X. The Early Caesars: Claudius and Nero

Claudius Caesar
A bust of Claudius. Although he was never expected to rule, Claudius became emperor after Caligula’s murder in 41 AD. “Claudius_MAN_Napoli_Inv6060” by Marie-Lan Nguyen is licensed under CC BY 2.5


Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (or simply Claudius, as he’s better known) was an abnormality in more ways than one.


No one had ever expected Claudius to rule Rome. Though he had been fortunate enough to be born into the most powerful family in the known world, that seemed to be as far as his luck would hold. Claudius certainly didn’t look the part of an emperor. He suffered from hearing impairment, walked with a limp, and had a tendency to stutter and drool when he spoke. Claudius’ appearance caused him to be regarded as the embarrassment of the imperial family, and he was kept out of the public spotlight whenever possible.


The Imperial Pariah


Forbidden to pursue a career of military or civil service, Claudius instead spent his younger years as a scholar. Though no copies of the numerous works Claudius published survive today his work is referenced as source material by others that do, including the written accounts of Tacitus and Suetonius.


As much as his appearance may have been a curse, it also proved to be a life-saving blessing in disguise. While so many members of the imperial family were facing extermination at the hands of Sejanus, Tiberius or Caligula, Claudius survived because no one ever considered him a serious candidate for the throne (and therefore, not a threat). In fact, so many Julio-Claudian princes suffered this macabre fate that by the time of Caligula’s murder, Claudius was the only adult male member of the imperial family left alive. As far as the Praetorian Guard was concerned, it was qualification enough to elevate the 49-year-old cripple to the throne.


The Claudian Controversy


There is a notable disconnect between ancient and modern sources on the matter of Claudius’ performance as Roman Emperor. Claudius did put a number of senators to death during his reign, earning himself the animosity of the Senate and by extension the ancient written accounts, since most of those that survive were written by men from the senatorial class. By and large, these sources depict Claudius as a bumbling idiot; dull, senile and easily manipulated. His physical defects are often ridiculed, and his accomplishments marginalized or ignored.


Based on more objective examination of those accomplishments, modern scholars tend to craft a more sympathetic portrait of Rome’s fourth emperor: a dedicated ruler who strove to overcome his limitations and worked diligently for the good of the empire at large, which is already more than can be said for his predecessor.


Over the course of his reign Claudius made judicial reforms, protected the rights of the empire’s Jewish minority and improved the treatment of slaves. He sponsored an extensive building program of public works that included aqueducts, roads, canals and a safer harbour for Roman grain ships. He reformed the imperial bureaucracy, retained the loyalty of the military, and expanded the Roman Empire by conquering Britain in 43 AD. Though there are certainly elements of truth in the ancient accounts of Claudius’ reign, his achievements suggest that he may not have been the utter fool he is often portrayed as.


Upon his death in 54 AD, Claudius was succeeded by perhaps the most eccentric Roman emperor of them all: an artistically-inclined young man who would be the last of Augustus’ direct descendants to rule Rome. With him, the story of the Julio-Claudian dynasty will be brought to its final, dramatic conclusion.


Mother and Son


Nero has secured for himself a place in history, perhaps alongside Caligula, as the most infamous of Rome’s emperors. However, Nero’s story is one that begins not with his birth, but with his mother’s ambition.


Agrippina the Younger, named for her mother, was the eldest daughter of Germanicus. With her father next in line to the throne, and her brother Caligula destined to rule, Agrippina spent her entire life nestled up against the heart of imperial power.


Agrippina the Younger
A bust of Agrippina the Younger, Nero’s ruthlessly ambitious mother. “Agrippina_minor_Stuttgart” is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 DE


When Agrippina was 13 years old she was married to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman nobleman more than twice her age. Although the couple does not seem to have been especially happy together, in 37 AD their marriage produced Agrippina’s only child: Nero, though at birth he was named Lucius. Agrippina seems to have been determined from very early on in the boy’s life that her son would someday be Emperor of Rome, no matter what she had to do to make it so.


The same year her son was born, Agrippina’s brother became emperor. Though she was held in high esteem by Caligula early in his reign, Agrippina was later disinherited and exiled from Rome after he accused her of plotting to kill him. After that misfortune, Agrippina’s prospects began to improve in 41 AD when Caligula was assassinated and replaced by her uncle Claudius. Claudius revoked Agrippina’s banishment and allowed her to return to Rome. Several years later, her fortunes improved even further when Emperor Claudius’ wife, the notoriously promiscuous Messalina, was caught plotting against her husband and executed.


