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
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,
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."