Despite being portrayed unglamorously by ancient Roman historians as a stumbling, bumbling, stammering, drooling, and nervously-ticking idiot, Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) was likely one of the more scholarly emperors of Rome. The biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), joined in describing the emperor unflatteringly, but he also hinted at there being another side to the man when he reported that Claudius was a multilingual author who published a forty-three-volume history of Rome, an eight-volume history of Carthage, a twenty-volume history on the Etruscans and an eight-volume autobiography. In addition to these major works, emperor Claudius also wrote a piece defending the late Roman orator, Cicero, and even published a book about the Roman alphabet. Suetonius further reported that Claudius’ Greek works were placed in a so-called Claudian Wing within the Library of Alexandria. Sadly, his many texts are lost except for small fragments.
Despite the speech and movement impediments that unfortunately caused the emperor to be ceaselessly teased and undervalued by the senatorial class and even his own family, Claudius reportedly decided to debut his Roman history with a public reading. If the event truly occurred as Suetonius claimed, then none of the Romans present at the reading would ever forget their experience.
As the story goes, Claudius was just beginning his public reading when a late arrival tried to sneak his way into the audience. The latecomer, however, was evidently a very, very obese man, so his wading through the crowd was in no way subtle. Nonetheless, the late person eventually reached a bench with available space and quickly lowered his weight onto the wooden seat. With the eyes of the audience, and Claudius too, curiously following the large fellow, the unfortunate latecomer broke the bench with his immense bulk, consequently sending himself and his bench neighbors tumbling to the ground. Lamentably for the heavy gentleman, the bizarre sight caused the attending audience to roar with uncontrollable laughter and, as Claudius was also known to be a man prone to laughing fits, he happily joined in with the mirth of the crowd.
After a while, the audience calmed down and their laughter subsided again to attentive silence. With everyone settled, the public reading resumed. Nevertheless, Claudius was apparently unable to banish the image of the seating tumult from his mind. Every time he attempted to begin narrating his history, he recalled the collapse of the bench and the flailing arms of surprised Romans. With such mental imagery bubbling up to the forefront of his mind, he found he could not finish a sentence before a giggle or a renewed bout of laughter interrupted his speech. Suetonius did not record if Claudius was able to finish that debut or if he gave up in the end. Whatever the case, Claudius eventually decided to hire professional orators to deliver public readings of his future written works.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Caractacus Pleading Before the Emperor Claudius in Rome, by Thomas Banks, 1774-1777, marble – Stowe House – Buckinghamshire, England. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.