Agrippina, Empress of Rome


Since returning from exile Agrippina had kept her distance from the imperial court, fearing that Messalina would kill or exile anyone who might threaten her influence over the emperor, but now the situation had changed. Her son’s father had died years ago, and Claudius needed a new wife to replace Messalina. Agrippina saw this as her chance to finally acquire the power she’d always wanted, both for her son and herself, so she seduced her uncle and persuaded him to marry her; in 49 AD, Agrippina became Rome’s newest empress. The incestuous marriage of Claudius and Agrippina sent shockwaves of revulsion and criticism through Roman society, but this meant very little to Agrippina.


The following year, Agrippina took the final step in paving her road to power when she convinced Claudius to adopt her son Lucius as his heir, placing him next in line for the throne ahead of Claudius’ younger biological son, Britannicus. At this point Lucius changed his name to Nero, and his mother and stepfather began grooming him to become the next emperor.


In October, 54 AD the 63-year-old Emperor Claudius died. Almost all ancient accounts of his death implicate Agrippina in using poison to murder her husband. If so, she may have been motivated by fear that Claudius would change his mind about Nero and decide to make his own natural son heir to the throne after all.


Nero and Agrippina
A gold coin from 54 AD shows Nero and his mother sharing one face of the coin. It was rare for any living woman to be featured on a Roman coin, especially alongside the emperor’s portrait, so Agrippina’s inclusion here implies that she commanded enormous authority in the early years of Nero’s reign. “Nero_Agrippina_aureus_54” by Classical Numismatic Group is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


In any case, the 16-year-old Nero was now Emperor of Rome. Agrippina had succeeded in her long, treacherous climb to the top. Since women couldn’t directly hold power or political office in ancient Rome, Agrippina had instead found her path to power indirectly by leveraging influence over the men in her life. First it had been Claudius. Now, Agrippina determined, it would be Nero.


Nero: the Prince and the Poet


The early years of Nero’s reign were stable and prosperous, in part thanks to Agrippina’s guidance, but her power over Nero did not survive for long. Just like any teenager, Nero disliked being told what to do. He resented the thought of being the most powerful man in the known world yet still obligated to do his mother’s bidding.


Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
A bust of Nero. Agrippina had played a key role in paving his path to the throne, but the young ruler soon grew tired of her attempts to use him as a puppet to control Rome herself. “Nero_pushkin” by shakko is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


The power struggle between mother and son soon led to a bitter rift; in 57 AD Agrippina was forced to leave Rome and retire to southern Italy as a private citizen. Even then, Nero still feared she was powerful and popular enough to plot against him and so, in 59 AD, the Emperor of Rome had his own mother executed.


Nero’s act of matricide would unsurprisingly cause him vivid nightmares and attacks of conscience for the rest of his life. In spite of his awful crime, however, the mostly steady government of Nero’s early reign would endure without Agrippina for a few more years.


After all, Nero still had two benevolent role models to look up to. One was his tutor, Seneca; the other was Afranius Burrus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Both were wise, responsible older men who attempted to steer the eccentric young emperor away from his more dangerous or scandalous ‘hobbies’ and encourage him to indulge in those that were relatively harmless, such as music or poetry. They were not always successful, but even in cases where they failed to persuade Nero not to participate in street brawls or chariot races or public stage performances (a serious social taboo by the standards of a Roman aristocrat) they could at least control or limit the circumstances in which these events took place.


Unfortunately, this changed in 62 AD when Burrus died and Seneca retired to private life. Now that the last advocates of dignity and responsibility had been removed from Nero’s inner circle, the emperor rapidly spiraled downward into recklessness, violence and moral bankruptcy that brought the once-promising young ruler ever closer to the depths his uncle Caligula had sunk to not so long ago.


Nero’s anger may not have always been as unpredictable as Caligula’s madness, but it was just as lethal to anyone who came between the emperor and whatever he wanted. Agrippina’s brutal fate had demonstrated all too clearly that even Nero’s own family, and those closest to him, were not safe from his violent wrath.


The Flames, the Christians and the Emperor


In July, 64 AD a disaster occurred that would display the emperor’s cruelty and self-obsession on an entirely new level: the Great Fire of Rome. For six days and nights a conflagration swept across most of the city, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless in the most devastating fire in the history of Rome.


