*spoilers: DO NOT READ ON IF UNPREPARED*
Goodness me, it’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and written a post; almost as long as the list of people who became Emperor before Claudius finally did, you might say (and indeed I do say); I know that all the SORRY SORRY AND MANY MORE SORRIES in the world cannot redeem me in your eyes for this disgusting lack of literary appreciation in not writing more often, and so I won’t even attempt to sway you, dear and most majestic reader. I do, however, humbly ask permission to apologise for my prolonged absence with a book so meaty, so bloody, that your protein intake will quadruple in a matter of moments, resulting in a involuntary conversion to vegetarianism. Welcome to the Roman Imperial Family.
(And I am really sorry.)
Where do I begin? As is noted in the first paragraph, the date is 41 A.D. and these are ostensibly the memoirs of Claudius, the man who is to become Emperor of the Roman Empire. He tells of his struggles as a result of the enormous greed and bloodlust of his family — OH WAIT, is this that selfsame family that had absolute and quasi-divine power over millions and millions of people in the name of Imperial Rome? Oh yes! — but also physically, since his limp and slight deafness led to him being practically disowned by them. Probably a good thing if you ask me, but still a bit rude. Lots of poison, superstition, and incredibly cool/amazingly accurate Sibylline predictions later, Claudius becomes Emperor through no fault of his own, and is extremely terrified about being so. Seriously, if anything, you feel a bit smug at being so comparatively normal after reading about these absolute monsters, so that’s a reason in itself for giving it a go.
♥ How can no-one ever suspect Livia (Augustus’ wife) of poisoning when literally all you have to do is be related to her husband to suddenly succumb to a strange and curiously convenient illness?
♥ Again with the naming thing: when Julia and Julilla, Agrippa, Agrippina and Agrippinilla, and Livia and Livilla are all different people, but linked by blood and marriage, it’s nigh on impossible to realise what is happening to any one of them. I would suggest heading straight for the family tree found at the end of the book, but it’s so convoluted that you might end up even more confused.
The Big Scoop:
Let me just note that the lives of the Roman emperors are always going to be interesting to me because I’m a
massive geek Classicist, but I can swear with true and sincere honesty that the appeal of this novel does not lie in the fact that some of its subject matter is true. That is a large factor, certainly — similarly, the tabloids have an undeniable pull despite most of it not being true; the possibility that some of it might be is enough to make you read it anyway (*cough* I raise my hand as an occasional guilty Daily Mail Online reader) — but you don’t have to be an expert in the Roman world, or even particularly interested in it, to enjoy this book. I can, however, recommend having Google near at hand since I definitely didn’t know as much as I thought I did, so Wikipedia was a constant source of clarification. Careful with searching the right person, though; quite aside from the very similar names already mentioned, using combinations of the same names in a different order — as is tradition in a lot of monarchies — is a big thing in the Imperial Family.
In fact, half the fun of reading historical novels that aren’t intended as “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is seeing where the author has peeled off from reality. I would be the first to admit that I don’t know enough about Imperial Rome to spot any such inconsistencies, but, having studied Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, as well as recently rereading Cleopatra’s Daughter* by Michelle Moran, it is remarkable to see the differences between the three Augustus’ portrayed in each. The cold calculation with which Shakespeare so defines him, and Moran at least partly attributes to him, is wholly removed by Graves (or Claudius? — the beauty here is that the reader can never really separate the ‘true’ author from the ascribed one) and firmly placed at Livia’s door. In Rome, a woman with the inability to have children would have been seen as embodying the stereotypical characteristics (manipulation, emotional hysteria, etc.) with which the female sex have always been associated, since her lack of fertility effectively removes the necessity of having women around in the first place. By adhering so rigidly to this dated perspective in the character of Livia, I like to think that Graves is emphasising its ridiculousness rather than just being a sexist douchebag.
Distinct from the murky morals of his relations is Claudius, and it is as a result of his self-acknowledged impotence that he retains the humanity, in both senses of the word, that they so lack. Such humility in the face of so concentrated an humiliation is not presented as hopeless, but a very real means of achieving success; emperors were worshipped as gods throughout much of the empire, and after the constant mockery by those closest to him, Claudius would have needed this blind adoration to begin to realise that he does have worth as a person. The very title of the novel, I, Claudius, conveys to me that final acceptance of himself.
You know what? I LOVED every single page of this book. So it is without hesitation that I give it a solid and fat-as-you-like 10 out of 10. I am just super psyched to read the sequel… rather unassumingly and modestly entitled Claudius the God. Having blabbed on about humility and modesty, it might go horribly downhill from here.
* I cannot recommend this book enough, it is amazingly written and very informative.