My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0
Amazon Rating: 5.00 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.41 / 5.00
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles), who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot’, or ‘That Claudius’, or ‘Claudius the Stammerer’, or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’, or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.
Claudius is the grandnephew of the Emperor Augustus and also Mark Antony’s grandson. In other words, Claudius is very, very well connected and should have an integral part to play within the all-important Imperial family. Unfortunately, he had the misfortune to be born with several physical problems: he limps and has weak legs; he is partially deaf and his head shakes and twitches, especially when he is nervous; and worst of all he has a pronounced stammer that plagues his attempts at public speaking. The family is generally embarrassed by him and treats him as an idiot, a monster or an object of pity. He is kept in the background and blocked from public life as much as possible.
However, Claudius is keenly intelligent and loves history, so he keeps himself busy with his writings as a succession of his family members gain and then lose favor. He even manages to survive the despotic reigns of Tiberius and Gaius (Caligula) whilst many ‘better’ men are seen as potential threats and removed. After Caligula’s assassination, he is the only member of his extended family to remain alive and although he is secretly in favor of a Republic, he is made Emperor and tries to rule as fairly as he can in order to create an Empire that can learn to rule itself. Unfortunately, the Senate and the people are no longer able to function in a political system that is not corrupt and he ultimately fails in his plans to transform the state into a Republic and so he sets about creating a monster for a successor: a man who will be so appalling as Emperor that the people will have no choice but to rise against him and seize power for themselves.
I first encountered Mr Graves’ work in the early 1980s and I have read this work many times since then. In fact it is one of the books that I would want to have in my luggage if I were ever to be shipwrecked on a desert island with no hope of rescue. It is also one of my most favorite television series and Derek Jacobi will always BE Claudius for me. It is a book that cemented my interest in Ancient Rome while encouraging me to seek out the original works that influenced much of its plot and keeping me massively entertained, all at the same time. Surprisingly, it is not a dry historical recitation of genealogies and boring battle details: rather, it is a succession of political plots, deaths, adulteries, deceptions, blackmails, witchcraft, poisonings and other assorted mayhem. At one point we follow the Imperial Palace being turned into a brothel filled with senators’ wives and daughters, while at another there is a competition between the Empress and a prostitute to see who can ‘handle’ the most men in one night. We follow Caligula’s crazy war against Neptune and the death by maggots of Herod Agrippa. There is never a dull moment!
The novel is based upon the conceit that the Emperor Claudius decided, near the end of his life, to write an account of his own life and that of his immediate family so that the truly dreadful face of Imperialism would be revealed. Fortunately, he completed the scrolls and had them sealed away somewhere safe shortly before his fourth wife, Agrippinilla, poisoned him with mushrooms. He speaks directly to us, the modern discoverers of his writings and reveals all the secrets that he has uncovered about the reigns of the Emperors before him: Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. He presents himself as a person uniquely qualified to comment upon their lives because not only was he actually present for many of the events but he was able to question some of the most important figures of that time, such as his grandmother, the Empress Livia.
What he reveals is a family composed of powerful personalities and driven by the fight to retain power, for that is the only way to ensure its continued survival. We must remember that Augustus was the first Emperor, uniting the Roman Republic under his rule after the splintering effects caused by the life and assassination of Julius Caesar. After the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, Augustus became the First Citizen of the Empire, but always tried to retain the appearance of being a reluctant servant of the people, humbly accepting the powers and titles that the Senate bestowed upon him. However, once he had acquired all that power it became obvious that any other man would also be able to hold it, if he could only find a way to replace Augustus. This left Augustus trapped in a role that he repeatedly claimed not to want, but fearful of what would happen if he ever renounced his powers and so he tried to groom a successor from within his family: one that he could trust. This dovetailed nicely with the peoples’ increasing trust in Augustus, who actually brought a time of peace and rejuvenation for the Empire. This led them to demand that another member of the Imperial family be ready to step into his position upon his death: the thing that they feared most was a return to the anarchy of the civil wars and only a Caesar could maintain the peace.
