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Back To Vidyya Historical Diagnosis:

The Death Of Roman Emperor Claudius Deemed A Homicide

He conquered Britain, crushed a plot to overthrow his government, and endured a variety of physical ailments, but the Roman Emperor Claudius could not survive a plate of poisonous mushrooms dished out by a scheming, power-hungry wife. The murder of Claudius, who died in AD 54 at the age of 64, is the focus of this year's historical diagnosis conference sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs (VA) Maryland Health Care System in Baltimore.

"The medical and historical evidence suggest that Claudius was given mushrooms that contained muscarine, a deadly toxin that attacks the nervous system, causing a wide range of agonizing symptoms," says William A. Valente, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Valente will reveal his diagnosis at the seventh-annual clinicopathologic conference (CPC) dedicated to notorious case histories of the past.

This year's historical CPC was held 09 February 2001, at the School of Medicine's Davidge Hall, the oldest medical school building in the country used continuously for medical education. An actor portraying Claudius, dressed in a Roman toga, presented himself for an examination, and answered questions about his final hours.

During a CPC, the case history of an unnamed patient is presented to an experienced clinician. "By taking on challenging cases from the distant past, medical students and residents can sharpen their diagnostic skills and become better physicians," says Philip A. Mackowiak, M.D., professor and vice chair of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of medical care at the VA Maryland Health Care System.

Since 1995, the conference has investigated the unusual deaths of several historical figures, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Edgar Allan Poe, Alexander the Great, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

On October 13, AD 54, Claudius became gravely ill after devouring a heaping helping of mushrooms served up by his fourth wife, Agrippina. His symptoms included extreme abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive salivation, low blood pressure, and difficulty breathing. Claudius was dead within 12 hours.

So what was Agrippina's motive? "Power," says Richard Talbert, Ph.D., who is the William Rand Kenan Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ambitious and influential, Agrippina had convinced Claudius to adopt her son Nero, so that Nero would inherit the throne. But when Agrippina learned that Claudius might tap his own son for the job, Agrippina hatched the mushroom murder plot.

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born in 10 BC and had several disabilities that would plague him throughout his life. A victim of partial paralysis and a movement disorder, Claudius walked with a limp, drooled, and had trouble speaking clearly. Although he was never groomed to lead the Roman Empire, Claudius rose to power after the murder of his nephew, Emperor Caligula.

Although his family considered him a dolt, Claudius was actually a bright and capable administrator. "Claudius was very statesman-like and fair," says Dr. Talbert. "And he genuinely cared for the welfare of his people."

The reign of Claudius was marked by the stability and expansion of the Roman Empire. He invaded Britain and established provinces in North Africa. But constant turmoil in his personal life eventually led to his downfall. One wife was executed for conspiring with her lover.

Some historians have suggested that Claudius' demise was hastened by an additional dose of poison administered by his physician. "That's pure speculation," says Dr. Talbert, who notes that the historical record is far from complete. While the weapon of choice was the poisoned mushrooms, Dr. Valente says Claudius may actually have died of "de una uxore nimia," -- a Latin phrase meaning "one too many wives."


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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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