Monday, 11 August 2014

I, Claudius (by Robert Graves)

The TV adaptation of I, Claudius is one of my favourite television shows of all time, and one of only a handful I re-watch regularly every year (I can't think of any others at the moment except perhaps the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice - the Colin Firth one). The novel holds just such an important place as a classic and a genre-defining work, inspiring numerous novels based on Roman history and kick-starting the I, Noun/Name title format. I have to confess, I don't find the novel as re-readable as the TV series is re-watchable, but that's not to take away from how important it is, or how enjoyable I dimly remember it being on first read (which was some years ago now).

One of the quirks of Graves' writing style in this novel is that he carefully composes it as if it were written by the Emperor Claudius - not just using the first person, but incorporating many of the quirks and foibles of ancient history in general, and of the little we know of Claudius' own writing. Before he was Emperor, Claudius wrote several histories (including an autobiography), but unfortunately none have survived. Graves explains in his author's note that he used surviving fragments of a speech of Claudius' to try to ape his style - which Graves himself describes as 'inept' (according to Suetonius) and 'inelegant' with 'awkwardly placed digressions'.

Graves therefore conscientiously reproduces these flaws in the novel, which is very clever of him, but can be irritating to the reader. The fact that ancient histories are full of awkwardly placed digressions is one of the things that's annoying about them and off-putting to modern readers - it's not something I personally would choose to replicate in a novel, I have to confess. The structure of the novel is somewhere between the two forms of Roman history (annalistic, describing events year by year, or thematic, usually used in biographies). Claudius as narrator explains at the beginning that he is going to avoid the annalistic structure (and write in Greek, distancing himself a little from the Latin Roman histories) and in the early part especially, the narrative jumps around quite a lot (rather confusingly at times). However, it does follow a broadly chronological structure, from before Claudius' birth to his accession as Emperor, and the latter half proceeds in a rather more conventional chronological way (which is something of a relief).

Another consequence of Graves' careful portrayal of Claudius as an historian is that the book as a whole has a tendency to tell, rather than show, especially in the earlier sections. There has to be a specific source for all Claudius' knowledge and although some conversations he couldn't have been present for are invented, Claudius-as-narrator self-consciously avoids doing so as much as possible. The scene in which he talks to Livy and Pollio about their different ways of writing history sets out what are probably Graves' preferences and certainly the character Claudius's - privileging the facts so far as they are known over invention and artistic writing. We modern historians would certainly tend to agree with him there when it comes to history - but this is not, in fact, history, it's a novel. The result is that the early sections especially whizz through event after event, describing everything rather briefly and very matter-of-factly, and I have to wonder how much of an impression any of it would have made if I hadn't seen the TV series first.

In the preface to the sequel, Claudius the God, Graves replied rather defensively to some critics who had implied that in I, Claudius he 'had merely consulted Tacitus's Annals and Suetonius' Twelve Caesars, run them together, and expanded the result with my own "vigorous fancy". This was not so'. He then provides a long list of the primary sources he used in writing Claudius the God. I certainly don't disbelieve Graves - I'm sure he did read numerous ancient sources and that everything comes from one or another of them, and his research into Claudius' own writing style is impressive. You can see where the critics were coming from, though, as the book really does read like the slightly confused love-child of Tacitus' Annals and Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars.

Wherever Tacitus is available, Graves tends to follow him reasonably closely, and it's Tacitus who provides the indictment of Livia that Graves takes as his jumping-off point for portraying her (awesomely) as a serial killing megalomaniac. (His portrayal of Augustus makes the man who took over the world from the age of 19 into an 'overgrown schoolboy', with all his accomplishments credited to Livia, good and bad - but I don't want to go into that in too much detail right now because I'm giving a paper on it next week). The novel's account of the reign of Tiberius includes a lengthy digression on Germanicus' putting down of mutinies and war in Germany (justified on the grounds that he wrote to Claudius about it) which was presumably of interest to Graves, a veteran of the First World War, but also reflects the content of Tacitus' Annals and Tacitus' areas of interest.

When we get to Caligula, however, and Tacitus' account is lost, Graves gives in completely to Suetonian gossip, with just about every rumour and every bizarre act attributed to Caligula recorded as 'true' and attributed to madness, with little other motivation (he does talk about Caligula's reckless spending and need for money, but the building of temples to himself in Rome is attributed entirely to madness). As it happens, I tend to think Caligula was not quite sane as well, but it is noticeable that, while Tiberius' vices are referred to briefly and pages dedicated to Germanicus in Germania, Caligula's reign is nothing but complete insanity and personal gossip - perhaps partly because it's from Suetonius, not Tacitus.

