The empty space on the shelf between Moby Dick and The Hunchback of Notre Dame was waving at me. It knew I was drowning, and it was beckoning me. Yes, my “shelf of shame”, the parking lot of unread books, knew I had slogged through 300 pages and was betting against me. I tried , I really tried, and people had told me that I should like this book, that I would like this book…….if only I could like this book. Would’ve, should’ve, could’ve.
Claudius, the narrator and a significant character of this opus, is born into the family of the Caesars. (Caeser means “head of hair” although some were bald). The once glorious Roman republic is crumbling from within because of insanity, vanity, ambition, lavish spending, and an unbelievable thirst for violence.
When Claudius is growing up, the republic has the emperor Augustus at the helm and he in concord with his wife, Livia, decide that being emperor is not enough, Augustus should be a god.
Livia is Claudius’ grandmother, and she ruthlessly rules with the help of poisonings and homicides to ensure her power and the ascendance of her chosen heirs. For example, Livia has her great grandson strangled and then the murderer pushes a pear down his victim’s throat to make it look as if the hapless child choked to death. An inquest revealed that “the pear tree was the murderer and it had to be uprooted and burned.” This was customary justice in the once great republic.
The senate becomes a fawning body for the god, Augustus, rubber stamping any edict from the god no matter how ridiculous and jockeying for their own personal power and their lives. Anyone going against the god is convicted of treason and put to death. The inhumanity and the wretchedness of many individuals made this novel uncomfortable for me to read.
Fortunately, Claudius has a sense of propriety and he is often very funny which helps to lessen the pain of this chronicle. Claudius walks with a limp, stammers, and drools. Assuming his brain is as defective as his outward appearance, his family loves to humiliate him but mostly views him as a human cipher not worth their notice. What most of the family fails to realize is that he possesses an excellent mind and carries within the wisdom of a historian, and a statesman.
After the reign of his Uncle Tiberius and then the reign of his deranged, murderous nephew Caligula, Claudius becomes emperor. How did he manage to get to that level? He chose to play the fool if he thought it would save his life and no one thought for a minute that he would ever be emperor, so no one bothered to kill him.
Naturally, reading this tale of the fall of the Roman Empire, there are obvious comparisons that can be made to our own republic, but I think most are a bit of a stretch.
Yes, we as a nation can be fiscally irresponsible, and our politicians can be corrupt and our populace can make bad decisions and we have violence that is unimaginable. However, our politicians today, no matter how corrupt, pale miserably in the light this book and history throw on the Romans. The most important difference is that when our governing system works, good does trump evil so that evil does not become all pervasive as in ancient Rome.
Rome had to be destroyed; it was running on the fumes of the past republic and humanity sunk to extremely low depths as the wealth of the empire grew and the egos of the politicians expanded. This novel is easily summarized by the axiom, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
What did I learn from this book that I didn’t know before? Just about everything since I knew hardly any Roman history. It was better than a textbook but for the uninitiated it was a rough read. Discipline was key for me; I had to forget about all which I previously said about inhabiting a book, and wanting to live among its pages, blah, blah blah. I just wanted this to end, and finally it did, on page 468.
I was wiser for the reading; I love the way Robert Graves writes with depth and humor and sometimes a wink to the reader. He even pokes fun at himself when our eponymous hero debates the value of historical fiction as opposed to plain textbook history. The character of Claudius was charming and I liked him so much I am cautiously tempted to read the sequel, Claudius the God. I understand that I am now contradicting myself but Claudius did appeal to me enough that I would like to see how he governs.
What brought this book precariously close to the shelf of shame? The violence. However true it may have been, it was gross and uncomfortable to have to read about it.
The next book will be Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.