‘Despised for his weakness and regarded by his family as little more than a stammering fool, the nobleman Claudius quietly survives the intrigues, bloody purges and mounting cruelty of the imperial Roman dynasties. In I, Claudius he watches from the sidelines to record the reigns of it’s emperor’s: from the wise Augustus and his villainous wife Livia to the sadistic Tiberius and the insane excesses of Caligula. Written in the form of Claudius’ autobiography, this is the first part of Robert Graves’s brilliant account of the madness and debauchery of ancient Rome, and stands as one of the most celebrated, gripping historical novels ever written.’
I always found Ancient Rome very interesting when I was younger, studying the basics in school. I grew up just a few miles away from the city Bath, located in South West England that was actually settled by the Romans who took advantage of the local hot springs and their legendary healing qualities. Because of this, Romans and their history were often on our curriculums at school and we took a number of school trips to the local Baths to look at artifacts and the remains of the Roman settlement.
But for me, Romans were always very austere characters who liked colonialism and slavery and murdering gladiators and animals in colosseums. They always seemed a world away from the relatively peaceful part of the English countryside that I grew up in, no matter how hard my teachers tried to make me realise that the impact and legacy of their invasion was still clear to see around me. I can honestly say that it wasn’t until I read this book that I began to realise that ancient Romans were both far more ferocious and alive than I ever took the time to consider.
The great thing about this book is that it completely brings to life the world of the Romans. Graves manages to describe an utterly believable Rome that you can fully immerse yourself in which also compliments every preconception you have about the Empire and how its subjects lived. The detail to which the author depicts both Rome and other places within the Empire as well as the daily lives and inner politics of Roman society is incredibly fascinating and is one of the best examples of truly gripping historical fiction I have ever read.
Personally, my favourite thing about reading this book was the utter ridiculousness of the great Emperors and how well Graves showed the self preservative nature of the senators that served to keep their tyrants in power and ultimately led many of them to lose their lives. Their insistence on worshipping their leaders and infallible Gods and how they put successful military generals on pedestals meant that outwardly they appeared strong but actually that their lives were ruled by fickle, jealous people who wanted their own idea of eternal glory and didn’t care about the body count to get there. It’s very rare that you can have characters that you can revel in hating as much as the characters of Tiberius, Sejanus and Caligula so it’s a thoroughly enjoyable part of the experience of reading this book. I also feel compelled to mention that similarly the character of as Germanicus was one that I lamented considerably, it takes a rare talent of a writer to be able to create a character so good that his only flaw is that he is too trusting and nice and yet manage to keep him likeable and interesting and yet Graves managed it with ease.
Obviously the most interesting characters within the book are the ones who have the most memorable moments and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Caligula’s war on Neptune and the sea wasn’t the funniest mental image I’d had in a long while. How any of his soldiers managed to take him seriously after that I’ll never know, but I suppose it helps to actually believe there’s a God hiding at the bottom of the sea somewhere quaking in his flip flops whereas in my mind it’s literally just a group of grown men throwing spears at the waves. The idea of taking on nature has never been so literal and I can imagine that there weren’t many people throughout history as confident of being able to kick the oceans ass as Caligula was.
For me the one thing that I did find a bit difficult about reading this book was the narrator Claudius. Don’t get me wrong, I thought he was an absolute brilliant character and a stroke of pure genius by the author. I really enjoyed the spin he put on the events in the book and hearing how he flattered and manipulated those around him into surviving and thriving in what was a politically poisonous environment. However, every so often he got ahead of himself or needed to go back on himself when revealing a new side plot which did leave me confused a number of times. I do recognise that this is part of his bumbling and idiotic character and thus fits perfectly in with the story but if I had to pick a fault that was something that tripped me up more than once. But the fact the biggest problem I have with the book is that the narrator was too well written and brought to life then hopefully that will speak volumes for just how much I loved this book and how much of a treat it was to read it. Hopefully I’ll be able to get my hands on the rest of the series and there will be far more exciting political intrigue in store with Emperor Claudius centre stage.