Unfortunately, Augustus was singularly unsuccessful in producing a male heir and so he was forced to adopt one from his extended family. This was not an unusual action in a time when many children died in infancy and life was often short and brutal. Indeed, Augustus himself was made Julius Caesar’s heir, even though he was only his grandnephew, because he was the nearest male relative to the great man. However, the many candidates for heir led to factions developing within the various branches of the family and constant feuding and maneuvering for position. Deaths and unfortunate ‘accidents’ cleared the way for certain individuals to assume positions of favor, whilst marriages and divorces strengthened and weakened others’ claims to the family name. It is this plotting within the family that provides us with this most terrifying view of Roman Imperial life as various members murder their way towards power with varying levels of success.
Although Mr Graves bases his writing on many contemporary works, it is always important to remember that history is written by the victors and those who survive events. Certain details and events are reported so many times that we can assume that they are true facts, but many scurrilous tales that were written about powerful people both before and after their deaths must be taken with a large dosage of salt. Just as we see now, political opponents make the most amazing claims that are massively incorrect. Imagine if the only source of information on President Obama came from a racist, right wing author that repeated the claims that the President is a Kenyan-born Muslim: this would not make it a true fact, but would certainly suggest quite a lot about how the President was viewed by certain sections of society.
No matter how factually correct Mr Graves’ characters really are, they are certainly very entertaining, making it abundantly clear that people in ancient times were just as varied as those in the present era. He provides us with a cast of very diverse characters, with a broad range of personalities and temperaments, who we follow during all the intrigue and plotting. Some remain remarkably similar throughout their lives whilst others show massive changes, possibly because they are corrupted by power or because they finally reveal their true selves. One thing is abundantly clear: being a ‘good’ person is a very dangerous thing to be in this household at this time.
Of course, the most persistently ‘good’ person that we encounter is Claudius himself. Later in life he begins to make decisions that seem very dubious, such as marrying his niece, Agrippinilla. However, we are made privy to his reasons for making these decisions, which are designed to make the ruling Imperial family so appalling that the People will rise in revolution and demand the return of the Republic. Towards this end, the elderly Claudius indulges the bizarre Lucius Domitius, who later becomes the Emperor Nero, and tries to shield his own son, Britannicus, from the taint of Imperial power. Unfortunately, he is ultimately unsuccessful, as the Empire continued for several hundred years after Nero’s suicide before it finally collapsed. However, being shown a possible reason for Claudius’ behavior at this time only endears him to us and makes us sad that he did not succeed in his dream of reviving the Republic.
We are drawn to Claudius as a person and narrator because he is a very sympathetic character. Although he is physically impaired, his intellect is sharp and he is possessed of an open and enquiring mind. He loves to study and read history and has a very deep attachment to his family. The fact that he is constantly rejected by many of that same family gives him a puppy-like aura and we start to feel aggrieved on his behalf whenever they aim a kick in his direction. He does have a few friends, whom he adores and supports stubbornly throughout his life. His elder brother, Germanicus, is a golden child in more ways than one and yet he reciprocates Claudius’ love whole-heartedly. He constantly champions his younger brother in a way that resonates with anyone who is an elder sibling that has been held up as a paragon of virtue to his or her younger brothers or sisters. Both he and Postumus, the youngest of Augustus’ grandsons, become fine young men who meet unfortunate ends, whilst Claudius remains safe due to his position as the overlooked family embarrassment. His other great friend is Herod Agrippa, a grandson of that Herod the Great who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents reported in St Matthew’s Gospel. Herod provides a delightfully foreign view of all the various events and also gives us a view into the rise of Christianity at that time, which plays a surprising role in the mentality of Gaius Caligula.
