A Romantic Look Inside the Roman Empire: I, Claudius – Robert Graves

I, Claudius

Even now, some 1,500 years after it ended, the classical age of Rome is still something our society likes to tell stories about. Only a few years back, HBO had the wonderful series Rome (which gave me my interest in ancient history) and shortly before that was Gladiator, which helped make Marcus Aurelius something of a household name (he’s probably the most well known emperor who doesn’t have a month named after him). More recently, there’s the Starz series Spartacus, which is just ending it’s run.

It’s not too hard to see why Rome still interests people: it’s far enough away that you can take liberties with it and get away with them, but Rome’s society is still close enough to ours that one doesn’t need a degree to understand it’s workings (this is why I assume there’s never been a good drama set in Ancient Greece). And all of today’s stories about Rome share a common ancestor: Rober Graves’ I, Claudius.

Released in 1934, I, Claudius was one of the first of it’s kind: a modern melodrama set in ancient Rome. Even going as far back as Shakespeare, people wrote about Rome with Graves we hit the modern beast: a well researched novel that’s sure of it’s components that’s also a wild blast through  the intrigue and conspiracies and compelling personalities inside the first few years of the Roman Empire. Here, Graves adeptly mixed fact with fiction, ancient histories with angles of his own designs and delivered a spooky novel I enjoyed a hell of a lot.

It’s populated with the heavy hitters of the first century AD: Augustus, aging but with a firm grip on power; the debauched Tiberius, who tried to be a good leader before giving himself up entirely to temptation; the completely insane Caligula (who seems like he’d be right at home among Kim Il Sung) who murders his way through Rome, before declaring his own divinity. And there’s the monsterous Livia, who echoes throughout the novel, doing anything and everything to keep her catbird seat and nearly single-handedly runs everything, reshaping the Republic into the Empire. And most memorably there’s Claudius, the stuttering, limping guy in the corner who takes it all in, deftly manages to avoid making too many enemies by using his wits and shortcomings (he’s a clever guy, no wonder he survives purge after purge).

Graves’ Rome is a world populated by backstabbers, cheats and professional informers. The only way to move up in society isn’t just to marry the right people and make the right bribes, but often to kill the right person, too. But it’s more than just a book about the city: he takes you up across the Gaul to the battles against Germanic tribes, down into the Delphic caves in Mount Parnassus and out into the countryside. It’s a full tour of the classical world.

One thing that surprised me about this was how often it echoed the classical historians: there’s traces of the racy Suetonius and the cynical Tacitus, not to mention the broadsides of Juvenal (or a cameo by Rome’s most popular historian, Livy). Graves  knew his stuff, after all. He translated Suetonius for the Penguin Classics and wrote a seminal two volume collection of ancient myth and lore.

My rating: 9/10. Recommended, especially to history buffs: it’s wild read. It’s a I can’t wait to read Claudius the God, even if I have an idea what’s going to go down.


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