Nearly all of the ancient sources agreed that Emperor Claudius died on October 13, in the year 54. The exact method of death and the number of accomplices in the conspiracy varied from source to source, but the emperor’s wife, Agrippina the Younger, was usually the prime suspect and poison was almost always proposed as her weapon of choice. According to the Roman historian and statesman, Tacitus (c. 56-117), there may have been several signs that could have alerted Claudius to the impending danger—there was allegedly a significant uptick in bizarre anomalies and omens leading up to the emperor’s assassination.
It is vague if Claudius would have listened to any such omens. On the one hand, he was said to have set up a board of soothsayers in the year 47, or at least put pressure on the Senate to make sure soothsayers were given monetary support. Imperial backing for divination, however, wavered in the year 52, when Lucius Arruntius Furius Scribonianus was exiled after allegedly contracting with astrologers to predict the emperor’s death. In the aftermath of the trial, the Senate imposed a decree that attempted to ban all astrologers from operating in Italy.
Despite the recent decree against astrology, Romans apparently continued to take note of the omens that they saw. Tacitus, like other Roman and Greek historians before and after him, decided to record these omens in his account of Claudius’ reign in the text, The Annals of Imperial Rome. Without further ado, here are the bizarre omens allegedly witnessed by ancient historians that foreshadowed the death of Emperor Claudius:
- A mysterious fire set several military tents and standards ablaze. The inferno, however, was no ordinary fire. The flames were said to have fallen from the sky.
- A swarm of bees set up their hive in the Capitoline temple.
- Among the livestock of Rome, a pig was born with the claws of a hawk.
- Human births were also recorded as omens—some newborns reportedly had bodies that appeared to be half beast.
- Finally, Tacitus claimed that virtually every government office in Rome suffered a death in the space of a few months. These suspicious deaths supposedly affected the offices of quaestor, aedile, tribune, praetor and consul. After not heeding the omens, the emperor, too, followed these other officials to the realm of the dead.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Modified image based on a 1st century portrait/bust of Roman Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.