I, Claudius is the complete antithesis of the shallowly sentimental historical fiction I’ve been reviewing and complaining about recently. There’s something almost ruthless about Graves’s approach as a historical novelist: he simply refuses to pander to his readers with rhetorical flourishes, dramatic scene setting, even dialogue. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, rolls by with hardly any relief from long unbroken blocks of text. We are carried along not by emotion (except, occasionally, suspense) but by morbid fascination and curiosity about what happens next. And to make matters worse, or better (depending on what kind of reader you are) our curiosity is impeded by the sheer voluminousness of the information he gives us, starting with the endless citation of names, all very much like one another–there’s Agrippa and Agrippina and Agrippinilla, Livia and Livilla, Gaius, Gallus, Gemellus, at least two each of Nero and Drusus and Drusilla…and these are only a few among the most prominent or more lasting characters, as nearly every anecdote includes a roll call of more and more. Events pile on one another in the same relentless fashion: ascensions to – then falls from – power, children, marriages, affairs, rapes, murders, wars, accidents, deaths, brutalities and obscenities, and the very occasional tenderness. The effect is of a crowded and rapidly moving procession to which we, through Claudius, are passive, sometimes bemused, often horrified, spectators.
This is a novel (more properly, a history) so full of incident, none independently more engrossing or significant than the others, that it is at once too easy and very difficult to find an exemplary passage. This one will do:
The close of the year was marked by the banishment of Julilla on the charge of promiscuous adultery – just like her mother Julia – to Tremerus, a small island off the coast of Apulia. The real reason for her banishment was that she was just about to bear another child, which if it were a boy would be a great-grandson of Augustus, and unrelated to Livia; Livia was taking no risks now. Julilla had one son already, but he was a delicate, timorous, slack-twisted fellow and could be disgreagrded. Æmilius himself provided Livia with grounds for the accusation. He had quarrelled with Julilla and now charged her in the presence of their daughter Æmilia with trying to father another man’s child on him. He named Decimus, a nobleman of the Silanus family, as the adulterer. Æmilia, who was clever enough to realize that her own life and safety depended on keeping in Livia’s good books, went straight to her and told what she had heard. Livia made her repeat the story in Augustus’s presence. Augustus then summoned Æmilius and asked whether it ws true that he was not the father of Julilla’s child. It did not occur to Æmilius that Æmilia could have betrayed her mother and himself, so he assumed that the intimacy which he suspected between Julilla and Decimus was a matter of common scandal. He therefore held by his accusation, though it was founded rather on jealousy than on knowledge. Augustus took the child as soon as it was born and had it exposed on the mountainside. Decimus went into voluntary exile and several other men accused of having been Julilla’s lovers at one time or another followed him: among them was the poet Ovid whom Augustus, curiously enough, made the principal scapegoat as having also written (many years before) The Art of Love. It was this poem, Augustus said, that had debauched his granddaughter’s mind. He ordered all copies of it found to be burned.
To paraphrase SNL, it goes on like this for 300 more pages. Probably 80% of the novel tells us what happens in just this kind of direct expository fashion. Graves’s prose is lucid and emphatic, energetic but without elaboration, very nearly without anything identifiable as a personal style, or even a personality, which is particularly strange and unexpected because the entire narrative is first-person narration, by Claudius himself.
Claudius is a bit player in most of the action he recounts, a witness more than a participant. He speaks as an outsider and aspires to a historian’s objectivity and detail: this accounts for the cool, persistent tone of the narrative. Yet we are learning more about him than we think, as we read along, and that’s the other 20% of the book: just by this aspiration to honesty, he distinguishes himself from the self-seeking liars and schemers who populate his world and the novel, and his self-deprecation – repeated and amplified by the scornful way he is dismissed as foolish and insignificant by almost everyone around him – does express his personality, as does his relegation of himself to the sidelines. Tacitly, implicitly, through the story he tells, Claudius shows us the man he is. For Claudius, of course, is no fool – as even Livia, his deliciously ruthless and conniving grandmother eventually sees. “Do you want to live a long busy life, with honour at the end of it?” inquires the historian Pollio, after a surprising encounter with young Claudius in the Apollo Library. “Then exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I can see, you would know that this was your only hope of safety and eventual heroism.” This is precisely Claudius’s strategy, though to call it a ‘strategy’ is to impute to him more self-directed cunning and self-control than he allows himself in his own text. Still, we realize, as he does, that he survives because he represents no threat, issues no challenges, raises no defenses. All around him, men and women die horribly by sword or poison, starvation or torture, while Claudius lives on. He survives even the reign of his brilliantly psychotic nephew Caligula, who believes himself to have apotheosized into a God and amuses himself by, among other things, appearing as Venus “in a long gauzy silk robe with face painted, a red wig, padded bosom and high-heeled slippers,” or by organizing a brothel in the Palace at which his sisters Agrippinilla and Lesbia prostitute themselves. Caligula’s sister Drusilla, whom he loves as his wife, has died by this time – “I am certain in my own mind that Caligula killed her,” Claudius remarks, “but I have no proof” – but perhaps the most infamous scene in the remarkable BBC adaptation, in which Caligula (memorably played by John Hurt) aborts and devours her child by him, is not in Graves’s novel, unless I somehow missed it! The delightfully bizarre story of Caligula’s great battle with Neptune, however, and his victor’s bounty of sea shells, is here in full.
There’s nothing heroic about Claudius’s survival: he stands by helpless and dismayed as those he loved were banished, betrayed, and murdered; when he does interfere or help, he evades punishment only because he is considered too pathetic to be held responsible; he panders to those in power, particularly Caligula. Yet what is a man of some basic decency to do in a world so thoroughly corrupt? What Graves doesn’t do that I think another kind of historical novelist might have done is engage this moral problem directly, making it an explicit theme rather than a lurking practical question. Doing so would have required making Claudius a philosopher rather than a chronicler, though, and Claudius (and / or Graves) is a historian above all.