Claudius, born around 10 BCE and ruler of the Roman Empire from 41-54 CE, had an unlucky, scandalous and, eventually, deadly love life. Difficult relationships were just another burden faced by the ill-fated emperor. Almost every ancient source claimed that Claudius suffered from significant health ailments, causing noticeable symptoms such as limping, tremors and foaming at the mouth. While many quick-judging people thought that a dull mind was another result of his illness, Claudius actually exhibited an astute intellect, becoming an accomplished historian and a competent, even ruthless, administrator. Regardless of this, Claudius was undeniably luckless with women.
Claudius, according to the ancients, was unsuccessfully betrothed to at least two women and later married four times. Little is known about the two betrothals, yet one of these women supposedly died on the day of the wedding because of some form of illness. The wedding with his other bride-to-be was called off after her family was swept into disgrace by the tides of politics. Next, Claudius successfully married a woman named Urgulanilla, but that marriage ended after she was charged with adultery and, possibly, even murder. Claudius’ second bride was Aelia Paetina, but, as happened in the earlier betrothal, they divorced for political reasons.
The final two wives of Emperor Claudius were particularly scandalous. Before ascending to the throne in the year 41, Claudius had taken Valeria Messalina as his third wife. The two were technically cousins—Augustus’ sister, Octavia, was both Claudius’ grandmother and Messalina’s great-grandmother. Despite this, they had a fruitful marriage, producing two children, Britannicus and Octavia. Yet, Messalina was also prone to extramarital affairs. In the year 48, Messalina became so enthralled with a certain Gaius Silius (said to be the handsomest man in Rome) that she allegedly married him despite her preexisting marriage with the emperor. They were supposedly going to usurp power from Claudius and place Britannicus on the throne. Nevertheless, Emperor Claudius heard of the scandal and executed Messalina and Silius, along with anyone else who aided in the affair.
The next year he married Agrippina the Younger. This marriage was even more incestuous than the last—as the daughter of Claudius’ brother, Germanicus, Agrippina was the emperor’s niece. The idea of a man marrying his own niece was so uncommon in ancient Rome that Claudius allegedly had to have it legalized before he could legitimately marry Agrippina. Interestingly, this was not Agrippina’s first marriage; she was a widow with a son named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Around the year 50, Emperor Claudius adopted Agrippina’s son into the immediate royal family and gave him the infamous name of Nero. After securing her son’s position as heir to the empire, Agrippina was said to have assassinated Emperor Claudius, in the year 54, by feeding him poisonous mushrooms, clearing the way for Nero’s ascension to power.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (left—Messalina holding Britannicus, Marble, ca. 45 AD, center— 1st-century portrait of Roman Emperor Claudius, right—1st-century bust said to be of Agrippina the Younger, all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.