Caligula: Grandmother, you remember my dear Uncle Claudius who prefers the society of pigs to that of the court?
Livia: I have asked Claudius to be present at these ceremonies, and to be my guest at dinner tonight.
Caligula: But Grandmother, think of his table manners.
Livia: Be silent, you impudent puppy. You take your uncle for a fool, but he`s not. I sometimes think he pretends to be one, so as to make fools of us. Far from being a fool, he`s the last decent man left alive in Rome. One can rely on him. If he makes a promise he keeps it. And when he swears to the truth, it is the truth. Am I right Claudius?
Caligula: Don`t let him start talking, he might have a stroke.
I Claudius, by Robert Graves, is probably the most famous, and certainly the most revered modern work of historical fiction. It`s a rather droll personal history of the Imperial Caesarean family madhouse, of which Claudius was a minor, and ridiculed member. Only the wife of the emperor Augustus had the intellectual sharpness, and insight to see beyond the cover of a book no one else had the inclination or nous to read. When Jack Pulman was asked to adapt the novel for the BBC in the mid-seventies, he initially struggled to put a handle on how he should invisage the how and the why of the character`s motivations. Then the thought struck him of a mafia gangster family looking after “business”, with every means (legal and illegal) at it`s disposal. No one was safe from the members of this power hungry family, as it ordered “hits” on opponents – even family members, who were considered potential threats and rivals to it`s interests.
Claudius is a godsend to the reader; someone planted at the far from healthy, and wholesome heart of the ruling dynasty of first century Imperial Rome. It wouldn`t be unfair to say that poison coursed through the twisted and Machiavellian veins of this murderous family rather than blood. He is the only possible candidate without ego and a personal agenda for self publicity, from the entire nest of vipers, to invest us with his entertaining insights into the genuine horrors of surviving in such a challenging environment.
Grand-uncle Augustus is too busy securing his power base and promulgating his own legend and glory, to put pen to paper; gloomy uncle Tiberius is too secretive, and psychologically bitter and twisted to make a decent biographer; Caligula is too demented and unhinged; Livia………Well, Livia is an anomaly. Her shrewd, razor sharp intellect would enable her to have a fair stab at recording the madness around her, but stabbing is hardly part of her armory – poison, whether by deed or word dripped quietly, and relentlessly into the right imperial ear, is more her weapon of choice.
Caligula: Do you think I`m mad?
Caligula: Yes, sometimes I think I`m going mad. Do you – be honest with me – has that thought ever crossed your mind?
Claudius is the only member of the lunatic asylum we can possibly see as our chronicler; his detachment and introspection would be well beyond everyone else scurrying and jockeying for position in the long race for power and survival. And it is a race which Claudius shows us; everyone is on the look-out for a chance to eliminate rivals, and thus live for another circuit of ambition and greed. He is an outsider, a physical oddity who shambles, stutters, dribbles, and wolf`s his food down in enormous gulps as if he`s been on a starvation diet for the last year. He is thought as little more than an idiot by an imperial family which tries it`s hardest to avoid him at all costs, and so is left to his own devices.
Of course, by ignoring him and believing in his idiocy as a proven fact, he is saved to mostly live his chosen life; he studies, writes histories, and converses on equal terms with scholars. A timorous nature, the fact that no one thought him worth the while of killing, and his own quick witted intelligence enables him to live to a splendidly advanced age of 51 before being advanced to the purple, when the rest of his family had been culled. Whether the character we love and cherish in the novel is the real voice of Claudius, or a complete invention by Robert Graves is unknowable; what we are given is a garrulous, digressive, gossipy and a bit of a willing proponent of scandal, who manages to be dispassionate and rather sober about it all.Tiberius: I will make you my successor Gaius Caligula. Rome deserves you.
Caligula: Is that a joke, uncle?
Through the eyes of Claudius, Graves serves up a banquet of a cruel, and debauched ruling elite, where madness and hysteria are forever sullenly lurking beneath a surface of murderous quicksand. The Roman mob is placated and kept docile by the distribution of free grain, and “entertainment” in the arena, where state sanctioned, ritualized murder is served up on a platter of steel and guts. Every human individual in this crazed world, is desensitized by the constant threat, and use of violence as a integral part of the collective psyche. The imperial family squats at the apex of this pyramid of terror, it`s behaviour a mirror held up to the society it rules over. Ultimately, all life is cheap – even an emperor`s, as Tiberius is helped along his journey to Mount Olympus and the company of his fellow gods so that Caligula could ascend to the purple; while he in turn is hacked to pieces by a Praetorian Guard more frightened of their crazed emperor than the consequences of killing him. Now the hour for our hero has finally come; a lifetime of keeping to the shadows, of playing the fool and keeping his head below the parapet, has finally reaped dividends. A quiet life of study and contemplation in a restored Republic beckons; except he has to survive the riots that have reached the imperial palace. Where to hide? Behind a curtain and keep a low profile until he can slide out and disappear for a bit. The Praetorians discover him and put an end to dreams of academia; they place a laurel wreath on his tired, grey head and proclaim him Imperator; and so the crazy imperial chariot buckles up for another turn round the stadium. The hairy fifth to enslave the State,
To enslave the State, though against his will,
Shall be that idiot whom all despised.
He shall have hair in a generous mop,.
He shall give Rome water and winter bread
And die at the hand of his wife, no wife,
To the gain of his son, no son.
Claudius is the underdog made good; a man of hidden cunning, intelligence, wit and an acute instinct for survival. He is the voice of the finest novel of historical fiction ever written; through his eyes, we experience a world red in tooth and claw; it`s people have the same preoccupations and dilemmas as ourselves. To be separated by two thousand years is made as nothing by the pen and towering imagination of Robert Graves. The characters in this novel live and breath as real people today; we have merely to open this book and step into a reflection of our own world. Take a look at any city or town in the western world and you will see Rome all around you; the civic buildings, the structure of government, the laws, our attitudes and outlook on life and death. I Claudius shows us that Rome is Eternal.