Keith and I both are avid readers. Whether a book is historical, fantastical or dramatical (a joke — ha ha ha) chances are that at least one of us will be tempted to read it at some point. We often suggest books to one another; it’s not unheard of for me to ask Keith what I should read next, though I may not always listen to his recommending. For what seems like months now, Keith’s been all but begging me to read I, Claudius and Claudius The God, both by the late Robert Graves. I finally caved not too long ago, and you know what?
Both I, Claudius and Claudius the God are novels by Graves, but neither of them read as such. In fact, they are purposefully written as though they were the memoirs of Claudis himself. Of the two books, the first (with its unwieldy title of I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born 10 B.C., Murdered and Deified A.D. 54) focuses on Claudius’s thoughts and observations leading up to and during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. It is in this novel that the reader first learns about how truly awkward the future emperor was, what with his gimpy shuffle, shaking fits and nerve-induced stutter. It’s actually kind of an endearing picture; who, after all, doesn’t like an underdog?
I, Claudius also introduces the reader to a slew of characters too broad to mention here; suffice it to say that I wished I had been clever enough to scribble down notes, or at least create a family tree. It doesn’t help that there are countless individuals who share a name. (I mean, just how many Tiberiuses and Julias are there, anyway?) If characters actually have names that are dissimilar, the variance is so slight that the few extra letters don’t make a bit of difference — i.e. Agrippa, Agrippinilla, Livia, Livius, Livilla. I highly suggest reading with a pad of paper, in order to keep track of everyone’s comings and goings. The sheer size of the cast doesn’t taper off in Claudius the God (or, Claudius the God: and His Wife Messalina); if anything, it gets a bit more confusing, since Graves here decides to include characters’ nicknames as well as a few explanatory footnotes.
Please, whatever you do, don’t let the seemingly daunting task of untangling a few Romans and their contemporaries like a skein of yarn prevent you from reading these two books. The combination of Graves’s impeccable storytelling and impressively thorough research is so deeply enthralling. As clichéd as it may be to say this, I stand by it: the individuals about whom Graves so deftly writes all but catapult themselves off of the page and into life. When Claudius describes the chaos of Caligula’s rule, I found myself becoming irrationally nervous — even as I read from the comfort of my sofa, even with almost two thousand years and four thousand miles between us. As Claudius’s beloved brother Germanicus suffers a terrible and prolonged death, I too felt sorrowful, along with all of Rome. And when Claudius succumbs to paranoia, I wandered around for days, trying to imagine what it must have been like to fear that behind every corner hid throngs of assassins armed with daggers, poison and swords.
What I find the most incredible, however, is the fact that Graves originally published I, Claudius in 1934, and its sequel in 1935. At almost seventy-five years of age, these two books seem at once timeless and modern, covering thematic motifs that still remain prevalent today (gender roles, sexuality, war/aggression, etc.). In addition to that, Graves writes from Claudius’s perspective so completely that is almost as if the author ceases to exist — all that is left is Claudius himself, telling his tale.