Thursday, April 07, 2005

Robert Graves - I, Claudius

The 40 year rule by Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, which ended in AD14, was followed by decades of the most infamous periods of Roman history.

Robert Graves’ famous novel, “I, Claudius” views the temporary decline of Roman society, through the eyes of future emperor, Claudius.

Claudius - lame, stammering and bookish, is somewhat of a Roman “Flashman”, present at some of the major events of Roman history two thousands years ago, meeting famous writers, statesmen and soldiers, and being intimately connected through extensive family connections with the lives and loves of those around him. Though historians know that unlike the Flashman character, Claudius was actually there.

This then is a stylish read of treachery, murder, sex, incest, violence and madness. And if my all to limited knowledge of that period of history is correct, Graves has stuck pretty close to the known facts, and where he’s embellished and added things, it’s done in a way that is entirely plausible.

First published in 1934, it’s inevitable though, that later historians will dispute some ideas that where taken for granted when this novel was first written. The Emperor before Claudius, was Caligula who in popular belief was mad, murderous and extremely violent, but some later historians believe that he possibly wasn’t as insane as made out. Graves’ book may well have helped emphasise a one sided view of Caligula’s rein – a view totally distorted by the later film of his life.

However, as long as you don’t base an academic paper on the detail in this novel – the Penguin edition I have certainly makes it look like another of their series of reprints of early Roman writings – there is much to recommend this exciting read. Not least of which is the portrayal you get of everyday Roman life, the food, the slaves, the attitudes to lower and upper classes and the religion.

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