I, Claudius by Robert Graves [A Review]

Given how high my expectations were and how excited I was to read it, there was every chance that Robert Graves’ I, Claudius would disappoint me. It certainly did not. If anything, it is the standard historical fiction ought to aspire to being both very compelling and very defendable to scrutiny for historical accuracy.

In the year 4AD, in a library in Rome, two historians, Livy (Titus Livius) and Pollio (Gaius Asinius Pollio) are having a friendly argument. Seeing a familiar face, Livy invites a third man to settle the argument. Livy asks the newcomer which of them is the greater historian. Livy writes histories that are entertaining to read but are selective in their sources and written to a theme. Pollio writes histories that strive for accuracy but are dry and boring.

Pollio is pleased that the knowledgeable third man favours his method but is shocked to realise who he is speaking to. The third man is Claudius – Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus – grandson of Mark Anthony on his mother’s side and of Livia Drusilla Augusta, wife of the emperor Augustus, on his father’s side. Pollio is shocked because, from what he had heard, Claudius was born an idiot.

It is certainly true that for his entire life Claudius has been unwanted, belittled and ignored by his family. Rumours of his incapacity are, however, greatly exaggerated though his persistent stammer is no aid to dismissing them. Being thought a fool does have its advantages though. He has largely been left out of the family business of warfare, politics and the endless pursuit of absolute power, which suits Claudius just fine. With Livy’s encouragement, Claudius is pursuing the quiet life of a historian and is working on a family history.

As soon as I heard of this, I said to myself: ‘Rome, you are ruined; there can be no expiation for a crime so horrible,’ and I called the Gods to witness that though a relative of the Emperor I had taken no part in the government of my country and that I detested the crime as much as they did, though powerless to avenge it.

Claudius tells Pollio that he believes in ‘popular liberty’ like his father and grandfather. That is why they were poisoned, warns Pollio. Now it is Claudius’ turn to be shocked. Pollio further warns that in writing his father’s memoirs, Claudius will reach a point where he will not be permitted to continue further.

37 years later Claudius’ world has changed immeasurably. He is no longer able to be shocked by his family’s behaviour as the natural course of age and wisdom have replaced youth and naivety. More than that, Claudius has reached a point where his thirst for integrity has overcome his fear. His biography of his father remains unpublishable, full of republican sentiment as it was. It was not possible to write truthful accounts of Augustus and Livia either as they have since been deified. But now Claudius is ready and sets himself the task of writing a sincere and unheard history of his family.

Looming large in Claudius’ account is his grandmother, Livia. Coming from a distinguished and notorious family, Livia seems to have set her sights on attaining power from an early age. When only 17, pregnant and married, she took the initiative to seduce a married man 29 years her senior – Octavian, the future Augustus – and succeeded. Divorces and remarriage followed and Livia’s instincts were proved correct soon after as Octavian defeats Claudius’ maternal grandfather Mark Anthony in battle. Anthony then commits suicide with his lover Cleopatra. Livia is just getting started.

With the death of Mark Anthony and the end of another civil war, Augustus has the power of an absolute monarch. He controls the treasury, the privy purse, the laws and the religious system. He can appoint governors-general and army commanders of his choosing. He can levy troops and make peace or war and he can condemn any Roman citizen of any rank while having his own person declared inviolable. And he does all this without ever declaring himself a monarch while establishing an empire-wide personality cult.

Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus.

But he has no heir. Claudius speculates in his telling of the story as to how and why Livia had no children with Augustus. The man expected to be Augustus’ heir was his nephew Marcellus, son of Augustus’ sister (and Claudius’ other grandmother) Octavia. Marcellus is adopted by Augustus, is married to Augustus’ daughter Julia and given important duties. But also favoured is Agrippa, Augustus’ oldest friend, a successful general and admiral and the second most important man in Rome.

Hostility between rival factions for Marcellus and Agrippa grow. Livia for her part shifts her support, and by her influence, Augustus’ support, from one to the other as it suits her. Just when it seems as if another civil war is inevitable, Marcellus dies from a mysterious illness. It would seem the path is clear for Agrippa. But Claudius puts nothing past his grandmother. Livia, he believes, was always playing a long game, clearing a path for her sons from her earlier marriage, Tiberius and Drusus, to succeed Augustus. And like Augustus, she intends to keep both of her sons under her strict control as well.

[Drusus] asked Tiberius’ opinion: could not the two of them together persuade, even compel, Augustus to retire? ‘If he consents I shall hold him in a thousand times greater love and admiration than formerly; but I am sorry to say that the secret and illegitimate pride that our mother has always derived from her exercise of supreme power through Augustus will be the greatest hinderance that we are likely to encounter in this matter.’

Claudius’ telling of his family story is only beginning. To come are the tales of the rise and fall of generals and senators, republicans and imperialists, uncles and nephews, wives and mothers, emperors and would-be emperors, all plotting and conniving in a diabolical exercise of intrigue, influence and murder in the pursuit of power. What makes his story all the more extraordinary is that much of it may be true.

