Aug 012018

Claudius, Roman emperor, was born on this date in 10 BCE at Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France). He was the first (and for a long time, only) Roman emperor to have been born outside Italy. He had two older siblings, Germanicus and Livilla. His mother, Antonia, may have had two other children who died young. His maternal grandparents were Mark Antony and Octavia Minor, Augustus’ sister, and he was therefore the great-great grandnephew of Gaius Julius Caesar. His paternal grandparents were Livia, Augustus’ third wife, and Tiberius Claudius Nero. During his reign, Claudius revived the rumor that his father Drusus was actually the illegitimate son of Augustus, to give the appearance that Augustus was Claudius’ paternal grandfather.

In 9 BCE, his father Drusus unexpectedly died on campaign in Germania, possibly from illness. Claudius was then left to be raised by his mother, who never remarried. When Claudius’ disabilities became evident — he spoke with a pronounced lisp, drooled, and walked with a limp — the relationship with his family turned sour. Antonia referred to him as a monster, and used him as a standard for stupidity. She seems to have passed her son off to his grandmother Livia for a number of years. Livia was a little kinder, but nevertheless often sent him short, angry letters of reproof. He was put under the care of a “former mule-driver” to keep him disciplined, under the logic that his condition was due to laziness and a lack of will-power. However, by the time he reached his teenage years his symptoms apparently waned and his family took some notice of his scholarly interests.

In 7 CE, Livy was hired to tutor him in history, with the assistance of Sulpicius Flavus. He spent most of his time with the latter and the philosopher Athenodorus. Augustus, according to a letter, was surprised at the clarity of Claudius’ oratory. Expectations about his future began to increase. His work as a budding historian damaged his prospects for advancement in public life. According to Vincent Scramuzza and others, Claudius began work on a history of the Civil Wars that was either too truthful or too critical of Octavian—then reigning as Augustus Caesar. In either case, it was far too early for such an account, and may have only served to remind Augustus that Claudius was Antony’s descendant. His mother and grandmother quickly put a stop to it, and this may have convinced them that Claudius was not fit for public office. He could not be trusted to toe the existing party line.

When he returned to the narrative later in life, Claudius skipped over the wars of the second triumvirate altogether. But the damage was done, and his family pushed him into the background. When the Arch of Pavia was erected to honor the Imperial clan in 8 BCE, Claudius’ name (now Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus after his elevation to paterfamilias of Claudii Nerones on the adoption of his brother) was inscribed on the edge—past the deceased princes, Gaius and Lucius, and Germanicus’ children. There is some speculation that the inscription was added by Claudius himself decades later, and that he originally did not appear at all.

When Augustus died in 14 CE, Claudius — then 23 — appealed to his uncle Tiberius to allow him to begin the cursus honorum. Tiberius, the new Emperor, responded by granting Claudius consular ornaments. Claudius requested office once more and was snubbed. Since the new Emperor was no more generous than the old, Claudius gave up hope of public office and retired to a scholarly, private life. Despite the disdain of the Imperial family, it seems that from very early on the general public respected Claudius. At Augustus’ death, the equites (knights), chose Claudius to head their delegation. When his house burned down, the Senate demanded it be rebuilt at public expense. They also requested that Claudius be allowed to debate in the Senate. Tiberius turned down both motions, but the sentiment remained.

During the period immediately after the death of Tiberius’ son, Drusus, Claudius was pushed by some factions as a potential heir. This again suggests the political nature of his exclusion from public life rather than because of infirmities. However, as this was also the period during which the power and terror of the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, was at its peak, Claudius chose to downplay this possibility.

After the death of Tiberius, the new emperor Caligula (the son of Claudius’ brother Germanicus) recognized Claudius to be of some use. He appointed Claudius his co-consul in 37 in order to emphasize the memory of Caligula’s deceased father Germanicus. Despite this, Caligula relentlessly tormented his uncle: playing practical jokes, charging him enormous sums of money, humiliating him before the Senate, and the like. According to Cassius Dio, Claudius became very sickly and thin by the end of Caligula’s reign, possibly due to stress. Claudius himself claimed that he exaggerated his infirmities when Caligula was emperor as a form of self defense. If he were thought a bumbling idiot, he was less likely to be assassinated. Robert Graves emphasizes this notion in I, Claudius.

