The reign of Claudius’ predecessor, Gaius (more popularly known as Caligula), had been a cruel and reckless one and a very deep shock to the practice of hereditary succession - for a time there had been heated discussion about a return to the republican system, although it was realised that without a strong centre of power, dissension and destruction could easily run rife once more. While the Senate was debating, though, the Praetorian Guard was acting and Claudius, dismissed during the intrigues of Tiberius and Gaius as being weak-minded (phrased by Carl Roebuck as a “bumbling, scholarly pedant”), was installed as Emperor of Rome (it having been decided at a clandestine meeting that the choice of princeps was now the right of the army). If this seems an inauspicious beginning, then it is a testament to Claudius’ abilities as an actor, for the Roman Empire received a deceptively strong ruler; it is now thought that much of Claudius’ illness was feigned as a means of self-protection.
It was popular to view Claudius as a weak man, dominated by all parties around him (including his wives, the army and the Senate). The popular sources (Seneca, Pliny, Tacitus, Velleius Paterculus, Josephus and Suetonius etc.) are unflattering and repeatedly allude to the notion that he allowed himself to be ruled by unscrupulous individuals (the ‘freedmen’) or that he was generally ill-suited to statesmanship. This claim appears to gain some credibility by the fact that most of the sources achieve a consensus on this, but it must be realised that the freedmen were non-Romans (a warning that significant prejudice is likely to be present) and that as they were appointed to offices by Claudius, they denied these same authors and their families the ability to increase their prestige - a practice quite contrary to the social ladder-climbing of the republic.
A second important factor is that Claudius enacted what Tiberius had intended as far as the restoration of senatorial functions is concerned. He lacked experience in government and encouraged the Senators to debate resolutions (where they had previously been indolent and had little visible purpose, even in ceremonial matters), even going to the extent of levying fines against negligent Senators. Claudius, however, encountered similar difficulties to Tiberius; the wills of two systems - that of the new empire (Claudius) and the vestiges of republicanism (the Senate) - were ultimately fated to clash and when it came to the expansive policies of reducing Italian primacy and extending citizenship rights, Claudius was forced to suppress the Senate to impose his will (as the census of 48 records: Rome then had 6,994,000 citizens, around 1,000,000 more than at the end of Augustus’ reign).
From this remarkably liberal practice, something akin to regulated state departments were formed. Indeed, Claudius appears to have admired many of his servants (a subject discussed with disgust by both Pliny and Tacitus) and conferred many honours upon them. The picture which emerges from this convoluted debate is that while the freedmen were very able administrators, the public frowned upon Claudius for allowing them to acquire such prestige. This response is one based primarily on notions of nationalism and racial superiority (as epitomised by Tacitus’ constant references to them as “ex-slaves”) and secondarily on an emerging preference for a strong monarch. Claudius’ submissiveness to his third and fourth wives (Messalina and Agrippina, respectively) in particular struck a chord with the patriarchal public.
The latter publicly claimed that half Claudius’ rule was her own and every one of his wives is well-documented as lacking fidelity or even engaging in treacherous behaviour - it was Agrippina who fed Claudius poisoned mushrooms in order that her son, Nero, could rule. The conquest of lower Britain acted to counterbalance some claims of cowardice or ineptitude; having long been the indirect cause of insurrection in Gaul, Claudius appears to have read the Roman people accurately in this instance although he could not bask in the adoration of the people as more independent emperors could have done, save Tiberius and Gaius (the former a recluse and the latter a megalomaniac). He desired to be known as ‘extender of the empire’ - indeed, virtually all borders were extended and rebellious regions (generally a legacy of Gaius’ foreign policies) pacified.
Claudius’ public works were generally humanitarian in nature, including two aqueducts, the clearing of silted-up canals and river mouths, the establishment of a new harbour and lighthouse at Ostia, the extension of ship insurance to non-Romans (intended to protect grain supplies) and the construction of roads, both in Italy and the provinces. He was religiously conservative, endeavouring to live by the letter of Augustus’ will; this entailed expelling astrologers (a reviled form of eastern mysticism), more harshly suppressing Druidism than any of his predecessors, denying Jews the right to worship in synagogues and generally reinforcing the image of Rome as a divine entity. To his credit, though, he refused to have himself thought of as a deity and tolerated the presence of many religious minorities. He also invested a personal interest in the justice system.
Claudius’ rule can be broadly summarised as being more humane than most (particularly by contrast to Gaius and - if the allegations can be believed - Nero). He appears to have enacted exactly what he intended and left the treasury in a commendable condition, despite the rampant self-gratification of the freedmen and others (the Praetorian Guard and his wives, primarily) who intended to use him for their own ends. He was far-sighted in his social reforms, but perhaps a little too trusting of those closest to him. If he had any weakness, it was not stupidity, but rather the willingness to extend his relatively humane disposition to those who deserved it least.
Roebuck, Carl, The World of Ancient Times
Various Authors, Ancient Rome: the Julio-Claudian Dynasty