Claudius The God – Robert Graves
There is something odd about historical fiction as a literary genre. After all, most of us have a passing knowledge of major historical events and figures and so a story that focuses on one has lost a lot of its dramatic tension before it starts. We know the outcome before we have got past the preface. And then there is the problem of a story narrated by a person who dies. The drama of the denouement, in this case Claudius’ murder, is lost because the protagonist can’t relate it.
These are some of the problems Graves battled with in his 1934 sequel to I, Claudius, a riveting tale of inter-family plotting and assassination which puts the Game of Thrones into a cocked hat. The second book is less dramatic because the anti-Darwinian Claudius, the epitome of the survival of the unfittest, has amazingly emerged top of a rather sordid pile and has very few enemies to plot against. That said, Graves succeeds in making Claudius a rather endearing, idealistic ruler, totally unsuited for the position he finds himself in and with an unfulfilled yearning to return Rome to a republic.
The other major theme running through the book is the treachery of his young wife, Messalina. So besotted is Claudius with her and so naïve that she runs rings round him and has a string of paramours. Claudius is the last to know but when the scales finally fall from his eyes his revenge is bloody and swift but the result for Claudius is that he becomes a bitter cynic, abandons his republican dreams, nurtures Nero, marries Agrippina and meets his end. Graves has to rely on accounts by Suetonius and Seneca, neither were Claudius’ greatest fans, to finish the story off.
Another structural oddity is the beginning of the book is that after detailing Claudius’ acclamation by the Praetorian Guard it launches into a retrospective account of the colourful life and times of the con-man and reprobate that was Herod Agrippa. This allows Graves to recount the treatment and pogroms launched against the Jews and it cannot be read other than an attack and commentary on what was going on at the time in Germany.
For the English reader a section of particular interest is the invasion of Britain, Claudius’ principal military achievement, for which he awarded himself a triumph. The rationale for the invasion, at least according to Graves’ Claudius, was to thwart the influence of the Druids whose training-camps in Britain fomented unrest in Gaul. “The Druids, therefore,” he writes, “though they were not warriors themselves but only priests, were always fomenting rebellion against us.” Surgical strikes against them would restore the status quo and allow the spread of civilised values to continue unhindered. Now where have we heard that rationale before?
By the standards of the early Roman emperors Claudius was a good thing and did much to improve the lot of the Romans, particularly with the re-engineering of the port of Ostia. Graves’ portrait is sympathetic and for all his faults, one cannot help feeling a wave of sympathy for Claudius.
Well written, impeccably researched and reasonably well paced, albeit a tad long, it is a worthy sequel to I, Claudius but, for me, the first book was the better read.