On 24th January 41, Caligula was assassinated in a broad-based conspiracy involving the Praetorian commander Cassius Chaerea and several senators. There is no evidence that Claudius had a direct hand in the assassination, although it has been argued that he knew about the plot — particularly since he left the scene of the crime shortly before his nephew was murdered. However, after the deaths of Caligula’s wife and daughter, it became apparent that Cassius intended to go beyond the terms of the conspiracy and wipe out the Imperial family.

In the chaos following the murder, Claudius witnessed the German guard cut down several uninvolved noblemen, including many of his friends. He fled to the palace to hide. According to tradition, a Praetorian named Gratus found him hiding behind a curtain and suddenly declared him princeps. A section of the guard may have planned in advance to seek out Claudius, perhaps with his approval. They reassured him that they were not one of the battalions looking for revenge. He was spirited away to the Praetorian camp and put under their protection.

The Senate quickly met and began debating a change of government, but this eventually devolved into an argument over which of them would be the new princeps. When they heard of the Praetorians’ claim, they demanded that Claudius be delivered to them for approval, but he refused, sensing the danger that would come with complying. Some historians, particularly Josephus, claim that Claudius was directed in his actions by the Judaean king, Herod Agrippa. However, an earlier version of events, also by Josephus, downplays Herod’s role so it remains uncertain. Eventually the Senate was forced to give in and, in return, Claudius pardoned nearly all the assassins. At this point I will gloss over Claudius’ actions as emperor, and, instead, focus on his personal life, leading to my (short) treatise on mushrooms.

Claudius married four times, after two failed betrothals. The first betrothal was to his distant cousin Aemilia Lepida, but was broken for political reasons. The second was to Livia Medullina, which ended with Medullina’s sudden death on their wedding day.

His first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla was the granddaughter of Livia’s confidant Urgulania. During their marriage she gave birth to a son, Claudius Drusus. Drusus died of asphyxiation in his early teens, shortly after becoming engaged to Junilla, the daughter of Sejanus. Claudius later divorced Urgulanilla for adultery and on suspicion of murdering her sister-in-law Apronia. When Urgulanilla gave birth after the divorce, Claudius repudiated the baby girl, Claudia, since the father was allegedly one of his own freedmen. This action made him later the target of criticism by his enemies.

Soon after (possibly in 28), Claudius married Aelia Paetina, a relative of Sejanus, if not Sejanus’s adopted sister. During their marriage, Claudius and Paetina had a daughter, Claudia Antonia. He later divorced her after the marriage became a political liability, although some historians suggest it may have been due to emotional and mental abuse by Paetina.


Some years after divorcing Aelia Paetina, in 38 or early 39, Claudius married Valeria Messalina, who was his first cousin once removed and closely allied with Caligula’s circle. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to a daughter, Claudia Octavia. A son, first named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, and later known as Britannicus, was born just after Claudius’ accession. This marriage ended badly. Ancient historians allege that Messalina was a sex addict who was regularly unfaithful to Claudius — Tacitus states she went so far as to compete with a prostitute to see who could have the most sexual partners in a night — and manipulated his policies in order to amass wealth. In 48, Messalina married her lover Gaius Silius in a public ceremony while Claudius was at Ostia.

Sources disagree as to whether or not she divorced Claudius first, and whether the intention was to usurp the throne. Scramuzza, in his biography, suggests that Silius may have convinced Messalina that Claudius was doomed, and the union was her only hope of retaining rank and protecting her children. Tacitus suggests that Claudius’s ongoing term as Censor may have prevented him from noticing the affair before it reached such a critical point. Whatever the case, the result was the execution of Silius, Messalina, and most of her circle.

Agripinna crowning Nero

Ancient sources say that his freedmen put forward three candidates to be Claudius’ fourth wife, Caligula’s third wife Lollia Paulina, Claudius’s divorced second wife Aelia Paetina and Claudius’ niece Agrippina the Younger. According to Suetonius, Agrippina won out through her feminine charm. The truth is probably more political. The attempted coup d’état by Silius and Messalina had probably made Claudius realize the weakness of his position as a member of the Claudian but not the Julian family. This weakness was compounded by the fact that he did not yet have an obvious adult heir, Britannicus being just a boy.

