BMCR 2011.07.34

Claudius Caesar: Image and Power in the Early Roman Empire

, Claudius Caesar: Image and Power in the Early Roman Empire. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xiii, 357. ISBN9780521708258 $32.99 (pb).


Written in fluid and accessible prose and organized clearly to keep its message on focus, Claudius Caesar: Image and Power in the Early Roman Empire is an admirable example of what ancient biography can and cannot be. Josiah Osgood writes in his Introduction, “The aim here is not to write a biography of Claudius the man.” The reason? Appropriate skepticism about the ancient narratives inhibits access to the emperor’s personality and his motivations. “True biography…of almost any emperor is unfeasible” (p. 24). Osgood relies instead on what is obviously factual in the texts and on numismatic, inscriptional, and documentary evidence. The reign of Claudius represents a slice of the early empire, “emperor history” (that is, biography) as a “window” into history (pp. 22 and 264). “Caesar” in Osgood’s title calls attention to the anomaly of Claudius in the otherwise Julian dynasty; Claudius’ attempt to legitimize his position accounted for much of what he did. “Image” in the subtitle points to an emphasis not only on what the emperor did but also on what the emperor was or was intended to be in the eyes of his subjects.

A Prologue (“The Roman Empire in AD 41”) lays out the background for the Claudian principate. It describes social distinctions, Roman and provincial administration and military organization and also gives a brief summary of recent history. The Prologue is followed by an Introduction and twelve chapters, some of which have a chronological basis while others are organized more by topic. Claudius Caesar is generously illustrated with 62 apposite figures: coins, portraits, monuments and architectural features. Five maps, four tables and an index are useful. The bibliography is exhaustive and current if somewhat overwhelming, but Osgood offers assistance in navigating it with extensive endnotes that appraise the value of its contents. A “brief bibliographic essay” comes before the notes for each chapter and permits the reader to follow the trail of the author’s research.

Osgood’s Introduction describes his approach and in some respects anticipates the conclusions that he will offer. Its subtitle, “The problem of Claudius,” is defined as the disjunction between Claudius’ reputation as a passive and ineffective leader and the reality of a reign that was energetic and characterized by initiative. Osgood traces the modern history of the “problem” from Eighteenth Century scholarship when the legend of Claudius as the tool of his wives and freedmen was accepted (pp. 14-16) through the vision of him as the “would-be Republican” of Arnaldo Momigliano and Robert Graves (pp. 18-20)1 in the 1930’s to the later twentieth century with the more historically substantive approach of Barbara Levick (pp. 25-27).2 Osgood states his own goals as threefold: to elucidate Claudius’ principate, putting events and actions into context and stressing the importance of his subjects’ perception of him (his “image”), to compare his particular role to the roles of Roman emperors in general, and to show how this slice of history contributed to the institutionalization of the princpate (pp. 27-28).

Chapter 1, “Claudius Caesar,” opens with the assassination of Caligula and with the tenuous basis of Claudius’s elevation without credentials—such as credentials were at that early stage in the history of the principate. Brief notices of Claudius’ preimperial life have been left behind in the Introduction (p. 9). Osgood opens most of his chapters with narratives as he does here or with a discussion of Augustan precedents. Both tactics serve as effective invitations into his argument. Suggestive chapter titles also anticipate the message to come. Here “Caesar” reemphasizes the oxymoron of the book title and prompts the discussion of Claudius’ besetting problem, the legitimation of his role, a theme to which Osgood returns often. The aborted coup of AD 42 is treated as a part of the accession narrative.

The next 2 chapters (“A statue in silver” and “Imperial favors”) deal with topics central to Osgood’s second major point, the importance of the emperor’s image. Claudius advertised himself on coinage and with statuary, and his response to legations asking renewal of favors reaped reciprocal rewards both for himself and for the petitioning parties. Acting like an emperor caused him to be treated like one and made him one in reality. Osgood selects his evidence from the early years of Claudius’ reign and sees these issues as an initial public relations effort.

The invasion of Britain in AD 43, a war of conquest, strengthened his position, especially with the military, is the subject of “Subduing the ocean.” Claudius took the initiative in making the most of it over time with his triumph, games, triumphal arch and other monuments. Chapters 5 and 6 and are less closely connected with the sequence of events. “Lists of peoples and places” deals with the opening up of new lands on the borders after the conquests of Britain and Mauritania and with the annexation of Lycia, Judaea and Thrace. These were sensible arrangements that did not overreach Rome’s capacity for control and serve as evidence of Claudius’ intelligent management. “Caesar-Lovers” asks what the new emperor meant for his subjects in the provinces. Although governors had a great deal of autonomy, the possibility that the emperor “could,” as a power waiting in reserve, intervene made him godlike. Osgood focuses on the empire as a whole rather than on Rome.

“The eight-hundredth year of Rome” is anchored in AD 47 and further emphasizes Claudian initiatives, the secular games and his censorship. “Practical Pyramids” describes public works as integral to an emperor’s role, and continues Osgood’s thesis, that Claudius worked actively to strengthen his position and his image. “The Burden of Government” addresses the question of how affairs of state were actually managed. Although Osgood consistently rejects Momigliano’s assertion of increasing “centralization” under Claudius3 and argues that governance was in fact decentralized with great autonomy for the provinces, he nonetheless sees responsibility at home devolving onto the emperor and his household agents with little shared by senators beyond a few who were particularly loyal. This closed circle made unchecked corruption possible and explains the resentment traditionally directed against his arrogant freedmen and against Claudius himself.

Osgood’s last three chapters return to the Claudius story, the narratives about his marriages (“The judgment of Pallas”), the promotion and accession of Nero (“Signaling retreat?), and the reputation that he left behind (“The golden predicament”). Osgood is cautious about this material as he stated that he would be in his Introduction. He writes that the condemnation of Messallina was a fact but believes that the intrigues that precipitated it cannot be recovered. Rumors about her outrageous behavior developed later. Claudius’ marriage to Agrippina the Younger and his adoption of Nero were positive steps that he himself took because they brought him closer to the Augustan family. That this was necessary once again reinforces the notion that his position had remained precarious and that he was never considered fully qualified to be emperor. Nero’s image was carefully cultivated and the empire put in order militarily and financially to prepare for a smooth transition; Britannicus was held in reserve.

It could be wished that Osgood were less tentative in suggesting the origins of the “passive Claudius” legend. He is persuasive when he points out that Claudius played an active role in effecting his marriage to Agrippina and that he sponsored the promotion of Nero and when he writes that the Flavians saw Claudius as their link to Augustus (p. 256). He does not, however, take the next step and propose that assigning culpability to Agrippina relieved Claudius of responsibility for Nero. He concludes that Claudius strengthened and stabilized the principate but that his weaknesses were the weaknesses of the principate itself, a military monarchy with a civilian front. Its lack of definition forced the princeps to try to do too much single-handedly, and Claudius reacted too harshly. He always had to justify his position (pp. 256-9).

In his survey of the scholarship on Claudius in his Introduction, Osgood praises the encyclopedic contents of Levick’s biography but notes that her “thematic approach,” her complete separation of chronological chapters from chapters devoted to topics (pp. 25-6), fails to point out the interrelationship of events of his reign.4 Osgood himself has to deal with this same question, the perennial choice between chronology and topic when writing biography. Suetonius, it can be recalled, had to do the same when he juggled his facts per species and per tempora. Osgood juggles well. He, like Levick, organizes much of his material by topic, but he tries to contextualize topics and generally succeeds. Some chapters (such as chapter 5, provincial organization, or 9, administration) are, however, less closely allied with the progression of the Claudius years than are others.

Claudius Caesar is an altogether exemplary biography. Its success does not come in spite of the limitations that Osgood places on ancient biography, the impossibility of dealing with the whole person of the emperor. It is successful rather because his acknowledgement of these limitations permits him to concentrate on Claudius’ reign in such a way that aspects of the person are able to be recovered to the degree possible.


1. Momigliano, A. (1961) Claudius, the Emperor and His Achievement. Trans. W. Hogarth. Second edition. Cambridge. Graves, R. (1934) I, Claudius. London; (1934) Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina. London.

2. Levick, B. (1990) Claudius. New Haven.

3. Momigliano, pp. 39-73.

4. Osgood also brings the work of Fergus Millar into his argument (Millar, F. (1992) The Emperor in the Roman World: 31 BC—AD 337. Second edition. London). He introduces Millar’s work that defines the emperor’s role generally in order to defend his own biographical approach that defines the role at a particular time in history.