Empire building.

Graves 1934 - I ClaudiusThis week I finished reading I Claudius, by Robert Graves. I’ve been chipping away at the pages for more than seven days, content to take it slowly.  This is a hefty read.  I’m not talking about page numbers here.  I mean it has a big cast, and covers a lot of history.  I’ve had to concentrate, or become lost in the labyrinth of names and connections, even after I discovered the handy family tree at the back.

No wonder the book has been waiting on my shelf for more years than I care to number.  It might have stayed there longer if Jean Lee hadn’t nudged me, when discussing my Elizabeth & Mary post. On her recommendation I dusted off Graves and stepped in.

It’s AD 41, and Claudius is writing ‘this strange history of my life’.  To explain himself, though, he must also explain his parents, and grandparents, who have all been prominent Romans.

Claudius skips back and forth through time, referring to various key events in the decline of the Republic and the establishment of his Grand-uncle, Augustus, as Emperor.  Characters, Graves demonstrates, are formed by their pasts.

In this story that premise is somewhat simplified.  It’s focus is the Claudian family.

…one of the most ancient of Rome…There is a popular ballad…of which the refrain is that the Claudian tree bears two sorts of fruit, the sweet apple and the crab, but that the crabs out-number the apples.

I don’t think I’m giving much away if I say that ‘good’ Claudians are largely defined by their desire to re-establish the Republic, and work for the greater good.  ‘Bad’ Claudians long for power, and believe me, when they are bad, they are very, very bad.

I liked the reticence of Claudius.  Dark deeds are explained, but not in graphic detail, and the darkest ones of all are hinted at.  Graves doesn’t hang about.  He creates a scene with a few telling details, then moves on. Even the fight scenes, which he seemed to enjoy, were not dwelled upon.

So thanks Jean.  You were quite right, I did find it a rewarding read.  I didn’t expect to, I’m not sure I wanted to, but I became involved.  Look at this opening sentence:

 I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you 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 the 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.

You have to applaud, don’t you? Clause follows clause yet doesn’t lose me along the way. It establishes a character I am inclined to empathise with.  Here’s a modest chap, it says, despite my great name: and what about these other names I endured for forty-three years?

Claudius has been a treat to look forward to.  I’ve needed only a chapter, maybe two, each day, until I got to the last fifty pages or so.  Then I had to sit down and race to the end.

This book is an epic, and should satisfy readers on that level.  What raises it above many others in the epic-style, for me, were the moments when I emerged from the text with a shiver of recognition.  It was published, in 1934, and was read then, by many, as an allegory for the situation in Europe.  I suppose, by their natures, good allegories can continue to seem relevant.

14 thoughts on “Empire building.

  1. You’ve done better than me, Cath. I’ve tried a few times and failed to get very far beyond that first, clause-ful sentence. I remember watching a TV adaptation in ?1970s? maybe. It starred Derek Jacobi and I think I was more impressed with his stuttering portrayal of Claudius than the story itself. Having said that, your review paints and enticing picture. Perhaps it’s time for another go…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think it was the 70s, too, Ruth, and like you, all I recall of it is Derek Jacobi being humiliated.

      I have a feeling I’ve owned the novel since soon after that, so there was a lot of dust collected on the page-tops. This time I found the book oddly compulsive, despite never before having made it past that long first sentence. I read it intending to clear a space on my shelf, and am now dithering over whether to change my mind and keep it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah Yes, I’m a page-top-dust expert since embarking on a career in secondhand books. I used to be a tad judgemental until I went home & studied my own shelves!
        It’s interesting how our perspective on books changes with age. Our local book club read 1984 a few months ago. I remember thinking it was phenomenal when I read it as a youngster. Couldn’t get on with it at all this time. Perhaps it felt more realism than dystopia in my jaded middle age.
        I intend to search out my own dusty copy of I Claudius later and see if I can manage a whole chapter. The image of Derek might help.
        In the meantime, as I’m constantly advising bookselling customers, don’t move it on unless you’re absolutely sure 🤔

        Liked by 1 person

        • What an empathetic bookseller you are. I’ve regretted so many of the books that I’ve moved on – usually about 4 months after I’ve convinced myself I don’t need to keep something.
          The only thing is, if I had kept them all, I might, by now, be putting up bookshelves in the bathroom. It’s the only room in the house that has a roving population.
          I’m looking forward to hearing how you get on with Claudius. I feel that I’ve earned first name rights to him now.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Haha, I think the only answer is an extension Cath. Just this morning I had a lengthy visit from a lady who’d sold us some books TWO YEARS ago and wondered if we still had one of them. I forebore to suggest that we hope stock will move quicker than that. She seemed too disappointed to take it!

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  2. Huzzah, you read it! I’m excited the nudging didn’t lead to a negative reading experience. I have to admit that if not for the miniseries, I’m not sure I would have made it through the books. Oh, the first book’s lovely–as you now know :)– but the second book feels very bogged down to me. It could be that the miniseries cuts out big chunks of the second book, such as the invasion of Britain. But I think it’s the loss of Claudius’ grandmother that loses me. Caligula’s bonkers,yes, but I loved loved LOVED Lyvia’s manipulative style. As Augustus’ daughter Julia says, “Time means nothing to her.” And in reading the first book, we see just how long Lyvia’s willing to wait and how far she’s willing to go to get her son on the throne.

    So now I’m wondering what you’ll make of the second book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must admit I’m hesitating about that second book. Your review is mirrored by one or two others I’ve recently seen. Though I must say, as a Brit with an amateur interest in our history, that the invasion of Britain does appeal to me.

      I agree about Livia. I particularly liked the humanising revelation about her initial motivations when she eventually made her confession to Claudius.. For me, the ‘payback’ explanation made her more feasible. I also liked that Graves had buried his moral message at the end, along with the solutions to various puzzling deaths – rather like a classic detective story.

      I shall keep an eye out for book II, but not sure if I’m going to actively search it out. Thank you, again, for the nudge. Without it I might never have got round to this one, and I’m so glad I did.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read Grave’s biography about a year back (forgive me but the author’s name escapes me at present) and he’s a fascinating and extremely complex character. Many congratulations on tackling, Claudius, by the way. Your powers of concentration and fortitude are a shining example to us all. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the compliment. In my more egocentric moments I thoroughly agree with your assessment of my stubborn obsessive tendency.
      Thanks also, for the hint about the biography. I’ll have to look out for it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha! I’m sure you’re being far too hard on yourself, Cath.
        Robert Graves: Life on the Edge by Miranda Seymour.
        Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Ms Seymour truly uncovers, the poet’s tortured soul. I highly recommend it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the TV adaptation seems to have done something remarkable, so many of us have vivid memories of it, even after all this time.
      Enjoying your blog, I look forward to reading more.

      Liked by 1 person

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