(This “review” was originally posted 6/22/2006 at wotmania.com, which closed down at the end of August in 2009. [Most of the members can now be found at RAFO.] It has been edited, just a little, for spelling and grammar. It has NOT been edited for style, and it is blunt and tactless and appallingly unfluid. I apologise.)
I have a hard time pinpointing what exactly I like about this novel. A large part of me until now has simply screamed “Everything!” which is very convenient but not very helpful when it comes to writing a review.
So. After the success of his Goodbye to All That, Graves penned two “companion volumes of unorthodox Roman history” (from the “Note on the Author” carried in my edition). The first of these was I, Claudius, the second, and sequel, Claudius the God. The novels chronicle Roman history after the death of Julius Caesar to the death of the emperor Claudius (which would mean the accession of Nero, the guy who fiddled). I, Claudius takes us up to the death of Caligula. We’re talking sometime between the years 44 BC and 41 AD. The novel(s) are written as Claudius’ secret autobiographies, because, in part, his official histories were a “dull affair, by which I set little store” and the current accounts are to be taken as the unvarnished truth.
Claudius takes us through about four generations of Roman rule, and as far as I can make out the political history is for the most part accurate – or as accurate as these things can get. What Graves examines in the novel(s) is the motivations, and motivators, of the people in power.
That’s the dull stuff.
What’s interesting – even fascinating – about the narrative is the amount of unofficial power Graves places in the hands of women – particularly Livia, wife of Augustus (of pax Romana fame, I think, though I’m not sure right now). Livia is the ultimate evil stepmother, manipulating Augustus, her son Tiberius and her grandson Caligula to her own ends, killing off relatives she finds inconvenient or unmalleable. Livia’s not all bad, of course – her influence over Augustus is the direct cause for some very good administration in Rome and through the Roman Empire. If you don’t mind reading feminine empowerment into evil old hags with boundless ambition, then Livia (and a lot of the other wives-of-great-men in the novels) is Betty Friedan.
The novel deals with several people, a veritable rabbit warren of a family tree, most of the players have the same name, or similar names, but Graves/Claudius takes the time to make sure we can keep them all straight. I’ve never had trouble keeping up with who was who in the novel(s), though I have had trouble when I was reading Colleen McCullough’s works. Claudius follows a names-for-dummies system. (And he explains why, too, in the most avuncular fashion.)
The novel also deals with the conflicting themes monarchy and the idea of the Republic. The heroes (and Claudius constructs them as heroes, no matter how tragic their tales) are ardent Republicists, and yet must support the dictatorship – or worse yet, be the dictator. And of course, there’s the question of religion, and how it changes, and who controls it and why – and Christianity has its small but ironic role to play.
The novel is interesting as an alternative explanation of historical fact, and it provides an interesting analysis of the politics and social structures of the time. The real reason I loved the novel – and I daresay it applies to anyone who loves the novel – is its narrator. Claudius is humble, ironic, pompous, perspicacious. With the zeal of a bloodhound he follows his family history, sparing no one in his telling, not even himself. His tone is, what? Scathing, ironic, condemning, laudatory… and delightful to read. I’ve found people laughing – or snorting in disgust at what some of the “bad Claudians” have done – and I’m told I’m no different, though I’ve never really kept track.
Claudius’ narrative sucks you in and keeps you until he lets you go. His tale is by turns tragic, funny, bathetic, pathetic, outright insane… it’s tragic-comedy in a grand style, narrated by a dry and unimpressed old man who knows better than everyone else, because he’s more fun than they are, so there. He’s the underdog who survived by dint of… well, by dint of being the underdog and not getting in people’s way, I suppose you’d put it. The reader finds her/himself incredibly sympathetic towards Claudius without in any way feeling that he’s being a weenie whiner – which, in retrospect, is always an amazing thing, since so very much seems to be against him. You wouldn’t mind being related to this guy, except for the fact that you’d probably be dead. Or insane. Or perverted. Funness.
There’s not much more I can say… Read it! It’s fun! It’s interesting! It’s brilliant!