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Helene A. Guerber

The Wicked Wives of Claudius

T HE conspirators were so frightened after they had killed Caligula that they fled in haste, without even thinking of naming his successor. Then the soldiers began to wander through the deserted palace, hoping that they would find some spoil; and one of them stumbled upon Claudius, Caligula's uncle, who was hiding behind a curtain.

This Claudius was not only a coward, but half-witted; and he had hidden there because he fancied that the conspirators would kill him too.


Claudius found by the Soldiers.

The soldiers now dragged him out of his hiding place; but instead of killing him they placed him on the throne, and hailed him as Cæsar and emperor. This strange choice was not disputed by either people or senate, and thus Claudius became the fourth emperor of Rome.

Claudius was at first very moderate, and tried to administer justice fairly. But unfortunately he was very weak-minded, and he had married one of the worst women who ever lived,—the wicked Messalina. Not satisfied with committing every crime herself, this woman forced her weak husband to do wrong also.

The Romans had been in the habit of rewarding very good and faithful slaves by giving them their liberty. These freedmen often remained in their former master's service. They could no longer be sold or severely punished, and they were paid for their services; but many still considered themselves as their master's property.

Claudius had many such freedmen at his service, and among them were Narcissus and Pallas. They were very shrewd, but were cruel and vicious, and agreed to everything that Messalina proposed. Once they got possession of all the wheat in town, and refused to sell it except at so high a price that the poor could not buy any, and were in great distress.

One day when her husband was absent, the wicked Messalina publicly married another man. As she had quarreled with the freedman Narcissus, he told Claudius what she had done. The emperor was so angry that he allowed Narcissus to send men to kill her. He had long ago ceased to love her, although she was the mother of two good and lovely children, Britannicus and Octavia; and when they came to tell him that she was dead, he calmly continued his meal without even growing pale.

Claudius had given much money to the pretorian guard, because they had chosen him to become emperor after Caligula's death. He also took much pride in the other soldiers, although he himself was far too much of a coward to fight; and it was during his reign that part of Britain first became a Roman province.

When the Roman legions in Dalmatia heard that the pretorian guard in Rome had named an emperor, they wished to name one too. So they set their general upon a throne, and then asked him to lead them to Rome to take possession of the city.

On the way thither, the troops quarreled with their chief. The result was a mutiny, in which the ambitious general was slain. Then Claudius sent out a new commander, and gave orders that those who had conspired against him should be arrested and sent to Rome.

Among these prisoners was an officer named Pætus. His wife, Arria, was so devoted to him that she followed him to Rome. When she heard that he had been condemned to death by horrible torture, she advised him to kill himself. Taking a dagger, Arria plunged it into her own breast, and then handed it to her husband. With a smile, she exclaimed, "Pætus, it does not hurt."

Thus urged, Pætus took the same dagger, and killed himself too.

When Messalina had been killed, her enemy, Narcissus, imagined that he would be allowed to govern as he pleased. He was greatly disappointed, therefore, when Claudius married Agrippina, the sister of Caligula; for she was fully as wicked and fond of power as her brother had ever been.

Agrippina had been married before; and, as her husband died very suddenly, it was whispered in Rome that she had poisoned him. The new queen brought into the palace her son Nero, whom she hoped to see on the throne before very long, although the real heir was Britannicus, the son of Claudius.

Nero was carefully educated, under the care of the philosopher Seneca, and Burrhus, the chief of the pretorian guard. Both of these men were devoted to Agrippina, and by her orders they bestowed all their care upon Nero, while Britannicus was neglected and set aside. Then as soon as Nero was old enough, Agrippina persuaded Claudius to give him the princess Octavia as a wife.

Narcissus had seen all these changes with great displeasure, and tried to find some way of getting rid of the empress. Agrippina, however, guessed his plans, and persuaded Claudius to send him away. Then, when there seemed to be no danger that any one would try to interfere with her, she sent for Locusta, a woman who knew how to mix poison, and bought a dose from her.

The poison thus obtained was put in a dish of mushrooms, and served at the emperor's private table. Claudius, who was very fond of mushrooms, ate freely of this dish, and a few hours later he died in great agony.