Agrippina was one of the few remaining descendants of Augustus, and her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (the future Emperor Nero) was one of the last males of the Imperial family. Coup attempts could rally around the pair and Agrippina was already showing such ambition. It has been suggested that the Senate may have pushed for the marriage, to end the feud between the Julian and Claudian branches. This feud dated back to Agrippina’s mother’s actions against Tiberius after the death of her husband Germanicus (Claudius’s brother), actions which Tiberius had gladly punished. In any case, Claudius accepted Agrippina and later adopted the newly mature Nero as his son.

Nero was married to Claudius’ daughter Octavia, made joint heir with the underage Britannicus, and promoted. Augustus had similarly named his grandson Postumus Agrippa and his stepson Tiberius as joint heirs, and Tiberius had named Caligula joint heir with his grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. Adoption of adults or near adults was an old tradition in Rome, when a suitable natural adult heir was unavailable as was the case during Britannicus’ minority. Claudius may have previously looked to adopt one of his sons-in-law to protect his own reign.

Suetonius describes the physical manifestations of Claudius’ disabilities in relatively good detail. His knees were weak and gave way under him and his head shook. He stammered and his speech was confused. He slobbered and his nose ran when he was excited. The Stoic Seneca states in his Apocolocyntosis that Claudius’ voice belonged to no land animal, and that his hands were weak as well. He showed no physical deformity, however, and, as Suetonius notes, when calm and seated he was a tall, well-built figure with dignitas. When angered or stressed, his symptoms became worse. Historians agree that this condition improved upon his accession to the throne. Claudius himself claimed that he had exaggerated his ailments to save his life.

As a person, ancient historians described Claudius as generous and lowbrow, a man who sometimes lunched with the plebeians. They also paint him as bloodthirsty and cruel, overly fond of gladiatorial combat and executions, and very quick to anger. Claudius himself acknowledged the latter trait, and apologized publicly for his temper. According to the ancient historians he was also overly trusting, and easily manipulated by his wives and freedmen. But at the same time they portray him as paranoid and apathetic, dull and easily confused.

The general consensus (not universal) of ancient historians was that Claudius was murdered by poison – possibly contained in mushrooms  – and died in the early hours of 13th October 54. Nearly all of them implicate his final wife, Agrippina, as the instigator. Agrippina and Claudius had become more combative in the months leading up to his death. This carried on to the point where Claudius openly lamented his bad wives, and began to comment on Britannicus’ approaching manhood with an eye towards restoring his status within the imperial family. Agrippina had motive in ensuring the succession of Nero before Britannicus could gain power.

Some ancient historians accuse either his taster Halotus, his doctor Xenophon, or the infamous poisoner Locusta of being the administrator of the fatal substance. Some say he died after prolonged suffering following a single dose at dinner, and some have him recovering only to be poisoned again. Among contemporary sources, Seneca the Younger ascribed the emperor’s death to natural causes, while Josephus only spoke only of rumors on his poisoning. Some modern historians have cast doubt on whether Claudius was murdered or merely succumbed to illness or old age. The near universality of the accusations in ancient texts may or may not be indicative of the truth. It is easy, and beguiling, to attribute a “convenient” early death to murder – the stuff of conspiracy theories to this day.

The fact that poisoned mushrooms are often cited as the culprit leads me to discuss mushrooms. I don’t advocate eating poisoned mushrooms, of course, and you should be extremely cautious in picking wild mushrooms. When I was an active mushroom hunter in the woods of New York State, I once read that all true puffballs are edible. Good to know. They were plentiful near where I lived. But there is a catch. What is a “true” puffball? Some deadly amanitas mimic puffballs when they are small. You have to cut your specimen open to see whether it is solid throughout, or whether you can discern a cap developing inside. The puffballs I collected were not tasty anyway – they were like bland tofu (if you can imagine something blander than tofu).

When I was a boy in South Australia, mushrooms were not typically available in markets, but you could often find them (in fairy rings) in old pastures after heavy rain. My sister and I used to walk across a pasture to get to our sweet shop (known in our family as the egg lady’s), and once in a while we would find mushrooms to pick and take home. They were, perhaps, Agaricus arvensis, commonly known as the horse mushroom, based on what I remember of them. When we moved to England, commercially grown white mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) were about all you could get. They satisfied me well enough until I stumbled on other species. Here I have to reign in my enthusiasm.

