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Claudius I the man, his physical impairment, and reactions to it


Published on

Challenges the suggestion that both Emperor Claudius I and
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had Polio. Both world leaders had major physical impairments before they came to public office.

Published in: Education, Health & Medicine

Claudius I the man, his physical impairment, and reactions to it

  1. 1. Emperor Claudius I: the man, his physical impairment, and reactions to it by Keith Armstrong 2013 London
  2. 2. Acknowledgments I am grateful to Miss Eva Skoulariki and Miss Katie Surridge for transcribing from the original text. I would also like to thank the many people who have helped me to live and given me the energy and encouragement to complete this article. This includes the people of Camden and my late mother Mrs. Nina Armstrong. I am particularly grateful to the kind members of staff at all levels within the British Library in London. ----------I must point out that any factual errors or sentiment unwittingly suggested are my responsibility alone. The punctuation and typeface of the authors quoted have at times been modified. All rights are reserved. The author's moral rights are asserted. No part of this paper may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the author. © Copyright 2013 Keith Armstrong, London
  3. 3. Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus otherwise known as Emperor Claudius I (1 August 10 BCE – 13 October 54 CE) was Roman Emperor from 41 to 54. A member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and was the first Roman Emperor to be born outside Italy at Lugdunum in Gaul (now in France). It is likely that Claudius had the congenital physical impairment known today as cerebral palsy. This affected his ability to walk. This impairment is very common for survivors of this condition. 1 He also had a speech impairment. Lucius Annaeus Seneca sometimes known as Seneca the Younger (Stoic philosopher, dramatist, politician, money lender and teacher) (c. 4 BCE - 65 CE), makes a mocking reference to his speech in the play Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii / The Pumpkinification of Claudius:" They did not understand his reply because his voice was disturbing and confusing to the ear [...] His tongue was not intelligible- not Greek was he, nor Roman, nor of any noted race [...] 2 Claudius suffered throughout his life because of the negative attitudes of others to his physical impairments. Caius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69 CE - 140CE wrote in his book Lives of the Caesars that: [...] almost the whole course of his childhood and youth he suffered so severely from various obstinate disorders that the vigour of both his mind and his body was dulled, and even when he reached the proper age he was not thought capable of any public or private business. [...] 3 From a bas-relief at Rome depicting a Roman nurse or Cunaria, whose job it was to wash an infant at its birth, rock it in its cradle, and wrap it in swaddling clothes. 4
  4. 4. Suetonius adds: He possessed majesty and dignity of appearance, but only when he was standing still or sitting, and especially when he was lying down; for he was tall but not slender, with an attractive face, becoming white hair, and a full neck. But when he walked, his weak knees gave way under him and he had many disagreeable traits [...] for he would foam at the mouth and trickle at the nose; he stammered besides and his head was very shaky at all times, but especially when he made the least exertion. [...] 5 Cassius Dio contributes this information in his Roman History: [...] physically he was in poor shape, and his head and his hands shook slightly. Because of this he also had a slight stammer, and so he himself did not read out all the measures that he introduced to the senate, but gave them to the quaestor to read [...] As for those measures he did read out for himself, he would generally do this seated. Furthermore, he was the first of the Romans to use a covered chair. This started a trend; for since that time right down to the present day not only emperors, but also ex-consuls have been carried on such chairs [...]. 6 Robert Garland remarks in his book: The Eye of the Beholder that [...] even membership of the imperial family was no guarantee that a disabled child would receive love and affection. [...] 7 Novum infantem - a new baby
  5. 5. Suetonius gives evidence to support this claim when he writes how Claudius's mother, Antonia: [...] often called him "a monster of a man, not finished but merely begun by Dame Nature"; and if she accused anyone of dullness, she used to say that he was "a bigger fool than her son Claudius." His grandmother Augusta always treated him with the utmost contempt, [...] When his sister Livilla heard that he would one day be emperor, she openly and loudly prayed that the Roman people might be spared so cruel and undeserved a fortune. [...] 8 Barbara Levick writes in her biography, Claudius, that: There is comparatively rich information on Claudius' condition, but historians cannot examine the patient, and their opinions seem to have reflected current medical preoccupations. Just before and after the Second World War it was commonly accepted that Claudius had Poliomyelitis [Polio or ] infantile paralysis. 9 Levick claims that Claudius had cerebral palsy, with some degree of spasticity, considering it a more satisfactory explanation: [...] he was aware that he was an object of curiosity and derision. The speech defect may also have been aggravated by this awareness, and by the strain of performing in public, especially without a prepared text or when he was involved in controversy, according to Augustus, echoed by Tacitus, he could read a script perfectly satisfactorily [...] We do not have a clinician's picture of the symptoms, which may have been relatively mild, rather those of hostile witnesses who had reason for reporting them at their worst. It was the sensitivity of Romans to matters of decorum (appearance, bearing, dress, and speech, areas in which Claudius was plainly deficient) that made his family hesitate to let him appear in public. 