Caligula, who was only 28 at the time of his death, achieved more than his contemporaries at any age belting a reputation as an lunatic fed and fueled by paranoia, only natural amongst the Julio-Claudian house that produced as many murders and births in its hundred years of Roman leadership. Devoid of the usual greed that renders assassination a rite of passage before becoming emperor, Claudius was an unwilling reactant and participant in his own accession to the throne, his toes discovered and prodded by a soldier behind the robes of a curtain after the particularly morbid assassination of his nephew Caligula. As the exploring soldier, branding a sword and a shield emblazoned with the aquila, lifted the curtain, he proclaimed Claudius the emperor of Rome and all the lands circling the Mediterranean and far inland and abroad.
In his reign, he conquered new territories, adding to Rome’s glory, as well as improved qualities of life on the home front, by mandating public works such as aqueducts, built on strong, deftly engineered arches, ferrying water from the mountains to the bursting fountains of Rome. Roads carrying goods and traders from India and Egypt and beyond were his creations; today, we don’t blink at the mention of mere roads, but just 30 years after the birth of Christ, it was new, fresh, an amazing improvement to society– a technological achievement. Workers used rope and sticks to form two straight lines, and dug trenches betwixt those. As a foundation, small stones were laid to provide room for drainage of rain, and covered with the rudus, a mixture of sometimes sand, or clay, or both. On top, large stones or stone slabs were laid. Roads went straight one way (to Rome? well, yes–) — because corners could not be curbed. It was a question of technology.
It is almost comical that Claudius was found hiding behind a curtain, with guilty toes peeping out. He was nearing 50. To be found in such a childish position, and then to throw himself at the feet of a soldier for mercy, only for that soldier to rise him beyond to the greatest he ever imagined to become, to even to be able to pass mediocrity, to the preconceived judgments of those that knew him. To his family, he was slow, a fool, and did not warrant any serious consideration. For anything. Tragic! A Roman historian writes the following about Claudius:
Besides, everyone doubted his intelligence. No one would have had the preposterous idea of entrusting him with such important responsibilities, still less have imagined him capable of governing the empire.
Perhaps that is exactly the reason why he was named emperor, so he could be puppeted, controlled, maybe by the praetorians that murdered his nephew? They were wrong.
Resigned to what people thought of him for the past fifty years, Claudius insulated himself in philosophy, enriching the Roman alphabet by three letters that the Americans, the Spanish, the Cubans, the English, the Italians, the Vietnamese, and many others use today. He was an amateur historian as well.
What we have here, is a man making up letters, looking into the past, dreaming about philosophy. In today’s terms, we might call him a stoner in possession of a crayon.
In Plato’s terms, we would call him a philosopher-king, an erudite, a lover of words, a helper of those who cannot help themselves, leading them out of the cave– a dreamer of what could and should be done.
But that passionate philosophical dreamy side– that so often teeters dangerously into irrationality– made him a poor judge of character in his personal life. Married to a woman named Valeria Messalina who publicly cheated on him not once, but repeatedly (and tried to have him overthrown as well, as if that wasn’t enough damage to Roman testosterone). He had her executed, as was the custom in those days, and throughout the centuries following to Ann Boleyn’s influence on Henry VIII. Claudius remarried for the fourth time, to Agrippina, a widowed mother. She was already his niece.
Incest was nothing new. It was frowned upon severely and shocking, but nonetheless, common. There had been rumors that Agrippina had sexual relations with her own brother and the former emperor, Caligula.
Roman hierarchial law dictated almost nothing except senatorial approval. This might have made it easier for the political-savvy Agrippina to convince Claudius to appoint her son from her first marriage as his political heir, over his own flesh and blood, Britannicus. As shrewdly planned, Nero became emperor at 16 when Claudius mysteriously died from poisonous mushrooms. Agrippina believed she stepped into a powerful ruling position with her son at the helm of the Imperium Romanum.
Remember: Nero was a young boy, an adolescent undergoing hormonal changes, and probably partial to ugly and tyrannical tantrums and mood swings. No doubt he was especially prone being brought up at the coddling of his overbearing mother in a life of privilege. Agrippina faced her last night in her son’s 21st year when Roman soldiers rushed into her room, accusing her of treason and announcing her impending execution. Strong-willed and brash to the end, she ordered them to stab her in the stomach from which Nero had come.