I’ve been reading I, Claudius since some unknown date in January or February. I know that I was reading it at the beginning of March when I saw Elaine Pagels give a talk on the Book of Revelations. She was showing photos of Roman statues in Aphrodisias, Turkey – including one of Claudius. My instantaneous reaction was, “I know him!”
And after that spontaneous outburst in my mind, I realized that “I know him” is an apt description of how I felt while reading I, Claudius. Robert Graves writes in a very conversational style – at times a little too conversational. Claudius begins telling us something, and then in the middle of the story will say, “I’ll come back to this, let me tell you about this other thing first.” I don’t know how much of Claudius’s writings exist today, and I wonder if Graves at all was attempting to imitate the Emperor’s actual style. At times this casualness was annoying, but overall it lent itself to the feeling that it really was a conversation. I felt like Claudius’s pal, his ally (of which he didn’t have many). It was a personal book - Claudius is put down by everybody except a few who figure out he really did know what was up. And they all die. Who can’t feel for a guy like that?
The main problem with IC is keeping track of all of the relationships. There is so much intermarriage and adoption and people with the same name that I don’t imagine there is anyone who could possibly keep track. I wonder how the Romans themselves kept track of it themselves. I created this chart which was very helpful, but should give you a clear idea of how complicated it was.
There were moments in IC when I was genuinely freaked out, almost afraid to turn out my book light. The downfall of Germanicus, for example – the dead babies under the floor and the mysterious message on the wall. But generally, a feeling of fear pervades the entire novel - for Claudius, members of the imperial family, and the masses. Claudius had a physical ailment of some sort, and was often regarded as an idiot. He is wisely advised early on to keep up the ruse…Graves portrays him as a deeply intelligent man, but must play dumb in order to avoid being murdered. Everyone has to watch out…you could have no friends or confidants, as informers were paid well to make up stories and turn people in to the Emperor, who – whether Tiberius or Caligula – rather enjoyed killing his subjects. This was all complicated by the fact that they all seemed mentally ill to some degree or another, and no one was ever sure what was expected of them. I cannot even imagine living in that environment. Well, to some degree I can, but that’s another story entirely.
I have always loved history – I used to watch the History Channel all the time back when they actually showed real, critical historical programming, not the shit that feeds into the Dan Brown fanatics need for conspiracy. And I really have no interest in Ice Road Truckers. But my knowledge about Ancient Rome (and Greece, and really a lot of the Middle Ages up to the Renaissance) is severely lacking. I recognize this, and have most of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization waiting for the day when I finally get around to cracking them open. I could have probably named a few Roman Emperors, given you some plots from Shakespeare’s (and Hollywood’s) interpretations and told you that “Bread and Circuses” was what lead to Rome’s downfall, but that’s about it. So much of the information in IC was new. I knew Imperial Rome was messed up, but I didn’t know it was that messed up. Graves really wet my appetite to learn more about Rome, so perhaps Caesar and Christ will get opened sooner than I anticipated. (But definitely after I finish this damn Modern Library list!)
I wouldn’t call I, Claudius suspenseful, because it doesn’t take long to figure out what is going to happen to everybody, but it was enthralling. I am looking forward to reading the second part of this “autobiography,” Claudius the God. I don’t see how it made it to #14 on the list, as there are novels far better than this farther down on the list. But there it is. Overall, though, it’s a good book.