The jacket describes the novel as 'racy' but Graves actually skirts over most of the sexual or violent sections fairly quickly. His portrayal of Tiberius is actually kind compared to Suetonius (absolving him of guilt for reading Drusus' republican letter to Augustus, for example) and he reports on Tiberius' sexual habits on Capri fairly briefly, without the details which Suetonius includes, which are enough to turn the stomach. Claudius as narrator states things simply, such as recording matter-of-factly that Caligula slept with all three of his sisters, but there are no details. A couple of gladiatorial combats and the assassination of Caligula are described in a little more detail, but even these are fairly brief. Or perhaps I've just become hard to shock after reading all of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Like most novelists, Graves uses the most common names for characters rather than their full Latin names (Mark Antony, not Marcus Antonius, for example). Most usefully, he also invents nicknames to compensate for the confusing Roman habit of giving each successive generation the same names as their forebears (which to be fair is not just Roman - my own grandfather, uncle and cousin are Jimmy, Jim and James). Characters who are differentiated in historical works in general by using a particular one of their names - such as Tiberius, Germanicus and Claudius, whose names were all extremely similar - are given their usual name. Female characters known as 'the Younger' are given the Latin diminutive suffix 'illa', which in English looks like a different name and so avoids confusion - so Agrippina the Younger becomes Agrippinilla, 'little Agrippina', Julia the Younger becomes 'Julilla' and so on. When stumped for a version of a character's actual name that will be sufficiently different, Graves makes up a family nickname, so Julia the Even Younger becomes 'Lesbia', Drusus the Younger 'Castor'; which is a very good idea and responsible for me always thinking of Drusus the Younger to myself as Castor. It does get a bit strange, though, when he extends this system to geography and talks about 'France' rather than 'Gaul' - I'm actually more familiar with Roman place names than modern ones in some cases and sometimes lost track of where everything was (and 'King of Britain' is just completely wrong on several levels).

I suspect the geographical naming may owe a little to the fact Graves was writing about a war involving France and Germany - let's just say the Germans don't come out of this novel especially brilliantly (though to be fair, no one does really). One of the perils of first person narrative is that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between really effectively getting inside a Roman's head and just plain dubious/typical 1930s thinking on things like feminism, racism, homophobia, etc. I could have done with a bit less on how lazy and useless slaves and freedmen are, I have to say (especially since Claudius as emperor was known for relying heavily on his freedmen). Several sections on the army and Claudius' opinions on different types of officer must surely be the product of Graves' experiences as well, though I confess I haven't yet read Goodbye To All That, which would probably shed some light on that.

Along with the digressions and occasionally odd ordering of events, the book sometimes gives away later plot points, presumably on the assumption that everyone already knows the history, which is a bit of a shame. I certainly didn't know anything about any of these Emperors (not even Nero) when I first saw the TV series as a teen - the only Roman history we were taught in school involved labeling the parts of a centurion's uniform and the rooms of a villa (it was spectacularly boring) and the rest of it was not the sort of thing people tell children. Horrible Histories was pretty much the only source of information available, so watching I, Claudius for the first time was very exciting. Graves doesn't do this with everything, however, and readers unfamiliar with the history should find the plot reasonably compelling.

This review sounds bizarrely negative for a book that's partly responsible for my choice of career, and I don't really mean it that way. I, Claudius is a celebrated classic for good reason - it's fast-paced, fascinating and clearly written, with the excellent nick-naming system helping to keep the characters clearly individualised.

All Graves' choices concerning skimming over some events (which is completely necessary when dealing with this period, especially Octavian and the Civil Wars - I tried to cover too much of the detail of those in lectures once and I'm pretty sure most of my students were asleep by the end of it), including various digressions, aping ancient authors in his style and ensuring that there is an explanation for how Claudius knows everything are very deliberate and done for good reasons. Ultimately, I think I prefer a little more invention and a little more more modern writing styles in my novels, so it's the TV series that I truly love - but the book is equally worth reading in its own right.

More posts on I, Claudius in its various forms


  1. Graves may have used more sources than just Suetonius and Tacitus, but he was always an indifferent researcher at best. His tendency to cherry-pick whatever suits his immediate needs works fine in a novel, but it sure is problematic for his "scholarly" work.

    I actually like the digressions that are so common in ancient histories. Sure, it's sometimes hard to get back to the original thread, but without them we would know so much less. Just as an example off the top of my head, Herodotos wouldn't have given us all the stuff about Egypt or the Scythians and a whole lot more.

  2. The series does tend to get run here from time to time. I've never read the book though.

  3. Trust me it's largely Dio Cassius. He even has Livia assisted as a poisoner by her Greek slave doctor Musa and poisoning the figs on the tree. The chronological sequence is the same. For example, Marcellus dies and riots break out in Rome (albeit because Augustus refuses election as Consul).

    1. I don't doubt there's an enormous amount of Dio Cassius in there - I meant more that the tone of the book and the primary areas of interest seem to be more Tacitean where the Annals is available, and quite Suetonian where it's not - though the lack of military achievement during Caligula's reign probably has a lot to do with that as well.


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