Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2021

I Claudius, by Robert Graves

The first book I’ve finished in our brand new year is I Claudius, the fictional autobiography of the accidental emperor of Ancient Rome, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus (10BC-AD54).  I wanted to read it because of my interest in Ancient Rome (which I studied at university when I did Classics.)

For those of us of a certain age, it’s impossible to read this book without remembering the characters from the 1976 BBC series starring Derek Jacobi. It’s still available in various re-mastered editions, and it’s still good entertainment despite showing its age in terms of special effects, scenery and costuming.

The book, however, is a bit arduous to read.  My edition comes in at 395 pages, but the font is small and dense, and most modern editions are 450+ pages. Robert Graves (1895-1985) based his historical novel on real events in the early Roman Empire using Tacitus and Suetonius  as sources, and he spares his readers no detail.  Since the participants in the history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty were an ambitious lot, much given to disposing of rivals in a variety of duplicitous ways, they adopted alternative heirs and successors willy-nilly and made things harder to follow by being wilfully unimaginative in naming offspring with the same old names over and over again.  Which is why, when I started this book way back in August 2019, I abandoned it at page 67 and watched the TV series on DVD to clarify who was what and which ones had been bumped off and why.  I then progressed to page 177 but the book got moved off the coffee table to make way for 2019 Christmas revelry (which we were allowed to have in those pre-Covid days, remember?) And then I forgot about it, except when I looked at my Goodreads ‘currently reading’ status, where it dropped down lower and lower as other shiny new books took its place.

So in very late 2020 I had to start at the beginning again…

The take-home message, cleared of all the murders and plots and depravity, is that somehow Rome was by and large a stable society.  Yes there were assorted ‘barbarians’ at the borders that needed to be quelled, but the enthusiasm for that was largely because soldiers and their leaders were handsomely rewarded.  It’s telling that when Claudius slinks off to his estate to avoid the horror of Caligula’s lunatic reign, his slave Calpurnia is able to help him restore his financial fortunes.  She hasn’t needed to spend the money he gave her in return for her wise advice; it’s there to help him out after Caligula has bled him dry.  While the  Senate is too craven to rein in any emperor’s excesses, the ordinary people went on farming and selling produce and paying their taxes, largely free of the shenanigans in Rome.

By the standards of contemporary historical fiction, I, Claudius isn’t all that great.  Attention to depicting the historical setting is perfunctory, and the opportunities for characterisation are wasted.  Yes, Livia is a manipulative, ambitious woman with a penchant for poisoning rivals and enemies, but the reader never learns why she stoops to the depths of such wickedness.  The only explanation that can be inferred is that she’s ambitious and power-hungry, but that’s not really enough to explain her depravity.  The only time we see her as a human being with feelings is when she is near to death (as they all were in that family, all the time, given the way things were) and she begs Claudius to ensure that the Senate will make her a goddess after her death, because goddesses are immune from eternal punishment.  Repentance or remorse are not on her agenda.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but it seems to me that all the characters, with the exception of Claudius the narrator, are Dickensian caricatures minus the humour.  Augustus is a Blustering Fool, Germanicus is a Noble Big Brother too honourable for his own good, Livia is a Wicked Woman and Tiberius is Paranoid.  We never understand the motivations or sensibilities of any of these characters, except through the prism of jealousy and ambition.  Though Graves is coy about sadomasochism and pederasty, if not for the salacious details of murder and intrigue, nobody would bother to read this novel, and even then it wears thin.  I was very tired of Caligula by the last chapters and just wanted him to depart the stage.

There are better classics to read than this one.

Image credit: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19571972

Author: Robert Graves
Title: I Claudius, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Emperor of the Romans, Born BC 10, Murdered and Deified Ad 54 (Claudius #1)
Publisher: The Great Writers Series, Marshall Cavendish, 1988, first published 1934
ISBN: 0863077021, hbk., 395 pages, including a family tree of the Imperial Family.
Source: Personal library, $12 second-hand


Responses

  1. Happy New Year! It must be over forty years since I read ‘I, Claudius’. I have fond memories, but no desire to reread.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year to you too, Jennifer!
      Did you ever read the follow up to this one?

      Liked by 1 person

      • If I did, I have no memory of it now.

