24 January AD 41: Claudius becomes emperor

The sickly scholar is invited to rule Rome in his nephew’s place


When the Roman aristocrat Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus, better known simply as Claudius, awoke on 24 January AD 41, he never imagined he would end the day as emperor. His nephew Caligula, in charge for almost four years, was still a young man. A sickly, scholarly figure, Claudius was 50 years old and had never been seen as a serious political figure. There seemed no reason for that to change.

And then, suddenly, everything was thrown into flux. During the Palatine Games, which were held to honour his ancestor Augustus, Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard. The conspirators hoped – among other aims – to restore senatorial rule, but in the meantime, Caligula’s German bodyguards rampaged through the palace.

Claudius ran for his life. “In great terror at the news of the murder,” wrote the biographer Suetonius, “he stole away to a balcony hard by and hid among the curtains which hung before the door.” But there he was spotted by a soldier called Gratus – and for a moment, it seemed that his luck had run out.

Gibbering in fear, Claudius begged for mercy. But according to the historian Josephus, “Gratus smiled upon him, and took him by the right hand, and said: ‘Leave off, sir, these low thoughts of saving yourself, while you ought to have greater thoughts, even of obtaining the empire... Go to, therefore, and accept the throne of thy ancestors.’”

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