Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina

by Robert Graves
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 956

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.

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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 of Roman trading ships by Togodumnus, who was joint ruler with his brother Caractacus, and also by the rapid spread of the Druid cult through Britain and France. Claudius sent Aulus Plautius to Britain with a large invasion force and the promise of additional legions if Roman losses exceeded a certain figure. Aulus managed to cross the Thames and capture London. Then he camped just outside London to await the arrival of Claudius and reinforcements. A decisive battle took place at Brentwood Hill, a ridge between London and Colchester. The Romans won it by means of Claudius’ armchair strategy. At the age of fifty-three, Claudius fought his first battle, won it, and never fought again. In Britain, he was deified as a god, and upon his return to Rome, he received a full triumph.

He now had to turn his attentions to the East, where for some time he had been receiving disquieting reports regarding Herod Agrippa and his plot to establish a united Jewish empire. Herod had been making secret alliances with neighboring princes and potentates, and he hoped to obtain the support of the Jews by declaring himself the long-awaited Messiah. Claudius realized that affairs had progressed to the stage where there was little he could do to forestall Herod’s plans. At the great festival at which he proposed to proclaim himself the Messiah, Herod permitted neighboring rulers to address him as God without bothering to correct their error. At that moment, an owl flew into the arena, and Herod remembered a prophecy: when next he saw an owl, his death would be near, and the number of days left to him would be the same as the number of hoots. The owl hooted five times; five days later, Herod was dead. His plot to set up a Jewish kingdom collapsed.

About eight years after they were married, Messalina came to Claudius with a strange tale. Barbillus the astrologer had predicted that her husband would die within thirty days, not later than the Ides of September. She proposed that Claudius’ death might be averted if he permitted her to divorce him in order to remarry Silius, her former husband. Claudius finally gave in to her pleading. The whole story, however, was a ruse to rid herself of Claudius so that she might marry Silius; the two were plotting Claudius’ murder and their own accession to the throne. Her marriage to Silius was announced for September 10, but on September 5, while Claudius was out of the city, she married Silius. Calpurnia, a former mistress of Claudius, finally told him the whole truth regarding Messalina and her behavior throughout their marriage. Claudius tried and executed over one hundred people; most of them were the men with whom Messalina had committed adultery. Messalina herself was killed by an officer of the palace guards.

Claudius then married his niece, Agrippinilla, the mother of Lucius Domitius who later became the Emperor Nero. He no longer took any interest in life but allowed the affairs of state to be handled by Agrippinilla and his ministers. Claudius adopted Lucius and made him joint heir with Brittanicus. Lucius became of age first, and Agrippinilla, who wished to see her son sole ruler of Rome, poisoned Claudius. His death was concealed from the people until the empire had been secured for Nero. Thus Claudius, Emperor of Rome and a Roman god, ended his troubled reign.

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