Tiberius Claudius Germanicus (10 B.C.-A.D. 54) was the fourth emperor of Rome. Deemed a weak emperor, he nevertheless extended the borders of the empire and reformed its administration.
Born in Lugdunum (modern Lyons) on Aug. 1, 10 B.C., Claudius was the son of Drusus and Antonia and the grandnephew of Augustus. Although Claudius was the sole surviving heir of Augustus after the assassination of Caligula, he was given the throne primarily because of the support shown him by the imperial troops. He assumed the throne unwillingly in 41; indeed, he is said to have been found cowering in a closet after Caligula's death was announced.
Kept in the background and often ignored during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula, Claudius gained a reputation for stupidity, gluttony, and licentiousness. Although he is pictured by contemporary historians as a man incapable of anything, Claudius seems to have been, in fact, an excellent scholar, linguist, and writer.
Claudius began his rule with a great deal of enthusiasm and effort. He respected and frequently consulted both the Senate and the magistrates, groups whose prerogatives had been absorbed previously by the emperors. He built many monuments and public works in Rome. He began the campaign that led to the eventual conquest of Britain, and the imperial armies were successful in repelling the threatened German invasions. The Emperor initiated a number of reforms of the Roman legal and administrative systems, and he reestablished sound fiscal policies.
However, Claudius was a man of extremely weak character, easily swayed and led. That same elasticity of nature which had enabled him to survive his predecessor's reign of terror now made him an emperor completely governed by those around him. The aristocracy, which had hoped for a restitution of their former powers and privileges after the death of Caligula, was disappointed and angered when the new emperor surrounded himself with his friends, mainly slaves and freedmen. The middle class was shocked, feeling that Claudius's associates were degrading the dignity of the imperial power. This dissatisfaction led to the first conspiracy against the Emperor, in A.D. 42.
The plot was crushed, but further trouble arose in 48. Claudius's third wife, Messalina, who had previously influenced the Emperor to retaliate against the aristocracy, became involved in a scandal with a Roman senator, Silius. The affair rocked Roman society, and Claudius ordered Messalina to commit suicide.
The Emperor's next wife was Agrippina, his niece and the mother of his successor, Nero. A woman of immense capability and driving ambition, she persuaded Claudius to set aside his own son, Britannicus, and adopt Nero as his heir.
The details surrounding Claudius's death are unclear, although many ancient historians, including Tacitus, say that he may have been poisoned by Agrippina. Claudius died in Rome on Oct. 13, 54.
Further Reading on Tiberius Claudius Germanicus
The two ancient sources for the life of Claudius are Tacitus's Annals and Suetonius's The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Modern references include Arnaldo Momigliano, Claudius: The Emperor and His Achievement (1932; trans. 1934; new ed. 1962), and Vincent M. Scramuzza, The Emperor Claudius (1940).
Additional Biography Sources
Levick, Barbara, Claudius, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Momigliano, Arnaldo, Claudius: the Emperor and his achievement: with a new bibliography (1942-59) by Arnaldo Momigliano; translated by W. D. Hogart, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.