My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars
The story begins in 10 BC with Claudius’ birth, during the reign of Augustus who became emperor after Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The story ends with Caligula’s assassination in 41 AD and Claudius accession as emperor.
SPOILER ALERT: This review contains some minor spoilers, mostly events that are recorded in history.
Claudius gives a first person narration of the lives of the first four Roman Emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and himself, though the narrative ends when Claudius is made Caesar almost by accident. The sequel Claudius the God tells of his reign and succession by Nero the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Wait, what? Did you know Julius Caesar was not a Roman Emporer? I didn’t. He was dictator of the Republic. After Julius Caesar was assassinated Augustus’ reign marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Imperial era. Weren’t expecting history were you? Sorry, this book is history.
Claudius is raised in and around the imperial palace as he is the grandson of Augustus’ wife, Livia, from a previous marriage. He is not much of a physical specimen in the proud family. He stammers, is deaf in one ear, limps, has a nervous tick and is sickly. His family, mother included, call him Claudius the Idiot, or That Claudius, or Claudius the Stammerer, or Clau-Clau-Claudius, or Poor Uncle Claudius. That last one came from his nephew Caligula…he’s a peach.
Augustus is kinder than most, and Claudius says of him: …I could never find it in my heart to hate Augustus as I came to hate my grandmother, for his dislike of me was without malice and he did what he could to master it…
It wouldn’t seem Claudius was destined for much, except for several omens. The first being a prophesy in poetic form, from a Sibyl (pagan prophetess) that hints at some distinction. On another occasion, a pair of eagles fighting in the sky, drop a wolf cub and the child Claudius catches it. An Auger (diviner of omens) tells that it signals Claudius will be Emperor. Claudius sister Livilla, who was particularly cruel scorns the interpretation saying: Wretched Rome, with him as her protector! I hope to God I’ll be dead before then!
The Augur turned on her and pointed with his finger. Impudent girl,” he said, “God will no doubt grant your wish in a way that you won’t like!”
As he grows older, Claudius is excluded from official events, as his grandmother Livia fears he will embarrass the family. Free to do as he wishes so long as he keeps out of the way, Claudius begins a career as a historian. He has an excellent mind, and is a very good researcher, translator, and writer. Few take him seriously.
One who does, Polio a noted and aged historian, advises Claudius how to live a long busy life with honor: …exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hand on 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 glory. It’s not the last time he receives such advice.
It seems to serve him well. It may indeed have saved Claudius as no one views him as a threat. Claudius has two true friends, his brother Germanicus and his cousin Postumus. Besides Claudius these are two of the few “good guys” in this story. But alas, Germanicus and Postumus were viewed as threats by their ambitious relatives.
The Emperors grow progressively worse. Augustus is fairly benevolent, but easily manipulated by Livia who is ambitious and cruel. Near the end of his life Augustus has a better opinion of Claudius and tells him: Germanicus has told me about you. He says that you are loyal to three things – to your friends, to Rome, and to the truth.
Livia eliminates rivals of her son Tiberius, until he is established as heir to the empire, and then she poisons Augustus. Tiberius becomes emperor. He and Livia do not love or trust each other, but they concentrate on mutual enemies, real and perceived, without killing each other. Tiberius begins as a decent emperor, but by the end of his life he is cruel and depraved.
But his successor Caligula is one of the most vile leaders in human history. He is sexually perverse, gratuitously violent, hedonistic, narcissistic, and probably outright mad. No one was safe from assassination, violence, or sexual abuse. One example: Caligula orders a family executed for some imagined slight. One of the family members is a young girl, who according to the law could not be executed because she was a virgin. The guards are ordered to violate her, so they could proceed with the execution. Upon witnessing this, Claudius says: Rome you are ruined. He also wrote of this period: I felt like a man living on the slopes of a volcano…
Caligula is assassinated and the Praetorian Guard seize Claudius and make him emperor against his wishes.
I’ll tell you one thing this book did for me: it made me feel a whole lot better about the political climate in the United States. I wondered how a nation, let alone an empire could exist under such conditions, but Claudius himself may have given the answer. During Tiberius rule, when treachery, intrigue, suspicion, greed, lust for power, and numerous other vices were the rule, Claudius observed that Tiberius and Livia actually governed Rome fairly well, it was only the inner circles of politics that were a disaster. He described it this way: The canker in the core of the apple – if the metaphor may be forgiven – did not show on the skin or impair the wholesomeness of the flesh….But I was living in the apple’s core, so to speak, and I can be pardoned if I write more about the central canker than about the still unblemished and fragrant outer part.
My only complaint with this book, isn’t really a complaint; just a warning. It reads so much like an autobiography and eye-witness account, it is easy to read as if it is all genuine history. Claudius reportedly wrote an autobiography, but it is lost. Graves makes a compelling, but fictional, recreation.
…there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. ~ Claudius
I believe that evil is its own punishment. ~ Claudius
Film Rendition: The 1976 BBC min-series is marvelous. Very true to the book and perfectly cast. There is a second part, Claudius the God, based on Graves sequel, but I have not viewed that yet.