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Book Review: I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves

A fictionalized autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius.


I, Claudius

1934, 468 pages



Here is one of the best historical novels ever written. Lame, stammering Claudius, once a major embarrassment to the imperial family and now emperor of Rome, writes an eyewitness account of the reign of the first four Caesars: the noble Augustus and his cunning wife, Livia; the reptilian Tiberius; the monstrous Caligula; and finally old Claudius himself and his wife, Messalina. Filled with poisonings, betrayal, and shocking excesses, I Claudius is history that rivals the most exciting contemporary fiction.




I find Roman history interesting, like most ancient history, but I have never really studied it, so I don't know how accurate Robert Graves' famous set of novels is. I, Claudius, being one of the earliest popular modern historicals, tells the story of the Roman Emperor Claudius, with Claudius as the first-person narrator of his own biography. In general the historical details seem to fit what I was able to glean about him, though obviously the words, thoughts and specific day to day events that Graves attributes to him are fictional.

Claudius was lame, sickly, and a stutterer. Everyone assumed this meant he was also feeble-witted and useless. In the era in which he grew up among the Roman nobility, this likely saved him — while everyone was jockeying for position and trying to position themselves or their heirs for the throne, nobody considered "Lame Uncle Claudius" a threat. So he was witness to the rise and fall of many a senator and would-be emperor, and while bodies fell around him, nobody ever quite got around to killing him off. The joke was on them when, after Caligula's Praetorian guard had had enough and finally offed him, Claudius was the only (seemingly) pliable Roman of noble blood around. They installed him as Emperor, and that's how I, Claudius ends. I started this book just wanting to see how the classic was (I only knew of it as an old BBC serial), and it was really good.

Claudius, contrary to what most everyone around him believed, was in fact a very intelligent, educated, and thoughtful man. He was also much more humane and stable and less egotistical than most of his relatives. Of course, this story is told from his own perspective, so it's unsurprising that he comes off looking better, despite his humility. As the grand-nephew of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, he witnesses Augustus's vacillation, early on promising to restore the Republic, a promise that of course will never be fulfilled. Augustus, according to Claudius, was essentially a decent enough ruler, but he let his power get to him, and was also never able to see through the schemes of his wife, Livia. (This will become a pattern later...)

Livia Drusilla is one of the chief "villains" of I, Claudius, though Claudius, despite often despising her, never really seems to view her as a villain per se. Livia's sole objective is to ensure that her offspring succeed Augustus to the throne, and to that end, ruins marriages, destroys careers, arranges exiles and executions, and poisons everyone who is even a remote threat to her long-range plans... except her useless grandson Claudius, whom she regards with as much contempt as everyone else, but never enough of a threat to merit doing away with him.

There is an almost poignant scene near the end of the book. Livia is dying, and she's arranged to have her great-grandson Caligula (Claudius's nephew) installed as Emperor. This is when Caligula's character emerges, and he laughingly reneges on his deal to have Livia deified after her death. Livia tells Claudius this, and Claudius asks why that means so much to her. Well, much like Christians, the Romans believed that sinners would spend their afterlives tormented in hell, and Livia knew that she'd more than earned an eternity of suffering. The "escape clause" for her was that being made a goddess meant she was exempt from punishment, and would get to go to heaven to join the other gods. Surprisingly, Claudius swears to have her deified if she tells him everything she really did throughout her life. He's a historian, and he just wants to know, without any rancor or bitterness. So she does, and according to history, Claudius kept his word and deified Livia.

The entire book is really very interesting — Claudius is constantly trying to reveal the truth, or just record it, while evading trouble, often by very narrow margins. He witnesses his innocent friends and family get executed or banished for crimes they didn't commit, and finds out later all his letters were being intercepted by Livia. He sees his brother Germanicus, one of the few family members who was actually decent, to him and in general, get repeatedly set up and finally die before he can become emperor. His uncle Tiberius becomes one of the worst and most depraved of emperors, until Caligula comes along and turns Rome into a dystopian shitshow. Claudius survives Caligula by playing up his uselessness and infirmity, until Caligula is assassinated and somehow Claudius is the man of the hour.

