“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’d never think I was a master of the universe, now would you?”
– Al Pacino, in “The Devil’s advocate”
Future 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.” (Painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1867)
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 too 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 till you have an ugly gash. Just leave the porcupine alone and you’ll be fine.
The same holds for the two men I am going to tell you about. One was a Roman, born in 10 BC in Lyons, Transalpine Gaul (present-day France) and he went by the name of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus – simply ‘Claudius’ to most historians and casual students of history like me.
Claudius had an illustrious pedigree. Nephew of Emperor Tiberius (the guy who was in power when Jesus was crucified), he was also grandson of the famed but ill-fated general, Marc Antony.
Wait, that’s not all…….The first emperor of Rome, Augustus, was his grand uncle and his immediate predecessor, the bacchanalian emperor Caligula, was his nephew. And if that weren’t enough, the infamous tyrant, Nero – who played on his fiddle while his soldiers set fire to Rome – was his adopted son. Talk about living inside a nest of vipers.
In short, a lot was happening at that point in time, as Rome was establishing 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 generals, senators, consuls and regional governors.
And of course, the vicious Praetorian Guards, whose only mandate was supposed to be protecting the emperor. Imagine if the US Secret Service had the power to determine who should be President or if a President needed to be assassinated because they had someone else in mind, ancient Rome’s Praetorian Guards were something like that. If you were emperor and you were smart and wanted to live a long life, your first priority was to keep the Praetorian Guardsmen very very happy.
And then there were the greatest threat of all – the emperor’s own family members who invariably held PhDs in inorganic and biochemistry with specialization in poisons. As emperor, you were under an overpowering and constant threat of death by poisoning. Then again, if you were smart you constantly topped up and monitored the expiry dates on your inventory of arsenic, viper venom potions and poisoned mushrooms. You never knew when you’d need to use them.
If Du Pont had been there in ancient Rome, their Zyklon-B Division would be bigger than Google. Bigger than Du Pont would be the McAffees of the poison manufacturers – the antidote industry. Among the highest paid job profiles must have been the food and wine-tasters who lead short but spectacularly rich lives. There was even a wine with the brand name ‘glug-ugh!’, the first instance of consumer branding in the world with a skull and cross-bones as its logo. I’m not kidding. My good friend Plutarch told me all about it. Yeah, I am that old.
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?
No one took any notice of Claudius. While his predecessor (nephew, Caligula) was emperor, he was made a consul, which didn’t bat any eyelids. Hey Caligula made even his horse a consul. No one stood at attention when he passed by, they jeered instead. In private they invented hurtful nicknames for him, such as ‘Claudius the Idiot’, ‘That Claudius’, ‘Claudius the Stammerer’ (Clau-Clau-Claudius) or ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’. According to the historian, Seneca the Younger, the ignominy didn’t faze Claudius a bit. At least, he didn’t openly exhibit his resentment.
When Caligula was assassinated by his own Praetorian Guards in AD 41, as a close family member, Claudius feared he might be killed too. He fled to one of the apartments inside the palace and hid behind a curtain, but he was betrayed and discovered by members of the Praetorian Guard.
Aiming to install him as a harmless puppet and rule from behind the throne, the Praetorian Prefects proposed Claudius as the next emperor. Believing him to be nothing more than an imbecile, the senators were appalled that he should be given the power to make or break the empire, but they were worried about their asses. They did not want to antagonize the Praetorian Guards. Besides, they didn’t give a shit who emperor was, as long as they were free to carry on their corrupt, bacchanalian ways.
Thus, Claudius became the first in a long line of Roman emperors elected, not by the Senate, but by the Praetorian Guard who relished the thought of ruling through a wimp.
Claudius however turned out to be entirely something else. The early Roman historians all agreed on one thing – that he was a fair, even-handed and astute ruler who led by example. And in time, realizing that in his success lay theirs, the Praetorian Guard gradually turned into his ardent supporters.
Claudius proved to be a skilled military leader. He fought and lead his troops to battle with the barbarians in Britain and annexed it completely, earning the title ‘Britannicus’. The historian, Marcus Rufus, wrote about how, oblivious of his own wounds, Claudius at the end of a day of battle, would sit among the wounded, and direct his staff to record and execute their dying wishes, which included messages to family back home.
Known widely as one of Rome’s most successful emperors, Claudius ruled with a truly enlightened style for 13 years, during an era when the average reign of a Roman emperor did not exceed 2. He would have gone on to reign forever, had he not been poisoned by a treacherous wife, but we’ll come to that later.
Not only did he prove to be an adroit military commander, but Claudius 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 to merchants against losses on the open sea, to encourage potential importers and help build up stocks against times of famine.
Claudius was a builder too. Not of fancy palaces though. He didn’t have the time for such nonsensical expenditures. 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, to preside over the imperial court. He instituted judicial reforms, creating legal safeguards for the weak and defenseless.
One of Claudius’s landmark reforms was a law that made free folk of conquered lands Roman citizens, if they had lived inside the empire for more than 25 years. He correctly believed that this would build up the groundswell of grassroots support for him, in much the same way as the Democrats in the US would like more immigrants coming in.
But alas, Claudius had the same failing most of us men have – he never understood women. He divorced his first wife because she was turned out to be a lesbian. He divorced his second wife too, just because she was an unattractive plain jane. His third wife, Valeria Messalina, was an absolute horror. While he was away fighting campaigns in Britain, she took on a secret lover and tried to install their infant son, Britannicus, as emperor (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 when the Praetorian Guards found out about the plot, she was forced to swallow a potion made from hellebore.
Claudius’s fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, was a gorgeous broad. She was also Caligula’s sister and that would make her Claudius’s niece as well. Don’t bat your eyelid. In those days, incest was common. Marcus Aurelius’s son, Commodus, regularly slept with his own elder sister, Lucilla. Ridley Scott told me this.
Like her bro, Caligula, Agrippina was wierd, evil and treacherous and it was she who murdered Claudius in the end. In her blind ambition to see her son, Nero, crowned emperor, she fed Claudius poisoned mushrooms one stormy night in AD54.
If you can trust the historian Plutarch’s words, Claudius was horny that night and wanted to get it on but Agrippina said ‘have these sexy mushrooms, Claudi-pie, while I change into something more comfortable’. Claudi-pie hadn’t noticed the skull and cross bones on the label and Chomp.. chomp.. glurggg… ugghh and one of Rome’s most enlightened emperors passed into history.
If it’s any consolation, Agrippina didn’t last long either. Historians claim she was an overbearing pain-in-the-ass alpha-mom who was constantly goading her son, Nero, into doing stuff and then deriding him about it. Things came to a head when he heard she was plotting to have him murdered and install Claudius’s biological son, Britannicus, as emperor and that’s when he decided to have her whacked.
Nero had his ship designers build a ship whose bottom could be opened up by a concealed lever while at sea and scuttled, hoping she would fall in and drown. He then invited mommy dear to take a cruise which she did, but when the ship sank, she swam ashore. Eventually Nero had to resort to much more direct methods. He had her stabbed to death by the Praetorian Guard. Shiff! Ugh! Plop!
Ps: I said two guys. I’ll tell you about the other guy in Part-2.
Gary Robinson said:
This is very entertaining, Achyut. I can’t wait for the second installment. 🙂
Thanks Gary. Will start working on it pronto. 😁