Our ancient writers unanimously agreed that Claudius was poisoned—served either poisoned mushrooms at dinner or given a feather dipped in venom, so that when he put it down his throat to vomit he was administered the fatal dose. Those suspected of assassinating him were his wife (and niece), Agrippina, and her son, Nero, using the hired help of the notorious imperial poisoner Locusta. They weren’t even that subtle; Nero would later make jokes about mushrooms being the “food of the gods”, for eating them had got Claudius deified.
In reality, Claudius’s death may not have been as exciting as scandalous as people think. Ancient writers were keen to implicate others whenever an emperor died a non-violent death. We’ve seen it with Tiberius, with rumors that Caligula had him either poisoned or smothered, and it happened with Augustus too—his wife, Livia, faced accusations that she’d orchestrated her husband’s death by secretly administering him poison.
The fact that Claudius had a bad track history with his wives—the one prior to Agrippina was executed for marrying another senator and conspiring against him while he was away on business—made Agrippina an easy target. But while Claudius’s death may have been relatively unremarkable, a surviving text that circulated Nero’s court shortly afterward is anything but.
Known as the Apocolocyntosis—try saying that after a couple of drinks—the text was supposedly written by Seneca the Younger, the great stoic philosopher and tutor to Emperor Nero. It’s essentially a piece of satire about Claudius’s death and arrival amongst the gods (by Claudius’s time it was becoming common practice for emperors to be declared gods after their death—a process known as apotheosis). Apocolocyntosis is a pun on this word; translating to something like the “pumpkinification” of Emperor Claudius, or “How Claudius became a pumpkin”.
It describes how, on October 13 54 AD, the Fates decided to mercifully intervene and give the 64-year-old emperor terminal respite from his torturous existence. Claudius was watching a troupe of comedians when he interrupted the performance with a loud fart. He utters his final words,
“Oh dear, I appear to have shit myself”,
before then ascending to heaven. Rather than receiving a warm welcome, however, he’s tried before a court of gods—headed by Augustus—and condemned to be the slave of Caligula for all eternity.