Caligula and Claudius



The death of Tiberius was received with considerable relief at Rome.  His long absence had meant that the ordinary people were deprived of the splendid games that the emperor was supposed to put on, and the senate could do little business without the emperor.  Thus Gaius, the new emperor began off on the right footing.

He was the son of Germanicus, the most successful of Tiberius’s generals who had fought the Germans with great success and had retrieved the standards that the Romans had lost in their great defeat of AD 9.  The infant son Gaius had accompanied him on his expeditions wearing little boots and thus he acquired the nickname of Caligula (Latin Caliga = boot). In addition his mother was Agrippina, the granddaughter of Augustus, so Gaius had an excellent ancestry.  So the first six months of his reign went well.

He returned to Rome, made friends with the senate and gave some lavish games which pleased the populace.  This did not last long: Gaius was not very bright, he was unstable and he was very, very extravagant.

Lake Nemi, set in a volcanic crater

Some of his building projects were sensible – he began building two new aqueducts for Rome, but some were over the top: the most notorious was his construction of two huge boats on Lake Nemi.  Lake Nemi is a lake in a volcanic crater, 30 kms (19 miles) south of Rome.  Its pure waters and cool setting made it a favourite summer escape from the heat of Rome and it was semi sacred.  But Caligula ordered the construction of two huge boats on the lake which were later sunk, and have since been the subject of an equally extravagant archaeological excavation by another powerful emperor,  Mussolini.

One of Caligula’s huge boats, as excavated  by Mussolini in the 1920’s

The boats had been sunk and fragments of them had been dredged up and so he ordered that the lake should be drained and the boats recovered. Two years from 1927 – 1929 were spent in lowering the level of the lake, but then the two boats were revealed.  The smaller one carried a temple to Diana but the larger one, 73 metres long and 24 metres broad, carried a large floating palace complete with marble floors and baths.  The plumbing arrangements were particularly impressive, including facilities for heating the baths in the best Roman style.  It was a display piece of Roman engineering and a museum was built to accommodate the boats.  But sadly in 1944, during the fighting in the Second World War, the museum and the boats were burned and only the bronze fittings for the boats have survived.

Lake Nemi: one of the bronze fittings from the huge boats built by Caligula

One of the bronze fittings from the boats which survived the fire of 1944

Caligula soon managed to antagonise virtually everybody.  The mythmakers went into action and it was alleged that he had sex with his sister Drusilla — and even wanted to make his horse a consul. Eventually he was assassinated, not by any great plot, but by a junior member of the Praetorian Guard whom he had taunted for being effeminate.  The soldier could take the taunts no longer so in a fit of anger he murdered the emperor.



His death was received with acclamation.  In the senate there was a brief moment when some believed that “freedom” would be restored, that emperors would be no more, and the senate would once again preside over the people of Rome.  The Praetorian Guard thought otherwise: they wanted a successor who would restore their importance and pay them more money.   They found an elderly descendant of Augustus, hiding behind a curtain. They dragged him out, and somewhat unwillingly proclaimed him emperor.  His name was Claudius and he had a bad stammer, immortalised by Robert Graves as Clau- Clau- Claudius.

Bust of Claudius

Claudius is a strange character: he was physically odd – it has been suggested that he may have had cerebral palsy – but he was something of a scholar.  He was aged 50, and had written an extensive history of the Etruscans and had even learnt the Etruscan language as part of his researches.  He was not a bad emperor, though he succeeded in putting to death thirty senators (out of a total of 600) and over two hundred equestrians.  He was no military man but ironically he was one of the last emperors to make a substantial addition to the Roman Empire: he conquered Britain.


The Conquest of Britain

The trouble was, Claudius was weedy.  He was already fifty years old when he was dragged out from behind the curtain where he was hiding and made emperor.  But emperors were supposed to be tough military men, so Claudius looked round to find something to conquer, so he decided to conquer Britain.

Britain had already been looked at.  In 55 BC and then again in 54 BC Julius Caesar had crossed over with a small force, and demonstrated that it should not be too difficult to conquer Britain properly.  From the economic point of view, Britain had not all that much to offer: there were metals and hunting dogs, and Britons made good slaves.  But perhaps the Roman calculations were rather different.

