©1934, 1961 Robert Graves; (P)1987 Recorded Books
I am an avid eclectic reader.
Robert Graves wrote this book in 1934. His first book “Goodbye to All That” was his memoirs of the First World War. Graves and the American poet Laura Riding went to Majorca to live. He wrote the Claudius books while living on the Island. The book is ranked 14th on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 books.
Graves chose Claudius as the narrator to recount the first half century of Imperial Rome, a chronicler who lived at the very center of activity. His grand-uncle Augustus, founder of the Empire, Uncle Tiberius was very secretive and demented Caligula believed himself a God. Claudius childhood illness left him with a permanent limp, a speech impediment, and acute abdominal pains all his life. “Cripple, stammerer, fool of the family” as he called himself. Claudius took to study and learns history encouraged by historian Livy, wife of Augustus. Claudius wrote 20 volumes of Etruscan history and 8 volumes of Carthaginian history. He wrote in Greek. He also wrote his autobiography and a treatise on the Roman alphabet, and an essay on dice-playing.
The bulk of the book focuses on the Empires’ first two Emperors, Augustus and Tiberius. Also playing a key role is the strong willed, smart and devious Livy, Augustus’ wife and Tiberius’ mother. One must keep in mind how much of the story is history and how much is fiction. Graves did a beautiful job writing this fascinating tale. Graves seamlessly moves through the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Graves’s deep understanding of the complexities of the Roman political system adds credibility to what can, at times, seem like an impossible tale. His treatment of the psychology of Senator and Caesar, the fear of power absolute, and the motives behind the plots, and counterplots of assassination are skillfully handled.
“I Claudius” is one of those rare epic tales that will drift into your consciousness will after you’ve finished the book. Nelson Runger did an excellent job narrating the tale. I remember a T.V. series so I hunted on Amazon Video and obtain the 1976 BBC series “I Claudius” starring Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart. Now that I am finished the book I will watch it.
When the main character of a story has little to no say in the events happening to them - when they are just swept along the with the story - it makes for a boring character. And a boring book.
And this is a very boring book.
Here's the problem: Claudius can only watch as events unfold around him, he rarely gets to participate in anything that is interesting and when he does it's usually to beg for mercy or play the fool. The people around him are interesting - or they would be had they been written better, anyway but he is not. He can only watch (and so we too can only watch) as we are told how one thing happened and how another thing happened.
What I don't get is Graves wanted to write a realistic story of what happened during Claudius' lifetime, he wanted to explore what life in Rome was really like and try to figure out how events really happened, yet he gives everyone the most wooden and stilted dialogue and has everyone running around making absolute statements. Everyone is certain of their actions and nobody ever stops to think that some issues might not be black or white. Nobody struggles with morality here and how someone could write an entire novel about the beginnings of the Roman Empire without giving us at least one character who spends more than an afterthought wondering if all this is a good idea isn't just a missed opportunity, it's just dumb.
I'll give Graves credit for creativity and for taking the old Roman stories and looking at them in a fresh light. He has some fun ideas here, but it's just poorly put together.
The biggest problem is a problem almost all stories like this run into : they have the wrong main character. Claudius is unable to really influence the events happening around him and to him so he's a terrible character to spend an entire book with. I get that he's a historian and that he's telling us this story, but you can't have it both ways, you can't update the stories of Rome to show modern audiences that people even 2000 years ago were just like us but then write the whole book as if everyone is stiff and antique and mimicking an old Roman history book. If the whole point of this book was to show us how Rome was a vibrant, modern place, then why make everything feel stuffy and have everyone act wooden? The whole purpose of this book is baffling.
Anyway, my biggest problem with stories like this, such as biopics, are that you should never make the character at the center of your interest the main character. In the film Amadeus Mozart isn't the main character, Salieri is. Salieri is much more interesting because he's much more like us - he's filled with rage and jealousy and he doesn't possess the genius that Mozart does. We can understand Mozart's brilliance better by looking at him through the flawed Salieri. In the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford the main character isn't Jesse James, it's (the coward) Robert Ford. Ford is far more interesting and we learn about both men by following Ford around. Even The Last King of Scotland gets this right by not making Idi Amin the main character, but making the fictional Nicholas Garrigan our eyes to the brutality of that dictator.
Now to be fair, Claudius isn't the center of Rome through most of the book; he's telling the stories of Augustus, his wife Livia, Tiberius, and Caligula, as well as a few other historical figures because he wants us to know how he wound up finally becoming Emperor, but we have to look at the first problem I brought up and that is Claudius is just telling us things he had no control over and played almost no part in.
Maybe it really was dumb luck that Claudius became Emperor, however, that makes for boring fiction. And besides I doubt the real Claudius had no influence and I'm sure he was more political than this book makes him out to be. Nobody is just handed the absolute rule of all of Rome just because a few senators are afraid of a few more Germans. I just don't buy any of it.
Anyway, like I said, I give Graves credit for undertaking an interesting project, and there are some interesting moments, especially anything with Livia or Caligula, but the overall book is stiff and Claudius is one of the most boring main characters I've ever come across. He's like little kid Anakin Skywalker in the terrible The Phantom Menace where he has no idea what's going on around him, and no power to do anything about what happening. He's boring, undeveloped, and the whole thing feels like a waste of time.
