I, Claudius: Robert Graves (1934)
Here we have another book where I’ve cheated slightly in that I already knew the plot. Shockingly (I know – I’m a Philistine), I don’t know it because of the TV series. I watched the first episode and it was good but I just never got around to watching the rest. Probably worth it for the cast alone – Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart etc in their early days – but as usual, much to do, little time. I know the plot thanks to the radio series, which also featured Jacobi, this time as Caesar Augustus. Because of this I decided I’d better read the book and, as is my habit these days, I decided to review it here. As usual, there are some spoilers in the overview so skip if you wish.
Here is how it starts; Tiberius Claudius Nero Drusus Germanicus is considered by most of his family to be a useless crippled idiot and it is principally because of this that he remains safe from the various murders that seem to define the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Claudius acts as the narrator for the book, which takes the form of his secret memoirs, written in Greek and hidden away so that one day the fiction that passed for history in his time might be exposed.
His father and grandfather have both died in mysterious circumstances, both connected to his ambitious grandmother Livia, the wife of the Emperor Augustus. Considered the least of the children of his family, Claudius has a hard upbringing at the hands of his harsh mother, Antonia (daughter of Mark Anthony and Octavia, the sister of Augustus). Augustus, portrayed as the only half-decent man to become emperor, tries to be kind but looks down on him all the same, preferring his brother Germanicus and his cousin, Posthumus. These two are classic ‘heroic’ characters and both show love and even respect for young Claudius.
Meanwhile, Livia is systematically removing anyone who might interfere with her son becoming sole heir to the empire, along with anyone who might try to restore the old Roman Republic. Very reminiscent of Lady Macbeth, she is the one behind the dirtier side of running a dictatorship, and allows the reader to see Augustus as a purely admirable figure.
Now to the review. One of the first things one notices about this book is that the title character is, if not exactly irrelevant, then certainly a minor character for the vast majority of the story. We hear a fair bit about his own trials and tribulations but until Caligula takes power and starts picking on him specifically, Claudius has very little bearing on the wider picture. It makes sense of course, given that he is writing as an historian and so his main concern is the major political events rather than his own life, but still it is unusual, given the book’s title. What talk he has of himself is a little (understandably) self-pitying, but stops shy of the dreadful ‘Frankenstein Syndrome’ of being a book-long lament of woe is me.
Another interesting point that the author makes is the rather cynical view that heroic types tend to die young and, for the most part, un-avenged. Bad people tend to survive and prosper, as do men like Claudius who is quite cowardly. He makes no attempt to hide this from the reader, admitting that he spends his time being cowed by his social betters, keeping his head down, and generally sacrificing his principles for the sake of survival.
OK, on to pros and cons. I’ll get the cons out of the way first: I have to say, I found it grating when Claudius spoke using modern terminology. Graves explains his (slightly patronising) reasons for this at the start but all the same, I didn’t like it. It shouldn’t confuse anyone to say Gaul instead of France, and I found it took me out of the story a bit when he refers to Generals, Colonels and Sergeants instead of Legates, Tribunes and Optios. I don’t think anyone would be so confused by that as to give up on the story, and (as a history geek) I cannot forgive his references to Britain – ok, at the time of writing it was common practice to refer to Julius Caesar ‘conquering’ Britain when he took a force there in 55BC, but referring to the kingdom of Sussex?! As I say, unforgivable.
The next thing that I would call a flaw, which I suppose is once again a deliberate choice by the author, is the rambling. Near the start of the diary, Claudius criticises Homer for jumping all over time when relating a narrative and states that he will be linear in his own recording of events. Yet Claudius goes off on tangents that are just as bad, frequently having to say ‘of course, this was many years before that’, or ‘of course, at this time I had for some years been doing this with so-and-so, who was important because of this’. This may be a deliberate irony on the part of the author, but all the same I did found it a bit tiresome.
In the same vein, an irritation I found in the style was Claudius’ penchant for loooooong sentences. Imagine a book of sentences like this: John, an old friend of mine of many years now, came to my house – which had been built by my parents Dave and Sue when they first moved to the area more than forty years ago after their marriage in the golden summer of 1940 – and we shared a meal of bread and a rather expensive cheddar cheese, which I had purchased that day from the new supermarket down the road. Once again, this could well be a deliberate attempt to show the character of a rambling old man but once again, I did find it annoying sometimes.
On to the pro section; firstly there are lots of great details for those Roman geeks among us (the radio series glosses over a lot of what Claudius tells us of his family, such as being a grandson of Mark Anthony and great-great grand-nephew of Julius Caesar).
It’s interesting as well what Claudius tells us about gladiators. We all know the stories of how much Romans loved blood and death but Claudius tells us that death matches between professionals were a rarity (in this period at least). He tells us how sword-fighters (which is how he always describes them) actively took care not to injure each other too seriously, and that they were too valuable a commodity to simply send to their deaths. Another nice detail is that he mentions a tradition of never fighting sword to sword, but with one man always using another weapon like a spear or trident. The validity of all this may be uncertain, but given how well-researched Graves is about so much else, we can assume that this was something he looked into as well.
The novel opens well with some inter-family murdering which sets the tone nicely for the rest of the book. For a good two-thirds of the book, the culprit for most of these (directly or indirectly) is seen to be Claudius’ grandmother Livia, and she is portrayed for the most part as the villain of the piece; someone who has always belittled and terrified our protagonist and who was not above murdering her own son to keep hold of political power (it was apparently just luck that gangrene killed him before she could). Interestingly though, Claudius repeatedly refers to her as an effective co-ruler to Augustus and as the voice of reason behind Tiberius. For all that her manipulative methods are deplorable, not once does he deny that the empire was well-run in her time. Combined with a few other factors, I found this a very nice development, if not of the character, then of Claudius’ perception of her.
There are several very nice memorable (spoiler alert!) details in the book, such as Antonia’s starving of Livilla to death, and Caligula’s ‘scaring to death’ of Germanicus (spoiler over). We get little in the way of gory details of the decadent lifestyles of Tiberius and Caligula but we must view the book in the context of its era, and for the 1930s it would have been considered racy indeed! (We have to set aside the historical argument that much of the debauchery we hear about was almost certainly exaggerated as a form of negative propaganda – it would get in the way of a good story!)
What I think could be called either a pro and a con (depending on how much of an idealist or a cynic you are) is the character of Claudius himself. I find him to be someone that I can sympathise with, but not really someone I can respect. For all his claims about being a believer in the republic he does very little about it, and when he knows better than anyone the danger posed by Caligula he is mainly concerned for his own survival.
I accept that it is not a book about heroism and that the whole point is that the heroes tend to die and the man who keeps his head down tends to survive, but while I can appreciate that, I still can’t really admire it. For all my generally cynical nature I like a protagonist to be flawed, but ultimately someone who can be respected for their actions. Claudius so rarely stands up for what he believes in, and though that may be a more true to life way of depicting him, it doesn’t make him that much fun to read about.
Fortunately, for all that is negative about it, I think the pros outweigh the cons here, especially if you have an interest in this period of history. The characters are interesting, the plot is good, and even when you know the story (historically or otherwise) it keeps your attention. If you like Romans and can put up with one saying things like France and Colonel, then odds are you will like I, Claudius. Next up, digging about to find Claudius the God…