Was it worth while to expand the empire? For five hundred years the Roman Empire had been constantly expanding, but they received a very nasty shock in AD 9 when an army set out to conquer Germany, but was disastrously defeated. Augustus lost three legions, and the Romanisation of Germany, which had been going in full swing came to a sudden halt. The Romans began to believe that perhaps they had gone far enough.  But Britain was enticing: the Britons were, dare we say it, slightly more sophisticated than the Germans.  They used money and British coinage was found extensively in southern and eastern England.  Towns, all at least elaborate hill forts were also beginning to spring up and it looked as if the Britons could without too much difficulty be civilised and fit into the Roman world, in a way that the Germans with their tribal system could not.

It is a paradox that it is easier to conquer a people who are half way on the road to civilisation than to conquer a more primitive people who still lived in uncoordinated tribal society.  What the Romans did not realise however is that Britain is a big place and that whereas the south and east were becoming civilised – and this can be seen archaeologically by the distribution of Celtic coins – the north and the west still had a more primitive social structure.  And this was to be the cause of considerable grief to the Romans in the coming century.

Caligula has already had thoughts about invading Britain – archaeologists have found several forts ready for troops to move up to the English Channel.  Claudius therefore decided to invade.  It would be an easy conquest from which he could obtain the necessary triumph.

Claudius gets his Triumph

Map of Roman conquest of Britain

Traditional map of the Roman conquest, with the Romans landing at Richborough and fighting battles at the Rivers Medway and Thames till finally reaching Colchester, the capital of  the Catuvellauni.

The usual story is that a great flotilla set out and landed not directly across the Channel at Dover, but went round the side and made the much easier landing near Richborough.  However recent evidence suggests that there was also a second invading force near Chichester, where the local Celtic princes were more friendly.  However once the initial landing had been a success, there was a pause while Claudius made his way up from Rome, crossed over to Britain, where he stayed fourteen days as the head of a great army, and then returned to Rome where he celebrated a triumph.  Hurrah! The weedy scholar was now a great conqueror and therefore fit to be a real emperor.

The conquest of Britain then went on apace, and whether by accident or design, a rough border was soon established.  This is called ‘the Fosse Way Frontier’.  The Fosse Way is one of the great Roman roads running diagonally from Exeter in the south west to Lincoln, half way up the north eastern side of England, a road that still exists in one form or another, for a good part of its way.  Leo Rivet produced two famous distribution maps: one showing the distribution of Celtic coins, and the other showing the distribution of Roman villas.  His maps were drawn in the 1970s, but though the numbers have greatly increased, the pattern is still the same, as they both reveal more-or-less the line of the Fosse Way.  Where the Celtic Britons had been monetised, Romanisation was easy, but in the areas where there was no money, Romanisation was far more difficult.

However the Roman conquest was far more sophisticated than brute conquest.  The Romans always made use of client kings; that is native kings who were prepared to collaborate with the Romans in return for getting Roman help and support.  And in Britain there were two main client kings: a good client king and a bad client king, or rather a bad client queen. The good client king in the south was Cogibubnus, the King of the Atrebates stretching from Chichester on the south coast up to Silchester near modern Reading.  And the bad client queen was Boudica, or Boadicea, who was Queen of the Iceni in East Anglia.

Boudica (the name is Celtic for Queen) famously revolted.  It was her father Prasutagus who was the client King and on his death the Romans somewhat brusquely decided to take the kingdom into direct rule, but Boudica objected and she was flogged and her daughters raped – so the Roman historians tell us – and the tribes rallied  behind her.  The Romans were unprepared and Boudica captured and burnt Colchester, which had been the leading town of Celtic Britain and had become the capital of Roman Britain.  They then went on to capture and burn London, the newly established imperial town, which in ten years had grown to become the biggest town in Britain: the layer of ashes from the burning are still visible in deep excavations.  It looked as if the Romans were going to be thrown out of Britain.  The governor was campaigning in North Wales which romantic writers like to believe was a hot bed of the druids.  But he hurried back and eventually after a hard fought battle defeated Boudica — and Britain was saved for civilisation.

The Romans drew a sigh of relief, and one suspects that many of the Britons did likewise, as some actually rather liked being part of Roman civilisation, rather than face the threat of the throwback to their barbarian past.

Boudica's 'Palace' at Fison's Way Thetford

The site at Fisons Way, Thetford. Inside the innermost of the three rectangular enclosures are three large roundhouses. Did they form the Palace of some Icenian king? The circular features to the north, belong to an earlier phase.

