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6. Wives and Freedmen

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In this lecture, we think about the wives and freedman that feature in accounts of Claudius’ reign, focusing in particular on: (i) the extent to which the phenomenon of freedmen advisors to the princeps was a new one under Claudius; (ii) the extent to which accounts of Claudius’ reign are distorted by attempts to present him according to a particular stereotype – the badly-advised autocrat; (iii) the extent to which Claudius is presented by Tacitus and other historians as a comic character, a ridiculous figure who attracts laughter and derision; (iv) the extent to which Claudius is presented as a senex amans (lusty old man), a stock figure from Roman comedy; (v) the extent to which Claudius’ freedmen advisors are presented as dolosi servi (tricky slaves), stock figures from Roman comedy; (vi) the figure of Valeria Messalina: her marriage to Claudius, their son (Britannicus), her outrageous behaviour, and her death; (vii) the figure of Agrippina the Younger: her family background, her description in Tacitus using terms usually reserved for male politicians, and her promotion of her son (Nero) at the expense of other potential successors; and (viii) Claudius’ serious achievements as emperor, despite his portrayal by Tacitus and other historians as a bumbling figure of fun.


In this course, Dr Matthew Nicholls (University of Oxford) explores the reign of the fourth Roman emperor, Claudius. In the first module, we think about Claudius’ family background and the unlikeliness of his route to power. After that, in the second module, we think about the role of the army, the senate and the people of Rome in Claudius’ accession. In the third module, we think about Claudius’ early life and upbringing – including his scholarly interests – before turning in the fourth and fifth modules to consider the primary achievements of his reign, including the conquest of Britain and his work to secure the grain and water supply to the city of Rome. In the sixth and final module, we think about the role of Claudius’ wives and freedman advisors in his reign, and especially on his (unfair?) presentation in some historians as a stock figure from Roman comedy.


Matthew Nicholls is a visiting professor of classics at the University of Reading and Senior Tutor at St John's College, Oxford, specialising in the political and social history of the Romans, and the way the built environments of Rome and cities around the empire expressed their values and priorities. In 2014, Matthew was presented with a Guardian Teaching Award for his 'Virtual Rome' project, a digital model of the city of Rome, showing the city as it appeared in c. AD 315.

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APA style

Nicholls, M. (2022, August 06). Claudius - Wives and Freedmen [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Nicholls, M. "Claudius – Wives and Freedmen." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 06 Aug 2022,

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