Regardless of how true to history the details are, this is a really good novel about Rome, and while I might not rely on it for strict historical accuracy (did Livia really give her daughter Julia Spanish Fly to make her mad with lust? Did Tiberius really engage in the debauched orgies Claudius describes? Was Caligula really that batshit insane?), it will help me remember some of those Roman names!

Claudius, the God



Claudius, the God

Subtitled "and his wife, Messalina", Claudius, the God, the second volume of Robert Graves's classic, begins where I, Claudius left off, with Claudius, no less surprised than anyone else, having ascended to Emperor, after outliving all his scheming, murderous relatives who actually wanted the job.

The first half of the book is mostly about Claudius establishing himself as Emperor, in which he gives a pretty positive portrayal of himself. The chief antagonist initially is his childhood friend Herod (yes, that Herod, those of you who went to Sunday School), who later declares himself the Messiah and ends up dying after trying to lead a Jewish uprising in the east.

While in the first book, I never really doubted Claudius's self-narrated version of events, here I began to suspect that Claudius wasn't necessarily an entirely reliable narrator. That is, obviously this book was written by Robert Graves, not Claudius himself, but Graves depicts a Claudius who constantly wants to do the right thing, and assures us how dedicated he is to truth, justice, and humanity, and yet, while he might not be a butcher like Caligula, nor a debauched monster like his uncle Tiberius, Claudius does manage to carry on pretty much like we expected Roman Emperors to do. He raised taxes whenever he had a pet project to pay for, every time someone pissed him off he made a new law to remedy the matter, he has people executed (always for very legitimate and just reasons — according to him), and incidentally, he decides it's time to conquer Britain in earnest and launches his very own invasion.

As Emperors go, Claudius was not too bad (and he was pretty good for Rome), but a great humanitarian he was not. However, his greatest failing was his blind trust in his wife, Valeria Messalina, who it turns out was (at least in this version of the story, in which Claudius totally throws his wife under the bus by blaming pretty much every bad thing he ever did on her) screwing half of Rome behind his back.

This is the fictional Messalina created by Robert Graves, of course, who portrays her as a truly horrible, manipulative and monstrous little slut who had Claudius wrapped around her little finger while she was having anyone who offended her, threatened to expose her, or refused to sleep with her put to death. The degree of exaggeration Claudius gives his wife's promiscuity is enough to make even a non-feminist skeptical (like, she wore out the city's most veteran courtesans in a fucking contest, really?) Most everything in Graves's novels is based on the work of Roman historians Tacitus, Seutonius, Pliny the Elder, and the satirist Juvenal, all of whom were writing about events long in the past and who had reason to be hostile to Messalina and her imperial line, so it's been argued that her sexual voraciousness and other misdeeds are just sexist slander. Who knows?

Everything in the book is at least based on historical facts, however. We know that Messalina was eventually executed for adultery, and Claudius married his niece, Agrippina, the daughter of his brother Germanicus, and sister of Caligula. Once again, Graves gives Claudius high-minded motives for this incestuous marriage, which (in this version of the story, at least), was never consummated and which they both agreed to for purely political reasons.

Agrippina may not have been quite the murderous whore that Messalina was, but she was just as scheming, and was soon conspiring to ensure her son Lucius (aka Nero) would become Emperor, rather than Claudius and Messalina's son Britannicus. Claudius sort of dodders off into a depressive funk (and incidentally, becomes a raging drunk who stages grand gladiatorial death-matches... once again acting like a typical Roman Emperor all while claiming not to be a typical Roman Emperor), tries to send his son Britannicus away from Rome because he knows the kid is going to be no match for Nero, but ultimately fails.

Roman historians accuse Agrippina of poisoning Claudius, but like the turgid descriptions of Messalina's debauchery, there is reason to be skeptical of these accounts. Still, it is certainly the sort of thing Romans did, so there isn't much reason to think she didn't do it, either. Robert Graves's novels are first and foremost, novels. Graves wrote them to be entertaining, rather than to instruct the reader in Roman history. But he based them on Roman sources, so what you're really reading is a novelization of all the Roman writings that most Roman histories have been based on. If Graves's version of Emperor Claudius is historically inaccurate, it's not much more inaccurate than Tacitus and Pliny the Elder.

I do wonder about the references to corn, though.






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