BMCR 2016.07.37

Claudius. Second edition (first edition 1990). Roman imperial biographies

, Claudius. Second edition (first edition 1990). Roman imperial biographies. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. xxiv, 262. ISBN 9780415703574 $145.00.


In her preface to this second edition, Levick lists the many works pertaining to Claudius and the theoretical advances that have appeared since the publication of the first edition in 1990, pledging to incorporate them into this updated work. Although much seems to remain unchanged, the attentive reader can find the more recent scholarship sprinkled throughout as promised. Many additions are relegated to the footnotes, but some significant changes can be observed in the text as well.

The principate was nearly seventy years old when Claudius came to power. Chapter 1 examines this stretch of time and sets the stage for Claudius by discussing the nature of the principate in general, from its very beginnings in the Republic through the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Gaius. Levick then turns to a thorough analysis of the phases of Claudius’ life and the facets of his principate. Chapter 2 focuses on Claudius’ younger years and education while simultaneously covering the fates of those around him during his upbringing. When discussing Claudius’ health issues, she updates the discussion by citing Osgood’s recent diagnosis of dystonia in a footnote;1 Chapter 3 covers his life in the background behind Tiberius and Gaius,2 while Chapters 4 and 5 detail his sudden rise to power and his establishment of support and stability in his principate. Wiseman’s take on the conspiracy which brought Claudius to power is also cited as an update.3

Chapters 6 and 7 examine the composition of Claudius’ imperial court, and Levick points out that the concept of a court was by no means new to the Roman political system. What was new with Claudius’ court was the power of freedmen and women. Messalina and Agrippina are given special attention in these chapters. The question of whether Claudius was “the dupe of wives and advisers” (90) is not profitable in the eyes of Levick, since Claudius’ interests were often similar to theirs. Indeed, even when discussing his rise to power, Levick suggests the possibility of Claudius acting as a Henry II, Elizabeth I, or Reagan, using the technique “of allowing others to act or engineering them into it, while the principal continues ‘ignorant’ of what is going on” (42). Indeed, as Levick points out, upon his ascent to power, Claudius claimed that he “pretended to be a fool to save himself” (31).

Levick also tackles the argument that Claudius adopted a policy of centralization during his principate. She analyzes each claim in favor of this idea and asserts that “together the materials are mutually supportive. Looked at more closely, however, the changes seem more scrappy and even inconsistent” (95). Indeed, she shows that Claudius had a “taste for doing things himself” (95), but she shows that these do not equate with a policy of centralization.

Claudius’ relationship with the Senate and Knights is handled in more detail in Chapter 9, while his bond with the people of Rome and Italy is discussed in Chapter 10. Claudius became emperor without the support of the Senate and knights, so had to make “heroic efforts” during his reign to repair the damage. Levick shows that, while falling short with these two groups, he wins the favor of the people.

The next five chapters, 11-15, focus on Claudius’ handling of justice, finances, military affairs, and the provinces. In contrast to Tiberius and Gaius, Claudius’ interest in sitting on tribunals and presiding as an advisor in court was seen as “intense activity” (137). His legislation in general was praised, as it upheld the social structure while offering protection for property owners and looking out for the welfare of individuals, particularly slaves, women, and minors. Levick outlines several specific pieces of Claudian legislation to illustrate his innovations in these areas (143-6).

Claudius’ handle on the imperial finances was considered good, in that it did not attract much attention (153).4 Levick effectively shows that Claudius’ spending was not necessarily bad. His building projects, for example, put money into the hands of working plebs. The invasion of Britain, covered in detail in Chapter 13, brought glory and loot during Claudius’ reign, but was ultimately a financial drain and overall a “mistake,” with the gains failing to outweigh the losses (173).5 More profitable military exploits were to be fought elsewhere. Chapter 14 covers Claudius’ affairs in Mauretania, Lycia, Thrace, Noricum, the Danube basin, the Crimea, and Armenia. Most importantly, Levick describes his activity in Germany as a “turning point” (180): Claudius had some wooden forts made stone and settled the colony among the Ubii, but Germany was not to be annexed.

Levick’s final chapter provides details of the portrait of Claudius throughout literature and history. Although he was the butt of many jokes, especially in Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, his image was rather favorable throughout much of the Neronian and Flavian periods. As for historians, Levick traces the traditions from the Elder Pliny, Cluvius Rufus, and Fabius Rusticus, through Suetonius and Tacitus, all the way through Mommsen and Momigliano. Ultimately, she describes Claudius as an emperor who contributed to change in two major ways: in his manner of succession, and in his survival in power and his ability to pass that power smoothly to an heir.

Significant additions about the material culture from Claudius’ reign have been made in this second edition. New paragraphs at the end of Chapter 8 (104-5) and the beginning of 16 (222) assert that Claudius was practical rather than elegant, and that the art, literature, and architecture he promoted reflected this. Throughout the book Levick scatters new morsels about Claudius’ works, including his harbour (127), coins (130), arches (133 n.11, 176 n.24), aqueducts (155), roads (218 n.14) and other monuments (179-80).

The chapters are well organized and the style is decently easy to read. The footnotes are not long and drawn out, but offer sufficient information for the reader to look further into topics of interest. A careful eye will discover Levick’s updates in scholarship cited here. A table of key dates from 31 BC to 69 AD is carried over from the first edition. Also carried over are seven maps and two family trees as well as some other images, particularly of coins. For whatever reason, the map of Britain which appeared in the first edition does not appear in the second. The amount of detail is the kind welcomed by scholars and advanced students, but makes this a heavy read for anyone not already familiar with Claudius or the Julio-Claudian era. This study would prove manageable to students of the Classics at the advanced undergraduate level and above.

Levick’s work on Claudius continues to make a valuable contribution to the field and offers not just a strong foundation of information for those interested in Claudius, but also worthwhile material for anyone studying the Julio-Claudians or the Roman world of the first century CE.


1. Osgood, J., Claudius Caesar: Image and Power in the Early Roman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

2. And others, like his brother Germanicus. Levick in Chapter 3 footnote 2 cites Malitz, J. ‘Claudius ( F. Gr. Hist. 276) – der Princeps als Gelehrter’, in Strocka 1994, 133-44.

3. Wiseman, T. P., Death of an Emperor: Flavius Josephus, translated with an Introduction and Commentary, Exeter Studies in History 30 (Exeter University Press, 1991).

4. Levick’s discussion of finances has been particularly updated with Alpers, M., Das nachrepublicanische Finanzsystem: Fiscus und Fisci in der frühen Kaiserzeit. Untersuchungen zur antiken Lit. u. Geschichte 45 (Berlin, 1995).

5. Chapter 13 is perhaps one of the more heavily updated chapters. See especially a new discussion of the landing in Britain (167) and the risk of advancement there (168).