Claudius's relationships with the women in his life were both eventful and tragic. As
mentioned earlier, both his mother and sister despised him mainly because of their
negative views about physical impairment. Claudius was also unlucky in his relationships
with the women he married. However, he did more to enhance the legal position of Roman
women than any previous emperor. (See Social Reform Policies under Claudius).
Suetonius wrote that he was immoderate in his passion for women and wholly
disinterested in male partners unlike many Roman emperors. 1
He had in all four
marriages, which resulted in five children (three girls and two boys); later on, he adopted a
son who murdered three of them. Only one of his natural children survived long enough to
have a child of her own.
The marriage veil or flam'meum worn by a Roman bride on her wedding day. It was of a
deep and brilliant yellow colour like a flame. It was sufficient to cover the whole person
from head to foot. During the ceremony it was worn over the head, to shield the downcast
looks of modesty as exhibited in the above figure. This Roman marble, representing a
bride (nupta) at her wedding. This veil was retained until she arrived at her new home,
when she was unveiled by her husband. 2
When Claudius was a young boy, emperor Augustus proposed that M. Plautius Silvanus,
the grandson of Livia's friend Urgulania, (a prominent Etruscan noblewoman) should
escort him to functions to see that he did not get into difficulty. Urgulania could be
regularly seen at Augustus' imperial court. 3
Silvanus's sister Plautia Urgulanilla later
became Claudius's first wife. This marriage closely connected Claudius with the Etruscan
He later had two children with Plautia; Drusus and Claudia.
A pronuba was a matron who had only been married once.
She attended the bride on the day of her wedding, in a similar
capacity as the bridesmaid today. It was her special duty to
conduct the bride after the marriage feast, to give her
encouragement and instructions respecting the new duties and
condition of life she had just entered upon. In the figre the bride
is on the right, still enveloped in her bridal veil; the pronuba is on
the left with a chaplet round her head. Sh has an attitude of
persuasion or encouragement. Both are sitting upon the marriage
Suetonius informs us that:
[...] He lost Drusus just before he came to manhood, for he was choked by a
pear which he had thrown in the air in play and caught in his open mouth. A
few days before this he had betrothed him to the daughter of Sejanus, which
makes me wonder all the more that some say that the boy was treacherously
slain by Sejanus. Claudia was the offspring of his freedman Boter [a former
slave], and although she was born within five months after the divorce and he
had begun to rear her, yet he ordered her to be cast out naked at her mother's
door and disowned. 6
In about 20 CE, Claudius divorced Plautia Urgulanilla on the grounds of adultery. 7
He then married Aelia Paetina (perhaps in 28 CE), who was the sister of Lucius Aelius
Sejanus. Sejanus was the Prefect of the emperor's household troops, the Praetorian
Guard, and effectively the head of emperor Tiberius's secret police. Lucius Sejanus was
responsible for the killing of many leading Romans during Tiberius's reign of terror.
SIGMA. A semicircular dining-couch adapted for use with a round table (orbis); and so
named because it resembled one of the early forms of the Greek letter Sigma, which was
written like the letter C. It was not invented until the square dining-table (quadra) fell into
disuse, when the introduction of the circular form necessitated a similar change in the
shape of the sofa used with it. 8
Eventually in 31 CE, Sejanus also fell out of favour and was liquidated along with his whole
family, including his two young children. 9
Claudius was forced, for political reasons, to
divorce Aelia Paetina the same year. Together they had one daughter: Claudia Antonia. 10
It is evident that long afterwards Claudius still held some affection for Aelia because he
seriously contemplated remarriage with her after the killing of his third wife.11
us that after her second marriage, Claudia Antonia bore Claudius his only grandchild in
47 CE, 12
however, her only child died in infancy.
