The Romans were refined diners, but one of their most ornate meals must have been the feast arranged by King Herod Agrippa for the emperor Caligula.
“unheard-of delicacies were served, including five great pasties entirely filled with the tongues of tit-larks, marvellously delicate fish Brought in tanks all the way from India, and for the roast an animal like a young elephant, but hairy and of no known species – it has been found embedded in the ice of some frozen lake of the Caucasus”
Woolly Mammoth meat is a particularly rare delicacy even today.
This passage, from the second of Robert Graves’ Claudius books, reveals a Rome at the height of its power, debauching on all the seven sins.
Robert Graves wrote I, Claudius in 1934 as a pot-boiler, a book to put food on his table. He certainly needed it. At one point during the ’20s he lived with both his wife and his lover. By this point he already had four children. (He went on to add four more to the brood).
I, Claudius was followed a year later by Claudius the God. They were hugely popular works combining the required mix of excitement and historical detail.
Initially a passives observer of the action, Claudius is like the character of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking” or the Camera Eye of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy both written in the same decade.
In 1937, the Film producer Alexander Korda tried to create a production of the books which would out-Hollywood Hollywood. Production stopped six weeks into filming after a serious traffic accident injured Korda’s wife. Work was never continued.
A TV series was produced in 1976. Written by Jack Pulman, directed by Hebert Wise and starring an ensemble cast, it evokes a Rome at once luxurious and all powerful but claustrophobic and focused intently on the tensions in one family.
In Claudius, Graves found the perfect character to navigate a complex and fast world. His Claudius is inquisitive and sympathetic, a historian thrust in public prominence by a family that hate him.
He is a learned, perhaps pedantic man, who can use several languages beyond Greek and Latin, including Phoenician, Etruscan, Numidian, Egyptian, Oscan and Faliscan.
His reflection on gaining the purple (wearing the purple toga was the exclusive right of the Emperor) is that now, perhaps, he can get people to read his books. Not the last failed writer or artist to assume power.
We know he will survive and become emperor. The drama comes from the ethical tension. Just how, will Claudius survive?
Claudius is born during the early years of Augustus’ reign in what becomes “the Imperial Family”. A disabled character, he is ignored and scorned by his relatives. This is perhaps as blessing as the family suffer from Tall Poppy Syndrome. Anyone – male or female – showing the least sign of ability or popularity is soon got rid of.
The books have some arresting characters, the emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, the astrologer Thrassylus, Octavia Claudius’ no-nonsense mother.
The most memorable character is Livia, Augustus’ wife and Claudius’ grandmother. The power behind the throne. She controls Augustus from behind and manipulates events so that her family inherit the Empire. An unslakable worker, like Stalin or Thatcher, she takes little sleep.
Indeed, the theme of dictatorship seems to have preoccupied Graves. The first book has a big concern with the Germans, the tribes who lived beyond the Rhine.
According to Suetonius one of Augustus’ heartaches was the loss of three legions during a major conflict in Germany. The German leader Hermann (his Latin name was Arminius) tricked the Roman general Varus into a foolish march through the Tuetoburg forest. His army ambushed the Romans and utterly defeated them, stealing their eagles.
German duplicity is an abiding theme in this first book, published a year after Hitler’s assumption of total power in Germany.
One ironic passage, which reflects these concerns at the time, becomes even more powerful given what happened in decade following publication.
The German [Chieftain] begged for permission to speak to Herod, saying that he has never in all his life met a man of the Jewish race, but that he understood the Jews to be by no means inferior in intelligence or courage even to the Germans
Graves was no bigot. He was half German and proud of it, and a veteran of the British forces in the First World War.
The allures and corruptions of power
Even more concretely the novels explore power and how it corrupts.
The British historian Lord Acton’s famous dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is taken from a letter to a bishop. The next sentence is less well known: “Great men are almost always bad men”.
Claudius is not a bad man, but is perhaps blind to his own faults. He justifies his position as the most ethical action available to him:
I knew of nobody in Rome, beside myself, who would have the patience, even if he had the authority, to undertake the hard and thankless work that the cleaning-up process demanded.
Throughout his life, Claudius identifies as a Republican.
This word would come to have very strong connotations during the first few years of the book’s life. A year or two after publication, General Franco invaded the Spanish Republic. Britain and France supported him through a non intervention policy and the Spanish Civil War broke out. Identifying as a “Republican” in the second half of the thirties would have clear connotation to the anti-Facism and the Popular Front.
As it is, Claudius’ politics are more ambiguous. As a self professed republican who wields total power, he resembles Augustus, who in the novel at any length, hoped to revert Rome to a republic, once the disruptions of the previous years have been settled. His wife Livia sees to it that this does not happen.
The same happens to Claudius. Even more strangely, at the end of the novel, Nero’s inheritance of power is explained a way in such a way that does not belittle Claudius. He certainly did not survive Livia’s machinations to die at the hands of Agrippina. No it’s all part of plan to support the rebirth of republican Rome.
The idea that it is women who seduce honourable men has a long history and it is sad that Graves follows this trope. That said, the women have the best lines. Perhaps Graves, to paraphrase Blake, was of Livia’s party without knowing it.
Who is the Messiah?
Graves’ other great interest was religion. This predominates in the second book and there are large passages dealing with both Celtic religion and Second Temple Judaism.
Throughout both novels several characters identify themselves as a prophesied figure, who will be reviled and killed before becoming a god and ruler of the world. This is clearly Jesus however, it doesn’t stop the intriguing.
In the middle of the second book there is a ten page section describing and detailing the ancient Britons and their religion in detail. Claudius’ knowledge closely corresponds to what was believed at the time of writing, but Graves adds his own details.
For Graves, “Druidism” is a mystery religion with a dying god myth at its heart. It is a particularly virtuoso piece of historical fiction with the fragmentary names of Celtic gods known from Roman inscriptions or even place names combined into a complex theology and overseen by an Arch-Druid. The Druids are a special class apart from the warrior society.
The passage adds little to the narrative development of the novel – it is almost the antithesis of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee – but it is a fascinating insight.
Many of Graves’ later historical novels became directly interested in religious questions, not least King Jesus. Graves’ most influential work was however the White Goddess in which he argued that matriarchal religion was supplanted by the male focused religion.
It is fascinating then that although Anubis and Osiris are mentioned in detail in some sections, the great goddess Isis isn’t. This is even more intriguing when you consider that Claudius was related to Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of the more famous Cleopatra, who identified herself as the goddess, following Egyptian tradition.
Ultimately, the theme of Graves’ historical views on religion are better explored in Alfred Duggan’s Winter Quarters, although I, Claudius is still the richer book.
I, Claudius and Claudius the God are books that can teach a lot about First Century Rome and Inter-war Europe, sadly both of these periods have contemporary resonances.
Although a lot of detail is packed into the pages, the story is largely told in a gossipy and novelistic way. There is a slight tendency to become a little too respectful to the period. The narrative of Herod Agrippa’s life reads more like a Nineteenth Century Biblical triple decker novel than a twentieth century book.
The first book is slightly better, as the second tends to justify Claudius’ actions as leader. Claudius the God has an extended section set between the charming market towns of Romford and Brentwood.
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