This 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.