Claudius is an intriguing individual. After a highly unpromising youth and middle life, he seized power in remarkable circumstances, then went on to achieve an impressive record of success. The contrast between the obscure mediocrity of his earlier years and the energy and brilliance of his last fourteen could hardly be more pronounced.
He has not always piqued scholarly interest, as Osgood shows in the preliminary chapter of this engaging and enlightening study. Mommsen reflected the essentially Suetonian view that Claudius’ reign was of little importance and that he himself was hardly to be taken seriously. This attitude was not seriously challenged until 1924, when Harold Idris Bell published the papyrus copy of Claudius’ famous Letter to the Alexandrians, [End Page 461] which laid down the rules of conduct he expected between Greeks and Jews in the city. He emerges from this document as an engaged and strong-willed, even statesmanlike, ruler, an impression confirmed by Momigliano in 1932 in his landmark L’opera dell’ imperatore Claudio (published in English as Claudius, The Emperor and his Achievement), which presented a determined emperor facing the insoluble dilemma of a system that embraced the spirit of the Roman republic but which was for practical purposes a monarchy.
Claudius’ significance is now undisputed, and he unquestionably merits a biography. But this is not Osgood’s goal. When Caligula was assassinated in 41, there was no established tradition for how to proceed, and the nature of the principate was still very much in evolution. Osgood accordingly sees Claudius’ career as “a window… onto… developing political culture” (22) and thus seeks to explain the phenomenon, rather than the life, of Claudius, in this respect following in the dependable footsteps of Barbara Levick. His twelve chapters are generally thematic, covering politics and administration in Rome and overseas, within a very loose chronological framework. Osgood’s Claudius had a number of strengths. By acquiring, then maintaining, power for fourteen years he showed that someone not initially marked out for the purple could rule effectively. He gave Romans a sense of renewal. He left a salient mark on the empire, throughout, but particularly in Britain and Judea, and that mark was mainly positive. It is true that he failed to solve imperial Rome’s problems, mainly because he was a prisoner of his own position. The chief stumbling block was the issue of succession. Without a clear and undisputed principle of succession, military force would tend to determine the outcome, as Claudius’ own career had demonstrated. His marriage to Agrippina and the overt designation of her son Nero as successor no doubt provided him with the best guarantee for his own survival. A smooth succession might arguably have been in Rome’s best interest too. But the choice of an unproven adolescent for a still undefined position illustrates the inherent weakness of a principate in process. It was ironically a fitting legacy of Augustus, himself just 18 when he launched his own takeover (241).
One of the many attractive aspects of Osgood’s book is a happy byproduct of the approach he adopts. The themes of Claudius’ reign are placed in their contexts, and these contexts in themselves provide a rich source of informative material. The background histories of the different parts of the Roman world are excellent introductions to the topic, especially in the case of Judea (127–33) and Egypt (133–7). Even more attractively, such contexts offer considerable scope for colourful anecdotes, for which Osgood has a nice eye. So in the chapter Lists of Peoples and Places he prefaces his account of the nations of the Empire with a brief summary of ethnographic writing, which he illustrates with Pliny the Elder’s description of Mauritania and his wonderful account of the Atlas Mountains looming up into the vicinity of the moon, with inhabitants who appear only at night. Elsewhere Osgood [End Page 462] regales us with the hippocentaur brought into Rome preserved in honey, the gladiators...