Monday, July 20, 2015

Review of I, Claudius

I, Claudius by Robert Graves, 1934. Glossy's rating: 3.5 out of 10.

This book is a fictional autobiography. In the beginning an oracle tells the future Roman emperor Claudius, who was famous for his stammer, that 1,900 years later he would finally speak clearly. He interprets this as an injunction to write about himself.

There are many other prophesies in the book and their accuracy bothers me. The oracle also correctly predicts the exact number of years, months and days that Claudius would reign. Another prophesy foretells the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero in addition to Claudius's. An astrologer foresees the death of Jesus and the rise of Christianity. A couple of characters correctly predict when they will die. All of this suggests that Graves believed in the supernatural himself. How silly.

Any book about the late Roman Republic or the early Empire has to deal with Rome's gradual orientalization.

"Soon Rome would have forgotten what freedom meant and would fall at last under a tyranny as barbarous and arbitrary as those of the East."

My ideas about this were shaped by a 1916 article called "Race Mixture in the Roman Empire" by a man named Tenney Frank. He made a statistical analysis of the inscriptions on Roman tombs. The share of Greek names of them rose enormously with time, eventually surpassing 90%. The slaves that the Romans imported from the Middle East tended to have Greek names - a legacy of Alexander's conquest.

Another problem was that the original Roman aristocracy, which was of native stock, eventually stopped reproducing itself. Here Graves has Augustus ranting at a gathering of Roman knights:

"Would they, pray, explain why instead of sharing their beds with decent women of their own class and begetting healthy children on them, they squandered all their virile energy on greasy slave-girls and nasty Asiatic-Greek prostitutes?"

Frank blamed secularism for the fall in the native Roman birth rate. Ancient Greece and Rome were likely the first societies in history where people tried to reason for themselves about the fundamentals of human experience. Instinct and tradition evolved to keep us from going extinct. But what happens if we start questioning them?

"Morals were so loose now that nobody took marriage seriously any longer."

"As for children, who wanted them? They interfered with the lady’s health and amusement for several months before birth and, though she had a foster-mother for them immediately afterwards, it took time to recover from the wretched business of childbirth, and it often happened that her figure was ruined after having more than a couple."

The gradual replacement of native Romans with Middle Eastern slaves (from whom I am likely descended) had an enormous impact on Rome's political culture. A typically European republican setup with debates, term limits and elections was gradually replaced by a typically Middle Eastern one - the worship of an absolute ruler as a God. A typically European religion in which Gods had human flaws and weaknesses was replaced by a typically Middle Eastern one where God is as perfect and absolute as a typical Middle Eastern ruler claims to be.

Tenney Frank documented the disappearance of the great Roman noble houses with statistics. Graves does it here novelistically. Low birth rate was only a part of the problem. They were also killing each other at an unbelievable rate. The civil wars paused after Augustus came to power, but under the other emperors of his dynasty enormous numbers of upper and middle class Romans were killed by the state because they were suspected of wanting to restore the republic or usurp the monarchy or because the state wanted to seize their assets. Heads roll, veins are slashed and bodies fall on swords with great frequency on these pages.

For much of the book the apex predator is Livia, Augustus's wife, and her weapon of choice is poison. Since quite a few of the people she kills are young, noble or idealistic, it's natural for the reader to hate her. After a while Graves turns around and says that she was actually a just and capable administrator and that she killed to prevent civil war, i.e. for the common good. This is a perfectly valid literary device - a competent writer will occasionally confound the readers' assumptions of who's good and who's bad.

The only problem with it here is that the likelihood of a woman being motivated by something as abstract as justice and the common good is as low as the likelihood of astrologers correctly predicting the length of emperors' reigns. In politics, like elsewhere in life, women are almost exclusively interested and motivated by the personal.

I, Claudius gets better as it goes along and some of the deadpan humor with which Caligula's atrocities are related is even good. But for most of the book the style is turgid. A feminine topic (family drama) is presented here in a dry, pedantic male way. Neither of these things improves the other. If you're looking for a good historical novel, I would suggest that there are better ones out there.


  1. "All of this suggests that Graves believed in the supernatural himself. How silly." Perhaps it suggests that those living in the period he was writing of were themselves so deliriously steeped in the supernatural that it was indivisible from their lives? And while we're on the subject of the silliness of the supernatural in literature, let's toss pretty much the entirety of the Greek tragedies and a reasonable chunk of Shakespeare out the window too, okay? And then there's this: "...the likelihood of a woman being motivated by something as abstract as justice and the common good is as low as the likelihood of astrologers, etc." This boggles the mind - suddenly every female activist, judge, politician, sociologist, scientist, and so on throughout history has been dismissed - back to the kitchen with you, wench, so you can concern yourself with your family dramas! The more I read of you, the clearer it becomes: your mind is trapped in the 19th century while your body sits, mindless and petulant, in the 21st.

    1. As I said in my review, Graves has an astrologer predict to Caligula the rise of Christianity. He tells him that at such and such a date a man will die whose life and death will be the focus of a new religion that will sweep the world. All the temples in Rome will worship this man. Graves also has people correctly predict the sequence and duration of imperial reigns. In other words, his characters CORRECTLY predict the future again and again.

      I prefer historical novels to be realistic. The depiction of actual, not phony clairvoyants isn't realistic. Could I possibly enjoy a non-realsitic historical novel? Yes, but I didn't enjoy this particular one much.

      Concerning feminism:

      On average men and women have different inborn strengths and weaknesses. The genders are not interchangeable. This has not been disproven by 20th or 21st century science. On the contrary, data supports the wisdom of the ages on this point.

      In geneal folk wisdom about human nature is almost always correct, meaning that it has been backed up by data in modern times. And this is not surprising: our ancestors needed to have a good intuitive grasp of human nature, a roughly accurate picture of it, to survive.