“Don’t get too cocky my boy. No matter how good you are don’t ever let them see you coming. You gotta keep yourself small, innocuous. Be the little guy. You know, the nerd… the leper… shit-kickin’ surfer” – Al Pacino, in The Devils Advocate.


 It takes a lot to get a porcupine excited. Nearly always, you’ll find it hunched up, huddled in a corner, not moving and only if you go real close will you notice its torso expanding and contracting with every breath. The porcupine is a low-key, unassuming guy, making hardly a sound but go to close, try to touch his bristles and you will live to regret it. The bristles are not smooth but have tiny razor sharp hooks that won’t let go until you have an ugly gash. Just leave a porcupine alone and you’ll be fine.

The same holds for some men I have read about. Two men, in fact. One was a Roman, born in 10 BC in Lyons, Gaul (present-day France) and he went by the name of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus. Known to casual students of history like me as simply Claudius, he navigated the treacherous world of Roman politics to become the Emperor of Rome which he ruled quite adroitly, as I am given to understand.

Claudius had an illustrious pedigree. Nephew of Emperor Tiberius (the guy who was in power when Jesus was crucified), he was also the youngest son of Antonia who was Marc Antony’s daughter. That is not all. The tyrannical emperor, Nero, was his adopted son. A lot was happening at that point in time as Rome established itself as the leader of the civilized world and Claudius was in the thick of it all.

Rome in those days was a treacherous labyrinth of power-hungry senators and vicious praetorian guards. If you were in the higher echelons of the Roman establishment, you had to constantly top up your inventory of arsenic and viper venom-laced potions and poisoned mushrooms. You never knew when you’d need them.

If Du Pont had taken the trouble to set up a Zyklon-B making subsidiary there in Rome, a millennium earlier than it did, it would have been bigger than Google by now. The fastest growing industry was the antidote industry. Food and wine-tasters were well paid and led short but spectacularly rich lives. There was even a wine with the brand name ‘glug ugh’. It was the first consumer brand in the world with a skull and cross-bones as its logo. No kidding, Plutarch told me about it.

To those who knew him, Claudius came across as a spineless wimp, short, effeminate, squeaky, unwilling to raise his voice when he spoke. And when he did talk, he had an unsure stutter and disgusting spittle flew from his mouth. Sickly, his nose was continuously running and he was coughing and sneezing all the time. Emperor material? Are you kidding me?

Under his nephew, Caligula’s reign, Claudius was made a consul but that didn’t stop others at the court from jeering at him all the time.  When Caligula was assassinated in AD 41, Claudius fled to one of the apartments inside the palace and hid behind a curtain. He was discovered by members of the Praetorian Guard, a corps of elite soldiers who were charged with the emperor’s personal security, kind of like Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards or India’s ITBP. In the Roman scheme of things however, the prefects of the Praetorian Guards were powerful kingmakers.

Aiming to rule, with him as a puppet, the prefects proposed Claudius as the next emperor. Though they did not like it, the Roman senate went along as they did not want to antagonize the Praetorian Guards. Thus Claudius was the first Roman emperor who was not selected by the senate.

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor

Claudius, discovered behind the curtains, begging to be spared and the Praetorian Guardsman saying, “Okay, your highness, you can get up and rule now.”  (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

Claudius however proved to be something else. He went down in history books as one of Rome’s most successful emperors, ruling in a truly enlightened manner for 12 years, at a time when the average reign of a Roman emperor did not exceed 2. For a start, he fought and lead his troops to battle the barbarians in Britain and annexed it completely, earning the title ‘Britannicus’.

Not only did Claudius prove to be a skilled military leader but he was exceptional at statecraft too. He reformed the financial affairs of the empire, creating a separate fund for the emperor’s private household expenses. As almost all grain had to be imported from Egypt, Claudius offered insurance coverage against losses on the open sea, to encourage potential importers and help build up stocks against times of famine.

Claudius was a builder too. Among his major projects was the port of Ostia, built to ease the traffic congestion on the river Tiber. Claudius also took his function as a judge very seriously, not missing a day, presiding over the imperial law-court. He instituted judicial reforms, creating legal safeguards for the weak and defenseless. Furthermore, he enforced for the first time a law that made free folk of other origins, Roman citizens, if they had lived in the empire for more than 25 years.

Claudius never understood women though. His first wife took on a secret lover and tried to install her infant son, Britannicus, as emperor when Claudius was away fighting in Britain (Chastity belts came a thousand years later). She and lover-boy hoped to rule Rome as regents, on behalf of the baby. The attempt however was foiled and she was forced take her own life by drinking poison.

Claudius’s second wife, Agrippina, got the better of him though. In her blind ambition to see her son, Nero, crowned emperor, she fed him poisoned one stormy night in AD54. The historian, Plutarch, says that Claudius was horny that night but Agrippina said ‘have these sexy mushrooms first, while I change into sumpn comfortable, Claudipoo’.

Chomp..chomp..glurggg…ugghh and one of Rome’s most enlightened emperors passed into history.


Ps: I said two guys. I’ll tell you about the other guy in Part-2.