The Caesars, like the Tudors, have held people in undiminished fascination for centuries and there has been no shortage of takes on them from literature to histories, from ancient, medieval and modern writers including, of course, Shakespeare. And yet, despite this well-trodden turf, when Robert Graves published I, Claudius in 1934 he had an instant best-seller. Although Graves was somewhat dismissive of his work, saying I, Claudius and its sequel Claudius the God were written for financial reasons to a tight deadline, their impact can’t be so easily attributed to the public’s unquenchable thirst for tales of ancient Rome. The critical acclaim and the enduring popularity of the novels – when so much historical fiction is forgettable, poorly-written and barely ‘historical’ – the Claudius novels stand among the greats of the genre.

Instead, I would suggest that some of its standing can be attributed to its accuracy and format. But what do I mean by ‘accuracy’? While the narrative contained in the novel is fictional, the characters and the plot are based on real people and events. The connection between the two is provided by an analysis of the motives and psychology of the characters which may be speculative. Graves relied on contemporaneous sources such as the Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus. In fact, bizarrely, considering how much historical fiction plays loosely with historical facts, Graves was accused of simply rewriting the work of Suetonius and Tacitus, to which he retorted by supplying a list of more than twenty ancient sources he used. Graves also wrote translations of several ancient works including a translation of Suetonius that has proven as durable as his novels. It is this reliance on the most contemporaneous sources that I mean by ‘accuracy’. But Graves is using them to tell a story, he is not necessarily casting a sceptical view of these sources as a modern historian would. Graves’ depiction of Livia, for example, is mostly fictional. The sources are mostly silent on her, giving Graves a wonderful opportunity to create the memorable character that fills the void.

As to the format, I, Claudius is written in a first-person autobiographical style (the historical Claudius was known to have written an autobiography, since lost to history). It is confessional, explanatory and defensive. Combined with its promise to share the ugly truth and then delivering a story far from faltering and congratulatory, it creates the illusion of trustworthiness and sincerity.

I say ‘illusion’ because there is more than a hint of self-awareness in the novel. I began this review with the story of Claudius meeting historians Livy and Pollio in the library, which appears nine chapters into the novel, because I thought it was a great way to introduce I, Claudius. But in reading this conversation where the three men share thoughts on how to go about writing history, the reader can’t help but wonder what it means for how Claudius/Graves has written this version of history. Despite his repeated statements of veracity, the reader might wonder to what extent Claudius is rationalising in his telling of this history. Some events, Claudius tells us, might have turned out differently. Others, he would have us believe, were inevitable. To what extent can the reader trust his judgement? His frequent sharing of ‘prophecies’ also makes you wonder about his confirmation bias.

Pollio was delighted. ‘He has you there, Livy, on your weakest spot. You credit the Romans of seven centuries ago with impossibly modern motives and habits and speeches. Yes, it’s readable all right, but it’s not history.’

As well as self-awareness, the novel has a fair bit of humour and irony in it as well.

Another aspect that emphasises the respect for history in I, Claudius are the hints of history’s enduring importance. One example are the rituals and practices of the Roman elite that would have their echo in the future Catholic church – the parallels the reader can see in the deification of Roman emperors and canonisation of Catholic saints, the ritual of refusing the monarchy when offered to refusing the papacy when offered. Another is the appreciation of how different history might have been if a few factors, incidents and intrigues had transpired just slightly differently. Many people might have become emperors themselves – Livia, Germanicus, Postumus and others – if not for a few minor incidents.

Though Tiberius hated his mother more than ever, he continued to let her rule him. All the appointments which he made to Consulships or provincial governorships were really hers: and they were very sensible ones, the men being chosen for merit, not for family influence or because they had flattered her or done her some private service. For I must make it plain, if I have not already done so, that however criminal the means used by Livia to win the direction of affairs for herself, first through Augustus and then through Tiberius, she was an exceptionally able and just ruler; and it was only when she ceased to direct the system that she had built up that it went wrong.

There is some anti-German sentiment expressed in the novel. This might reflect a real Roman prejudice against ‘barbarians’ that threaten their borders while also showing the source of enduring hostility that a reader after the First World War might appreciate. It is an interesting inclusion in the novel given the timing of its publication, Graves’ own service in WWI, and the open animosity he faced because of his German ancestry.

‘The Germans,’ [Germanicus] said, ‘are the most insolent and boastful nation in the world when things go well for them, but once they are defeated they are the most cowardly and abject. Never trust a German out of your sight, but never be afraid of him when you have him face to face.’

Overall, I greatly enjoyed I, Claudius but the novel has its ups and downs, parts where it was riveting and others that were a little slow. There were times when I wondered if my interest was waning and then the novel would make a stunning return to life. There were a few minor things that I questioned. I wondered why the word ‘France’ was used instead of ‘Gaul’ or any alternative. I was also unsure what rank was signified by the title ‘knight’. I wished for a ‘Note on the Text’ or similar section in the book to clarify these things.

But, as I say, overall I was wonderfully entertained by I, Claudius. It is as interesting and engaging as you would hope am historical novel of this period would be. As well as reading the sequel, I also watched the brilliant 1976 BBC adaptation of the novels but I will leave my thoughts on that for my review of the sequel, Claudius the God.

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