I hardly think anyone would find it odd if I admitted to a certain fascination with ancient Rome. Greece too, but definitely Rome. It’s hardly uncommon. Western civilization has long, long had on obsession with Rome…pretty much back to the time of Rome, or close thereafter.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves has that going for it right off the bat. It’s set up as a fictional autobiography of Claudius, the weakling stutterer and assumed idiot who ends up somehow becoming emperor. It’s amazing enough that he manages to survive at all, much less that he manages to survive through all of the poisonings, betrayals, and frantic infighting that accompany the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Arthur Golden)
Claudius suffers much throughout the book, picked on and pushed around by almost everybody, but it’s certainly clear that he isn’t an idiot. He’s highly intelligent, honest, and fiercely committed to the ideals of the Republic. Unfortunately, he has to mostly keep to keeping his head down and trying not to die. He just doesn’t have a whole lot to work with, and this is Rome at a very bloody time.
I have mentioned Briseis, my mother’s old freedwoman. When I told her that I was leaving Rome and settling at Capua she said how much she would miss me, but that I was wise to go. “I had a funny dream about you last night, Master Claudius, if you’ll forgive me. You were a little lame boy; and thieves broke into his father’s house and murdered his father and a whole lot of relations and friends; but he squeezed through a pantry-window and went hobbling into the neighborhood wood. He climbed up a tree and waited. The thieves came out of the house and sat down under the tree where he was hiding, to divide the plunder. Soon they began to quarrel about who should have what, and one of the thieves got killed, and then two more, and then the rest began drinking wine and pretending to be great friends; but the wine had been poisoned by one of the murdered thieves, so they all died in agony. The lame boy climbed down the tree and collected the valuables and found a lot of gold and jewels among them that had been stolen from other families: but he took it all home with him and became quite rich.”
I smiled. “That’s a funny dream, Briseis. But he was still as lame as ever and all that wealth could not buy his father and family back to life again, could it?”
“No, my dear, but perhaps he married and had a family of his own. So choose a good tree, Master Claudius, and don’t come down till the last of the thieves are dead. That’s what my dream said.”
Frankly, if you wanted to distill I, Claudius down to a couple, simple paragraphs, that would be it. That’s the book in a nutshell.
Course, we all know that Claudius is going to die sooner or later…whether or not in this book. We all know Claudius has been dead for almost two thousand years. We know at least one of the thieves wasn’t dead when he came down from his tree. Still, the above is pretty much the story of Claudius.
I’ve got to love I, Claudius for the historical period Graves manages to convey. I still go both ways on some of the more modern language elements Graves uses, though. A lot comes off as if Claudius was from the current era. It’s more readable than if it was more period accurate language-wise, but it does make it seem a little less Roman. Let’s not forget that my fascination with Rome is one of the reasons I was in I, Claudius to begin with.