Book Reviews - Review 418
Category: Fiction | Published: 1934 | Review Added: 01-01-2023
*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers ***
A few months ago I watched the 1976 BBC serial drama I, Claudius on DVD. Despite its small budget, this tale of intrigue and corruption in the early Roman Empire makes compelling viewing. It has a superb cast led by Derek Jacobi as the lame, stammering nobleman Claudius, taken for an idiot by his family and the Roman court, and left to his own devices while they pursue their bloody power games. He spends his time reading and writing history books.
Following the assassination of the demented emperor Caligula, a farcical twist of fate has Claudius being hailed his successor, and then surprising everybody by proving a competent ruler.
The television series was based on Robert Graves' eponymous novel, together with its sequel Claudius the God. In both media, the narrator is Claudius, writing towards the end of his rule and anticipating imminent assassination, but also the fulfilment of a prophesy that his record of events will be discovered nineteen centuries hence.
I, Claudius, the novel, covers the reigns of the emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Augustus's rulership is a period of stabilisation after the civil wars that brought the Roman Republic to its knees. Augustus is portrayed as a charismatic leader who unites firmness of purpose with magnanimity. His weakness is his naive trust in his wife, the scheming Livia. Beneath the calm political surface, she is quietly removing everyone who stands in the way of Tiberius, her son by a previous marriage, succeeding Augustus. Patient and ruthless, she is the impetus behind much of the action of the first half of the book, playing on others' folly, fear or ambition to achieve her ends as suits each occasion.
Augustus is eventually poisoned, and Tiberius assumes power. He has mixed feelings about his accession. Livia controls his activities as she did her husband's, though with somewhat more difficulty because Tiberius knows her character. Tiberius is one of the novel's most interesting and disturbing figures. He is withdrawn, insecure and sadistic, but shrewd, and wise in practical matters. As the years pass, baser instincts overwhelm him: a taste for sexual practices so depraved that Claudius must leave the details to the reader's imagination, and a paranoid misanthropy that costs hundreds of individuals - some guilty, but most innocent - their lives in treason trials.
Tiberius's life is long, and his plan for his grand-nephew Caligula to succeed him is watertight. But, this being Ancient Rome, he gets himself murdered anyway.
Caligula is chosen by Tiberius because he is "one of the few people wicked enough to make Tiberius feel, by comparison, a virtuous man." Caligula's wickedness is different in kind from Tiberius's. It is capricious where Tiberius's was channelled, and ostentatious where Tiberius's was furtive. For all the horror of Caligula's acts in power, they have a grim comedy about them. He proclaims himself a god, and builds a bridge of ships to fulfil a prophesy that he will ride his horse over the Bay of Baiae. The opening ceremony is an opulent procession that ends with the Emperor massacring innocent citizens. He makes his horse a senator, prances around Rome dressed as gods, and has the heads of the city's statues replaced with replicas of his own.
The novel ends in the confusion following Caligula's assassination. The Emperor's German guards find Claudius hiding behind a curtain, and choose him to fill the power vacuum. This is absurd for many reasons, one being that Claudius wants an end to the Empire and a return to the Republic. But, always ironical and pragmatic, Claudius accepts his fate. "So I'm Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now."
How does the novel compare with the television series? I would say the two complement each other. I was glad to have watched the series first, because there are a lot of characters, and it is useful to have the faces as visual "pegs" by which to remember them. It does mean that I will always see Augustus as Brian Blessed, Livia as Siân Phillips, and Sejanus as Patrick Stewart, but could there have been better casting? I don't think so.
The novel, true to Claudius's vocation as a historian, mostly narrates events at which Claudius was not present; so when it came to the dialogue of the series, the scriptwriter Jack Pulman was starting from scratch. He did an excellent job, bringing Graves' characters to life without taking liberties. The series feels like a rendition of the novel, rather than an interpretation of it. The exception is the series' most notorious scene, the horrifying murder by Caligula of his sister Drusilla during an incestuous ritual. This is absent from the novel's narrative (Claudius merely insinuates that Drusilla's death was not natural). It is questionable whether the elaboration was artistically justified.
As for the novel: by his own admission, Graves wrote it quickly to pay off a debt. He wanted it to sell, not to be studied by academics; so it is written in an informal, modern idiom, and the action is fast-moving. This is not necessarily anachronistic: Claudius is supposedly writing in Greek, a more conversational language than Latin. There are no deep themes, the interest being in the intrigue and the drama. Yet the writing is fluent, and the plot cohesive, while many of the characters - particularly Tiberius and Claudius - are involving. As a former student of Classics, Graves was presumably able to avoid a lot of research, which helps the story to flow. One senses that he had fun writing it.
I will, at some point, move on to the sequel Claudius the God, covering Claudius's own time as Emperor.