        Like

  2. Hi Lisa! I enjoyed your review very much, not least because it brings such a different perspective than mine to Graves’ novel. It’s been many years since I read I, Claudius and Claudius the God but I remember liking them both very much, especially I, Claudius. I’ve actually thought, admittedly not very hard, about re-reading Claudius; your review reminds me that perspectives can change drastically over the years. Although I was never a formal classics major in college, I did take some courses in Latin and Roman art and history and I continue to have a (very) mild interest in classical subjects.
    I agree that many of Graves’ charactizations are almost Dickensian in their exaggeration — no subtlety there at all! Oddly enough, I enjoyed this quality in Graves even though it’s one of the reasons I tend to avoid Dickens himself (go figure, right?) I believe Graves was principally working from Suetonius’ account of the early Julio-Claudians and that Suetonius’ history was itself full of pretty juicy and possibly exaggerated gossip (especially about August and his immediate successors) but could be wrong here.
    I do think there’s a school of thought that Livia, whom Graves treated pretty harshly, has been much maligned. As for Livia’s motives in destroying Augustus’ biological heirs, I believe at one point she tells Claudius that she “never forgot” for a moment whose daughter she was, which actually explains a lot. Livia’s father fought against Augustus and was forced to commit suicide after the Battle of Philippi; I believe Livia herself and her children were in a certain amount of danger after this happend. All of this, of course, being a pretty common occurrent for losers in those days.
    Again, thanks for the review — it’s a useful warning to me to be realistic about my reaction if I ever re-read this favorite of yesteryear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Janakay and Happy New Year!
      I’m often wary of re-reading books I loved because as you say, perspectives change and I’d rather keep my fond memories. I think you’re right about Suetonius, it’s my recollection too that he was a scurrilous gossip…
      Claudius (i.e. Graves) does acknowledge that Livia, for all her faults, was an effective administrator behind the scenes. Augustus left the running of the household to her, and many of the decisions taken in the Senate came from her. Like all Roman women she had no vote and her power could only ever be exercised indirectly.
      If my Latin is ever good enough to read Suetonius in the original, I’d love to see if his translators have done Livia justice.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lisa: I’ve thought about trying to resurrect my Latin, but I fear that train has left the station, so to speak. For good.
    You’re no doubt aware of this, but earlier this year Kaggsy reviewed Elizabeth Bowen’s Time in Rome and briefly commented on Bowen’s admiration for Livia. (https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/2020/06/09/rome-seemed-an-often-shaken-kaleidoscope-atimeinrome-elizabethbowen/ ) I wouldn’t be surprised if Livia has gotten a bad historical rap — it’s odd, isn’t it, how this seems to happen to powerful women?
    I’m catching up on my blog reading and just started your statistical breakdown of your 2020 reading year. Very impressive indeed! I think you made a great point about the number of male/female reviewers and digital/print divides; I had never considered this aspect of the claimed gender imbalance vis a vis reviewers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My Latin was never that advanced in the first place, but I have a really good teacher, and I am being disciplined about it, more so than I am with French. We have, of course, not had any classes but are doing it all by correspondence. (Some have dropped out, but there’s enough of us continuing in 2021, I hope.) I do half an hour nearly every day, and lately have been alternating just revision with continuing on with the work, and that’s working better in terms of remembering things.

      Re the gender issue: some time ago I was contacted by a researcher who was working on it. Whatever was the case in the past, it is, he acknowledged, ridiculous to be basing a case for discrimination entirely on what is a diminishing print media that hardly anybody reads. I have no idea how he’s getting on…

      Like

      • Lisa: I really admire your discipline regarding Latin. I loved the language myself and would like to have advanced further than I did (low intermediate) but took a very long break and was never able to get back into it. It’s crossed my mind to give it another try, but it wouldn’t be easy to find a course/instructor. Language study demands concentration and focus, which are in short supply for me right now (especially now. I’m watching incredibly disturbing news footage of something I thought I’d never see — a mob physically storming the U.S. capitol. Must turn it off, must turn it off).
        It would really be interesting to know what, if anything, became of the gender research you refer to. It seems to me that most of the real vitality and interest regarding books/literary matter is currently occurring in social media and the blogs. I barely skim the NY Times reviews any more . . .

        Like

        • You’re right that it’s very difficult to find a tutor. One of my friends learned it through Cambridge (or was it Oxford?) but that would have been at serious university prices. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to find a really good teacher at a U3A that’s not too far from home.
          The US? I can’t believe it…

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I applaud your effort to read this book. This is one period in time I can’t feign interest in no matter how hard I try. Who determines what a person’s interest will be? Dust comes out of my mouth if I comment about this period of time. I do admit though it is an interesting time to many. Well done on summarising this book. 🐧🍇🍇

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been fascinated by the period since I learned Latin in Grade 6. We had a little blue book which followed the usual format for language books in those days, a short passage to read, some vocab, some grammar, and a little explanation about the Roman way of life. So for example, when we learned the vocab for housing, there was a diagram of the layout and an explanation of why it was like that. I loved it!
      (Which is why I’m learning Latin now in my retirement!)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Lisa

    This is one book with which I have to disagree with you.

