I have been reading about political corruption, malfeasance, immorality, nepotism, child abuse, cruelty… No, it wasn’t the latest edition of The Washington Post. It was a real page turner of a novel: I Claudius by Robert Graves. This book was published in 1934, and I understand that there was a BBC series based on the book. However, I had never read it or seen the television series. Granted I am a little late to the party (or should I say “orgy”), but I found this to be fascinating reading.

The story is told in the form of an autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, generally known to us as the Emperor Claudius. It was written by Robert Graves who was a distinguished Classicist. He is probably most well-known for this novel and its sequel, Claudius the God, but he was a respected scholar who was also recognized as an outstanding translator of ancient texts, including The Twelve Caesars, written in AD 121 by Suetonius.

Claudius was a sickly child who spoke with a stammer, and his family despised him for it. His relatives, friends, and associates knew him as “Claudius the Idiot”, “That Claudius”, “Claudius the Stammerer”, “Clau-Clau-Claudius”, “or at best Poor Uncle Claudius”. They considered him to be stupid, weak, and foolish, but he was largely ignored. This is probably the reason he managed to survive during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula, a deadly trio is ever there was one. He had a keen interest in history and did massive amounts of research and writing in that area, all of which was largely scorned by his imperious family.

These tales of the intrigues of those in power are almost unbelievable. Claudius reveals all aspects of their lives. Of course, much of the story is about the emperors themselves, but there are many other fascinating characters who are strong and heroic or who are grasping and evil. Probably the most memorable is Livia, the mother of Tiberius and grandmother of Claudius, himself.

Livia: “Do you believe that the souls of criminals are eternally tormented?”
Claudius: “I have always been taught to believe that they are.”
Livia: “But the immortal gods are free from any fear of punishment, however many crimes they commit?”
Claudius: “ Well, Jove deposed his father and killed one of his grandsons and incestuously married his sister, and…yes, I agree….They none of them have a good moral reputation. And certainly the Judges of the Mortal Dead have no jurisdiction over them.”
Livia: “Exactly. You see now why it’s all-important for me to become a Goddess…..And I want you to swear that you’ll do all in your power to see that I become a Goddess as soon as possible, because—oh, don’t you see?—until he (Caligula) makes me a Goddess, I’ll be in Hell, suffering the most frightful torments, the most exquisite, ineluctable torments.”

There were people that Claudius deeply cared for and who cared for him in return. He was very devoted to his brother Germanicus and grieved deeply when Germanicus died a very suspicious death at the hand of… well, you probably know that story already.

Now our autobiographer doesn’t always dwell on the bad. He praises the glory and brilliance of Rome; the technological progress, buildings, roads, waterways; the military conquests. He celebrates the power and rule that reached out over such a large part of the world. It is all there is this stunning tale. There are descriptions of sports and entertainments that were provided for the people’s enjoyment—or that were forced on the people who were required to enjoy them. But at the heart of Rome there was depravity and decadence that meant everyone was in mortal danger at all times. There is never a dull moment in this story. Something is always happening, right up to the last when Claudius himself becomes Emperor.

“And what thoughts or memories would you guess, were passing through my mind on this extraordinary occasion …No, you would never guess what was passing through my mind. But I shall be frank and tell you what it was, though the confession is a shameful one. I was thinking, ‘So, I’m Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I’ll be able to make people read my books now…I’m sure they’ll enjoy it.’”

Because the book is so well-written, the reader is treated to a large dose of history in a context that makes this lesson very enjoyable. If you have never read this book, put it on your list. You won’t be sorry.