Original Research

Claudius, the handicapped Caesar (41-54 A.D.)

Francois P. Retief, Louise C. Cilliers
Suid-Afrikaanse Tydskrif vir Natuurwetenskap en Tegnologie | Vol 29, No 2 | a8 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/satnt.v29i2.8 | © 2010 Francois P. Retief, Louise C. Cilliers | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 13 January 2010 | Published: 13 January 2010

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Francois P. Retief, Universiteit van die Vrystaat, South Africa
Louise C. Cilliers, Universiteit van die Vrystaat, South Africa

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Claudius, fourth Caesar of the Roman Empire, proved himself an able administrator, but physically and emotionally handicapped from birth. His parents, members of the imperial family, considered him mentally deficient and he was isolated from the general public and put in the care of an uneducated tutor who firmly disciplined the youngster. The historians report that he had a weak constitution caused by frequent illness, and when he appeared in public he was muffled in a protective cloak. To avoid possible embarrassment the ceremony of the toga virilis, at approximately 14 years of age, was a secretive affair held at midnight and devoid of the traditional procession. His grandfather, Augustus Caesar, had some sympathy for the young lad, but did not consider him capable of managing any position of public office appropriate for his age and position. This would also be the approach of the succeeding emperor, Tiberius. Claudius spent the fi rst four decades of his life in relative idleness, isolated from his family and upper class Romans, consorting with the lower classes, playing dice and revelling in excessive eating and drinking. He did, however, also involve himself seriously in a study of the sciences, literature, Greek and history – his role model in the latter being Livy. During his life time he published quite extensively, including dramas, an autobiography, a work in defence of Cicero, histories of Rome, Carthage and Etruria, and a book on dice. His first public office (besides an augurship under Augustus) was at the age of 47 years when the new emperor, Gaius (Caligula) made him a consul for two months. The Knights and a section of Senate now warmed towards Claudius, but Gaius and the majority of aristocratic Romans still despised him as dull-witted. After the assassination of Gaius, the Praetorian Guard in an extraordinary step, proclaimed a protesting Claudius (50 years old) as emperor, and convinced an astounded Senate to endorse this action. In spite of having had no significant preparation for the task, Claudius proved a most sensible and effective manager, improving the effectivity of Senate, putting the legal system on a sound footing, enlarging the borders of the Empire (including the conquest of England), extending citizenship to some of the provincials, foreigners and freedmen. Sensible building programs were initiated as well as the upgrading of roads and communication systems and the ensuring of an efficient food supply to Rome. Grand and regular gladiatorial games and other forms of public entertainment endeared him to the people. But he was also periodically responsible for mismanagement, corruption and brutality; much of this was subsequently blamed on the inordinate influence of people near him, and his trusted freedmen and wives in particular. The last two of his six wives (Messalina and Agrippina) were particularly guilty, and his death of poisoning at the age of 64 years (54 A.D.) was engineered by Agrippina. Through his life Claudius showed evidence of significant physical and psychological/emotional impediments. By many he was considered mentally deficient, but his impressive record as student of literature and history, and his administrative skill as emperor are ample evidence of his intellectual abilities. Physical abnormalities included an ungainly gait due to weakness of his right leg and probably arm. He had a tremor of the limbs and involuntary shaking of the head. He spoke indistinctly in a coarse, stuttering way, his mouth often drooled, his nose tended to run, and he had an uncouth laugh. He was emotionally labile, and when upset the above symptoms worsened and he became prone to irresponsible actions. We suggest that this symptom complex fits in with the diagnosis of cerebral palsy, and probably its extrapyramidal variant, although one-sided weakness suggests an additional component of hemiplegic paresis.


Serebraal-gestremdheid; ekstrapiramidale variant; hemi-plegiese parese


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