I, Claudius by Robert Graves: authority + literary power

I, Claudius by Robert GravesI, Claudius by Robert Graves
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This undeniably brilliant book may leave one or two small things to be desired as a story.

My first exposure to the writing of Robert Graves was indirect, via the BBC TV adaptation of I, Claudius, written by Jack Pulman, in the late 1970s. I had also seen imposing copies of The White Goddess on the nonfiction shelves of bookstores, and wondered what it could possibly be about. But I never actually read Graves until I got myself a copy of the of the 2-volume Penguin set of The Greek Myths in April 1985. I read them cover to cover, impressed—nay, amazed. For not only was his thinking bold and original, and his erudition vast; he was also a superb stylist of English prose. In July that same year I bought myself a yellow-bound paperback of The White Goddess and read it, and in January 1986 I picked up a Penguin copy of I, Claudius and read that.

I was delighted, riveted. Here was a historical novel that truly felt like it was written by someone from the period—in this case, early imperial Rome in the 1st century BC. I knew from reading The Greek Myths that Graves was conversant in both ancient Latin and Greek, and had seemingly read every surviving text written in those languages, indeed had also translated some of them. His authority with the period was as great as could be.

But Graves was not even an academic, in the sense of being a university researcher and lecturer. Apart from a single year spent as a professor of English literature at Cairo University in 1926, his career was only in writing; his primary vocation was as a poet. This meant that his writing chops were extraordinarily strong. In all, it would be difficult to conceive of anyone better placed to write the fictional memoir of the emperor Claudius.

And he did a fantastic job. The conceit of the book (and its sequel, Claudius the God) is that it is an expose of the machinations of the royal family of Rome from the reign of Augustus to the reign of the author, Claudius. The action in the first book takes place between 41 BC and AD 41, but focuses mainly on the late years of Augustus’s reign, and the complete reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. In the opening chapter Claudius, who was in fact a professional historian, confides that he wants to tell all, and that his intended audience is not his contemporaries, but posterity. Indeed, a prophetess has informed him that his book will not see the light of day again for 1,900 years. . . .

Claudius is born into the royal family in 10 BC (Augustus is his great uncle and Livia, Augustus’s third wife, is his grandmother). Handicapped with a limp, a stammer, and facial tics, Claudius is written off as an idiot by almost everyone, and is left mostly to his own devices. In the decadent and murderous environment of court life, these liabilities will prove to be his greatest assets. For Claudius is no fool, but a perceptive, intelligent, and independent-thinking young man. He is also a decent person—and a republican. He is one of the shrinking number of romantics who would like to see the monarchy abolished (again—Rome had already done it once, and had long been proud of the fact) and power returned to the people. From this point of view, his life takes the path of maximum irony.

The novel reads very like an actual memoir. The narrator, writing in his late 50s as emperor, has the worldly, knowledgeable, matter-of-fact tone that goes with his position. He expresses judgments of people and events with the settled conviction of an experienced and powerful man of the world. But throughout his life he has been humble—he could hardly be otherwise, growing up vilified, neglected, and abused—and never ambitious, except perhaps to distinguish himself as a scholar of history.

And as a historian, he could not resist taking pen in hand again, having come into possession of all the secret documents and records of his predecessors. In addition, he has other special sources, such as the deathbed confessions of his grandmother Livia, who, according to Claudius, was in most ways the true power behind the throne of Augustus, and remained a force even through the reign of her decadent son Tiberius. It turns out that in order to steer a powerful state on a peaceful and true course, many people have to be liquidated, including close relatives, and usually secretly via poison and other contrived accidents.

The story is filled with incident and is rich with colorful period detail (Claudius justifies his explanation of Roman ways by the fact that he expects his book to be read so far in the future, when Rome may be long gone). I have every reason to think that most of the events described are historically accurate, or at least are well-informed conjectures. To a far greater extent than with most historical novels, this is a history book.

And for me, on this my 3rd reading of the novel, I found the latter fact to be a slight liability. In a certain way I found the story to be too lifelike, in the sense that it seemed to be a stream of events that lacked a tight dramatic structure, which is what I really appreciate in a work of fiction. In some ways it is more a chronicle than a story. There are certainly subplots within it, and plenty of action and intrigue. But sometimes I felt I was just reading one event after another.

The result was that despite all the action, despite the treacherous, mad, and horrific acts of many of the characters, especially the emperors Tiberius and Caligula, the dramatic effect was muted. Part of the reason for this is Claudius’s own attitude, which, while still sane and basically ethical, has long since become desensitized to atrocities, over and above his Roman acceptance of much cruelty and suffering that we in our era would find shocking. He’s casual about the torture of slaves and the slaughter of prisoners in the arena.

In sum: I still enjoyed I, Claudius, but now that the “tour de force” effects are wearing off on me, I find myself wishing for a more dramatic, emotionally charged story. So I’ve downgraded it from 5 stars to 4. Probably it’s at 4.4 stars for me. Next reading—who knows.

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