(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.
(Cover picture courtesy of Bookyurt.)
Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus lived from 10 B. C. to 54 A. D. Despise as a weakling and dismissed as an idiot because of his physical infirmities, Claudius survived the intrigues and poisonings that marked the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and the mad Caligula to become Emperor of Rome in 41 A. D. I, Claudius, the first part of Robert Graves’s two-part account of the life of Tiberius Claudius, is written in the form of Claudius’s autobiography and stands as one of the modern classics of historical fiction.
I love both Roman history and historical fiction, so when I got the classic I, Claudius for my birthday, I was incredibly excited. But did it live up to all of the hype?
I, Claudius is written from Claudius’ point of view and really did a lot to repair the reputation of one of the most unlikely emperors in the history of Rome. Claudius was often portrayed as an inept fool who survived only because he was the butt of the Imperial family’s jokes, but Robert Graves’ classic really did make people start to examine the real Claudius. Due to my interest in Roman history, I was lucky enough to be introduced to this Claudius through Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast. Both Mike Duncan’s incredible podcast and I, Claudius do Claudius justice and shed a lot of light on the complicated politics of Imperial Rome.
One thing I didn’t like, and this is more of a personal matter, is the fact that Robert Graves seemed to subscribe to the Livia-poisoned-everyone theory. Did the Augusta poison people? Almost certainly. But did she really have Augstus, Agrippa, Lucius, Marcellus, Gaius and Claudius’ grandfather poisoned (and many, many others)? Almost certainly not. However, this particular theory makes for excellent fiction and some of the incidents related by Claudius are probably embellishments, but that’s why it’s called historical fiction. These things could have happened, but they likely did not.
Claudius himself is a great character. Because of the autobiography format of the novel, we get to see him as he grows up through his eyes. The writing style is as if Claudius is writing many years later, so there is quite a bit of foreshadowing of certain events and we do get insight into some incidents we never would have gotten otherwise. My only real complaint was that the book ended just when things were going to get good: his ascent to the purple, so to speak. That’s also why I’m eager to read the much overshadowed sequel to this classic novel, Claudius the God.
I give this book 5/5 stars.