Claudius, the emperor of Rome, is held in little esteem because he is lame and he stammers. He is, moreover, a scholar in a nation that worships soldiering. He compiles state histories, but he realizes that they are dull, sententious drivel. At last, he decides to tell the true story of his own life. As the source of his inspiration, he cites the Cumaean Sibyl whom he visited in her inner cavern. She said that eventually he would speak clearly.
From the beginning, the Claudian family feels ashamed of young Claudius, who seems unlikely to carry on the family tradition of power. He develops, for that reason, into a scholarly person interested in the lives of others. His teachers tell him stories about famous people, and as he matures he picks up stray scraps of knowledge about them from various sources.
He is greatly interested in his grandmother, the Empress Livia. Bored with her husband, she secured a divorce, arranged her own marriage with the Emperor Augustus, and poisoned thereafter anyone who interfered with her plans. Power was her sole delight. Another of the infamous people about him is Tiberius, for years the official successor of Augustus. Son of Livia by an early marriage, he married the wanton Julia, daughter of Livia and Augustus. Tiberius offended Augustus and was banished. Livia then insisted that Julia be banished as well. Tired of his banishment, Tiberius promised that if Livia would secure his return he would agree with her every wish thereafter. About that time, the two sons of Julia and Tiberius died mysteriously.
Between Claudius’s ninth and sixteenth years, he occupies himself with the affairs of his older relatives. He is married early to a girl named Urgulanilla, who detests him as much as he detests her. Claudius’s first love had been mysteriously poisoned, and Claudius suspects Livia, who later forced him to marry Urgulanilla. Claudius’s scholarship and stability eventually bring him into the good graces of Augustus and Livia. They make him a priest of Mars and show, by public displays of interest in him, that he is an accepted member of the imperial family.
A grain shortage causes rioting accompanied by arson. Augustus distributes grain according to the usual custom, banishes people who do not hold property in Rome, and rations what food is available. Livia stages a sword fight in the arena to restore the goodwill of the populace. Because Claudius faints publicly when witnessing the brutal sports, Livia decides that never again will he show his face in public. Soon afterward, the last of Augustus’s sons is banished for life. Tiberius is proclaimed the adopted son and successor of Augustus.
Tiberius and young Germanicus, brother of Claudius, campaign against the barbarians, but Tiberius is unpopular in spite of his victories with the army. Augustus suffers stomach disorders and dies. Claudius knows that about a month before Augustus’s death he decided to restore his banished son Postumus, grant money and honor to Claudius, and replace Tiberius. Claudius suspects Livia of the emperor’s death.
Postumus is reported killed by a captain of the guard that was placed around him. Livia slowly starves Julia to death. Because Germanicus is too honorable to seize the empire from Tiberius, there remains only the proof that Postumus is really dead to make Tiberius safe upon the throne. When Postumus returns to disprove reports of his death, Tiberius has him tortured and killed.
Germanicus continues his successful campaign against the Germans. Tiberius is jealous and insists that Germanicus return to Rome for his triumph. By that time, Livia suspects Claudius and Germanicus of plotting against Tiberius. She sends Claudius to Carthage to dedicate a temple to Augustus, who was deified by the Roman Senate. Germanicus is next dispatched to the east to command the armies there, but Livia and Tiberius begin to fear that Germanicus will win favor in the east as he already did in the west. Germanicus is finally...
(The entire section is 3,075 words.)