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I, Claudius

by Robert Graves

Dates Covered: 10 BC - 54
ISBN: 067972477X
HH Rating: 5stars

Our Take

"Caligula looked at me, uncomfortably, through narrowed eyelids."
"Do you think I'm mad?" he asked, after a time.
I laughed nervously. "Mad, Caesar? You ask whether I think you mad? Why, you set the standard of sanity for the whole habitable world."
"It's a very difficult thing, you know, Claudius," he said confidentially, "to be a God in human disguise.."

Who wants to be a Roman Caesar? We do. At least, we would if we were interested in having sex with family members, and enjoyed the adrenalin rush one gets wondering if, this time, the food really is poisoned.

Enter Claudius, reluctant contender for Caesar. Dribbling, lurching, but highly intelligent and misunderstood, Claudius is the focal point of the fictionalised autobiography written in 1934, by Robert Graves. Sure, it's an old book. You should read it anyway.

For the uninitiated, it is palatable introduction to the world of the Roman Emperor, the politics, treachery and instability of men who believed themselves more than merely mortal. Take, for example, the tale of Tiberius and the fisherman.

As the story goes, Tiberius landed on a small island to be greeted by a local fisherman, who, recognising the emperor, offered him a fish as a gift. Tiberius was intensely (and justifiably) paranoid, and believed the man was offering him an omen of death, so he ordered his guards to hold the man down and scrub his face with the fish. When the fisherman later quipped "I'm glad I didn't offer him a crab," Tiberius ordered that he be similarly scrubbed with a crab. He went on to collect the most extensive encyclopaedia of pornography in the known world, owned a giant iguana, held orgies with his sister and died in exile at the hand of one of his soldiers, watched by future screwed-up emperor Caligula.Such anecdotes that reveal personality provide Graves fodder for conjecture: they form the bones around which Graves weaves this fascinating tale. And he is a master of the craft.

Stylistically this is a superb novel, seamlessly moving through the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and Graves' deep understanding of the complexities of the Roman political system adds credibility to what can, at times, seem like an impossible tale. His treatment of the psychology of senator and caesar, the fear of power absolute, and the motives behind the plots and counter-plots of assassination are skilfully handled.

Interestingly, Graves also explores the role of women in the history of the empire. Exhibit A: Livia. Wife of Augustus and matriarch of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Livia was some piece of work. Self-serving, power hungry, frustrated by her status as a woman, she plotted, murdered and deified herself and her husband with a ruthless single-mindedness that made Gladiator's Commodus look like a boy scout.

It is a bold for an author to masquerade as Roman royalty, and yet Graves adroitly manoeuvres through the narrative in the first person, in the guise of Claudius, who, unseen or ignored because of his disabilities, is privy to confidences denied other member of the royal household. So the plot unfolds for us, as it unfolded for him, intricate, outrageous but always moving to its inevitable conclusion -- Claudius himself becomes emperor.

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