The Roman Emperor Claudius has undergone a shifting reputation over the centuries. He has been derided by some, condemned as oppressive by others, and grudgingly praised by still others. The attitudes are summarized in a recent book by Barbara Levick, a professor of ancient history at Oxford University.
Don’t expect the book to give a chronological account of Claudius’s term as Roman ruler. Instead, after summarizing his early life, the author gives separate chapters to his relationship with people, his attitude toward economics, his attitude toward the provinces, his ordering the conquest of Britain, and finally the way history has seen him. She ends as sympathetic, though conceding his shortcomings.
In the first place Claudius was born with a defect the author thinks was probably cerebral palsy. He had a stammer and something of a limp, handicaps which his family was so worried about that they kept him as much out of the public eye as possible. He himself was fully aware of what the family thought, and that in itself added to his personality problems.
The author discusses what ancient writers said about him and what more modern historians have written. A contemporary was the philosopher Seneca, who wrote a sardonic put-down that was intended to show Claudius in a bad light, as opposed to Nero, who succeeded him. But Seneca had a reason to take that attitude because he had been Nero’s tutor and was one of his early advisers when he became emperor.
About a half-century after Claudius’s time the authors Tacitus and Suetonius wrote histories of Rome that included his period. Both tended to show their own times in a good light, in contrast to many of the previous years. But Tacitus even made use of some of Claudius’s historical writings.
A writer in Alexandria named Josephus was interested in Claudius because of the emperor’s encouragement of Agrippa’s enlarging his sphere of influence in Judea. Agrippa had been in Rome in the years just before Claudius came to power, and they had become well acquainted.
Of the more modern historians who have discussed Claudius, the author takes up what they wrote and then explains why she either agrees or disagrees with their conclusions. She makes a pretty good case for her beliefs in either instance.
When he was still being sheltered from public view Claudius took to writing history, since he wasn’t fit for military service and his family didn’t want him in politics. Among other things he wrote about the Etruscans, and it’s too bad more of it hasn’t survived, because it might shed some light on those enigmatic people.
Claudius came to power upon the assassination of his nephew, commonly called Caligula, though after the first reference to that title this author refers to him by his given name, which was Gaius. Whether Claudius knew of the plot ahead of time is something the author leaves open.
If you take up Levick’s book, it would be well to be acquainted with Roman history, particularly the century and a half after the time of Julius Caesar. She assumes that, and her text is studded with references to people without including much background. Here is a paragraph in the description of Messalina, who was Claudius’s second wife:
“Then there was her descent. Not only was she a connection of the other patrician Claudian clan, the Pulchri, as her aunt’s name shows. She was, even more importantly, doubly the great-granddaughter of Augustus’s sister Octavia, both through her father Marsalla Barbatus, the son of the younger Marsalla, and through her mother Domitia Lepida, who was a daughter of the elder Antonia. Messalina was Claudius’s cousin once removed, through the two daughters of Octavia. ... They were both descended from Mark Antony.”
One of Claudius’s generals in the conquest of Britain was Vespasian, who became emperor about 15 years after Claudius’s death. He had been well treated by Claudius and felt inclined to look favorably on his rule, so after the bad things said about him during Nero’s time, there came about a rehabilitation of his reputation under Vespasian and the next emperor, Titus. A would-be emperor, Vitellius, was one of Claudius’s courtiers and is mentioned several times without any reference to his ultimate imperial aspirations.
If you can make headway through all the names and family references, this is a book that gives a fresh outlook on a much-debated period.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.