Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Book Review: I Claudius

Title: I Claudius


Author: Robert Graves

Date: 1934

Publisher: Harrison Smith (1984), Modern Library (1982)

ISBN: none

Length: 432 pages

Quote: “I may add that this is not the first history of my own life that I have written. I once wrote another, in eight volumes.”

In the United States, the prosperity of “Between the Wars” collapsed in 1929. In England, recovery from the “First Great War” was slower and less complete, there was less of an economic depression, and the prosperity roared on…if not as riotously as it had in the U.S., nevertheless enough to raise concern among people who thought of frugality and modesty as important moral virtues. Spengler’s fears about a Decline of the West parallel with The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were widespread fears. Into this climate of thought Graves released an imaginative and sympathetic novel that attempted to recreate the lost memoirs of the Emperor Claudius, who really was an historian.

Claudius crop.jpg

(Photo of a statue believed to be of Claudius by Marie-Lan Nguyen, courtesy of Wikipedia.)

What had survived of Claudius’ own writing were fragments, and a few comments by contemporary readers describing his writing as “inept” and “inelegant,” although he wrote and published many books (scrolls of course). Vergil, Julius Caesar, or even Petronius he was not. Graves and his partner in literary mayhem, Laura Riding, seem to have had a good time making the fictional Claudius’ English sentences as “inept and inelegant” as the real Claudius’ Latin sentences were. If you think in long, elaborate, sometimes chaotic sentences, as so many word-nerd history-lover types do, you can relate to this narrator. If you’ve read other things either Graves or Riding wrote, you can laugh at their Claudius’ style. I enjoyed reading him (the last time around) perhaps as much as Graves and Riding evidently enjoyed writing him.

The real Claudius lived through a remarkable period of history. Within his lifetime, which overlapped the lifetime of Jesus on both sides, Claudius watched Rome “decline” from a republic where people were proud of their own moral virtue into an empire where people thought it was modern and trendy not to be virtuous. He saw Roman law go from mandating death for anyone who presumed to self-identity with the gods or even as a king, to hailing the emperor—a title originally meaning a successful war leader—as God; from placing strict penalties, up to and including death by torture, on adultery, to wallowing and revelling in promiscuity, bisexuality, even incest; from holding people accountable for everything they said to expecting everyone to tell lies whenever lies might be convenient.

Claudius was also, by all accounts, a total nerd with substantial physical disabilities. There was that. Roman culture also evolved, during his lifetime, from regarding people like him as signs of bad luck and discouraging them from letting themselves be seen, to accepting them…well, after the way had been paved by the tyrannical rule of his loathsome relative Caligula, anyway…as minor deities. (The sequel to I Claudius was Claudius the God.)

Graves and Riding retell his irony-rich, drily funny story with an improbable, though entertaining, resonance to events of the 1930s. Graves took the liberty of describing certain barbarians as “French” and “German,” after the allies and enemies of his own military experience, and characterizing the Germans as more “savage” to the extent of describing their favorite weapons as “assegais” (the Boer War was also fresh in many of his readers’ memories). Historically the French had long admired blond hair, if partly because it was unusual; Graves’ Claudius jeers at German slaves’ and savages’ yellow hair. Graves also invented a prophecy that Claudius’ “truest,” secret autobiography would be dug up intact about 1900 years after Claudius’ own time, and other things that were deliciously appropriate to the true story of Claudius.

Riding’s influence is apparent in Claudius’ characterization of the Empress Livia. History presents her in partisan lights; I Claudius accepts the best and worst things said about her as both possibly true, and presents her as a shrewd Peace Chief who both murdered any relative she saw as a threat to her position, thus unwittingly paving the way for Caligula’s disastrous reign, and also maintained peace, prosperity, and stability in a city her husband was too busy being War Chief to govern. She was, after all, Claudius’ grandmother. Fictional Claudius convinces us that he both hated and feared her for the first forty years of his life, reconciled himself to her on historical and patriotic grounds before she died, and missed her when she was gone.

Homosexuality and bisexuality were common in Claudius’ time, and the historical Claudius seems not to have been close to any of the women he married—or was that just the early Roman concept of “gravity,” according to which any noticeable display of affection, as in Ovid’s Art of Love,  was considered ridiculous and disgraceful? (Ovid wrote The Art of Love as a satire.) Graves and Riding, whose hetero-romantic idealization of gender polarity hardly accounts for the full extent of their homophobia, give Claudius an idealized first love who dies young and a nice yuppie-type courtesan friend, later on, possibly just to affirm his heterosexuality against an early wave of suspicion that intellectual activity might have something to do with homosexuality. There are historians who can mention an historical character’s documented or alleged bisexuality without making it the ultimate proof of the character’s villainy. Graves was not one of them.

It's possible that fictional Claudius is nicer than the historical Claudius, since contemporaries described the real Claudius as quick-tempered and mean-mouthed. Graves' Claudius is a shy, even timid, polio survivor who never completely outgrows a nervous stutter. Some historians have speculated that the real Claudius might have had Tourette's Syndrome; apparently his sputtering was heard as more than a simple stammer. Graves' Claudius quietly watches his friends and relatives murder one another, or at least plausibly presents himself as doing so. Historical Claudius was seriously suspected of several of the murders. 

