The Day Claudius Became Emperor


Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula (12-41 AD)

January 24, 41 AD marked the first time a Roman Emperor was ever assassinated.  The concept of Emperor was still rather new, as Caligula was only the third one. Minutes after his death, chaos reigned until a suitable leader/Caesar could be found to keep the German bodyguards from killing everybody. That person would be Caligula’s seemingly feeble uncle, Claudius.

Let’s take a step back. Caligula was born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus on August 31, 12 AD (last August would have been his 2,000th birthday) in Antium. His father was Germanicus, the step-grandson of Augustus Caesar and Agrippina the Elder, the actual granddaughter of Augustus. He was their third son, but trouble reared its head during the reign of Tiberius.

(The name “Caligula” was a nickname. When he was a toddler his parents would dress him up in miniature soldiers’ clothes, complete with little boots, aka caligulae.)

Although Rome and her Empire did fairly well during the reign of Tiberius, the upper class and Senatorial ranks stuck in Rome did not. As paranoid, if not more so, than Richard Nixon, Tiberius saw plots everywhere. This was not helped by Sejanus, Tiberius’s second-in-command, who constantly whispered in the Emperor’s ear of conspiracies; the Iago to Tiberius’s Othello. Swaths of the upper class were executed for treason, including much of Caligula’s family after the possible poisoning of his father Germanicus not too long after Tiberius became Emperor (Germanicus was far ahead in popularity, which did not bode well in Tiberius’s mind). Caligula’s mother Agrippina and older brothers Nero and Drusus were killed.

Tiberius eventually became wise to Sejanus’s ways and had him disposed. For some reason Tiberius started to groom Caligula to be his successor, probably because Caligula was one of the few males left. Tiberius also had hopes that his young grandson Gemellus would be co-rulers with Caligula but that idea was scrapped when Gemellus was killed shortly after his cousin became Emperor.

Tiberius died an old man in March of 37 AD (possibly suffocated though, but he was so old nobody gave a shit) and Caligula was now Emperor. He was extremely popular when he donned the purple. He was the son of the revered Germanicus. Plus, the population was tired of Tiberius’s Grumpy Cat ways. Tiberius was a decent Emperor, as a whole, but not a people person at all. He was also thrifty, so Caligula had money falling out of his ass. Which was great for him because he loved to spend it!

The money was quickly spent on racing and gladiator games at the Circus Maximus. He gave money away. He wasted money building huge pleasure ships, across the Bay of Baie. He decided to turn his mother’s property on Vatican Hill into a race track. He imported an obelisk from Egypt to be put on that race track (now seen on St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican City). Even his nephew, Nero, was amazed at how he spent so much money in such a short period of time. Financial crisises ensued, and Caligula went through various means to get back money, including seizing estates and falsifying wills.

When he became Emperor, he promised to abolish Tiberius’s treason trials. But of course he lied about that. He constantly made a mockery out of the Senate, saying that his horse Incititus could do a better job and that maybe, hey, he’ll make his horse a consul  The Senate had been used to ruling without an Emperor when Tiberius was in Capri, but Caligula took the reigns from them. The Senate, of course, had no power when Augustus was ruling, but Augustus had the sense to not let them realize this. And this is where Caligula went wrong. Abuse the lower classes is OK. But when you fuck with the rich, that’s when you must be gotten rid of.

So what of Claudius, Caligula’s uncle? He was still around. Caligula appointed him with various titles and responsibilities  He liked to keep his uncle around in the palace. Not because he loved him or was scared of him, no. But because he, and his younger sisters (Agrippina the Younger–mother of Nero–, Drusilla and Julia Livilla) loved to play jokes and make fun of him. He drooled and had a limp. He shook. He was virtually ignored by his entire family and was thus able to survive both the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula in anonymity, despite being the smartest of all of them.

The Senate wasn’t the only group of people being abused by Caligula. Even his own guards couldn’t get a break. One in particular held a personal grudge against his boss: Cassius Chaerea. Apparently he was slightly feminine in his manners, so Caligula took advantage of this to his own amusement. An interesting aside—Cassius used to have to baby-sit infant Caligula when the child was allowed to roam around his father’s military camps. One trick Caligula played was changing the watchword to embarassing references to Chaerea’s mannerisms. Such words as “Priapus” and “Venus”.

The plot hatched by Chaerea became a reality 1,972 years ago today. While Caligula was in a passageway between the Circus and the palace (to address an acting troupe he was expecting), he was accosted and stabbed; first by Cassius and then by other conspirators. According to Suetonius, Caligula’s death was much like that of his ancestor, Julius Caesar. Both Gaius Julius Caesar’s were stabbed thirty times by conspirators led by a man named Cassius.

They then brutally killed Caligula’s wife Caesonia and bashed the brains out of his young daughter Julia Drusilla. Then the group went to the Senate with the good news–perhaps the Republic would be restored again, bringing power back to the Senate!

Wait, no, it didn’t. When Caligula’s other bodyguards and groupies, a group of fierce Germans, realized their beloved leader was dead they completely lost their shit. They went back to the Circus and started killing people, including noblemen. Claudius, who had been at the Circus with Caligula, witnessed this and fled back to the Palace. He hid while the conspirators were trying to kill off any remaining relatives of Caligula’s they could find. The military, realizing that a new Emperor had to be found to calm the Germans, found Claudius behind some drapes and declared him Emperor. He was related to Caligula wasn’t he? Good enough.

Claudius was taken back to camp on Mars field while Rome was in chaos. It wasn’t long before the conspirators realized their plans had fucked up and fled. Order was restored, Claudius was Emperor, and Britain was eventually conquered by him, a feat Julius Caesar had failed at. Yadda yadda yadda, poison mushrooms.

For a short period of time, the Republic was almost restored. If Claudius hadn’t become Emperor so quickly, the Senate might have succeeded. As it were, Claudius’s reign brought peace. At least until he decided to have his great-nephew, Nero, succeed him. Much like Tiberius’s mistake in grooming his own great-nephew to succeed him.