Old King Log
The beauty of Claudius the God and its predecessor, I, Claudius, is that they make you feel really, really smart for reading them, but in the end they are repackaging this history into a more readable and easily comprehended form. Once you get past that, and its general conceit, Claudius the God is actually a very different book from I, Claudius, and almost as good of one. Honestly, if it had been shaved by 50 – 100 pages it would probably match (or even surpass?) its forebear in quality.
But how is it such a different book, you may wonder, when it’s still Claudius telling us, firsthand, about actual history? Doesn’t seem like a there’s a lot of wiggle room there, and you’d expect Claudius the God to be a continuation in every conceivable way. But it isn’t, precisely because it is a genuine continuation, following the threads of history. In I, Claudius, our poor, beleaguered narrator was an outsider of sorts: intimately aware of powerful people, but with no say in the events that were transpiring, and being a historian himself, Claudius told a story of many decades as a historian would. He was removed.
Before Claudius the God is even the story of a limping, stuttering, quick-to-anger historian who has royalty (and godhood) forced upon him, it takes a break for about 60 pages to tell us the history of Herod Agrippa, king of Judea during much of Claudius own reign, and a personal friend. This interlude is barely justifiable in the greater scheme of the book. Yes, Herod is important to the story, but so are a lot of people who get at most a paragraph or page of background. But, as the best part of King Jesus showed, Graves has a keen interest in the Herod family, and Herod Agrippa (or at least the version of him here) is a sort of lovable scoundrel who’s actually a lot of fun to read about. When I said the book could be cut by a bit, this completely unnecessary tangent actually wasn’t what I meant, and so I have added an unnecessary tangent about the section, in order to honor it. Here we get the Claudius the historian.
But Claudius the God, who narrates most of the book, is an emperor explaining himself. It takes place over his thirteen-year reign (with a few deviations into further past) and deals almost exclusively either with things Claudius did, or things that were done to him. Suddenly, he’s actually the main character, with motivations and reasons and decisions. This makes him both more scrutable and less likable.
Because Claudius is actually doing things and making decisions, the book ends up being largely about the nature of power; the ups, downs, and temptations of monarchical government (Claudius believes in Democracy, but for various reasons can never quite make that jump away from being emperor); and sort of a slow motion femme fatale style noir, as we watch Messalina break down Claudius’ authority by exploiting his love and lust, but over a period of years. Claudius is now more of a human being because we see how he reacts to pressure, how his physical problems lead to a short temper, how his misconceptions effect his rule. And he is much less likable, because now we see him ordering executions and massacres, some seemingly justified, some not so much.
The strangest point in our exploration of Claudius’ motivations, comes near the end, and is hard to get at without getting all spoilery. And yes, a novel based on history can still have spoilers, they’re just based around why people did things, and changes in character (unless you learned about Rome through crappy history classes like me, then anything can be a spoiler). It comes down to Graves trying to explain seeming inconsistencies in Claudius’ historical character — or perhaps in his reconciling the image that he has of Claudius with what we know about the actual guy. Either way, Claudius seems to essentially give up — which proves great fun, in a way — play a part, and it’s despairing, heartbreaking, interesting, and pretty funny. (A similar idea is explored in the last chunk of Graves’ King Jesus, but again, spoilers.)
There’s also a very strong and interesting religious thread through the book, as the title might imply (and besides, first century AD was a pretty important time for religion, I hear). Usually books or movies about ancient Rome just show characters saying “by Jove!” or “Neptune is angry today!” and that’s the extent of the religiosity. Claudius is a genuinely devout Roman, who understands the traditions and the ceremonies of his religion, who believes in the Gods and their interplay, but is also a logical, intelligent, and reason man. This is a combination we don’t usually get in fiction — probably because modern hubris dictates that anyone who actually believed these Gods must have been a deluded idiot — and it’s refreshing to see. We also see his opinions on other religions of the time, which I will paraphrase: Judaism (“pretty weird, but they keep to themselves”), Christianity (“what a bunch of dicks”), Druidism (“seriously, what a bunch of dicks!”).
Like I, Claudius, the sequel largely just works because it grabs all the right parts of the history involved to be compulsively readable. There are a few sections that drag as they go on about tax reform or what-have-you, (this is where there should have been some cutting) and it seems that after the first book drew accusations of “he just read Suetonius and puked that back on the page in first person!” Graves wanted to show his work a little more, which can get tiresome. Nonetheless, he knows when to show elephants stomping through ancient Britain (and, holy shit, imagine being a Briton in the first century AD and seeing that shit), and when to show backroom dealings, would-be messiahs, horribly violent gladiatorial games, insane orgies, and so much else.
It’s hard to not get a general, visceral sense of ancient Rome as a real place from this book. Once or twice, too-modern sensibilities really show (he puts a few too many speeches into the Romans’ mouths about how absolutely perfect and amazing the English will probably be someday, and there’s a bit of racism that’s really not in-line with the time) but for the most part you read it and understand these ancient people. You understand being caught up in the militaristic pomp and circumstances of empire, you understand putting people to death to prove a point, and you understand how much of even the modern world was formed by these angry little people who bickered over power two thousand years ago.