Claudius's death


The Primary Record

Not all ancient sources agree that Claudius was murdered by Agrippina.


Seneca's Apocolocyntosis – probably the most contemporary source we possess – mentions nothing of poison, merely that Claudius died quickly whilst watching some actors, and that his last words were ‘Oh dear! I think I have shit myself.’  Apocolocyntosis says that Claudius was killed by Febris (the god of fever), which has led some historians to suggest he died of malaria.

All the other ancient sources, however – including Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio – are almost unanimously agreed that Agrippina murdered Claudius. 

Pliny begins his chapter on mushrooms by telling us that they are:

a very dainty food, but deservedly avoided since the notorious crime committed by Agrippina, who, through their agency, poisoned her husband, the Emperor Claudius, and at the same time, in the person of his son Nero, inflicted another poisonous curse upon the whole world, herself in particular. 


Also in the play Octavia – perhaps also written by Seneca – Octavia laments:

Oh! my father, thou art laid low, fallen by the wicked snares of a wife (destroyed by one of the fungi, Boletus, a poisonous mushroom).

and her nurse explains:

The Furies have broken down the institutions of Nature, and set every human law at defiance – a cruel wife has prepared the poisoned bowl for a husband.


Having said that, I am glad I am not a prosecution lawyer trying to build a legal case against Agrippina – to quote the bible: 'yet not even then did their testimony agree'.



Modern Interpretations

Until the 20th century, most historians simply accepted it at face value that Agrippina had poisoned Claudius, but in 1911 Gugliemo Ferrero labelled the story 'strange and improbable ... ridiculous .. absurd'; Claudius, he said, had simply died 'of natural causes'.  Gilbert Bagnani (1946) also ridiculed the case for poison, suggesting instead a 'severe heart attack'.


Given that death is a medical condition, not only historians but doctors have got in on the act.  Recently, Dr William Valente (2002) has hypothesised that Claudius may had died from eating the poisonous mushroom Amanita muscaria, complicated by his physical condition and indulgent lifestyle.


Most modern history books fudge the issue, reporting the death as though it was murder by poison, but adding weasel words such as 'if...', 'generally believed that...', 'Tacitus says that...' etc.

Anthony Barratt (1996) suggests that it is irrelevant whether Agrippina actually murdered Claudius or not – since everybody believed that she had murdered him, for all practical purposes, politically,  the world went on as though she had done so.






The following websites will help you complete the task:

You can compare the accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio here.



Study the webpage on the death of Claudius and compare the accounts.

Compare a list of points FOR and AGAINST the argument that Agrippina poisoned Claudius. 

Then click the yellow pointer to compare the comments that my pupils made:

    Analysis of Claudius's death - was he murdered by Agrippina:
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Now write an answer to the following question:

'Claudius was poisoned by Agrippina.'  How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?

In your answer you should:

•  give a brief account of the death of Claudius;

•  discuss the arguments for and against the idea that Agrippina poisoned him;

•  show knowledge of the relevant sections of Tacitus and Suetonius;

•  consider how reliable you think these sources are.                                       [30]