I, Claudius

  • Roman depravity, decay and decadence in all its literary glory.

    Roman depravity, decay and decadence in all its literary glory.

    Author:  Robert Graves

  • Published:  1934
  • Publisher:  Arthur Barker
  • Pages:  432
  • First Line:  “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot,’ or ‘That Claudius’, or ‘Claudius the Stammerer’, or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach that fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.”
  • Last Lines:  “What a miraculous fate for a historian!  And as you will have seen, I took full advantage of my opportunities.  Even the mature historian’s privilege of setting forth conversations of which he knows only the gist is one that I have availed myself of hardly at all.”
  • ML Edition:  #20; tan cover
  • Acclaim:  ML Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #14; TIME 100 Best Novels Since 1923 List; James Tait Black Memorial Prize
  • Film Version:  1937 (aborted); 1976  (TV – ****)
  • First Read:  Late 1998

The Novel:

Roman history has long fascinated the world.  Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was long-regarded as a classic and was a big-seller for decades in spite of the fact that it’s rather dry and extremely long.  Films about the Romans pre-date the Sound Era and have never stopped coming; Ben-Hur may be subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” but it’s the Roman chariot race that makes it so exciting – look for a new version this summer (okay, I’ve been sitting on this post since May of 2016 waiting for when I needed it).  Television loves it some Romans and has for decades.  So it’s no surprise that when Robert Graves, supposedly in need of money, moved away from what he was already successful at (poetry, autobiography, mythology) and decided to write a novel about one of the more curious Roman emperors, Claudius, that it was a big hit.  Claudius had never been a focal point before; he lacks the power and authority of Augustus, the political machinations of Tiberius, the sheer audacity and depravity of Caligula or the madness and decay of Nero.  He was the stammerer, the accidental emperor who wanted a return of the Republic, yet ruled for 13 years.  Graves decided that a novel written as if it were an autobiography written by Claudius that had been lost for 1900 years (much is made of the notion that his book would be lost for so long) would focus attention back on this interesting figure.  For, if Claudius did not have the military reputation of the older emperors or the sheer interest because of their failures of the younger ones, he was interesting nonetheless.  After all, he was the one figure who had managed to survive when everything around him was falling apart, who was never poisoned, was never assassinated and then became ruler.  He was a historian and an intellectual when most thought him a fool and Graves’ notion that Claudius would secretly know so much while viewed so unfavorably makes the novel that much more interesting.

Claudius, unfortunately, is not the most interesting character in his own autobiography, but the way Graves writes it, he is even aware of that.  The central mover and figure in the book is Livia, the grandmother of Claudius, the mother of Tiberius and the wife of Augustus.  Perhaps that is why the main action of the book begins not with The Battle of Actium where Augustus defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra and cemented his power, but with the events that lead to the fall of Marcellus and the rise of Agrippa.  It is with those events that Livia begins: “The name ‘Livia’ is connected with the latin word which means Malignity.  My grandmother was a consummate actress, and the outward purity of her conduct, the sharpness of her wit and the graciousness of her manners deceived nearly everybody.”  It is Livia who systematically starts to remove anyone who might be in her way.  Marcellus due to inherit?  Have him poisoned.  Her own son Drusus wants a return of the Republic?  She has him eliminated so that her other son Tiberius can eventually take over: “Livia was not sure how far she could trust Tiberius.  On his return with my father’s body his sympathy with her had seemed forced and insincere, and when Augustus wished himself as honourable a death as my father’s she saw a brief half-smile cross his face.  Tiberius who, it appears, had long suspected that my grandfather had not died a natural death, was resolved now not to cross his mother’s will in anything.”

This is the tale of Livia and how she will remove anyone in her way.  There are no depths to which she will not sink, and sometimes, even in the horror, there is some humor:

There was great alarm in the City when it was known that Sejanus was to become related with the Imperial family, but everyone hastened to congratulate him, and me too.  A few days later Drusillus was dead.  He was found lying behind a bush in the garden of a house at Pompeii where he had been invited, from Herculaneum by some friends of Urgulanilla’s.  A small pear was found stuck in his throat.  It was said at the inquest that he had been seen throwing fruit up in the air and trying to catch it in his mouth: his death was unquestionably due to an accident.  But nobody believed this.  It was clear that Livia, not having been consulted about the marriage of one of her own great-grandchildren, had arranged for the child to be strangled and the pear crammed down his throat afterwards.  As was the custom in such cases, the pear tree was charged with murder and sentenced to be uprooted and burned.

In the end, she allows Caligula, the most horrible of all her descendants to be the heir, not because she thinks it will be good for Rome, but because she knows of the depths of his depravity and she believes that she has blackmailed him properly into making her a goddess, the one thing that she believes will keep her from burning in the depths.

