By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Nelson Runger
Robert Graves, in “I, Claudius”, infers that women are the primary source of destruction and construction in the Roman Empire from the 1st century BC through the turn of the millennium. This idea reminds one of “The Canterbury Tales” and its characterization of the preeminent role of women in the rule of civilization.
Graves’ novel is considered by some (e.g., the Modern Library and Time Magazine) to be one of the 100 best English-language novels in the 20thcentury. Maybe–but this rendition of the work seems only mildly entertaining, albeit interestingly informative. It is about the life and times of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (a.k.a. Claudius).
He is the fourth Emperor of Rome that ruled the Empire for nearly fourteen years (24 January 41—13 October 54 AD).
Graves briefly recounts the history of pre-Augustinian Roman rulers and the emergent civil war after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Julius Caesar’s murder stems from a drive by a Roman faction to replace Monarchism with Republicanism. The story is narrated as a first person account by Claudius (the grandson of Augustus’ wife Livia)’; who became the fourth Emperor of Rome, after Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. Graves describes Claudius as a crippled stutterer that dissembles his way to the throne by acting the fool, the historian, and confidant of the most influential leaders of the Empire. He survives Livia’s clandestine machinations and Caligula’s growing madness by using his dissemblance. Livia, a committed hereditary Monarchist, is characterized as a puppeteer, a master controller, for ascension of the first four Emperors of Rome.
The first Emperor, Augustus was the brother of Claudius’ grandfather and the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Augustus marries Livia, his second wife. Livia bares no children to Augustus but successfully perpetuates a line of her descendants (Tiberius is her son from a previous marriage) that rule Rome through the turn of the century. Graves describes Livia as the power behind the throne. She schemes and poisons all competing heritable lines to maneuver her son, Tiberius, into the role of Rome’s emperor after Augustus’ death. Her purported objective is to insure peace and control of the Roman Empire. Graves suggests that Livia’s primary goal was to preserve leadership in her line of descendants during and after her life by manipulating or poisoning competing male heirs. Livia masters the art of understanding human nature; i.e she analyzes her opposition’s and descendant’s strengths and weaknesses. She uses that skill to create and destroy ambitions of Rome’s aspirant Emperors. Graves writes a story suggesting Livia manipulates relatives, friends, and lovers of competing power seekers to attain her ends. No crime is too horrible; i.e. all means are permitted to preserve Livia’s objective. Her requested compensation is to be declared a goddess, after her death, by the descendants she helped become Emperors of Rome. With a declaration of divinity by Rome’s emperor, she believes she will be absolved from all ethical and moral transgressions in her life; escaping purgatory to ascend to the realm of Roman gods.
“I Claudius” is an indictment of hereditary rule and endorsement of Republicanism. The split between Hereditary Monarchy and Republicanism did not heal after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Graves paints a picture of how ugly and debauched a line of hereditary descendants can become. However, his writing seems more theory driven than character driven. Livia is easily seen as a Machiavellian character but not as a human being. Graves achieves some success in humanizing the inhumanity of Caligula but Livia is only a stick figure.
One may agree with Graves’ theory of hereditary kingship’s decline; however, one may easily disagree with Modern Library’ and Time Magazines’ high literary praise.