The Biblical King Solomon is perhaps the only person in history to be praised for threatening to kill a baby. This famous story occurs in 1 Kings 3:16 of the Bible. As the story goes, two women were living in a single home, each with a newborn baby boy. On a tragic night, one of the two mothers killed her own son by accident while she slept. Maddened by grief, the mother of the murdered child stole the other woman’s son, placing the dead baby with her unsuspecting roommate. When the other woman woke up, however, she immediately realized that the dead child was not her beloved son and therefore brought the case before King Solomon, asking him to determine the real mother of the surviving son. To determine the truth, King Solomon called for a sword and proclaimed that the living baby would be cut in half, so that each woman would have a share. Hopefully, any person would be horrified by such a threat, yet, in the story, only the real mother of the child had a moral response. The real mother begged the king to spare the baby and give the child to the other woman. Sensing the motherly care in the woman’s plea, King Solomon put away his sword and delivered the child to his true mother.
Many centuries later, the Roman Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) also had to determine the identity of a child’s mother. Yet, unlike Solomon’s problem of two women claiming the same baby, Claudius instead faced the dilemma of one woman who was vigorously refusing to admit in court that a young man was her son. There was apparently a conflict of evidence and neither side of the debate could convincingly prove if the woman was being truthful or lying. With the court in stalemate, Claudius, like King Solomon so many years before, decided to determine the truth by announcing an unexpected and outrageous demand. According to the Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), Emperor Claudius decreed that the woman and the young man should marry.
Interestingly, Claudius may have personally thought his proposal between the mother and son would actually be a splendid idea, for the emperor had personally married first his own cousin and then his niece in successive order. Nevertheless, other Romans were less eager to marry their close relatives, much less their children. Faced with an incestuous marriage, the woman in court either refused the emperor’s decree or openly confessed, finally admitting that the young man was indeed her son.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Photograph, c. 1911, of an ancient bust of Emperor Claudius from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence., [Public Domain] Via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars (Divus Claudius, 15) by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.