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.

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.

A distinguished general, Aulus Plautius, was chosen and four legions were assembled. After some initial problems – the troops were loath to venture out across the unknown ocean – they eventually landed,  not directly across the Channel, for they had learnt by now to avoid the white cliffs of Dover,  but round the corner to the much easier landing at Richborough. They then made their way inland, fought battles at two rivers, possibly the Medway and the Thames – and then reached Colchester, the fortress of the leading king in Britain. There was then a pause while Claudius was summoned from Rome. He crossed over to Britain, stayed for fourteen days and received the submission of eleven kings. He then returned to Rome, where he celebrated a triumph. Hurrah! The weedy scholar was now a great conqueror and was therefore fit to be a real Emperor.

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.

The ports of Rome. The original port was at Ostia, on the bank of the River Tiber. Claudius built a huge new port, known as Portus, to the north.

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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