Though the exact date is disputed, on or around Jan. 24, 41 A.D., the emperor Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy made up from members of the Praetorian Guards and the Senate. The same day, Claudius, Caligula's uncle, was proclaimed princeps, or emperor.
After the years of treason trials, bloodshed and uncertainty of Tiberius' rule, the Roman people and senate breathed a sigh of relief with his death in 37 A.D. The elevation of his successor, the 24-year-old Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, appeared to be just the thing to return stability and internal peace to the empire. Son of the popular Roman general Germanicus and nicknamed Caligula (which meant “little boots,” a reference to the small legionnaires' uniform he had worn as a child), the new emperor had shown deference to the Senate and advisers and appeared genuinely concerned about the state's welfare. If he occasionally proved a bit eccentric, most wrote that off to his youth and exuberance.
In their book, “The Romans: From Village to Empire,” historians Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, and Richard J. A. Talbert wrote: “Yet within a year Gaius fell seriously ill, perhaps with a brain fever, and, although he recovered, his erratic behavior escalated. By 38 he executed Tiberius Gemellus (theoretically his co-emperor), and the Praetorian Prefect Macro. By 39 he had quarreled violently with the senate, and was ruling more and more autocratically. Gaius appeared in public in the dress of various gods, notably that of Castor and Pollux. He had a huge golden stature made of himself, and he evidently wanted a special temple of his own.”
Caligula's claim to divinity also carried important foreign policy consequences for Rome. The princeps ordered that statues of himself be placed in Jewish temples in Palestine, a highly offensive move for the monotheistic Jews.
Caligula's contempt for the Senate exploded into open insults, and he even plotted to bestow the office of consul upon his horse, Incitatus. He turned the royal palace into a brothel, perhaps requiring some of the senators' wives to staff it. Supposedly he also engaged in an incestuous affair with his sister, Drusilla, which scandalized Roman society. Further insulting Roman social norms, Caligula also insisted that his sister be deified after her death in 38 A.D., the first woman to be given that honor.
His dealings with the army were inconsistent, and he often insulted that institution as well. While campaigning in Gaul, Caligula declared war upon Neptune and ordered his troops to walk into the sea and gather seashells, regarding them as “plunder from the ocean, due to the Capitol and to the Palace.” He also ordered an extremely lavish military parade for his victory back in Rome, and essentially stated that citizens' private property, not state funds, would pay for the celebration.
In the Robert Graves translation of Suetonius' “The Twelve Caesars,” the Roman historian wrote: “Such frantic and reckless behavior roused murderous thoughts in certain minds. One or two plots for his assassination were discovered; others were still awaiting a favorable opportunity. On 24 January then, just past midday, Gaius, seated in the Theatre, could not make up his mind whether to adjourn for lunch. ” (after friends convinced him to eat, they passed along a covered walk where some boys were rehearsing a dance and Caligula stopped to watch). “Some say that (Praetorian) Chaerea came up behind Gaius as he stood talking to the boys and, with a cry of 'Take this!', gave him a deep sword-wound in the neck, whereupon Cornelius Sabinus, the other colonel, stabbed him in the heart.”
Upon news of Caligula's assassination the Senate convened with the goal of restoring the republic, effectively doing away with the principate and returning the Roman state to its political condition prior to the advent of Julius Caesar and Augustus. The Praetorians, the princeps' bodyguards, would be out of jobs. It has been suggested, (notably by Graves), that Praetorians flooded to the imperial palace to begin looting. What they found, however, was the key to their continued employment.
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known simply as Claudius, was the younger brother of Germanicus, Caligula's father. Son of Drusus, Claudius was the grandson of Augustus' wife Livia, and Mark Antony on his mother's side.
Most historians believe that Claudius had been born with a form of cerebral palsy, which caused him to stutter and burden him with a physical awkwardness. This condition proved detrimental to his standing in a society that prized manliness and martial virtues keenly. When most boys entered the male world at about 7 years old to learn this ethos, Claudius remained with the women, turning to books and scholarly pursuits rather than the military.
Claudius had also perhaps been the butt of several of Caligula's practical jokes. Caligula's appointing Claudius to the powerful office of consul in part was a jape, though it also served to remind the public of the popular Germanicus. Also, Caligula may have played a part in Claudius's marriage to Valeria Messalina, Claudius' cousin and a promiscuous girl around 30 years younger than her husband. Indeed, one of the reasons why Claudius survived the bloody reign of Caligula may have been that the mad princeps did not see his uncle as a threat.
Upon learning of Caligula's assassination, Claudius hid in the royal palace, fearing perhaps that Caligula's death was part of a larger plot to eliminate all of the royal family. Suetonius wrote:
“Claudius. presently heard about the murder and slipped away in alarm to a near-by balcony, where he hid trembling behind the door curtains. A Gaurdsman, wandering vaguely through the Palace, noticed a pair of feet beneath the curtain, pulled their owner out for identification and recognized him. Claudius dropped on the floor and clasped the soldier's knees, but found himself acclaimed Emperor. The man took him to his fellow soldiers who were at a loss what to do, however, they placed him in a litter and, because his own bearers had run off, took turns at carrying him to the Praetorian Camp.”
As the senate continued to deliberate exactly how to restore the republic, the people had heard about what the Praetorians had done with Claudius. Despite his physical condition and lack of military experience, Claudius had generally been well-liked by the Roman people, who saw him as virtuous and intelligent. Mobs began to descend upon the senate building, demanding that the existing political system continue and that Claudius should be the new princeps.
Suetonius also notes that “(Claudius) also promised every (Praetorian) 150 gold pieces, which made him the first of the Caesars to purchase the loyalty of his troops.”
Claudius ruled from 41 to 54 A.D., and after the unstable and bloody reigns of Tiberius and Caligula, Claudius' tenure as princeps was generally successful and peaceful within the empire. His successor Nero, however, proved to be a princeps in the mold of Caligula.
A classicist, Graves was unable to prove many of his theories about the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and instead published two novels, “I, Claudius” (1934) and “Claudius the God” (1935). Subsequently, the two novels were adapted into the first-rate BBC production “I, Claudius” in the 1970s. Though fictional, the two novels are grounded in thorough academic scholarship.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org