A Brief History
On October 13, 54 A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius was poisoned to death, possibly by his wife, via tainted mushrooms!
Claudius is most famous for being Roman Emperor when the Roman Empire added Britain to its territory. As such, he is generally remembered for his expansion of Roman control over a territory that would remain in Roman possession for centuries. Yet it is with his personal life, particularly in his marriages, that we find all sorts of less impressive accomplishments.
His first marriage was to Plautia Urgulanilla (try saying that five times fast!). This marriage ended when he divorced her, alleging she committed adultery, while also suspecting her of involvement in the murder of her sister-in-law. To add further insult to injury, when she bore a child but months after their divorce, Claudius declared the child was not his and had it returned to her mother. Claudius married a second wife only to divorce her as well, albeit for less interesting reasons.
His third marriage, however, almost defies belief. Yes, some filmmakers even made the Italian sex comedy film Caligula II: Messalina, Messalina about this particularly infamous wife. Moreover, she appears prominently in I, Claudius for her alleged competition with a prostitute to determine who could “bed” the most men. Spoiler alert: The Empress won!! Not surprisingly, given Messalina’s disgraceful behavior, Claudius did not merely divorce this wife, but had her beheaded.
After three wives being divorced or beheaded, surely a fourth wife would be better? No, of course not!
The fourth time he would not be the one to end the marriage. Agrippina the Younger, Claudius’s final wife, was also his niece. Yet, if the incest is not enough to raise a red flag, her ambitious nature should have done more to concern him. She had ambitions for her son Nero from her previous marriage rather than Claudius’s son with Messalina to become emperor and according to legend poisoned her husband with a plate of deadly mushrooms, which just goes to show if you live by the sword, you die by the…mushrooms? Oh, and as for Claudius’s son with Messalina, he too was poisoned at a party attended by Agrippina, his step-mother. If you are wondering about the fate of Agrippina and Nero, they also met bizarre and violent ends, but let us save those incidents for another day…
Question for students (and subscribers): Was Claudius a “good” emperor? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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The best and most entertaining primary sources on Claudius and his demise are the Apocolocyntosis by Seneca and “The Life of Claudius” by Suetonius. PBS also has an interactive game on its website in which you can play as Claudius and his successor Nero to see how you would do as a Roman Emperor!