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Claudius was the last person anyone would ever have considered a good candidate to rule the entire Roman Empire, yet he managed to do so for 13 years. His grandfathers were Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, and Mark Antony; his relatives included the emperors Tiberius and Caligula. But his stutter, twitching and general ill health caused him to be regarded as the last person capable of being in charge of Rome. However, the fact that he was seen as a complete idiot resulted in his being ignored while his relatives were all being killed off by the various factions angling to become Emperor.
When Claudius did become Emperor, he accomplished many things for the Empire. He cleaned up the general disarray that the Empire had fallen into during Caligula's rule and became the first Emperor to conquer Britain. He was not well-liked by the Roman public, though, largely due to his seemingly wanton application of justice (like other Roman Emperors, he executed alleged criminals on little evidence).
Born in 10 BC, Claudius was generally ill-received by his family. His poor health and disability meant that he could not distinguish himself in the military, as his brother Germanicus had done. He was ignored by his family, to the extent that when it came time for him to participate in the special ceremony acknowledging manhood that all Roman boys underwent, he was brought to the Forum in the dead of night instead of being the centre of a public festival, as was the custom for all boys of noble rank.
As a result of his largely independent childhood, Claudius spent the vast portion of his time reading. He became acquainted with the historian Livy and was inspired by him to write some historical books. Claudius' history of the Etruscans earned him recognition in academic circles, and it was an accomplishment he continued to be proud of throughout his life. It is believed that Claudius was the last man able to read the Etruscan language. He learned enough from his varied reading that, when he became the Emperor, he was sufficiently familiar with military tactics to command the Roman Army despite having never been into battle before.
It was really quite a marvel that Claudius survived to adulthood. His only two siblings to also make it to adulthood, his brother Germanicus and his sister Livilla, soon died in suspicious circumstances. Germanicus, who had been adopted by the Emperor Tiberius in 14 AD and was thus a good candidate to succeed him, was poisoned in 19 AD while leading a campaign against the Germans. Livilla had been involved in an affair with Tiberius' captain of the guard, Sejanus, and they were both killed when their affair was made public knowledge. It is likely that someone would have killed Claudius too, if he had not been generally regarded as a fool who was only interested in writing history books.
Claudius was luckier than most of his relatives because he managed to live past the age of 30. However, he was living in pretty desperate circumstances while in early middle age. Required to survive on the petty allowance his family allocated him and whatever gifts he might get from his uncle Tiberius, he lived with a former prostitute (having not done well with his previous two wives) in an unassuming apartment in Rome. His best friend was Herod Agrippa, a Jewish prince from present-day Syria who encouraged him in gambling and various escapades.
When Claudius' nephew Caligula became Emperor in 37 AD, he seemed to think it highly entertaining to make fun of Claudius at every possible opportunity. Presumably he thought it amusing to give his lame, stuttering uncle a Consulship1, and so Claudius, at the age of 46, held his first public office.
Rise to Power
Claudius's accession to the Imperial throne was more a matter of chance than anything else. It's very likely that, had he not been in the right place at the right time2, Claudius would never have been proclaimed Emperor, and the throne might have passed to a distant relation or — worse — civil war might have ensued as various prominent Romans fought for the throne or for the restoration of the Republic.
However, none of this occurred, because on 24 January, 41 AD Claudius was with his nephew the Emperor, watching a play at a theatre near to the palace. As Caligula determined that he was bored and was going home, Claudius went with him — but they didn't get very far before Caligula was set upon by some members of the palace guard who were plotting against him. He was stabbed to death, and confusion reigned.
Legend has it that, in the panic that followed Caligula's assassination, Claudius ran into a deserted room of the palace and, fearing for his life, hid behind some drapery. The Praetorian Guard came along, found him, and thought it would be amusing to declare the lame, stuttering, twitching old man their Emperor. Apparently, there was nothing Claudius could have done but accept.
It is just as likely that nothing of the kind happened, and that the idea of accidental succession was just one that Claudius liked to get about. It's possible that Claudius could have plotted himself to have Caligula assassinated, or that he paid off the Guard to declare him Emperor. In any case, a subsequent meeting of the Senate confirmed that Claudius was the Emperor3. He became the first Emperor to have acceded upon the assassination of the former ruler, and also the first to have his role confirmed by the Praetorian Guard4.
Though Claudius appears to have tried to be a decent Emperor, power does corrupt, and he is more often remembered by historians as an ineffectual ruler. Here is a summary of the good bits and bad bits in his reign:
The Good Bits
Claudius became the first Roman Emperor to conquer Britain, which he did in 43 AD. Though Claudius, due to his infirmity, had never led armies in the way his brother Germanicus did, his wide reading of military history allowed him to be a competent general. The precision of the Roman Army and some clever tricks he picked up (such as the use of camels and elephants to terrify the British tribesmen) resulted in a successful campaign. The British were to live with the vestiges of Roman rule well into the Middle Ages5.