Amongst the less pleasant characters, perhaps the most outstanding is the Empress Livia. She was an extraordinary woman who met Augustus when she was only about twenty years old. They were both already married at the time and she was actually pregnant with her second son, but they divorced their respective partners and married shortly afterwards. They remained married until his death fifty-one years later and she lived to the amazing age of eighty-six. Strangely, she had no further pregnancies after Drusus, Claudius’ father, was born, but Augustus only had one child from his previous two marriages, so he may have had serious fertility issues. Mr Graves gives us an alternative reason for this lack of offspring that is somewhat more disturbing, but there is no doubt that she was an influential figure in both his life and reign and was also a huge controlling influence over her eldest son, the Emperor Tiberius.
We follow Livia through a large section of her very long life and she is presented as a remarkably pragmatic and resourceful woman who steers her massive, extended family through every crisis as Augustus selects an heir and then loses him. Ultimately, she seeks to place her son, Tiberius, on the throne, and is successful in this ambition, although at great cost to the rest of the Imperial family. However, her reason for doing this is not really one of desire for personal power, more a concern that Rome be ruled correctly by a person she believes to be suitable and also to transfer to the power from the Julian family to that of the Claudians, the family of her birth. Her deathbed confession with Claudius is truly astounding and she remains one of the strongest women I have ever read.
Whereas Livia is a monster because of the decisions she makes and the actions she takes, all with cold-blooded calculation, Caligula is simply mad. This makes him amazing fun to read, but he also demonstrates quite clearly how difficult it was for the Senate to rise up and remove an Emperor. He is the son of Claudius’ golden brother, Germanicus, and so the people believe that he ill also be a model Roman like his father. However, there is something seriously wrong with him from the outset and he reacts badly to the discipline that his parents try to use with him. Claudius’ mother, Antonia believes that he is a demonic monster and I am afraid that she is quite right: history would have been very different if he had met an early death through illness or misfortune.
At first, Caligula is adored by the masses as he lavishes games and free bread upon them. Plus, they had come to distrust and dislike Tiberius, who I cannot imagine was quite as bad as he portrayed here. However, shortly after taking power he suffers from a life-threatening illness. When he finally recovers, he believes that he has become a god, and it all goes downhill from there: he makes his horse, Incitatus, into a Consul and has a fleet of ships strapped together across the Bay of Naples from Baiae to Puteoli, just so that he can ride the two mile length. His behavior becomes so extreme that he is finally assassinated by a conspiracy between the leaders of the Praetorian Guards, the unit specifically charged with protecting the Emperor, and several leading senators. This was a huge gamble for them as individuals as any successor could see them as traitors and have them executed. However, Claudius pardons most of them because he privately agrees with the need to remove such a crazed individual from power and because he wants the Senate to feel free to start wielding power again.
Once Claudius becomes Emperor we see him return the Empire to a period of reform and prosperity. He expands the reach of the Empire in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and also succeeds, where the Divine Julius had not, in conquering the savages of that desolate island called Britain. The story of his defeat of the British forces through guile and the cunning use of both elephants and camels is massively entertaining and shows that one does not have to be a great soldier to be a successful general. He also alters the way in which the Empire is managed, introducing a large number of secretaries to take many of the everyday decisions out of his hands. Although this was unpopular with the Senate it did lay the foundations of the modern concept of a civil service and improved administration of the massive Empire tremendously. He also oversees the construction of a new seaport to serve the city and is a generally good Emperor. However, his wife, Messalina, proves to be a disaster and is finally responsible for much of the unease that surrounds the later years of his rule.
I could go on and on and on about this book and how much I love it, but I think I have given you some idea of why it appeals to me. I am always drawn to character-driven works, no matter of their genre, and this is no exception. We may not agree with, or even understand, many of the decisions that the characters make in this epic saga, but they are all derived from that person’s beliefs and thinking. Whether you prefer the machinations of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series or the backstabbing and horse decapitations of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, you will be swept along by this cast of deliciously devious individuals as they clamor for survival.