6. The Child Who Had an Unfortunate and Brief Life Despite – or Because of – Being the Son of a Roman Emperor
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus (41 AD – 55 AD), usually referred to as Britannicus, was the son of the Roman Emperor Claudius and his third wife, Valeria Messalina. Being born the son of a Roman emperor should have been fortunate – the equivalent of hitting the birth lottery. In Britannicus’ case, it was – but not for long. He was Claudius’ heir for a while, but in 48 AD, it was discovered that Britannicus’ mother, Messalina, had been cheating on her husband nonstop.
Messalina (circa 20 AD – 48 AD) went so far as to get bigamously married to another man in secret. Britannicus’ mother was Emperor Augustus’ great grand-niece and was also a cousin of emperors Caligula and Nero. Along with Augustus’ daughter Julia, who was banished by her father for promiscuity, contemporary writers described Messalina as one of the most notoriously promiscuous women in Roman history. Understandably, when Claudius found out, he was not happy. Messalina’s subsequent downfall was unfortunate for Britannicus.
The path of Britannicus’s mother to becoming a Roman empress began in 37 AD. That year, the future Emperor Claudius picked Valeria Messalina, who was thirty years younger than him, to be his third wife. As with many unions between young women and significantly older men, it was not a great marriage. Aside from the age difference, Claudius was not a physically appealing man: he limped, stuttered, and drooled. Those shortcomings had led the imperial family to sideline him as an embarrassment and borderline idiot.
Claudius was no idiot, however. Indeed, he was a scholar and the Roman equivalent of a nerd. Still, he was not exactly the type to set pretty girls’ hearts aflutter. Thus, his marriage to the young and pretty Messalina proved disastrous. Claudius doted on his younger wife, and she used her physical allure to wrap him around her finger. When Claudius became emperor in 41, Messalina got him to execute or exile anybody who displeased her. A whole lot of people displeased Messalina, including Claudius himself. Such undercurrents of his parents’ relationship proved fatal to Britannicus.
Messalina despised her husband, and cheated on him nonstop. Brazenly so: in one instance during her marriage to Claudius, salacious contemporary accounts had her winning a competition with a prostitute to see who could sleep with the most people in one night. Messalina’s most infamous affair was with a senator, Gaius Silius. She plotted with him to murder Claudius, so Silius could replace him on the throne. Considering the recklessness with which she went about it, Messalina might have been a bit unhinged. While Claudius was out of Rome, his wife married Silius, and celebrated it with a huge banquet. Claudius rushed back to Rome, confirmed the affair, and had her executed.
Claudius had terrible luck when it came to marriage. He had divorced his first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, for adultery after she became pregnant by one of Claudius’ freedmen. She was also suspected of having murdered her sister-in-law. His second marriage, to Aelia Paetina, also ended in divorce, because she abused him mentally and physically. Claudius’ first two wives cheated on or abused him, but at least they had not tried to murder him. His third wife did. That was most unfortunate for Britannicus, who was still a child when his mother tried to kill his father.
3. The Unfortunate Britannicus Was Poisoned by His Stepbrother, Shortly After His Stepmother Had Poisoned His Father
Messalina seemingly slept with half of Rome, publicly wed another man while still married to Claudius, and plotted with her lover and bigamous husband to murder her imperial hubby and usurp his throne. That marriage ended in Messalina’s execution. An incorrigible optimist, Claudius married for a fourth time, this time wedding his niece Agrippina Minor (15 – 59 AD). Thirty-three years Claudius’ junior, Agrippina was the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus and the younger sister of Emperor Caligula. At age thirteen, she married a cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, and bore him a son, the future Emperor Nero. Ahenobarbus died in 41 AD, and when Claudius executed Messalina in 48 AD, he chose Agrippina as his fourth wife.
The marriage ended with her poisoning him to death. She convinced Claudius to adopt her son, Nero, and make him his heir and successor instead of his biological son with Messalina, Britannicus. By 54 AD, Claudius seemed to have had second thoughts about marrying Agrippina, and began favoring Britannicus and preparing him for the throne. So Agrippina poisoned Claudius at a banquet with a plate of deadly mushrooms. For the remainder of her life, she jokingly referred to mushrooms as “the food of the gods” (because Roman emperors were deified as gods after their deaths, and by killing Claudius, mushrooms had made him a god). Shortly after Nero ascended the throne, he had the unfortunate Britannicus, then thirteen years old, poisoned.
2. The Social Program That Cynically Exploited Unfortunate Orphans
The Catholic Church used to hold significant – and sometimes pernicious – sway over Quebec until the mid-twentieth century. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Church predominance. In those dark days, Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic politician, became Quebec’s premier. He immediately placed the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of various Catholic religious orders. Duplessis then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program to the provinces.
The idea was to divert as many taxpayer dollars as possible into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church. Canada’s federal subsidy program incentivized healthcare and the building of hospitals, more so than other social programs and infrastructures. Provinces received a federal contribution of about $1.25 a day for every orphan, but more than twice that, $2.75, for every psychiatric patient. So Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church hit upon the idea of transforming $1.25-a-day orphans into more profitable $2.75-a-day psychiatric patients. As seen below, that was terrible news for thousands of Quebecois orphans.
1. A Vile Politician and Vile Clergymen Deliberately Misdiagnosed Unfortunate Orphans as Psychiatric Patients to Make Money
To exploit the Canadian federal government’s subsidy program, Maurice Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church conspired to turn unfortunate orphans into psychiatric patients. To implement their idea, they set up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient, in order to siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly turned Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately the Catholic Church of Quebec – to receive the higher subsidy rates for hospitals.
It took decades before the scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 otherwise mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just a paperwork technicality. Once they were misdiagnosed as “mentally deficient”, the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions. There, the unfortunate children were often subjected physical, mental, and other abuse by nuns and lay monitors.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading