Wednesday, 21 October 2015

I, Claudius

Robert Graves I, Claudius (1934)
One of the most celebrated and most gripping historical novels of all time, it says in a number of places, so here I am once again reading above my weight due to having experienced a feeling of passing foolishness on the occasion of having to admit I'd never read I, Claudius, which would be more forgiveable had I not read greatly in excess of fifty Terrance Dicks novels. Ignoro ab urbe condita Roma, which is possibly to say I ain't know nuffink when it comes to ancient Rome, but Graves' Seven Days in New Crete was decent so Claudius seemed worth a look.

I gather Graves has remained more or less faithful to a common form of Roman narrative, that somewhat having been his field, rendering this as much a reconstruction as a novel due to its major events and characters being historically factual. Claudius did actually write an eight volume autobiography, and although this isn't it, I guess it almost could have been. Our man's discussion of his approach to the recording of history at least reminds me of similar monologues by both Plato and Lucian of Samosata, which I mention mainly because those are the two classical lads I have read. Additionally, Graves exercises a certain degree of wit, at least without quite turning it into Up Pompeii, even casting a few knowing winks in the general direction of us readers, notably when the Sibyl informs young Claudius of the eventually impending Robert Graves' version of his life:

But when he's dumb and no more here,
Nineteen hundred years or near,
Clau - Clau - Claudius shall speak clear.


To further expose my roots, most of what I know of this story comes from John Wagner having rewritten it as The Day the Law Died in 2000AD comic, so it's a pleasure to return to the source and find it no less enjoyable. That said, gripping might be a bit of an overstatement, although I might find it so were I a little more engaged with Roman history. Certain accounts of military campaigns felt a little dry for my tastes, but the book generally did enough to keep me reading, and the intrigue and conspiracy, particularly once we come to the reign of Caligula, is thoroughly absorbing; and it's thoroughly absorbing in part because its dissection of politics is as valid now as then, then being in this case the times of both Claudius and his modern biographer, in respect to whom, it's difficult to miss certain parallels with Graves' own era:

Caligula was very angry. He sent a platoon of Germans along the benches and one-hundred heads were chopped off. This incident disturbed the conspirators; it was a reminder of the barbarity of the Germans and the marvellous devotion that they paid Caligula. By this time, there can hardly have been a citizen in Rome who did not long for the death of Caligula, or would not willingly have eaten his flesh, as the saying is; but to these Germans he was the most glorious hero the world had ever known.

So yes, jolly good. Quid a stupri fantastic est libri huius etc. etc.

1 comment:

  1. I thought it was a great read, Fun lurid stuff given a veneer of respectability because it's based on history books! Everything else I've read from the 30s is pretty straight laced so I was surprised how racy the books were...
    The tv show, (which also covers the equally good sequel Claudius the God) is well worth watching too. It's very dated and stagey compared to, for example, a modern HBO show but it's done with such panache that this really doesn't matter.