More than an adventure or a romance, this is a survey, with fictional Claudius as guide, of the Pagan Rome under which Christianity could only have begun as a religion for a despised and oppressed minority group. (Graves’ Claudius is even less interested in Judea than in Africa; the historical Claudius expelled Jews from Rome, after the time frame of I Claudius.)

We see a young, Pagan-god-fearing prince mature into a practical, survival-oriented one who, by the time Caligula declares himself divine, has learned to say things like “You set the standard of sanity for the whole habitable world” and worship Caligula in whatever way Caligula demands. I suppose that must have been the way Claudius really was; he was born feeling that to identify himself with “the Gods” was the mortal sin of blasphemy (in many ways Rome was Catholic before Christianity was invented), yet as emperor Claudius accepted his own status of “divinity” with, apparently, classical Roman gravity.

We get all the history, as first-century Romans understood history—military records with a generous dash of palace gossip—any reader could possibly want, and perhaps more than teenage readers like. Claudius has few adventures of his own (history confirms this), but coolly sits out of the way telling us what he thinks he’s determined to be the true account of other people’s adventures.

We get more of the women’s perspective than might have been expected from a male author working alone. For this I’m sure we can thank Riding. We meet, from Claudius’ distance, a Real Princess, Agrippina, who took command of the army camp during her husband’s absence and won battles, and a Real Brat (feel free to substitute other words beginning with B), Plancina, who parodies Agrippina’s valor with a ridiculous display of ignorance as Plancina purports to drill a troop. We get both the Real Queen and the Wicked Witch aspects of Livia. Spengler had identified turn-of-the-twentieth-century feminism with aspects of the decline of Rome. Graves and Riding remind us that, historically, Livia was successful even when hated; it was a backlash, as manifested by Plancina, that was later cited as an excuse for enacting laws that restricted women’s rights—which took place after Rome had declined a long way from its height. Claudius was accused of showing too much respect for women; Graves and Riding show us why.

And, unmistakably, we get an identification of “puritanical” “purity” with virtue, of wealth and wastefulness with vice. Pagan Roman cults had a few holidays; early civic leaders became popular by proclaiming a few additional holidays, for the whole city and not only the cults of this or that deity; Caligula in his insanity proclaimed feasts and holidays almost daily, depleted the city’s treasury, then refilled it by (among other things) murdering a cousin to whom he reportedly explained “I need your money” before the deed. (The historical records of Caligula's craziness are so outrageous that some historians react by suggesting that nobody could have been all that bad and lived--even as long as Caligula did.) During Claudius’s lifetime racing, itself, developed from a semi-serious effort to develop the city’s athletic and military resources into a pit of gambling and corruption in which, as fictional Claudius tells us, organized crime might have made heavy betting a matter of life and death.

These cultural developments really happened and they also happened to be what Graves and Riding wanted to call to readers’ attention in this novel. The point of I Claudius is not “This is how a handicapped boy grew rich” or “This is the sort of adventure a handicapped boy could have if he were rich” but “This is how greed and wastefulness destroy a great nation, even an empire.” In Graves’ and Riding’s day the United Kingdom was still a British Empire on which the sun never set; in 1934 the between-the-wars boom economy seemed as dangerous as the First War had seemed to that empire. 

That was the important thing. That Claudius is found in hiding on page 430, dragged out and proposed as the next emperor on page 431, and persuaded to accept the throne on page 432, isn’t even a spoiler for this novel: anyone who ever read any history knew it would happen, whether in this volume or in the second one, and it’s more of a denouement than a climax. (If you know that the real Claudius was, as emperor, quite a spender and a great issuer of imperial edicts, and willing to be sculpted as Jove in mortal form, I Claudius does a good job of presenting him as becoming that sort of ruler out of fear that he wouldn't be able to be a better kind.)

Which makes I Claudius a very adult novel (though Graves’ Claudius skims over the sexual excesses of Roman imperial history more lightly than Graves himself skimmed over the sex in The Greek Myths, and never wallows in the violence that forms much of the real Claudius’ history). When I was a teenager, the reprints were set before me as classic novels adults admired, and I found them a long dull read. Now I admire Graves’ achievement, although the undeniable lengthiness and dullness are actually part of its comedic charm…and I suspect that teenagers will still find them a long dull read. If you, too, didn’t enjoy I Claudius in high school or college, however, I’d suggest that you turn back to it now. Bits that bored me as a teenager made me laugh out loud as a middle-aged reader. I suspect other readers will enjoy I Claudius, now, too.


Neither Graves nor Riding has any use for a dollar any more but we still have to charge $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment if you buy I Claudius here. (Both of the Claudius books will fit into one package; if you'll settle for cheap paperback editions we can probably wedge in the small, cheap, two-volume edition of The Greek Myths for a total of $25, or $26.)