“I was thinking, “So, I’m Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I’ll be able to make people read my books now.”
I don’t think I’ve been as late on the bandwagon as this for a long time. Robert Graves’ renowned historical novel was first published in the 1930s, and takes inspiration from events in Ancient Rome. I first watched the TV series from the 70s last year (watching the final three episodes earlier this year), and only just finished the book now, in 2019. What can I say about this that hasn’t already been said by other more renowned reviewers, on far more eminent platforms than my humble blog? I can give you my review, and nothing more.
Book Wyrm, you tedious old dragon, you’ve reached your second paragraph and haven’t actually started reviewing the book yet. Just say ‘This book was pretty fantastic and I’m already reading the sequel’ and be done. There. No, that will not do, even though you’re parodying Claudius’ writing style at this point. Let’s begin with the narrative. Claudius establishes himself as writing an autobiography and, more importantly, the history of his family, focussing on the truth which has long been suppressed. His writing charts the history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, from Julius Caesar’s assassination to Caligula’s – with the story of Claudius’ own catastrophic reign continuing the narrative in Claudius The God. There is a reason his family have been anxious to stop him writing their history – it is a complete mess. Poisoning, exile, abuse, suicide, marriage, divorce, robbery, betrayal, this book contains all that and much more. It contains so much of it, in fact, that some of the characters don’t seem all that perturbed:
‘My mother came to see me. ‘I am about to kill myself, Claudius,’ she said. ‘You will find all my affairs in order. There will be a few small debts outstanding: pay them punctually.’
Unfortunately, despite all of this intrigue, the pacing could be a bit uneven at times. On more than one occasion a paragraph took up an entire page, and for long periods Claudius tells the reader about the affairs of the Roman army in Germany, rather than focussing on what is happening closer to home. This is a pity, as what’s happening closer to home is fascinating, albeit gruesome. His grandmother Livia, for example, is an incredible character, murdering and scheming to secure her son’s rule when her husband, Augustus, dies – that is to say, she murders him. ‘Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus’ is one of the most accurate statements Claudius makes. Although it is debatable how much of the novel is Graves’ invention or exaggeration of historical fact and primary sources, it is incredibly memorable and quotable, and certain episodes stick in your mind long after you close the book. Caligula laughing and, upon being asked why, replying ‘I was laughing to think that with one nod of my head I could have both your throats cut on the spot’, for example! The chapters concerning his antics were certainly the most entertaining, from his decision to go to war with Neptune to his obsession with his own deification.
‘I have put the good of the Empire before all human considerations […] And what is the proper reward for a ruler who commits such crimes for the good of his subjects? The proper reward, obviously, is to be deified.’
In spite of the seriousness of its subject matter, sometimes uneven pacing and, on occasion, slightly clunky writing style, I, Claudius overall not only manages to be gripping but also witty, with Claudius often making barbed comments at his family’s expense and exposing various others’ lies and flattery for what they are. He is a very personable narrator, and you can’t help but sympathise with him – and so, at the novel’s close when he is unwillingly crowned Emperor, I quickly found myself picking up the sequel to continue his story. He wants us to read his books, after all.