The Great Fire of Rome


Whether or not Nero was involved in the catastrophe has always been a point of historical debate. Although some ancient sources famously accuse Nero of “fiddling while Rome burned” or even starting the fire himself, the typically-hostile Tacitus in this case defends Nero. Tacitus claims that the fire was an accident, and that Nero did all he could to help control it.


Even so, rumours began to circulate that the emperor had been directly involved in starting the deadly fire, and Nero’s enthusiastic plan to build himself a massive, expensive new palace over the charred ruins of the city certainly didn’t help. Facing a tide of public disapproval, the emperor began to look for a scapegoat. He found one in the form of an obscure religious group: the Christians. Nero blamed the Christians for causing the fire, and had many of them publicly put to death by horribly painful methods and means.


Nero's Christian Torches
Nero enacts his “vengeance” by preparing to use Christians as human torches. Horrific spectacles such as this displayed Nero’s unbelievable capacity for cruelty.


Death of a Dynasty


Cruelty, depravity, extravagance, increasing paranoia and unimaginable arrogance. On their own, any one of these faults could have been forgiven in a Roman emperor, but Nero embodied a grotesque, repulsive combination of them all. Even worse, Nero made the single most terrible mistake any Roman emperor could possibly make: he ignored the Roman army.


Nero had no interest in leading soldiers on campaign or even visiting frontier provinces where they were stationed, and this obvious indifference from their commander-in-chief made the soldiers feel indifferent towards him in return. It was a fatal error, and one that would play a central role in Nero’s imminent downfall.


In 68 AD military rebellions against Nero broke out in Gaul and Spain, whose governors were tired of paying increased taxes to fund the emperor’s excesses. As support for the rebels steadily grew, Nero found himself deserted by the Senate, his bodyguards, and many of his personal friends. Panicked and dismayed by the loss of support, the melodramatic Nero assembled a small group of still-loyal former slaves and fled Rome for a country villa outside the city. It was there on 9 July that the last Julio-Claudian emperor committed suicide, ending the dynasty of Augustus.


For almost a hundred years the imperial family founded by Augustus had ruled the Roman Empire through fair weather and foul, a long-lived dynasty that had produced its share of great men, competent men and monsters. However, now that the last of them all was gone no one could be entirely sure about what would follow. The system devised by Augustus had never implemented a formal succession process, much less a course of action to follow in the event of the ruling family going extinct. The resulting uncertainty would be the source of a long and bloody year ahead for Rome.

8 thoughts on “X. The Early Caesars: Claudius and Nero”

  1. This was truly engrossing.

    I didn’t realize I had spent a whole bunch of time reading it until I finally looked up!

    I’ve always had an interest in ancient Rome, particularly the powers that were, how certain emperors were cruel to the extreme while others were great rulers.

    I don’t know why but it just fascinates me. Thanks for sharing this wonderful chunk of history!

    1. Wow, that’s very kind of you to say. I didn’t realize my writing was interesting enough to have that effect, but I’m certainly glad to hear you enjoyed the article.

      Since the emperors of Rome were some of the most powerful people who ever lived, I guess it’s only natural that they still hold our interest so long after their own lifetimes. We’re human, after all; power is by nature interesting to most of us. But it’s true, the Roman emperors were definitely a mixed bag. Some were great leaders, some were monstrous tyrants, and most were a little bit of both.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. My favorite part of history would is definitely ancient Greece as well as the Roman empire so I’m glad I stumbled across this article. I never really look into this history now that I’m out of school so it was nice reading something about Rome and Caesar. Thanks for a great informative read!

    1. Thanks for your feedback, chase. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Ancient Greece and Rome are always a good place to start for someone looking to learn more about history; they both have a lot to offer readers, and both did a lot to determine the shape of the world as we know it today.

  3. One of my favourite subject way back in highschool is history and very interested about the ancient world. One of my point of interest is the Roman Empire and the life of the Caesar as the emperor. It fascinates me. Thank you for lighting up again my interest about the history.


  4. Hi Andrew, thank you for such a fascinating read! I had no idea of the “human” part of Roman history if that makes sense? You can always read about the factual/strategic parts of history but not always uncover the back stories and upbringings etc of such world famous leaders! That’s for the wonderful read!

    1. I think I know what you mean, Amanda. It can be easy to think of history as just a memory test for different places and events. So easy that we sometimes forget it’s more than just that; it’s also about trends, ideas and individuals who were just human beings like all of us. The ‘human’ part of history is, in my opinion, usually the part of it most worth remembering. Sometimes decisions that the course of history hinged on could be made by a single person, whether they even realized it or not.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for your comment!

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