Broken of Body, Sound of Mind: Examining the Reign of the Emperor Claudius.

By Pat Lowinger

It had been nearly 90 years since Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon when Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Claudius) donned the purple as Emperor. The civil wars of the first century BCE had transformed Rome into a mighty Principate- a monarchy ceremonious draped in the tattered rags of the Republic.  While Augustus’ reign had brought wealth and stability to much of the known world, within two decades of his death, the Empire hovered on the verge of collapse.  The dark, sinister and possibly neurotic reign of Caligula had been disastrous for the Empire . [1]  Following Caligula’s assignation at the hands of his own Praetorian Guard was thrust the fifty-one year old Claudius, a man who would not only need to overcome the increasing instability within the empire, but also his own frailties of body.

Background

1200px-claudius_crop

Marble statue of the Emperor Claudius

Claudius (10 BCE- 54 AD), the son of Drusus Claudius Nero and Antonia the younger, was born at Lugdunum in Gaul. [2] The limited information we have on Claudius’ childhood  paints a portrait of a sickly child of unknown cognitive abilities.  “He was orphaned as a baby, and nearly the whole of his childhood and youth was so troubled by various diseases that he grew dull-witted and had little physical strength; and on reaching the age at which he should have won a magistracy or chosen a private career he was considered by his family incapable of doing either.” [3] Claudius, born infirm, was further subjected to the scorn and rejection of both his mother and maternal grandmother. [4] Augustus, through excerpts of letters to his sister Livia, speaks on no less than three occasions regarding Claudius’ role within the dynasty as well as his concerns regarding Claudius faculties:

“The question is whether he has, so to speak, full command of his five senses.  If so, I can see nothing against sending him through the same degrees of office as his brother Germanicus; but should he prove physically and mentally deficient, the public (which is always amused by trifles) must not be given the chance of laughing at him or us.  I fear we shall find ourselves in constant trouble if the question of his fitness to officiate in this or that capacity keeps cropping up.” [5]

Depicted in numerous historical sources are references to Claudius’ involuntary head movements (wagging) and repetitive shaking in his limbs. [6] Sources also tell us that Claudius had an unsteady gait or limp.  This strongly suggests the possibility that Claudius suffered from a neurological disorder. [7] Modern historians and medical experts have attempted to diagnose (if possible) what particular illness afflicted Claudius- to which many speculations have been offered, such as: cretinism, hydrocephalus and alcoholism.  While there is no clear consensus, the most plausible suggestions to date have been cerebral palsy [8] or possibly dystonia– a hereditary or trauma induced neurological disorder which causes uncontrolled muscular contractions and/or spasms, bearning many similarities to cerebral palsy.  Bacterial and viral meningitis or encephalitis are typically strong candidates for causation, as is environmental poisoning (via lead). [9] Dystonia is typically characterized by an onset in early through late childhood, and symptoms can typically be reduced with ample rest and regular exercise.  Dystonic episodes (spasms) can be triggered by physical assertion, positional fatigue or stress. [10]

Even in our modern age we can too often observe the cultural biases which accompany a mental or physical disability.  Whether it be mocking, ridiculing or avoidance of association, these remnants of bias may never be fully eradicated from a society.  Rome was not immune, and in many ways perpetuated a bias against those with observable mental or physical imperfections. [11] While Suetonius’ account indicates that Claudius was ‘infirm’ from birth, this is somewhat doubtful given the Roman cultural acceptance of infanticide of ‘imperfect’ or sickly newborns. [12] In recounting Claudius’ treatment during the reign of Caligula, Suetonius illustrates the following:

…these honours did not protect him from frequent insults.  If ever he arrived a little late in the dining hall, there was nothing for it but to tour the tables in search of a vacant couch; and whenever he nodded off after dinner, as he usually did, the company would pelt him with olives and date stones.  Some jokesters exercised their wit by putting slippers on his hands as he lay snoring, and then gave him a sudden blow of a whip or cane to wake him, so that he rubbed his eyes with them.  [13]

Claudius was an accomplished scholar. A student of Livy who wrote in both Latin and Greek- completing a 40 volume history of Rome, a 20 volume history of Etruria, and an 8 volume work on Carthage. [14] These accomplishment are at odds with various claims regarding his ‘being dull-witted’ or mentally deficient.  While none of these works have survived into our modern age, excerpts were encapsulated in the works of Pliny and Tacitus. [15]

the-assassination-of-caligula

The Assassination of Caligula by Bartolomeo Pinelli (1810).