10 Considering the known historical descriptions and having grown up with many talented people who are survivors of Polio or Cerebral Palsy (and its variants), I would assert that Claudius' medical condition was likely to be Cerebral Palsy or a related similar condition. There is an early reference to Claudius having a physical impairment at the point of birth, therefore providing another indication that Claudius had Cerebral Palsy and not Polio. Polio is contracted virally (predominantly through the absorption of contaminated water) after birth, unless the mother has contracted Polio while pregnant (which would be rare). There is no mention of his mother, Antonia, having the same or a similar condition. His mother's comment, quoted by Suetonius "a man, not finished but merely begun by [...] Nature" 11 would seem to indicate that his impairment was noticed by her shortly after his birth. Cerebral Palsy is also not hereditary, often being caused by a denial of oxygen at the time of birth, which can be induced by the umbilical cord being wrapped around the baby's throat. It should be mentioned, however, that emperor Claudius was not called Claudius because he had a limp or any other physical impairment, but rather through his descendance from the Claudii clan.
  6. 6. Claudius was lucky enough to have been tutored as a child by the eminent Roman historian, Titus Livius (Livy). Later Claudius was to write a history of the Etruscans in twenty books, in Greek; a history of the Carthaginians in eight books also in Greek; a history of the Roman state since 31BCE in forty-one books and his own biography in eight books. None of Claudius' books have survived. Prior to being emperor, he also scribed a defence of the Roman republican Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 - 43 BCE), who had been executed by the state on account of his political views. Considering the times in which Claudius lived, to write about Cicero in such terms was quite a dangerous thing to do and could suggest that Claudius himself held republican views. Claudius' accession in 41 CE had been at the time of a serious grain shortage, which he took vigorous steps to replenish. 12 Romanorum filii ad fabula - Roman children at play. Suetonius records that: [...] here was a scarcity of grain because of long-continued droughts, he was once stopped in the middle of the Forum by a mob and so pelted with abuse and at the same time with pieces of bread, that he was barely able to make his escape to the Palace by a back door; and after this experience he resorted to every possible means to bring grain to Rome, even in the winter season. To the merchants he held out the certainty of profit by assuming the expense of any loss that they might suffer from storms, and offered to those who would build merchant ships large bounties, adapted to the condition of each. 13 All of the contemporary representations that I have seen give only an idealised image of Claudius, which bear no indication of him having a physical impairment. However, this is not surprising, as nearly all representations of this period (mostly statues) are idealised portraits of emperors or senior figures. Incidentally, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945, President of the USA) nearly two thousand years later, himself a survivor of Guillain-Barre syndrome or Poliomyelitis 14 and full-time wheelchair user, never allowed any images revealing his impairment to be published in his life-time. 15 It is ironic that both leaders died while in office.
  7. 7. END NOTES NOTE 1: LEVICK, BARBARA, (1990, 1993: 13), CLAUDIUS, (LONDON: BATSFORD). Note 2: Seneca. L., : Apocolocyntosis, V. Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, (1913, 1997: 448 - 9), Apocolocyntosis, Loeb Classical Library No. 15, [trans. from the Latin W. H. D. Rouse], (revised by Warmington, E. H.), (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press). Note 3: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, V. II. Note 4: Rich, Anthony, (Ed.), (1873: 226), Dictionary of Roman and Greek Antiquities, (3rd Ed.), (London: Longmans, Green, & Co.). Note 5: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, V: XXX. Note 6: Dio, Cassius,: 60.1.22-3. Edmondson, J. C., (1992: 88 - 89), Dio, the JulioClaudians: selections from books 58 - 63 of the Roman History of Cassius Dio, [trans. from the Latin and with historical commentary by Jonathan Edmondson], (London: London Association of Classical Teachers). Note 7: Garland, Robert, (1995: 29), The Eye of the Beholder, (London: Duckworth & Co.). Note 8: Suetonius, T., Lives of the Caesars, V. II. Note 9: Levick, Barbara, (1990, 1993: 13), Claudius, (London: Batsford). Note 10: Levick, Barbara, (1990, 1993: 15), Claudius, (London: Batsford). Note 11: Levick, Barbara, (1990, 1993: 15), Claudius, (London: Batsford). Note 12: Suetonius, T., Suetonius, T., Lives of the Caesars, V. III., XLI. and V: XLI. Note 13: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, XVIII. Suetonius, Tranquillus, Caius, ( 2000: 371 - 2), Lives of the Caesars, [Trans. from the Latin by Catharine Edwards) (Oxford: Oxford University Press). For a more detailed discussion on how Claudius dealt with the grain shortage read:
  8. 8. Carney, Thomas Francis, (196 - ?), The Emperor Claudius and the Grain Trade, (Winnipeg, Canada: Department of History: The University of Manitoba: Imprint) Note 14: Goldman AS, Schmalstieg EJ, Freeman DH Jr, Goldman DA, Schmalstieg FC Jr. What was the cause of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's paralytic illness? J Med Biogr. 2003 Nov;11(4):232-40. as retrieved on 15th October 2013. In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) contracted an illness when he was thirty-nine. It was thought at the time, because of his lasting paralysis of the lower extremities, to be paralytic Poliomyelitis. However his age and the many features of the illness are more consistent with a diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune polyneuritis. The likelihoods (posterior probabilities) of poliomyelitis and Guillain-Barré syndrome were investigated by Bayesian analysis. Posterior probabilities were calculated by multiplying the prior probability (disease incidence in Roosevelt's age group) by the symptom probability (likelihood of a symptom occurring in a disease). In result, six of eight posterior probabilities strongly favoured Guillain-Barré syndrome, although it will always remain inconclusive. Note 15: Johnson, Mary, FDR: Rolling in his Grave?, Electric EDGE Web Edition of The Ragged Edge, May/June 1997. <> as retrieved on 13th August 2006.