Claudius the God by Robert Graves [A Review]

Claudius the God is Robert Graves’ sequel to his best-selling novel I, Claudius – a fictional autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius. Like its predecessor, Claudius the God is a wonderful achievement in marrying an historically accurate plot with a compelling narrative and psychologically fascinating characters.

Two years have gone by since I finished writing the long story of how I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, the cripple, the stammerer, the fool of the family, whom none of his ambitious and bloody-minded relatives considered worth the trouble of executing, poisoning, forcing to suicide, banishing to a desert island or starving to death – which was how they one by one got rid of each other – how I survived them all, even my insane nephew Gaius Caligula, and was one day unexpectedly acclaimed Emperor by the corporals and sergeants of the Palace Guard.

Following the assassination of the Emperor Caligula, the army champion Claudius to become the new Emperor over the wishes of the Senate who still dream of a return of the Republic, at least when those same Senators aren’t fantasising about become Emperors themselves. It is the army and not the Senate in power though.  While the army demand the Senate name Claudius emperor, they effectively hold Claudius prisoner making demands of their own to him.

I can’t understand you people. It amazes me that after having been ruled for years by a madman you should be ready to commit the government to an idiot.

Four years of Caligula’s rule had left state matters in a complete mess. This at least is how Claudius rationalises to himself why he accepted the role of Emperor despite his republican sentiments. Once in power, he gets to work strengthening the Secretariat, removing problematic senators, executing traitors, reorganising the Empire’s financing and reversing Caligula’s worst decrees.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for me now to sustain my Republican convictions. What a farcical situation- myself, the only true anti-monarchist, forced to act as a monarch!

Things come together very smoothly, though there are regular problems with food shortages, conflict with Jews and Claudius’ own inexperience in Imperial matters. He is very grateful for Messalina, whom he marries. Though very young, she shows herself to be very resourceful and able and Claudius grants her considerable power to act on his behalf. But she is also jealous, independent and, since Claudius trusts her implicitly, her power increases rapidly.

This was how Messalina played, very cleverly and very cruelly, on my blind love for her. […] It was seven years before I heard so much as a whisper of what went on in her suite at the New Palace, when the old cuckold-husband was away at his work or safely snoring in his bed at the Old Palace.

But the era of plots and intrigues, assassinations and rebellions has not ended just because Claudius is now Emperor. Conspiracies aimed at his downfall or murder surround Claudius and his wife Messalina is not the only one close to him he should not trust.

So begins Claudius’ second part of the telling of his life story. Whereas in the first part Claudius is apologetic for his unexpected rise to power, assuring us he was no schemer waiting in the wings for his moment, now he apologises for the exercise of his enormous power in his years as Roman Emperor.

I brooded over the problem. Wasn’t it Plato who wrote that the only sound excuse that anyone can offer for ruling is that by doing so he avoids being ruled by people inferior in talents to himself? There is something in that. But I was afraid, on the contrary, that if I resigned, my place would be taken by someone superior in talents […] so that the monarchy would become stronger than ever and the Republic never be restored. In any case, the moment of tranquility had not come. I must get to work again.

There are the regular purges and execution of plotters, a war of conquest in Britannia and a new religion springing out of the East and rapidly sweeping westward. As he attends to all this, Claudius swears to the reader that he never departed from his principles, hopes he can justify his inconsistent acts and asks the reader if he realistically could have done any differently.

What I wish to emphasise most of all in this account of my activities as Emperor is that up to this point at least I acted, so far as I knew how, for the public good in the widest possible sense. I was no thoughtless revolutionary and no cruel tyrant and no obstinate reactionary: I tried to combine generosity with common sense wherever possible and nobody can accuse me of not having done my best.

In this sequel to I, Claudius, Claudius’ life has certainly taken a significant turn to say the least. No longer confined to watching from the sidelines, he is, in principle, one of the most powerful men in the world. While the previous novel was a lot more about conspiracies and plots, with our protagonist now in a position of power, the sequel is more about war and peace, more about the Empire and less about Rome. Elsewhere, aspects that Claudius the God has in common with I, Claudius have been taken to extremes in the sequel.

One of those aspects are the threads of history and literature which in I, Claudius were wonderfully fused but in Claudius the God become slightly frayed. Parts of Claudius the God are like reading a history book and parts are like reading a novel.

Another aspect is Graves’ manipulation of the story and reader. In I, Claudius, there were parts of the novel that were a bit slow and dull but the reader was amply rewarded when they arrived at what those slower passages were building towards. In Claudius the God, this too was more extreme; the parts that were slow and dull were slower and duller than the earlier novel but the reward was extreme as well. The moment the reader arrives at was amazing, heartbreaking and vivid. It turned what was becoming a dull book into a great book and made all the reader’s perseverance worthwhile. Yet it arrives with more than 100 pages left in the book; there was still so much to resolve.

The title of the book is both symbolic and ironic. Ironic because the reader is familiar with Claudius’ humanity, his faults and failings, even as he is well on the path to being worshiped as a god as his imperial predecessors have been. Ironic too because Claudius himself is somewhat agnostic and performs at least some of his religious duties more out of obligation rather than any true faith in the powers behind such devotions. It is symbolic because this is an era where the space between the human and the divine is being rapidly populated with the semi-divine or of humans being promoted to divinity, from the Emperor Augustus to Jesus.

Augustus is worshiped now with genuine devotion by millions. I myself pray to him with almost as much confidence as I pray to Mars or Venus. But I make a clear distinction between the historical Augustus, of whose weaknesses and misfortunes I am well informed, and the God Augustus, the object of public worship, who has attained power as a deity. What I mean to say is that I cannot deprecate too strongly the wilful assumption by a mortal of divine power; but if he can indeed persuade men to worship him and they worship him genuinely, and there are no portents or other signs of heavenly displeasure at his deification – well,  then he is a god, and he must be accepted as such. But the worship of Augustus as a major deity at Rome would never have been possible if it had not been for this gulf which the philosophers had opened between the ordinary man and the traditional gods. For the ordinary Roman citizen, Augustus filled the gap well.

I said in my review of I, Claudius that I would leave discussing the 1970’s BBC adaptation of the novels for this review but the truth is I have little to say. It is a pretty faithful adaptation, well-acted with a star-studded cast, was very enjoyable and worth seeing. John Hurt as Caligula was a particular highlight.

I also have little to say about the ‘accuracy’ of Claudius the God that I did not already share in my review of I, Claudius. As Barry Unsworth, author of the Booker Prize winning novel Sacred Hunger, says in the introduction to these Claudius novels, Graves’ best achievement may have been in making the reader forget they are reading fiction.

Yet again we have to remind ourselves of what we are always in danger of forgetting as we read this compelling narrative, with its impeccable research, the tremendous intellectual feat of organisation that it represents. It is fiction, after all.

I found both I, Claudius and Claudius the God to be very enjoyable. Entertaining as stories, thoughtful in characterisation, evocative of period and tinged with self-awareness. It is a high bar for historical fiction, so much of which veers far from history on one side and far from literature on the other. The Claudius novels show sceptical readers like myself how it can and should be done.

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