Upon Caligula’s death the empire was thrown into disorder.  Unlike the three previous emperors, no imperial decree had been made or offered regarding Caligula’s successor.  Some members of Senate considered the Julio-Claudian dynasty to  be without issue (heir) and pondered the restoration of the Republic. [16]   As the uncle of Caligula and grand nephew of Augustus, Claudius assuredly possessed the blood-right necessary for ascension, but was initially ‘kept’ within the Praetorian camp. Whether he was being kept safe from assassination or as a hostage is unclear.  What is certain is that after remaining with the Praetorian Guard for two days that there a popular movement within Rome of those whom wanted the imperial throne restored. [17] After securing the loyalty of army by payment (donativum) of 15,000 sesterces a man, Claudius ascended to the imperial throne as Rome’s fourth Emperor.

As Emperor

Claudius’ first actions were definitively not those of someone who was mentally infirm or irrational.  By decree, all senatorial records which referred to the reconstruction of the Roman Constitution were destroyed- irritum facit“He (Claudius) ordered a general amnesty and observed it himself, apart from executing a few of the tribunes and centurions who had conspired against Gaius [Caligula]- both to make and example of them and because they had, he knew, planned his own murder as well.” [18]

We get a confused picture of Claudius’ mental faculties during his reign.  At times he is referred to as ‘scatter-brained’, ‘shortsighted’ and ‘thoughtless’- at others as, ‘careful’ and ‘keen-witted’. [19] Scholars still debate today, as his contemporaries had during his reign, if Claudius’ range of emotional states and cognitive clarity were the manifestation of some undiagnosed psychopathy.  It would not be a stretch to associate many of his ‘attitudes’ and ‘reactions’ as reasonable given both his life experience before and after his ascension to the throne.  Suetonius in particular takes exception to Claudius’ early practice of being escorted by ‘javelin-bearing bodyguards’ and being ‘waited upon by soldiers.’ [20] On the surface actions such as these could be seen as paranoid by some, but rather reasonable by others.  Claudius had narrowly survived the same assassination attempt which had taken Caligula and had secured the throne only by the offering of donativum, as previously mentioned.  Claudius’ vigilance appears to have been warranted.  In 48 CE, Claudius’ third wife, Valeria Messalina, would be executed for participation in a plot to remove him from the throne.

valeriamessalinaempressclaudius

Marble Statue of Valeria Messalina and the infant Britannicus.

“Just because you aren’t paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” – Colin Soutar.

In appearance and physical abilities we are also presented with extremes.  “Claudius had a certain dignity of presence, which showed to best advantage when he happened to be standing or seated, and especially when he was expressing no emotion.  This was because though tall, well built and handsome, with a fine head of white hear and firm neck…” [21] A narrative which inspires thoughts of regal majesty and confidence, all but destroyed by Suetonius’ continued imagery, “…he stumbled was he walked owing to the weakness of his knees, and also because if excited by either play or serious business, had several disagreeable traits.” [22] Suetonius records the most pronounced manifestations to coincide with, “the stress of anger,” which resulted in, “slobbering at the mouth and running at the nose, a stammer, and persistent nervous tic- which grew so bad under emotional stress that his head would toss from side to side.” [23] As previous discussed, modern science demonstrates a marked increase in symptomatology of many neurological disorders- such as cerebral palsy and dystonia during stressful episodes. [24]

Tacitus, whose account of Claudius’s reign was no less flattering, presented the emperor as an indecisive leader who was easily manipulated by the Roman Senate and/or his wife Agrippina. [25] Portrayed as a hen-pecked husband, unable to control his wife- Claudius allows Agrippina to mettle in the affairs of state and terrorize other women who she saw as potential rivals, whether real or imagined. [26]

claudiusjupiter

The Emperor Claudius depicted as Jupiter

Numerous effigies of Claudius survive into our modern age.  None of which better depicts the idealist Roman form than that of his depiction as Jupiter, currently on display in the Vatican, in Rome. [27] Perfect in appearance, Claudius’ form is unmarred by disease or infirmity- a commanding presence.  Crowned in laurels as befits an emperor, his left hand holds the sceptrum Augusti– denoting his unquestioned rank as consul and imperator.  In his right hand Claudius holds a libations dish, acknowledging his ritualistic connection to the divine.

