We are slowly working are way through French history. In the last blog post we looked at Julius Caesar conquest of Gaul. This time we are looking at politics and drama in the house of Caesar and how the Roman Emperors that came after Julius Caesar affected the fate of Europe.
In this review we will be looking at “I, Claudius” (1934) “Claudius the God” (1935) By Robert Graves.
Claudius did not consider himself to be a Frenchmen, largely because France or the French did not really exist until about 500 years after his death, however the man who would one day be Emperor of Rome was born in what would one day be Lyon, France, which in Claudius’s day was called Lugdunum in Gaul.
Claudius’s father was a general in the Roman army who was at the time of Claudius’s birth, engaged in military activities with the Gauls. The book “I, Claudius” is an excellent introduction into the ancient Roman world. France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Briton were still barbaric lands that the “civilized” Romans were in the process of colonizing. Meanwhile in Rome the first family of the Caesars played a deadly game of not so civilized house politics.
Based on historical sources “I, Claudius” is a partly fictionalized, or should I say dramatized, account of the early history of four Roman Caesars.
After reading I, Claudius I went back and read many of the original source books (in English). These include works on Roman history by Tacitus, Plutarch, and especially Suetonius, who wrote “The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.”
Written from the point of view of Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus; 10 B.C. – 54 A.D.) who for most of his life was believed to be the family fool.
Graves said that he was inspired to write the book after Claudius came to him in a Dream and demanded that he write the true version of his life. Claudius had been dismissed by many historians as a halfwit but as the Caesar Claudius did more for Rome than the two Caesars before him and the one that followed after him combined.
The book starts in the mid-point of Augustus Caesar’s reign*. As Augustus and his wife Livia rebuild Rome from the ravages of past civil wars (Rome had three civil wars, The last one was between Augustus and Mark Anthony and left Augustus in power in Rome)
*Augustus Caesar lived 63 B.C. to 14 A.D. and was Emperor of Rome from 27 BC to 14 A.D.
Augustus is married to Claudius’s grandmother Livia. Livia is a master in the art of politics, manipulation, revenge and murder. It is Livia along with Augustus that transform Rome from a republic to a dictatorship.
The book gives great insight into the politics of power in the ancient world through the problematic years of Tiberius and the deadly years of Caligula. Whose name meant “little boots” in Latin.
For as a child Caligula traveled with his father who was the general of the army. Caligula had his own mini-version of the soldier’s uniform including little sandal-boots known as “caliga” that the soldiers wore.
In “I, Claudius” and the sequel “Claudius the God” writer and poet Robert Graves uses the modern place and country names in place of the old Latin names. So that the interested reader can easily find the places on a modern map.
Robert Graves was an Oxford Don who was able to speak and read both Greek and Latin fluently. Graves was also a veteran of the trenches of World War One and saw Europe at one of its most barbaric stages.
Graves writes the book as if Claudius were writing in Greek. The Romans spoke Latin, but upper class “educated” Romans wrote and spoke Greek to each other. This device give Graves and excuse to translate and explain such common Latin words as “gladiator” into their real meanings; (Latin for sword is “gladio” a “gladiator” is a “swordsman”).
This device gives Graves a chance to explain some of the hidden meanings of many Latin based words that are still in use today.
This is an excellent book for those who wish to understand the early formation of Europe and the Roman Empire. France (Gaul) was considered to be part of the Roman Empire in Claudius’s day. As were Germany and Spain and eventually Briton. In the second book “Claudius the God”, Claudius leads a military expedition to conquer Briton.
“I, Claudius” is a great historical work, the times and dates are accurate and based on pains taking research. The characters are fresh and vivid and the politics are credited with having many other writers who came after Graves. (Fans of George R.R. Martin may notice certain similarities between “I, Claudius” and the “Game of Thrones”.)
Robert Graves was the son of an Irish poet and a German mother. He attended an English school where he was beaten up almost daily because of his parentage. Graves finally joined the boxing team and was given some respite from the constant bullying. He served in World War One achieving the rank of Captain and return to England to live and work at Oxford University. Where he became friends with T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia).
Graves finally moved to the Spanish island of Minorca in the Mediterranean where he spent the rest of his life as a poet and writer.
In Spain Graves wrote a biography called “Good-Bye to All That” (1929). Graves suffered from bullies at boarding school and then with the start of the first World War he is shipped off to France where he gives a first hand account of life in the trenches.