption of the Imperial dignity a freak of fortune.’[4]

Claudius pardoned all the killers of his predecessor and secured the grudging support of the Senate, who appeared to have been cowed by the Praetorian Guard. To the surprise of many, he proved to be an energetic ruler and was not the puppet of the Imperial guard. In 44 AD, Claudius ordered the invasion of Britain, and he visited the battlefront.

He was also very interested in the administration of the Empire, and he made some critical changes to the bureaucracy, and even his detractors noted that his administration was efficient. Claudius was a great builder, and he was primarily concerned with the food supply for Rome and Italy. He rebuilt the port of Ostia, vital for food imports and began to drain the Fucine lake, to increase arable land in central Italy but it was only a partial success.

Claudius was a complex man who despite his intellectual labors, loved gambling and the games and under his reign. The games became even more lavish and spectacular. Claudius was the subject of several plots which led to the execution of several senators, despite his wish to be on good terms with the senatorial class. Claudius married his first cousin Valeria Messalina, but she proved unfaithful, according to the ancient sources and even bigamously married one of her many lovers. The couple conspired against Claudius, and he had them executed.

He later married his niece Agrippina the Younger.[5] She had an enormous influence over Claudius and even persuaded him to appoint her son Nero, to the position of co-Emperor with his son, Britannicus. Agrippina the Younger most likely had Claudius poisoned. According to Tacitus, Claudius was succeeded by his step-son Nero who then murdered Claudius' son Britannicus. [6]

Expansion of the Empire

Despite his disabilities and his scholarly pursuits, Claudius was an aggressive Emperor. He did not heed Augustus advice not to expand the Empire and if possible to rule through client kings. Claudius had an idea that the Empire should be highly centralized and that direct rule was the best option. This means that he launched a campaign to annex client kingdoms.[7]

In his reign, he fully incorporated Mauretania, Judea, Noricum, and Thrace into the Empire. This expansion became necessary because areas such as Thrace had become unstable. Claudius was concerned that instability in these regions could intensify and spread. Claudius deposed many client-kings and imposed direct rule.

This change was sometimes achieved peacefully as in Judea, but in other areas military intervention was required. Claudius was forced to intervene in Thrace military to maintain Roman hegemony. In Mauretania, (northern Algeria and Morocco), the Romans had to fight a series of campaigns to conquer that kingdom.[8]

The absorption of these areas ultimately led them to become Romanized, and they dramatically strengthened the Empire’s frontiers. Claudius' most ambitious campaign was the invasion of Britannia (modern England and Wales). Claudius' push invasion into Britania may have been an effort to legitimize his rule. Britain was not only considered to be a wealthy land but provided a haven for Gallic rebels.[9]

Claudius was no doubt also motivated by the desire for personal glory which was essential if Claudius wanted to preserve his reign in Ancient Rome. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Claudius' tenure as Emperor was the annexation of Britannia, which became a Roman colony for almost 400 years. The British provinces ultimately helped to strengthen the Empire, in the longer term, its mineral wealth significantly enriched Rome. It also provided Rome with many legionnaires for the Imperial army.[10] Unlike the later conquests of Trajan, the territories secured by Claudius made the Empire more cohesive and ultimately stronger.

Claudius as a reformer

A statue of Agrippina the younger and her son Nero

Emperor Claudius was not content to accept the administration and government he inherited. After the misrule of Caligula, the government had been neglected and become corrupt and inefficient. The Emperor decided that he needed to overhaul the bureaucracy.

However, he was faced with a problem, the persistent hostility of the Senate meant that he could not appoint members of the traditional elite to the government.[11] Claudius appointed freedmen to the bureaucracy and Imperial government. These men were freed slaves, and they often proved to be both competent and mostly honest administrators. Still, Claudius faced stinging criticism from the Senatorial elite.

Claudius reformed the traditional secretariat and established different bureaus that were responsible for aspects of the government; there were bureaus for finance, correspondence, and military affairs.[12] These bureaus allowed the Emperor to receive information and to issue edicts and directives. This system was also much more centralized than anything previous and more effective. Claudius despite his often-bizarre behavior was generally hard-working. He oversaw many court cases, but he was an erratic judge, and his interference in legal matters was not always welcome.

