Claudius the God by Robert Graves

Claudius the God by Robert Graves(Cover picture courtesy of 10Thirty.)

Claudius has survived the murderous intrigues of his predecessors to become, reluctantly, Emperor of Rome.  Here he recounts his surprisingly successful reign: how he cultivates the loyalty of the army and the common people to repair the damage caused by Caligula; his relations with the Jewish King Herod Agrippa; and his invasion of Britain.  But the growing paranoia of absolute power and the infidelity of his promiscuous young wife, Messalina, mean that his good fortunate will not last for ever.  In this second part of his fictionalized autobiography Claudius—wry, rueful, always inquisitive—brings to life some of the most scandalous and violent times in history.

To be perfectly honest, until I finished I, Claudius I had no idea there actually was a sequel.  The first book has definitely overshadowed its own sequel, which does tend to happen to classic books.  I was lucky to even find a copy in the bookstore, which I took despite absolutely hating the cover.  Whoever designed it goes by the maxim ‘sex sells’, you can be sure of that.  But I digress.

In some ways I enjoyed Claudius the God more than I, Claudius.  One thing I really did like was that poor Claudius finally does get to be the good emperor we all know he would be.  In fiction I can be a sucker for tragedy, so the inevitably of his death upped the tension for me and since Robert Graves wrote this as a memoir, we have Claudius dropping little hints about his fate.  This is especially true when he talks of how much he was in love with Messalina and didn’t discover her betrayals until much, much later.  Thus the subtitle “and his wife Messalina” in some editions of the book.

At the same time, I wasn’t as emotionally invested in Claudius the God as I was in the first book.  Perhaps it was Claudius’ eventual change from idealist who wants to restore the Republic to cynical Emperor who does not fight fate when it comes to Nero taking the throne after him.  Of course Graves had to stick to history, but I would have liked to see Claudius care a little more about what would happen after he died.  His friendship with Herod Agrippa was interesting and certainly played a huge part in the story, but I also felt it got more page time than it should have.  The backstory on Herod was absolutely necessary, but it did slow the action to a crawl for the first part of the book.

I had a hard time getting through parts like the Herod backstory, but Robert Graves more than made up for it in the sheer attention to detail.  We learn so much about Roman life and get a sense of how the Romans really viewed the world around them, including their conquered territories and provinces.  The interactions between the different power players of the day (Vitellius, Messalina, Narcissus, Agrippinilla and many more) were pretty much the best part of the book.  And you can’t help but love poor Claudius, despite his flaws.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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  1. Carl V.

    My friend gave me these several years ago and I’m so glad he did as they are books I probably would not have picked up on my own. Very incredible reads. It is cliched to say that an author makes history come alive, but Graves really does that. Despite any high school or college courses I took, I did not have as clear, as tangible, a picture of that time period as Graves painted in these books.

    • Carrie Slager

      I would have to agree. Robert Graves did bring history to life and he actually did a lot to repair Claudius’ reputation, which is admirable on its own. But together with how he changed the entire historical fiction genre, I’d say he’s a very good, very influential writer.

  2. B Y Rogers

    I couldn’t agree more. I first read these tomes before PBS put out their series on the books. I was thoroughly engrossed in the history, the politics. Little Boots as a child was gripping. Graves contrast of Messalina’s beauty with Claudius physical limitation. Thanks for the review.

    • Carrie Slager

      I’ve never watched the PBS series, but I did listen to Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome podcast before reading I, Claudius. His interpretation was similar to Robert Graves’ but I like the detail Graves put in both of his books. You’re definitely right about Caligula’s childhood; it was interesting to see the transition from child to crazed emperor.

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