    I have probably read and reread I Claudius and Claudius the God half a dozen times during my lifetime. I first read them in my teen years, which, though I am ancient, was only a few years before the BBC TV version (which covers the events of both books); having watched the TV series as it was shown on the BBC, I re-read the books to keep pace with the weekly action. I still re visit them each decade. Although Graves does take some liberties with the sort-of historical records of Tacitus and Suetonius, which I have also read, I still find his extended fictional account of the first 5 emperors highly engaging and entertaining, and frankly, it leaves most more recent historical fiction for dead, particularly Coleen McCulloch’s overlong and tiresome books.

    I do concede that one has to work a bit to figure out who is who, and the constant reuse of a few names (cognomens particularly) can be confusing at first, the family tree diagrams, in both the original hardback editions published by Barker, and in the Penguin and Folio society reprints, do make this a bit easier for those not full able to tell their Agrippa from their Agrippina the Elder, Agrippina the Younger or Agrippinilla.

    We should also remember that both Tacitus and Suetonius wrote a form of historical fiction… history as practiced by the classical Roman authors was not the same discipline that it is today, and neither were really quite contemporaries of their subjects; Tacitus was born two years after the death of Claudius and Suetonius the year after the death of Nero.

    Can I suggest that the fine Folio Society editions of the two books are really beautifully made and printed, and can make the reading so much more pleasurable for aging eyes than the rather cramped small print in the current Penguin editions! I have often seen fine second hand copies of these Folio editions in John Sainsbury’s bookshop for around $20 each.

    Finally, If any of your followers did enjoy these books, can I suggest they try Graves’ “Count Belisarius”, the fictionalised story a famous 6th century Byzantine general.

    Best wishes
    Chris

    Liked by 2 people

    • Heavens, yes I couldn’t agree with you more about Colleen McCullough, though to be fair if I must, I’ve only read one of hers and it was so awful I’ve never read anything else. I was thinking more about historical fiction that is more literary than that: Hilary Mantel, Katherine Johnson, Rose Tremain and so on. I think they suit my preference for character-driven fiction.
      Graves raises the issue of what history is, when the young Claudius the budding ‘historian’ very tactfully debates with Pollio and — bother, I forget his name but you know who I mean — one of them records the facts, as indisputable events and situations, while the other writes a more engaging account which does not adhere strictly to the facts. And you could say, I think, that this is what Graves has done, perhaps to liven up the story of the Romans which back in those days everyone had to learn at school.
      FWIW I was taught that Tacitus was more ‘reliable’ than Suetonius.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have the novel on my shelves and read it a long time ago, and I remembered liking it, but am wondering if it’s best to consign it to history rather than ever attempt to reread…

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are books I will happily re-read like Middlemarch and The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, but this isn’t one of them…

      Like

  7. I remember Derek Jacobi’s extraordinary performance as Claudius in the TV series, and multiple nefarious goings-on, but can’t say I feel inclined to read the novel, for the reasons you and some commentators above have given.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He was extraordinary, wasn’t he? And Siân Phillips as Livia, too, an inspired piece of casting

      Like

  8. How interesting! (and yay Livia for being an inspirational woman!) As for Graves, I’ve tried his books a couple of times but not really got anywhere – I think I attempted The White Goddess decades ago and got very bogged down… I doubt I will read this, but thank you for reviewing it for us!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, so you like devious women!
      I have Goodbye to All That on the shelves, and am definitely going to read that..

      Liked by 1 person

      • The WWI part of Goodbye to All That is very powerful- I was less keen on the other sections. I’d forgotten J Hurt in the TV series – sort of Quentin Crisp in a toga.

        Like

  9. Having enjoyed that TV adaptation many years ago I thought I’d read the book. But that plan didn’t last very long because my copy was just like yours – tiny text crammed onto a page. And I got hopelessly lost with who was who. I struggled to about the 100 page mark but abandoned it. I found my copy only a couple of weeks ago and decided it was one I could donate to a new home and maybe a reader who would appreciate it more than I did.

    We still have the DVDs but yes the production is showing its age. The over-the top portrayals are still fun though. John Hurt as Caligula was a hoot

    Liked by 1 person

    • It just shows you, doesn’t it, how important book design is. We take it for granted, but this seems to be a clear case of poor design influencing how we read the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I don’t have any Roman history at all, and I think I Claudius the tv series was one of those important ones that you know about but don’t actually watch. I wondered, while reading, how much roman history ordinary well-read Britons would have had at the end of the C19th from reading the Latin sources. But what really caught my eye was “While the Senate is too craven to rein in any emperor’s excesses”. Nothing changes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Any school that taught Latin would have had excerpts to translate… our text book this year is Book 1 for Common Entrance (i.e. total beginners) and by Chapter 8 we’re translating simplified passages about events in Rome. This week it’s all about Tarquinius.
      The other thing is, that until the 1970s, I think, people in the regions only had two TV stations, and if you didn’t want to watch the movie on the commercial station, (or you couldn’t stand the adverts) you watched the serial on channel 2.

      Like


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