The Resolution Project Season Two: I, Claudius (1934)

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Musical Accompaniment: Kanye West – “POWER”

“I was a very sickly child – ‘a very battleground of diseases,’ the doctors said – and perhaps only lived because the diseases could not agree as to which should have the honour of carrying me off.”

(1018-20, Kindle version)

I, Claudius cover

The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, continuing with a caveat: I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so left to read. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.

The Elevator Pitch: Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (whose name is shortened to Claudius as all of those other names belong to other important characters in the story as well), is a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the First Family of the Roman Empire. Unlike most of his family members, Claudius never really wanted to seize power, perhaps owing to his malformed body and pronounced stutter marking him as a social pariah of sorts. He prefers instead the company of books and especially history. In this, his autobiography, he reveals to us almost first-hand what it was like to live in this extremely tumultuous moment in time, as the rules of rulership were being rewritten almost daily; as alliances and marriages are formed and dissolved as quickly as they are announced; and as the most powerful position in the world was up for grabs, that of the Emperor of the Romans, aka. Emperor of the known world.

What I knew about this book, its subject and its author going in: Not too much. Most of the Classics classes I took in university focused on the Greeks, I think we got to the Romans just briefly at the end a couple of times. Sadly, I’d say that most of my knowledge of the Roman Empire came from reading Asterix comics? They’re pretty great, but not exactly historically accurate. I watched about half of the HBO series Rome, the events of which take place just before the novel’s opening. I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen the movie Caligula, which I probably seeked out more for its salacious content more than any other merit. I’ve read some of David Lapham’s recent comic book of the same name as well. I’d heard the name Robert Graves before, but had never read anything by him. If I, Claudius is any indication of his capabilities as a writer, I’d definitely be interested in reading more, especially the direct sequel Claudius the God.

“He was always boasting of his ancestors, as stupid people do who are aware that they have done nothing themselves to boast about.”

(1134-35 Kindle version)

While Kanye West’s “POWER” music video/tableau project shares some superficial similarities with I, Claudius, specifically the Greco-Roman-Egyptian imagery, I feel like the main refrain of the song rings true in the book as well. The allure of absolute power is simply too much for mortal minds to wrap their heads around. If there’s any lesson I can take from reading Graves’ book, it’s that. Of course, Kanye spends most of the song talking about how great he is, but that’s pretty much par for the course. The idea of being the Emperor is so big, so powerful, that it completely blocks out any other appeals to human interest. It becomes and obsession, and once held, is defended at all costs. Kanye tells us that “no one MAN should have all that power,” but what’s interesting is that for most of the duration of the book, it’s actually a woman, Augustus Caesar’s wife Livia, who runs the show.

Livia’s an amazing character, completely manipulative, spiteful, bitchy, and mean on the one hand, but on the other hand, she was definitely the brains behind one of the most important governmental systems the world has ever known. I, Claudius, being from the point of view of a member of the Claudian clan, concerns itself primarily with the fortunes of the rich and famous, a social class Claudius belongs to, even if he never feels welcomed. For the most part, up until Caligula really started screwing things up, the poor and middle class folks in the Roman Empire seem to have had it pretty good, comparatively, it was just the rich and powerful who had to deal with coup attempts, poisonings, informers and the like. So a proletarian reading of the text would in my mind say “well, all those rich people only got what they deserved” The proles seem fairly well looked after, at least in comparison to say, the Germans, who Graves spends a lot of time detailing the Roman wars against. It’s pretty telling once the mad Emperor Caligula’s begun employing a German group as bodyguards:

” [t]his inexplicable sort of behaviour only made him the more worthy of their worship as a divine being. They used to nod wisely to each other and say. ‘Yes, the Gods are like that. You can’t tell what they are going to do next.” (7586-92, Kindle edition)

The fact that the Roman people as a whole are able to notice that Caligula’s ridiculous treatment of everyone around him is a bad thing, and not the capricious will of gods or nature indicates that they’re somewhat spoiled, comparatively anyway.

Claudius, though, as an ostensible member of the upper class does not deserve all of the abuse he’s put through, though. By misfortune of fate (or, rather, by fortune, any child that had his disabilities and was not a member of the ruling class would have been thrown off a cliff at birth), he’s at the epicenter of three different Emperors’ reigns, who all treat him fairly poorly, but in different ways: Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. He’s a great companion through this history he’s crafted for us, at turns catty, sarcastic, funny, and sort of maudlin at times. I was quite charmed by him, and his continued insistence to his family that he’s nothing but a common-variety dullard. This is what keeps him alive; while most of his family were perfectly fine with ignoring him and having him take his meals with the servants for fear of embarrassment, Caligula’s reign forces Claudius to openly act a fool, as keeping the Emperor entertained becomes the highest priority of the State in this period, for fear of death. Claudius at times reminded me of Polonius, from Hamlet, except for the fact that he was just playing dumb with the help of his disabilities where Polonius was just plain dumb.

In fact, I would be absolutely shocked to find out that George R.R. Martin, writer of the popular Song of Ice and Fire series of books, had not used I, Claudius as a reference point when constructing his immensely popular saga. Yes, I realize that those books are somewhat based on the English Wars of the Roses, but the signs are all there. Horribly deformed, but incredibly engaging and clever protagonist? That would be Claudius/Tyrion Lannister. Crazy boy-king? Caligula/Joffrey Baratheon. Manipulative queen bitch? Livia/Cersei Lannister. Guy who’s too damn honourable for his own good? Germanicus/Ned Stark. The list goes on and on.

I, Claudius is a great book. I found it dragged a little bit during the early years of Tiberius’ rule, as various strong men rise up (usually by warring against the Germans) and then are cut down for fear of them taking the throne, but on the whole it is very engaging. It’s a fascinating way to learn about the period, curated by a man you can’t help but love. I also found it interesting how it frames Roman history in Great Man Theory terms of one-on-one confilcts: Caesar vs. Antony, Marcellus vs. Agrippa, Gaius vs. Tiberius, Sejanus vs. Drusus and so on. While perhaps not the most truthful attempt at recounting events from the era, it is an easy way to get readers to understand quickly what’s going on, and what’s at stake. If I have one complaint it’s that pretty much everyone has a few of the same names and this gets confusing, but that’s not exactly the fault of the author, really.

“Sejanus was a liar but so fine a general of lies that he knew how to marshal them into an alert and disciplined formation – this was a clever remark of Gallus’, it is not mine – which would come off best in any skirmish with suspicions or any general engagement with truth.”

(3853-55 Kindle version)

Similar books on the Time 100 list: All The King’s Men is another good look at the world of politics, and how it can corrupt otherwise good people. The Berlin Stories present a Weimar Germany on the edge of collapse, the decadence of which compares nicely to that of Rome under Caligula. The same thing kind of goes with The Day of the Locust as well, a sort of Paradise falling apart-type situation.

Total pages read since January 1st 2011: 15345 pp. (886 this year)

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 53/113, or 47% complete.

Next up on the Resolution Project: Invisible Man (1952), by Ralph Ellison.

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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