Oh, and do I feel like I understand Rome better now than when I started? No. Graves gives us some possible insight into how a few well-to-do Romans lives and some insight into the crimes and lavish festivals of the times, but none of the people here jump off the page as real human beings and Rome just feels like a collection of wooden sheep whose only function is to cheer at the games.
Poor Clau-Clau-Claudius? Poor us.
These are both well written - I,Claudius first and then this one. Great detail, excellent story and narration. My only note is that they are long and sometimes slow and too much story and details and you wish they would get one with it but overall great period piece.
I, Claudius is a fictionalised autobiography of Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor. The timeline covers the first fifty years of his life, starting in reign of his grandfather, the first emperor Augustus, and continuing through Tiberius and Caligula and up to the point Claudius becomes emperor. Interestingly, Claudius was a historian and did write an autobiography, now lost, covering this same period.
The book paints an entertaining picture of the sort of wanton violence and wicked scheming that seems to be inspired in those close to and hungry for great power. The bad folks are very bad and largely conscience-less. The good folks are likeable and engaging. [SPOILER ALERT:] But the good folks all get killed off by the baddies sooner or later, save Claudius whose infirmities provide him with a perverse sort of shield against most of the deadlier plots. Actually, the baddies pretty much all get killed off, too. So that’s fair.
It’s not all blood and poisons (fast- and slow-acting), though. The story is occasionally funny and even poignant. It’s all strangely believable, too. The horribleness of the struggle for power in that early superpower seemed intuitively credible to me. I imagine stuff like that happens every day in companies and countries around the world today, albeit with a bit less poison and violence.
As other commentators have noted, it can be very challenging to keep track of who’s who, especially with all the adopting and intermarrying. I wonder if it would have been easier if I’d watched the BBC miniseries first, to have a mental picture of the characters. Having seen HBO’s Rome did help me out in the first few chapters.
I really enjoyed this book. The moment I reached the end, I went to Audible to buy the next book, Claudius the God, so I could continue to follow the story.
The narration is perfect, btw.
Don't you just love a great story well told?
I'm writing this long past when I read it to mention that it was SO good and so interesting that it had a lasting impact on me. Any book that does that has to be worth enjoying. This man led an amazing life and describes epic events in Roman history, an amazingly clever intelligent person even though he was looked down upon because of his physical problems and lack of noble birth. Well narrated and edited, a worthy addition to anyone who loves non-fiction and knows that indeed truth can be far more wonderful than fiction.
QUESTION : DOES LISTENING TO AUDIO BOOKS MAKE YOU SMARTER? If so, I'm. Freakin Genius!
I have had book my Audible Library for sometime, but for some reason or another I hadn't listen to it.
I didn't realize what a interesting book it was.
Those crazy Romans. You name it they did it, twice sometimes.
FYI: Even though this book is based on actual historical events. It is a book of fiction. It is very well written and the narrator was great.
I would recommend this book.
I sure learned a lot about Roman history from this book. I enjoyed it very much. Should you decide to read it, I suggest you write down each character and who he/she is, and the parents, etc., as you read because it is very easy to lose track of the characters in this book and how they each fit in.
Did you know that Caesar means "Head of Hair"? and Julius Caesar was bald! Just one of many facts I gleaned from the book.
The narrator, Nelson Runger, was good. There might be some better ones available, though, like Derek Jacobi. But I did enjoy Mr. Runger a lot.
Avid audible listener for over 10 years.
If you like historical novels this is a good listen. The one issue is that there are so many characters to follow and the names are confusing. The timeline bounces around from past to present fairly often.
You will have to have some interest in Roman history to enjoy this book. Since it is historical, it gives you an interesting view of politics in ancient Rome. If you think things are bad in Washington D.C. are bad, you only need to hear what goes in the Roman Senate to understand how bad it used to be. The main character, Augustus, the self appointed emperor of the Roman Empire rules as a puppet to his wife, Livia. From there it goes downhill with tiberius and Caligula. When they someone stabbed you in the back, they actually mean it, you get stabbed in the back by your brother, wife, father, son, etc. If not stabbed literally, you are exiled to the far reaches of the Roman Empire. Augustus sends his own daughter into exile for being too promiscuous.
It was a rather brutal lot who ran ancient Rome so you can understand why the Roman empire collapsed
It's astounding how horrible the Romans were. This book explains the reasons well and makes the listener, identifying with Claudius, feel safe from the violent family rivalries, since we know he's going to last until the end. Very entertaining.
An old broad that enjoys books of all types. Would rather read than write reviews though. I know what I like, and won't be bothered by crap.
I enjoyed the intimate details about the various Ceasars. I got bored with the one person narrative after awhile. For so many salacious details it got pretty boring. I thought the PBS show was much better than the book it was based on.
Less description and more action.
I enjoyed Claudius and Calpurnia's interactions, especially when she lent him all the money he had paid her over the years.
Look into Bernard Cornwall's Roman books. I bet he will do much better.
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