Sunday, April 01, 2007

Better Than History

I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, Read by Nelson Runger, Recorded Books, LLC, 1987

There is a widespread belief that the emperor Caligula during his mad reign over Rome appointed his horse Incitatus to the position of Consul. I’m very sorry to say that this is most likely not the case. That he lavished fine treatment on the horse and ordered the beast to be worshiped as a god is not up for debate. His motivation for doing so, however is.

Much of the material regarding this particular story (and many others surrounding Caligula) comes to us from historians writing decades after the fact. Suetonius’ account, published eighty years after Caligula’s death, is a fine example. Revisionist historians now suggest that a possible motivation for Incitatus’ royal treatment might have been Caligula’s desire to ridicule the Senate with whom he was constantly in opposition.

It’s less questionable that Caligula referred to and may have intended to appoint Incitatus to such a lofty position after all, but I for one am rather sad to see the certainty of the common myth disappear. It sort of rounds out our portrait of the man, don’t you think?

If this is a commonly held ancient urban myth, the source of most people’s information is most likely not the historian’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars, but probably Robert Graves’ amusing, semi-educational, and just spectacular I, Claudius and its sequel, Claudius the God. Or even more likely, the BBC Television miniseries adaptation of Graves’ novels (later broadcast in America on PBS).

Graves’ books, written as if insider accounts of the royal imperial family at the start of Rome’s rising power, read as nothing so much as an intelligent and much more murderous soap opera with large sprawling families and business and politics intertwined with sexual affairs. If historians wish to charge them with inaccuracies and for popularizing misconceptions, I don’t really care. They may wish to note that Graves’ novels are fiction as opposed to scholarly works of fact. If the reading public misunderstands this fine distinction, I’m not sure why Graves should be faulted for it.

Nevertheless, the first of the two novels is about as fun as “historical fiction” gets. We are introduced to the stammering, knock-kneed, drooling, sometimes foolish Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, son to Augustus’ adopted son Drusus and Mark Antony’s daughter Antonia the Younger. Commonly regarded as an idiot by his parents, his grandparents, and nearly every other person who knows him, Claudius later related that he exaggerated much of his symptoms in order to appear an idiot and escape the assassinations so common in imperial family life.

And so we are taken along by Claudius as our guide and our narrator for the entirety of the book watching from the sidelines until the very last pages. A sometimes catty, engaging relater of palace dirt and the goings on among Augustus, his wife Livia, Tiberius, Caligula, and the various hangers on and suck-ups to power. We glide along with Claudius as he is married off as a political alliance, as those close to him drop by poison, as Rome rises up under Augustus, then falters under the cruelty of Tiberius, then goes slightly mad with delirium and anxiety under Caligula’s vicious reign.

It is in his immediate predecessor’s reign that our hero finds himself most threatened, the various plots and counterplots brewing in the empire are a heady mix and Claudius wisely threads his way through them in his guise of idiot. By the fall of his nephew, he is thrust upon the throne almost as an afterthought, almost by mistake. Par for the course in this most entertaining of biographies.

Graves manages a few nice touches such as how he heads off any early criticism of Claudius’ more modern style.

Partly this is parried early on by Claudius telling us that he is writing not for his own time, which couldn’t take his unvarnished truths, but for 1900 years later as according to a prophecy. Graves almost anticipates the specific complaint of anachronism by including a scene in which Claudius as a youth is asked his opinion of two writers in front of them.

“He makes the people of ancient Rome behave and talk as if they were alive now,” he says of Livvy.

Pollio was delighted. ‘He has you there, Livvy, on your weakest spot. You credit the Romans of seven centuries ago with impossibly modern motives and habits and speeches. Yes, it’s readable all right, but it’s not history.’

The same I’m sure was said (and is said) about Graves.

While Claudius is sometimes just a minor player in his own story, the book is in fact dominated by the powerful malignity of Augustus’ wife Livia, a poison expert who moves through the line of succession, plotting “accidents” and mischances for anyone who gets in the way of her chosen successor, her son Tiberius. It is Livia who arranges marriages, divorces, inheritors, fashions, and military preferences. Her daughter-in-law Julia, according to Claudius, is driven to her rampant infidelities and disgraceful sexual hyperactivity by a supposed love philtre Livia gives her to make her irresistible to her husband which is instead an aphrodisiac, leading to her frenzied sensuality and ultimately a lifetime’s banishment.

To read I, Claudius is to see a certain flipside to previously mentioned Great Men visions of history — the Great Woman theory. In the successor novel, Graves will posit Claudius’ own Livia problem with his power grasping wife Messelina, lending credence to this alternate history of Rome.

While I, Claudius might not be as dry and as strictly historical as Plutarch or any other writer in the Loeb Classical Library, it gives this history what many more proper writers can’t and don’t — zing, zest, the smack of life about it. Rather than just about any text, I think it would behoove schools teaching classical Roman history to take Graves firmly in hand and present it to the students. Such a lively telling would almost certainly spark more interest in the ancients than all the prose versions of Homer the kids are forced to slog through day in and day out.

Nelson Runger, apparently a well known radio voice from back in the day, lends his talents to this book and its follow up and it is a smart move. While Claudius’ tale is a rollicking, dangerously fun one, the appeal to a classically trained voice with the older style elocution lends gravity to the proceedings. While this is not strictly necessary, it does give Claudius’ tale the kind of gloss of respectability, the way British accents are used in a Hollywood film to signify class.

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