In recent years a cornucopia of mushrooms has flooded the US and the UK, many from Asia. Italy has long been good at diversifying mushrooms for sale, but China is the king – bar none. China produces 65% of the world’s mushrooms, and Italy comes in second at a paltry 10%. Runners-up (i.e. all the rest), hover in the 1% and below bracket, although the US comes in at a respectable 5%. It’s not too difficult to find criminis and portobellos (actually the mature version of Agaricus bisporus), and increasingly you can find Asian varieties such as oyster mushrooms, straw mushrooms, shiitakes and enokitakes – all commercially produced. When I lived in Kunming, in Yunnan province in China, I was in mushroom heaven. The city was surrounded by wooded highlands where 100s of wild mushroom species could be harvested, and locals came to the city all the time, selling their treasures on mats on the street. There was also a mushroom district in the city where there were dozens of restaurants where you could select whatever mushrooms you wanted from immense variety and have them made into a hotpot at your table.  Somewhat warily – because every year someone gets poisoned by wild mushrooms – I bought mushrooms on the street and typically stir fried them with eggs.

In Asia, dried mushrooms are much more expensive than fresh ones, and are sought after because of their intensity of flavor. When cooking stir fries or other quick dishes, I use fresh mushrooms, but for soups and stews I frequently use dried. Here’s a list of my favorite mushrooms:


Morchella, the true morels, is a genus of edible sac fungi. For centuries they resisted cultivation which meant that to cook with them you had to hunt in suitable locations and hope for the best. One of their particularly annoying growing habits is that they rarely grow in the same place twice. Since the 1980s, when extensive analysis of their growth cycle was undertaken, some morels can now by grown commercially, but wild ones are still best. The ecology of Morchella species is still not well understood. Many species appear to form symbiotic or endophytic relationships with trees, while others appear to act as saprotrophs (getting nutrients from decaying materials. Yellow morels (Morchella esculenta and related species) are more commonly found under deciduous trees rather than conifers, while black morels (Morchella elata and related species) are mostly found in coniferous forests, disturbed ground and recently burned areas. Because of their special taste I usually cook morels by themselves in a small amount of butter, or I pair them with eggs: scrambled or in an omelet.


Boletus is a genus of mushrooms comprising over 100 species. Porcini (Boletus edulis) are one branch, and are commonly available in Europe and North America. Quite often, when I want to use mushrooms in a soup or stew I will use porcini if they are available. They are expensive (especially dried), but they have an incomparably rich flavor that adds greatly to sauces. Boletus auripes was quite common in woodlands near my house in New York, and I sometimes found really big ones. They grilled really nicely.


I have never found chanterelles in the wild, but when I lived in the south of Italy 12 years ago, I could get them once in a while at the local market. I most often sautéed them in generous amounts of butter and served them with pasta (no cheese). They also make a great mushroom risotto. Their flavor compounds are complex, some water soluble, some fat soluble, so a sauté in butter with the rice followed by gentle poaching in a light stock to make the risotto makes a delicate and delightful creamy sauce.


These classic Japanese mushrooms have become enormously popular and widely available in recent years. Nowadays you can buy spore-impregnated logs and grow them yourself. I have done this although the results were not any different from store-bought. Shiitakes make up 25% of all mushroom cultivation worldwide. They have been cultivated in Japan since at least the 13th century, and are available year round in most Asian countries at reasonable prices. I pretty much always have some on hand here in Cambodia, and I use them in all the ways that I used white button mushrooms once upon a time – soups, stews, stir fries, omelets, etc.

Brown Beech Mushroom

These mushrooms have small caps and long fat stems growing in clusters. They are widely available in Asian markets, and I have them on hand most days. I made some today – plain sautéed – with a pork chop. I use them often in Asian soups, and also in curries. Their taste is more delicate than shiitakes but robust enough to handle long, slow cooking.


I first came across hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa) in a supermarket in New York. It was some fluke, I imagine, but I had to buy it just to see what it was like. It is native to both Asia and North America, but it is much better known in Japanese and Chinese cuisine than American. It has dense, meaty fronds that grow in clusters. In Japan it is called maitake (by now you should have figured out that in Japanese /-take/ = mushroom), and it is known as “king of mushrooms.” I like to cook them the way I cook enokitake, that is, wrapped in foil with a knob of butter and baked. They also work well in soups where they do not have a lot of competing flavors, such as noodle soups.

In Asia I am never without mushrooms, and I use them almost every day. When I see a special one in a market I pounce – unless I have to get a bank loan to pay for one serving.