Speculum or mirror was originally made of white
metal, formed by the mixture of copper and tin but
afterwards of silver, which was less brittle. The surface
was kept bright by the use of pounded pumice-stone
and a sponge. It was usually fastened to the frame
by a short string. Glass was also employed at a later
period. The annexed woodcut represents a silver
mirror found at Pompeii. 13
Life became much worse for Claudius after his marriage to his third wife: Valeria
Messalina (also spelled Messallina), born in c. 22 CE. 14
She married Claudius in 38 or
early 39 CE, at the normal age for Roman girls of fourteen or fifteen. Claudius was in his
late 40's. 15
Messalina was closely related to Ap. Claudius Pulcher, who had been consul in
38 BCE; she was also Claudius' cousin (once removed). 16
The new empress led a rebellion
against the traditional Roman dress by putting on fashionable Greek clothes including
coloured Ionic chiffons with jewelled brooches and also by using Greek hairnets and tiaras.
Her male friends wore similar cloaks instead of the chalky white Roman toga.
Two children were born from their relationship. Their daughter Claudia Octavia was born
in 39 or early 40 CE.18
The birth of their son Tiberius Claudius Caesar Germanicus
followed Claudius' accession to the throne by less than three weeks, on the 12th of
February, 41 CE. 19
After Claudius' military victory in Britain, he was later renamed
'Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus'. Tacitus considers that Britannicus possibly
had the impairment of epilepsy. 20
While Claudius was away conquering Britain, Valeria Messalina had numerous affairs
which quietly continued after his victorious return. Matters came to a head in October, 48
CE when he made a trip to Ostia to make an animal sacrifice and see how his plans for a
new harbour were going.21
Messalina forced an unilateral divorce and married her lover,
the ex-praetor Caius Silius. She then proclaimed her new husband as emperor, thus
seeking to create a coup d’état. She also drew up a list of those who were to be murdered
once she came to power.22
Claudius' freedman Narcissus took action against these usurpers. Narcissus had Messalina
and her co-conspirators executed while Claudius was still asleep. It seems that Claudius
had no prior knowledge as to the elimination of Messalina. In this respect he was left with
a fait acompli. 23
Claudius' fourth marriage was even more damaging than his third. He married his niece;
Julia Agrippina (Minor) who was born in Ara Ubiorum (now known as Cologne, in
modern Germany) on the 6th of November in 15 CE. 24
She had been the sister of the
emperor Gaius, or Caligula. 25
For Agrippina, Claudius was her third husband. Her first
husband was Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. Suetonius has nothing good to say about
him. He deliberately ran over and killed a boy while in a village on the Appian Way. In
the Roman Forum he gouged out the eye of a Roman knight for being too outspoken in
reprimanding him. He defrauded the victors in the chariot races of the amount of their
prizes. Just before the death of Tiberius he was also charged with treason, as well as with
acts of adultery and incest with his sister Lepida, but escaped owing to the change of rulers.
Domitius died of kidney disease at Pyrgi, the port city of Caere, about 30 miles (50 km)
north-west of Rome. 26
Agrippina's first husband was the father of 'Lucius Domitius
Ahenobarbus. He was born on the 15th of December in 37 CE in the central Italian town
of Antium in Latium (which lies on the Tyrrhenian Sea). Antium had also been the birth
place of emperor Caligula whom Nero admired. 27
Agrippina was suspected of poisoning her second husband, Passienus Crispus, in 49 CE. 28
Perhaps Claudius' fatal mistake was to follow the advice of his fourth wife Julia Agrippina.
Agrippina persuaded her husband to make her son by a previous marriage his immediate
heir to the throne. 29
This was to become a mistake for both Claudius and his immediate
family, the Julio-Claudian dynasty, an uncountable number of Christians and Jews and for
the entire Roman empire.
Julia Agrippina perhaps holds a unique position in world history as a murder, who not
only murdered her husband, but after her son had made him an imperial god, she became
its first high priestess and worshipped him as a deity in a temple dedicated to him. She
too came to a sticky end. The temple can still be seen today in Rome.
Lucius Ahenobarbus's full name became 'Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar' or 'Nero
Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus' 30
after he was adopted by Claudius. Suetonius tells
us that Nero was about average height and his body was marked with spots. He had light
blond hair, his features regular rather than attractive, his eyes were blue and somewhat
weak, his neck over-thick and his belly prominent, while his legs were slender. 31
unreservedly became the cuckoo in the Claudii nest.
