Thursday, April 05, 2007


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

Picking up where he left off in the first volume, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus relates to us how he came to find himself, without ever striving for it, to be sitting on the throne of Rome. His nephew, the mad Caligula, having been assassinated only minutes before, still lies in a pool of blood when a member of the Praetorian guard finds Claudius hiding behind a curtain and pushes him forward as emperor as a means of preventing Caligula’s handpicked bodyguards, Germans the lot of them, from going on a rampage and slaughtering the senate.

And thus begins Claudius the God, Robert Graves’ second of two books purporting to be the secret autobiography of the fourth emperor of Rome. The Germans are still a troublesome lot for the Roman Empire as Claudius takes the throne and throughout his reign, an amusing bit to consider when one reflects that Graves wrote the novels in 1934 and 1935. One can almost see the British reading populace lapping up such a story of the Huns.

But much like its predecessor, this second novel spends an inordinate amount of time telling someone else’s story, and that story is the amusing and entertaining Herod Agrippa’s, the royal heir to Herod the Great. Best described as recklessly extravagant, Herod Agrippa’s tale is one of rise and fall followed by another rise and fall. Thrown into prison by the Emperor Tiberius for an overheard comment that he eagerly awaited the coming of Emperor Caligula, he is released upon that happening and becomes governor of several territories. Upon Caligula’s assassination, it is the advice of Herod Agrippa, described by the new emperor as the only man in Rome who didn’t lose his cool, that puts Claudius on the throne to sate the Germans.

And so we follow Herod Agrippa for the good first third of the book as he escapes from this inconvenience and that threatening situation by a combination of balls and wit. It’s an entertaining tale and partly relevant because it gives us the character of the man who will become Claudius’ great friend and advisor, the one man who will pass along the only true advice of any value: trust no one, not even Herod Agrippa. When his appointment as governor of Judea is finally granted, Herod Agrippa returns to his homeland where he rules fairly well and mostly exits the narrative.

He will remain a presence throughout, popping up here and there, sometimes a friend to Claudius, sometimes a challenge, but always an enigma. Graves’ portrait of the double-hearted, two-faced king of the Jews literally takes control of the novel when he strides the stage. Speaking of the king of the Jews, there is a running gag through both Claudius books about a prophecy regarding a man who will be born around this time who will someday be the greatest king of the world, someday even a god. The humor is wrung from every single character of any ambition suspecting that the prophecy really refers to him (or her).

The biggest problem with spending so much time focussed on Herod Agrippa for the narrative thrust is that Claudius, when his autobiography deigns to return to him specifically, looks so small in comparison. When we contrast Claudius with his relatives and predecessors, with those in the senate who show him disdain, what we’re supposed to grasp is that in his simplicity, the stammering “dullard” is actually their better in more ways than one. Certainly he looks the moral superior to Herod Agrippa, but what’s worse is that he looks dramatically inferior.

This can be pulled off successfully, but I’m not sure that Graves’ book, no matter how enjoyable it is in its own rights, ever manages to quite accomplish dealing with Herod Agrippa as a character. Certainly for the Romans in general, he remained a vivid presence, Judea being the most troublesome of their territories, the one who resisted them so adamantly. Yet the ghost of a character you rather hope returns to the story fails to let you adequately concentrate on the actual protagonist, so much do you pine.

And so what follows after is a series of incidents in Claudius’ life that prove him a hardworking, simple, rather decent man — one who always intended to leave the empire back on a solid republican footing but for the constant crises that arose. We see Claudius at court, we watch him in the senate, we admire the new more just laws he passes, we marvel at his ambitious plans to redig the harbor at Ostia and revamp the aqueducts. But we don’t come to love him the way we did the first time around.

It’s all rather straightforward and pedestrian and it takes up such a great deal of the narrative that you long for the few glimpses we get of Herod Agrippa through letters and brief state visits.

If there’s a dark center in this story, it rests with Claudius’ wife Messalina, a reduced version of I, Claudius’ brilliant but murderous Livia. Where her predecessor, for all she did, still had the interests of Rome at heart, Messalina is simpering, adulterous, and a slave to her passions with no more interest in Rome than what pleasure it can bring her. And it is this self-centeredness that is both her downfall and her essential void. She does not calculate as Livia and so her movements are predictable to all save Claudius, predictable especially to the readers.

A book doesn’t rest so easily with the workdays of a simple man, the predictable actions of his lying wife, and the off stage exploits of a dashing foreigner. Claudius the God fills out the story started in the first book, but it is nowhere up to the same level. To be sure Graves is too good a writer for the novel to be dull at all, but coming after a much better book, the sequel meets the fate common to such things. Still, it remains better than much of what’s written in any given year, and it provides not just a lively history but a fleshy one. Graves’ talent lies here in making ancient history sparkle with life, the same life as you or I save in different robes.

The package provides the kind of additional material rarely added in anymore in audiobooks, quotes from Roman historians about the death of Claudius as well as a satire by Seneca on the same subject. This is a welcome bit of confirmation of Graves’ scholarship and proves far more enlightening and interesting than the interviews with the author that is the bonus material of choice these days.

Nelson Runger provides the same bang-up job here that he did for I, Claudius.

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