The difference between the two client kings can perhaps be seen by their architecture: in Norfolk an interesting site near Thetford was excavated by Tony Gregory, who sadly died very soon after he had completed the excavation.  But he believed that the site was the headquarters, if not of Boudicca herself (there are problems here with the interpretation of the coins) then of one of the leading princes of the Iceni.  Here a rectilinear enclosure enclosed five rather grand roundhouses which he suggested formed the palace of one of the nobles of the Iceni.

The Fishbourne Roman Palace. The grand entrance is at the bottom, leading to the formal pathway across the gardens to the main Reception Hall on the far side. Note to the right the suites for distinguished visitors,  each set round its own courtyard

The other client kingdom were the goodies – the Atrebates and the Regnenses –probably ruled over by the great king Cogidubnus. They appeared to have had two centres, each of which has been excavated by one of our leading archaeologists.  One is at Fishbourne, just outside the Roman and modern town of Chichester, where a magnificent Roman palace was excavated in 1960s by the young Barry Cunliffe who began the excavations as a Cambridge undergraduate and finished them as Professor of Archaeology at Southampton.  This can only be described as a palace, one of the grandest Roman buildings north of the Alps.  True, it was built after the Boudica rebellion, no doubt as a reward for Cogidubnus’s fidelity during the rebellion and his help in stabilising southern Britain after the rebellion.

There also seems to have been a second centre at the town of Silchester, 50 miles to the north near modern Reading where Michael Fulford, Professor of Archaeology at Reading has been excavating for forty years.  This is our best known Roman town because it was deserted after the Romans and was therefore extensively excavated by The Society of Antiquaries in the 1890s and Mike Fulford has spent forty years tidying up their excavations and demonstrating that there was already of the beginnings of a town there before the Romans.

This then shows what a client king could achieve: they could take over a settlement already on its way to becoming a town at the time of the Roman conquest and develop it as a Roman town following the conquest.  While at Chichester a large building known as the Proto Palace underlies the later palace is rectangular and very much in the Roman style,  demonstrating that here was a client king who could build in Roman style – rectangular buildings not roundhouses – and who could lead with fellow countrymen into the glories of what must be called Roman civilisation.

And yes, it is easy to scoff and be cynical, but one suspects that for many of the inhabitants of Roman Britain once they had recovered from the shock of the invasion, soon came round to the realisation that actually life under the Romans could be better than a life under the control of a possibly capricious local ruler.


Back in Rome

Meanwhile, back in Rome, Claudius’s reign continued. Modern scholars treat him rather more kindly than do the ancient sources, pointing out that he appears to have been diligent in being an Emperor, attending the Senate and answering his correspondence. Indeed, he appears to have reorganised the bureaucracy, appointing equestrians (knights) to posts previously held by Senators and making increasing use of Imperial freedmen, that is a slaves who had been freed but still remained under obligations to their master. The most notorious of these was Narcissus, who was the chief secretary – (ab epistulis) – indeed Claudius was so trusting that when the army refused to embark on the invasion of Britain, he sent Narcissus to sort them out.  When this ex-slave arrived, he was greeted with cries of ‘Io Saturnalia’ – Hi, it’s Christmas! For the Saturnalia was a time when masters played at being slaves and slaves played at being masters. But Narcissus clearly was skilful enough to turn the situation around and the troops embarked. As with several other imperial freedmen, he acquired an enormous fortune through what we would call bribery.

Claudius also set under way several major building project, notably that of building a new port at Portus,  a couple of miles north of the mouth of the River Tiber (under the modern airport) . The mouth of the River Tiber was notoriously difficult for shipping and the huge grain ships that brought grain from North Africa had to moor offshore and transfer their cargo to lighters. A major artificial harbour was therefore undertaken several miles north of the Tiber mouth, later enlarged by Trajan into the greatest harbour in the ancient world where even the biggest ships could berth.


Claudius also rather overindulged in marriages. The first two were to nonentities, but the third was to Messalina, who was notorious for her promiscuity. Indeed it was even reported by Pliny the Elder that she had a competition with the leading prostitute of the day as to who could bed the most men in a day – Messalina won with a score of 25. She was eventually replaced by Agrippina the Younger, who was the step great grandson of Augustus. She had a son by a previous marriage called Nero, and she wanted to put him on the throne. She therefore slowly poisoned Claudius, who died after a reign of 13 years. Agrippina achieved her aim, and Claudius was succeeded by Nero – as his wife intended.


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