The contrasts are often more nuanced and obscure.  Minted in 41-42 AD is the gold aureus, which on its reverse, depicts Claudius in a seated position- a subtle acknowledgement of his frail constitution. [28] Much less complimentary is a image of Claudius on copper coin(s) minted from 41-50 AD, with emphasis placed upon the heavily musculature of his neck- perhaps a reference to his known spasmodic episodes. [29] Others, such as a simple bronze coin bearing the image of the Emperor Claudius- TICLAVD IV SCAESARAVGPMTRPIMP (Claudius 4th Emperor), which on the back bears a depiction of the goddess Spes, bearing an inscription invoking hope (providence) for our Emperor, or perhaps a desperate plea for his continued health. [30] See image below.

claudiusspes

Accomplishments of his Reign

What can not be debated are the marked changes which Claudius’ rule brought to the Empire- the drainage of Lake Fucine and the building of a harbor at Ostia, completion of new aqueducts and the refurbishment of the Circus Maximus. [31] Each of these works apparently arose out of necessity and not opulence.

Claudius appeared practical and handled exigency well, as displayed in his actions during a severe fire of the Aemilian quarter.  When it became apparent the fire would not be subdued with the manpower normally available, he ordered people from every district to respond and serve in the firefighting effort, a task for which they were justly compensated.  As Emperor, he remained constantly vigilant in regards to Rome’s supply of grain and was always interested in the proper upkeep of the city. [32] This efficiency as an administrator goes far to belie the allegations of reduced mental capacity or vacillation during a crisis.  In fact, it demonstrate the ability to prioritize and make quick executive decisions.  While not a militarist, Claudius enacted new regulations in regards to the Roman army.  Members of the equites, after a proscribed length of service in command of an infantry cohort (typically 480 men), were then required to serve as a Decurion, a commander of a cavalry squadron.  Only after these two previous conditions were filled could a posting to military Tribune be made. [33] Claudius also strengthened the separation of the military and the Roman Senate by prohibiting unofficial fraternization between the two groups.

Perhaps the most wide-sweeping of Claudius’ reforms was the breaking down of social barriers and cultural stigmatization of Roman Freedmen and slaves.  By appointing Freedmen to positions of confidence, Claudius was not only able to surround himself with persons loyal to him, but decrease the stranglehold upon public service by the aristocracy.  By imperial decree, Claudius allowed the sons of freedmen to be adopted by equites and thus be able to enter the senatorial ranks. [34] In regards to the treatment of slaves, Claudius ordered that injured and ill slaves had to be given medical treatment rather than be abandoned to die by their masters.  Likewise, any slave which had previously so abandoned, only to later have recovered from their illness was set free.  Claudius also prohibited the killing of slaves with the intent to deny medical treatment- doing so would be considered murder. [35] These progressive and compassionate acts did much to popularize him the freedmen and plebs, but earned the ire of the patricians.

Conclusion

Historians will never know with absolute certainty the exact cause and pathology of Claudius’ neurological disorder(s).  Having never been considered for the purple, Claudius in all likelihood would have never found himself thrust into the annals of history, except for a specific chain of events which ended with the death of his nephew Caligula.  The exact limitations his disabilities placed upon him are rather unclear but certainly presented challenges almost unimaginable to persons similarly afflicted in antiquity- let alone those who reigned as Emperor of Rome for 13 years.

Despite his disabilities, or perhaps because of them, Claudius was a clever and practical leader who surrounded himself with a cadre of loyal soldiers and freedmen whom he could trust and rely upon.  Under his leadership, the Roman economy was relatively stable, and practical public works were completed.  Whether motivated by populist views or a distrust of the aristocracy, Claudius made numerous social reforms which where in antiquity key points of criticism, but today regarded, by many as a legacy of enlightenment.

Bibliography

Armstrong, Keith. “Emperor Claudius I: The Man, His Physical Impairment, and Reactions to It.” Academia.edu. 2013. Accessed March 07, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/4779256/Emperor_Claudius_I_the_man_his_physical_impairment_and_reactions_to_it_by_Keith_Armstrong.

Cary, Earnest. “Roman History, 60.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 60. Accessed March 02, 2015. http://lexundria.com/dio/60/cy.

Cary, M. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1975.

“Claudius as Jupiter.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://www.romanemperors.com/images/claudius/statue-claudius-as-jupiter.jpg.

“Claudius Bronze Coin.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://www.romanemperors.com/images/claudius/coin-bronze.jpg.

