Clau--Clau--Clau--shall given be
A gift that all desire but he.
To a fawning fellowship
He shall stammer, cluck and trip,
Dribbling always with his lip.
But when he's dumb and no more here,
Nineteen hundred years or near,
Clau--clau--Claudius shall speak clear.
In 1934, British author Robert Graves published a novel that would soon be regarded as a pioneering masterpiece of historical fiction. Today, I, Claudius is Graves' most enduring work, and has a spot on the TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list. It is the story of Imperial Rome as seen through the eyes of an idiot, who is perhaps more clear-sighted than anyone else around him.
The novel is written as if it were the long lost memoir of Claudius, Roman Emperor from AD 41-AD 54. Because of his severe disabilities (a stammer, a limp, nervous tics, etc.), Claudius is considered to be an idiot and is therefore regulated to the background by his family.
Through Claudius, we have a front row seat to the behind-the-scenes antics of the Julio-Claudian family. From the evil Livia, to the mis-guided Augustus, to the crazy Caligula, many characters dance in and out of the spotlight drawing our sympathy, our laughter, and our hatred. Through it all, Claudius remains the voice of sanity in this insane world. As everyone else fails in remaining on the winning side, Claudius walks that tightrope deftly and keeps his head: literally.
My Review (Caution-Spoilers):
I was captivated by this novel pretty much from the beginning. I love stories of political intrigue and that is exactly what this novel is chock full of. Someone who is enjoying immense power at the beginning of a paragraph might be dead by the end of it. It certainly keeps the reader on his toes, wondering just who the next person to fall might be. And no one is immune to this fate. Even Livia, who is basically ruling Rome from behind the scenes, finds that at the end of her life, the one thing that she really desires is the one thing that she does not have the power to do.
The novel touches on many subjects overall, but the most prominent one is the clash between the old Republic and the new Empire. Throughout the story, some characters like Augustus, Drusus (Claudius' father), and Claudius all desire to see a return to the Republic; while others, such as Livia, prefer the stability of the Empire. Graves seems to be asking the question of how to balance the freedom of a Republic with the stability of an Empire, or if that is even possible.
The real heart and soul of the story is Claudius himself. From birth he has been hated, ridiculed, and despised by almost everyone in his life, yet he never shows them any hatred. He is happier tucked away in his villa with his writing than living before the eyes of the world in the palace. It is clear that his mind is sound, even if his body is not, and he overflows with interesting and promising ideas. His love for the Republic and his desire to see it restored are wonderful qualities as well. All in all, he is the kind of underdog that everyone loves to cheer for.
As much as I liked the novel, I must admit that it will not be to everyone's taste. There is very little in the way of traditional romance and adventure and Imperial Rome was not the most, uh, moral place to be. There is murder, violence, and sex sprinkled throughout the story. I will say, however, that the situations are given with historian matter-of-factness and only when the plot or characterization requires it. None of that is really dwelt upon. Also, it can be very hard to keep up with the many characters and how they are related to the story. Have a Julio-Claudian family tree handy!
Though it may not be for everyone, I really enjoyed this novel. It has many great moments, my personal favorite being when Caligula literally scares his father, Germanicus, to death. Chilling! It was a great change from what I normally read, and introduced me to a world that I haven't ever really studied.
So far, there has only been one adaptation of this novel. However, that adaptation is just as famous (if not more so) as the original. The 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius is considered to be one of the greatest BBC productions ever. It was ranked #3 in the Masterpiece Theatre "The Best of Masterpiece" list of viewers' favorite productions. I have seen various episodes of it and it is pretty good, though the sets often seem much more British than Roman. It stars many great British actors including Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, and Patrick Stewart (with hair!). The biggest problem is that some of the "improper" things that are hinted at in the novel are shown on camera.