Claudius' reform of the judicial and social systems in Rome was an awesome feat, considering the disarray in which they were left upon the death of Caligula. Caligula had promoted many people to the rank of senator who did not deserve to be senators, including, his favourite horse, Incitatus. He was also wont to execute people who had committed petty crimes. Claudius changed much of that. Over a period of several years, he ensured that no horses or other unfit members of the Senate remained, instead elevating men of good standing to senatorial rank. This incurred the displeasure of some traditionalists, because 'men of good standing' sometimes included less wealthy men, men from the provinces, or men who had only recently become Roman citizens. He also presided over the review of hundreds of cases, saving some people who were on death row, so to speak, and putting some people there who should have been executed under Roman law.
Under Claudius' reign, the Empire became better managed. Corrupt governors were removed from office, and honest officials put in their place. Some provinces were removed from the command of governors altogether and put in the hands of local kings. One notable example is the kingdom of Herod Agrippa, in what would become Israel and Lebanon. Though Herod was in the end answerable to Claudius, he was not officially employed by the Emperor and had a certain degree of autonomy, a practice which helped improve foreign relations.
Claudius, like most Emperors, demonstrated his power by embarking on great public works projects, and his were primarily to do with water. Claudius financed and organised the building of a new system of aqueducts to bring water from northern Italy to Rome. Though the project took decades to complete, it was in the end successful. Claudius also succeeded in enlarging and improving the port of Ostia, Rome's major trading hub, which resulted in increased revenue for the Empire.
The Bad Bits
Most often decried among Claudius' failings is his lack of attention to proper judicial proceedings. Though, as noted above, he tried hundreds of cases himself, and often arrived at fair judgements based on his readings of previous cases, many of these cases were conducted in complete violation of the rules of a fair trial. Claudius would sometimes refuse to hear all the evidence in a case, or require that the defendant speak for himself instead of allowing a more eloquent lawyer to present the case. He also conducted many cases behind closed doors, without any witnesses, when at least some of the hearings should have been held before the Senate. There is one famous case involving a senator, which Claudius heard in his bedroom, with only his closest advisers present. The senator later killed himself, and it is believed that this was the result of what happened during the 'trial'. Claudius won much criticism for these practices in his own day, not to mention among modern historians.
Claudius appointed many former slaves as his close advisers and secretaries, and it is believed that he allowed himself to be misled by them. Indeed, some experts postulate that he was only a puppet in the hands of his private secretary, who seems to have had the most to do with the day-to-day running of the Empire. Claudius (against all precedent) went on to appoint some of these freedmen as governors of important provinces or emissaries in crucial diplomatic missions.
In addition to being manipulated by his secretaries and advisers, Claudius was also manipulated by his wives. He was married to his third wife, Messalina, when he became Emperor, and had two children with her. Despite this seemingly happy marriage, Messalina has been painted by historians as a wild party girl with a succession of lovers, each of which she had killed off as she grew tired of them; while Claudius appears to have blundered on, unaware of what his wife was doing behind his back. At one point, while Claudius was away on a diplomatic mission, Messalina, in the course of one of her parties, caused herself to be married to a very important senator (who was also married to someone else). This situation got out eventually, and the political significance was great enough that Claudius ordered that both Messalina and the senator be executed.
The End of Claudius' Reign
You'd think Claudius might have learned from his difficulties with Messalina, but he decided that his next wife would be his niece, Agrippina. He had to get a special dispensation from the Senate to marry her, and it was she (and her son) who brought about his downfall. Agrippina already had a son, Domitius, whom Claudius adopted and soon favoured considerably. Claudius ensured that Domitius — or Nero, as he soon became known — was advanced very quickly through the ranks of impressive Romans. He was declared an adult and married off (to Claudius' biological daughter) at a young age, so that he could gain public offices as quickly as possible.
As Claudius promoted Nero, his mother's ambition for him became greater, and in 54 AD Claudius was poisoned, presumably by Agrippina in order that her son would rule6. It reportedly took several attempts to kill Claudius, but he finally died on 13 October, 54 AD. The next day, Nero was proclaimed Emperor.
Modern Portrayal of Claudius
Claudius is nowadays perhaps the most famous of the Julio-Claudian Emperors, due to Robert Graves' novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which were later turned into a BBC dramatisation starring Derek Jacobi. In Graves' stories Claudius comes across as a somewhat foolish but kind old man, muddling through as best he can in a bad situation, and in fact doing better than anyone else at the job. However, scholars would disagree, and in historical writing Claudius is more often portrayed as the best of a bad bunch: scholarly and sometimes just, yet vindictive, often cruel and most definitely corrupted by power.