This is where the use of Claudius as narrator makes things so interesting.  The first is that he can be so dispassionate in what he writes about because he believes it is his duty as a historian (Drusillus is his son, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the above quote).  The second is that because his personality is so invisible, it allows all the other horrible characters to really come to the forefront.  Livia may be the most dominant personality, but she is far from the worst in a book that also has Caligula.  There are no end to the horrible things that happen in the book, but they are all so endlessly fascinating that you don’t dare put it down, and all so well told.  Just before the long quote above, we have this line:  “So I told him that if Tiberius proposed the match I would be glad to give my consent: that my chief feeling had been that four years old was rather young for a girl to be betrothed to a boy of thirteen, who would be twenty-one before he could legally consummate the marriage and by that time might have formed other entanglements.”  The implications of this are quite large – the age of consent, the marrying off of people, all the sex and violence that are rampant in Rome.

Perhaps that’s why Claudius the God isn’t nearly so interesting a book as I, Claudius.  It covers the actions from the time Claudius becomes Emperor until his death.  While his wife, Messalina is suitably depraved, there just isn’t the same force of personality as there is in the first book.  It’s certainly telling that in the television series, only three of the twelve episodes are used to cover the second book, even though the second book is actually over 100 pages longer than the first.  It’s far from a bad book; it just doesn’t have the same force of dramatic power that the first does.

All of this is to remind you that while the television series still ranks as one of the greatest mini-series ever made for television (more on that below), it had a great source.  There’s a reason why people had worked for so long to put it on the screen (if you ever get a chance watch the documentary The Epic That Never Was about the aborted 1937 film with Charles Laughton, which might have earned him a second Oscar had it been finished).  Don’t let yourself pass the book by simply because you’ve seen the show.

Still powerful after 40 years.

Still powerful after 40 years.

The Television Mini-Series:

If I wanted to get someone my age who had never seen I, Claudius (such as Veronica before a few weeks ago), I would point out the actors in it.  At one point, a future Doctor (John Hurt) arranging things for a future Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) has the future Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) killed.  When Caligula is stabbed, I turned to Veronica and joked “Don’t worry.  He’ll regenerate.”  When Patrick Stewart first appears we marveled that he had hair; the opposite reaction came for the first appearances of both Brian Blessed, who plays Augustus and John Rhys-Davies, because those actors that we are so used to seeing with beards are both clean-shaven.  The main two stars are Derek Jacobi, one of the finest Shakespearean actors of any generation (his performance as Hamlet was what inspired Kenneth Branagh to be an actor, and when he was first offered this part he thought it was for the role of Claudius in Hamlet and he said he was too young to play it) and Siân Phillips, the great British actress who I was lucky to see on stage in A Little Night Music in London in 1996.

But if I wanted to try and get a younger generation to watch this series, perhaps I wouldn’t even have to mention all the wonderful actors.  I would say probably the same thing I turned to Veronica and said at one point during the show: “Given all the incest and all the assassinations with political aims at the throne, this is really like Game of Thrones without dragons.”  Or maybe that’s just what I should say to an older generation that remembers this show so very well (both my parents remember it vividly having seen it on Masterpiece Theatre nearly 40 years ago): “You should watch Game of Thrones.  It’s like I, Claudius, but with dragons.”

The big difference though (aside from the dragons), is that this was a deliberately lower budget series.  There are nice sets and nice costumes, but they deliberately kept things low-key, using the sets as the main decoration.  Almost everything is clearly filmed in a studio, but it doesn’t matter.  What matters here is the interplay between the actors.  Derek Jacobi’s performance is key, of course, as he is the only person who is in every episode (the episodes that take place before his birth or when he is still a young boy have him at the beginning and the end providing the narrative).  He’s got the stutter, the personality, the tics, everything about the character to really make him come alive (I would say that for comparison you should compare it with the worthless performance in Caligula, but then you would have to watch Caligula, the worst film ever made).  The other massive stand-out performance is from Phillips.  Her Livia is so ruthlessly alive, determined to make her son, and then later, her great-grandson, the Emperor.  She has a plan right from the start and she is going to make it happen no matter what tries to get in her way, whether she has to go out and poison the figs directly on the tree because someone is suspicious, or put up with the horrible revelations and abuse from Caligula (their final two scenes together are among the most disturbing in the entire show).

As I said, there are plenty of great actors that we fantasy fans know well, and they get their star turns.  Patrick Stewart, who we are so used to seeing be noble and dignified here gets to be a ruthless killer, until he is finally toppled by Rhys-Davies in a scene that involves a line so horrifying I won’t even mention it here.  John Hurt gets a star turn as Caligula with a scene involving his sister so outlandish that both my parents mentioned it to me in separate conversations.

But don’t feel like things are limited to just those great actors that you might know by name.  One of the best performances comes from Sheila White as Messalina.  Her performance combines sensuality, ruthless manipulation, tears, anguish, contempt, and in her final moments, sheer abject terror in what is perhaps the most memorable death scene in a series full of them.  I joked at one point that each episode should list which character died during the course of it.

Don’t be afraid of watching I, Claudius just because it aired on Masterpiece Theatre.  It’s got bloody violence.  It’s got sex and nudity.  It’s got dominant personalities that come from mesmerizing performances.  In short, it’s got everything you could want from a great television show.

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