Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina Summary

Robert Graves


(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

When the Emperor Claudius was considered the neglected scholar of the Claudian family before his accession to the throne, one of his friends and well-wishers was Herod Agrippa. The Emperor Tiberius had imprisoned Herod for treasonous sentiments, but when Caligula came to the throne, he made Herod Tetrarch of Bashan. When Caligula was murdered and Claudius proclaimed Emperor by the palace guards, Herod was back in Rome on official business.

As the result of popular opinion that he was a cripple, a stammerer, and an idiot, Claudius’ position was a difficult one at first. The Roman Senate did not expect much of such a man and certainly not a capable handling of public affairs after Caligula’s four years of misrule. Claudius, however, immediately began a program of reforms, among them a reorganization of the Senate, a stabilization of the state’s finances, and the abolition of many of Caligula’s cruel decrees. To carry out his widespread program, Claudius appointed many new ministers of state. He entrusted the office of the Director of Public Morals to his wife Messalina, as she had been most helpful in reorganizing the Senate list. To his loyal friend, Herod, Claudius gave the lands of Judea, Samaria, and Edom. Then in the open marketplace before an immense crowd, Claudius and Herod made a solemn pact of friendship and loyalty.

Soon after Claudius’ ascent to the throne, his son Brittanicus was born, followed approximately eleven months later by a daughter named Octavia. After the birth of his second child, Messalina came to Claudius and requested his permission to move into an apartment in the new palace and thus live apart from him. Claudius ruefully agreed to her plan. Messalina’s real desire to move to the new palace was greater freedom than she could enjoy under the eyes of Claudius, and her removal to her new quarters began a life of debauchery, licentiousness, political intrigue, bribery, cheating, and murder. Claudius was so busy with matters of state that seven years passed before he heard rumors of Messalina’s depravities.

After beginning a public works program, sending an expedition into Germany to recover the eagle standard lost by Varus’ army, and putting down a minor revolt at home, Claudius turned his attention to the conquest of Britain. The war was hastened by the detention...

(The entire section is 956 words.)