“Claudius Gold Aureus.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 08, 2015. http%3A%2F%2Fmuseumvictoria.com.au%2Fcollections%2Fitems%2F72633%2Fcoin-aureus-emperor-claudius-ancient-roman-empire-41-42-ad.

“Claudius Copper Coin.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 09, 2015. http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/items/66398/coin-as-emperor-claudius-ancient-roman-empire-41-50-ad.

“Dystonias Fact Sheet.” : National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Accessed March 08, 2015. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/dystonias/detail_dystonias.htm.

Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996.

Rice, Jane E. “The Emperor with the Shaking Head: Claudius’ Movement Disorder.” Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine 93 (April 2000): 198-201.

Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Suetonius, and Robert Graves. The Twelve Caesars. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

Tacitus, Cornelius, Alfred John Church et al. The Complete Works of Tacitus: The Annals. The History. The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola. Germany and Its Tribes. A Dialogue on Oratory. New York: Modern Library, 1942.  Accessed March 08, 2015. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0078

References and Citations

[1] Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996, 262-263.

[2] Suetonius, Life of Divus Claudius 2/Graves, 179; all translations of Suetonius are taken from Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, translated by Robert Graves; revised with an introduction and notes by J. B. Rives (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

[3] Suetonius, 2/Graves, 179.

[4 & 5] Suetonius, 3-4/Graves, 180.

[6] Suetonius, 30/Graves, 198.

[7] Cary, Earnest. “Roman History, 60.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 60. Accessed March 02, 2015. http://lexundria.com/dio/60/cy, 60.23.1

[8] Armstrong, Keith. “Emperor Claudius I: The Man, His Physical Impairment, and Reactions to It.” Academia.edu. 2013. Accessed March 07, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/4779256/Emperor_Claudius_I_the_man_his_physical_impairment_and_reactions_to_it_by_Keith_Armstrong.

[9] Rice, Jane E. “The Emperor with the Shaking Head: Claudius’ Movement Disorder.” Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine 93 (April 2000), 198.

[10] “Dystonias Fact Sheet.” : National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Accessed March 08, 2015. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/dystonias/detail_dystonias.htm.

[11] Armstrong, Keith. “Emperor Claudius I: The Man, His Physical Impairment, and Reactions to It.” Academia.edu. 2013. Accessed March 07, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/4779256/Emperor_Claudius_I_the_man_his_physical_impairment_and_reactions_to_it_by_Keith_Armstrong.

[12] Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 26-29.

[13] Suetonius, 8/Graves, 182-183.

[14] Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996, 264-265.

[15] ibid., 264.

[16] Cary, M. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1975, 355.

[17 & 18] Suetonius, 10-11/Graves, 184.

[19] Suetonius, 15 & 39/Graves, 186 & 202.

[20] Suetonius, 35/Graves, 200.

[21-23] Suetonius, 30/Graves, 198.

[24] Rice, Jane E. “The Emperor with the Shaking Head: Claudius’ Movement Disorder.” Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine 93 (April 2000), 200.

[25] Tacitus, The annals 12.7/ Church; all translations of Tacitus taken from The Complete Works of Tacitus: The Annals. The History. The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola. Germany and Its Tribes. A Dialogue on Oratory. New York: Modern Library, 1942. Accessed March 08, 2015. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0078

[26] Tacitus, 12.22/ Church.

[27] “Claudius as Jupiter.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://www.romanemperors.com/images/claudius/statue-claudius-as-jupiter.jpg.

[28] “Claudius Gold Aureus.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 08, 2015. http%3A%2F%2Fmuseumvictoria.com.au%2Fcollections%2Fitems%2F72633%2Fcoin-aureus-emperor-claudius-ancient-roman-empire-41-42-ad.

[29] “Claudius Copper Coin.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 09, 2015. http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/items/66398/coin-as-emperor-claudius-ancient-roman-empire-41-50-ad.

[30] “Claudius Bronze Coin.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://www.romanemperors.com/images/claudius/coin-bronze.jpg.

[31-32] Suetonius, 18-20/Graves, 190-191.

[33] Suetonius, 25/Graves, 194.

[34] Suetonius, 24/Graves 193-194.

[35] Suetonius, 25/Graves 194-195.

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About Patrick Lowinger

Patrick Lowinger holds a M.A. in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University (AMU) and B.S. in Microbiology (1993) from California State University, Long Beach.
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