Claudius and religious reform

As Emperor, Claudius held the position of Pontifex Maximus and had a very important role in Roman state Religion. He was concerned with the growing influence of eastern religions in the capital of the Empire. In response, he expelled astrologers and tried to reinvigorate the ancient Roman practice of soothsaying. In many ways he saw himself as continuing Augustus efforts to restore the old Roman religion.[13]

Claudius forbade any conversions or proselytizing, but he did allow freedom of worship in most cases. He did actively suppress druidism, the ancient religion of the Celts because the druids were central to resisting Roman rule in Britannia and Gaul. Claudius apparently had an ambivalent relationship with the Jews, he recognized their rights’, but he also expelled them from Rome, according to some sources.[14] In general, Claudius attempted to ensure that religion was a unifying force in the Empire, but he was intolerant of any faith that threatened public order.

Claudius and the Senate

Claudius attempted to foster a positive relationship with the Senate. He sought the support of that body in the early years of his reign. However, many of the Roman elites became disillusioned with the Imperial system and even wanted a return to some form of Republican government.[15]

There were several plots and multiple attempts to incite rebellions during Claudius' reign. According to Suetonius, the Emperor had some 35 Senators executed for treason during his tenure.[16]

These coups pushed Claudius to favor freedmen, rather than Senators, to administer his government. The Emperor used his position as Censor to purge the rolls of the Senate in an effort ostensibly to reform that body, but he also sought to limit the Senate to members who were loyal him.

One of the most significant reforms of Claudius was his insistence on admitting non-Italians into the Senate. He had several Gaul’s admitted to the senatorial rolls. According to Tacitus, he firmly believed that a pluralist and multicultural Senate was essential for the future of Rome. He thought that Rome had to admit those outsiders who were loyal to stay vital and healthy.

According to Tacitus, Claudius believed that Sparta and Athens fell because was they would not admit immigrants and outsiders to a share of power. Essentially, it allowed provincials to become senators and gave them a stake in the Empire and gave them a powerful incentive to safeguard it.[17] Claudius prevailed and during and after his reign non-Italians became Senators. His policy, further integrated provincial elites into the Roman system but also over time it greatly benefitted the Empire as Claudius had predicted.

Conclusion

Claudius was in many ways a strange Emperor. While he was an unusual individual, suffered from some form of disability, and a dysfunctional private, he made a major contribution to the peace, stability and the prosperity of the Roman Empire. He expanded the Empire and strengthened the frontiers and the provinces that he annexed would eventually provide Rome with soldiers, taxes and natural resources.

Claudius both centralized power in Rome as was evident in his administrative reforms and his efforts to create a more professional and effective Imperial government. His religious reforms sought to preserve Roman traditions and were similar to those initiated by Augustus. However, Claudius was also an innovator and he opened up the Senate to non-Italians which secured the loyalty of provincials’ elites and helped to unify the Empire. Overall, Claudius was an effective Emperor.

Recommended Reading

McAlindon, Denis. "Senatorial opposition to Claudius and Nero." The American Journal of Philology 77, no. 2 (1956): 113-132.

Standing, Giles. "The Claudian invasion of Britain and the cult of Victoria Britannica." Britannia 34 (2003): 281-288.

Huzar, Eleanor G. Claudius: The Erudite Emperor (London, Routledge, 1984).

Ehrhardt, C. "Messalina and the Succession to Claudius." Antichthon 12 (1978): 51-77.

References

  1. Tom Holland. Dynasty: the rise and fall of the House of Caesar (London, Abacus, 2016), p 113
  2. Lewick, Barbara Claudius (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p 11
  3. Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, book vi, 34
  4. Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 17
  5. Tacitus, book vii, 45
  6. Tacitus, book vii, 15
  7. Levick, p119
  8. Cassius Dio, History of Rome, LX, 18
  9. Suetonius, 38
  10. Levick, p 189
  11. Osgood, Josiah. Claudius Caesar: image and power in the early Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p 78
  12. Osgood, p 145
  13. Osgood, p. 178
  14. Osgood, p 167
  15. Osgood, P. 101
  16. Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 29
  17. Tacitus, vi, 17

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