Note 1: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, XXXIII.
Note 2: Rich, Anthony, (Ed.), (1873: 209), Dictionary of Roman and Greek Antiquities,
(3rd Ed.), (London: Longmans, Green, & Co.).
Note 3: Keller, Werner, (1975: 389), The Etruscans, [Trans. from the German by
Alexander and Elizabeth Henderson], (London: Book Club Associates).
Tacitus reports that later on (possibly in 24 CE), M. Plautius Silvanus by then a municipal
officer of Rome, for some unknown reason, murdered his wife Apronia by throwing her out
of a window. When summoned before the emperor, he replied to the question incoherently
stating that he was sound sleep and consequently knew nothing, and that his wife had
chosen to destroy herself. Without a moment's delay Tiberius went to the house and
inspected the chamber, where were seen the marks of her struggling and of her forcible
ejection. He reported this to the Senate, and as soon as judges had been appointed,
Urgulania sent her grandson a dagger to commit suicide and spare his family the
embarrassment of a public trial.
Tacitus: Annals IIII: XXII.
Note 4: Keller, Werner, (1975: 137 - 138), The Etruscans, [Trans. from the German by
Alexander and Elizabeth Henderson]. (London: Book Club Associates).
Note 5: From a Roman fresco known as Aldobrandini marriage which is now in the
Rich, Anthony, (Ed.), (1873: 531), Dictionary of Roman and Greek Antiquities, (3rd Ed.),
(London: Longmans, Green, & Co.).
Note 6: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, XXVII.
Note 7: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, V: XXVII.
Note 8: Rich, Anthony, (Ed.), (1873: 602), Dictionary of Roman and Greek Antiquities,
(3rd Ed.), (London: Longmans, Green, & Co.,).
Note 9: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, III. LV.
Note 10: Edmondson, J. C., (1992: 218 - 219), Dio, the Julio-Claudians: selections from
books 58-63 of the Roman History of Cassius Dio.
Note 11: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, V. XXVI.
Note 12: Dio, Cassius,: The Roman History, LXI.
Note 13: Rich, Anthony, (Ed.), (1873: 613 - 4), Dictionary of Roman and Greek
Antiquities, (3rd Ed.), (London: Longmans, Green, & Co.,).
Note 14: Levick, Barbara, (1990, 1993: 54 - 55), Claudius, (London: Batsford).
Note 15: Levick, Barbara, (1990, 1993: 54 - 55), Claudius, (London: Batsford).
Note 16: Barbara Levick is slightly inaccurate in her suggestion that Claudius was in his
50's when he married Valeria Messalina. At most he would have been aged 49.
Levick, Barbara, (1990, 1993: 55), Claudius, (London: Batsford).
Note 17: The Britannica CD 2000 Deluxe Edition.
Note 18: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, V. XXVII. The Lives of the Caesars.
Note 19: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, V. XXVII. The Lives of the Caesars.
Note 20: Tacitus: Annals: IIII: 16.
Note 21: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, V. XXVI. The Lives of the Caesars
Note 22: Tacitus: Annals XL: 25.
Note 23: Tacitus: Annals XI: 35.
Note 24: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, VI. V, and VI. VI.
Note 25: Barrett, Anthony A., (1996, 2005: 21), Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the
early Empire, (London: Routledge).
Note 26: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, VI. V.
Note 27: See Ch. 4: As a family name: Gaius or Caligula.
Note 28: Malitz, Jrgen, (2005: 5) Nero, [Tran. from German by Allison Brown], (Oxford:
Note 29: Bishop, John, (1964: 31 - 32), Nero: the man and the legend, (London: Robert
Note 30: Malitz, Jrgen, (2005: 9), Nero, [Trans. from German by Allison Brown],
(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing).
Note 31: Suetonius, T., The Lives of the Caesars, VI: LI.