Thursday, April 12, 2012
I, Claudius From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Born 10 B.C. Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 (Vintage International)
I, Claudius (1934) is a novel by English writer Robert Graves, written in the form of an autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius. As such, it includes history of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and Roman Empire, from Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BC to Caligula's assassination in AD 41. The 'autobiography' of Claudius continues (from Claudius's accession after Caligula's death, to his own death in 54) in Claudius the God (1935). The sequel also includes a section written as a biography of Herod Agrippa, contemporary of Claudius and future King of the Jews. The two books were adapted by the BBC into an award-winning television serial, I, Claudius.
In 1998 the Modern Library ranked I, Claudius fourteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2005, the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to present.
Claudius was the fourth Emperor of Rome (r. 41-54 A.D.). Historically, Claudius' family kept him out of public life until his sudden coronation at the age of forty nine. This was due to his disabilities, which included a stammer, a limp, and various nervous tics which made him appear mentally deficient to his relatives. This is how he was defined by scholars for most of history, and Graves uses these peculiarities to develop a sympathetic character whose survival in a murderous dynasty depends upon his family's incorrect assumption that he is a harmless idiot.
Graves's interpretation of the story owes much to the histories of Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, Plutarch, and (especially) Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars). Graves translated Suetonius before writing the novels. Graves claimed that after he read Suetonius, Claudius came to him in a dream one night and demanded that his real story be told. The life of Claudius provided Graves with a way to write about the first four Emperors of Rome (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius) from an intimate point of view. In addition, the real Claudius was a trained historian and is known to have written an autobiography (now lost) in eight books that covered the same time period. I, Claudius is a first-person narrative of Roman history from the reigns of Augustus to Caligula; Claudius the God is written as a later addition documenting Claudius' own reign.
Graves provides a theme for the story by having the fictionalized Claudius describe a visit to Cumae, where he receives a prophecy in verse from the Sibyl, and an additional prophecy contained in a book of "Sibylline Curiosities". The latter concerns the fates of the "hairy ones" (i.e. The Caesars - from the Latin word "caesar", meaning "a fine head of hair") who are to rule Rome. The penultimate verse concerns his own reign, and Claudius assumes that he can tell the identity of the last emperor described. From the outset, then, Graves establishes a fatalistic tone that plays out at the end of Claudius the God, as Nero prepares to succeed Claudius.
At Cumae, the Sibyl tells Claudius that he will "speak clear." Claudius believes this means that his secret memoirs will be one day found, and that he, having therein written the truth, will speak clearly, while his contemporaries, who had to distort their histories in order to appease the ruling family, will seem like stammerers. Since he wishes to record his life for posterity, Claudius chooses to write in Greek, since he believes that it will remain "the chief literary language of the world." This allows Graves to explore the etymology of Latin words (like the origins of the names "Livia" and "Caesar") that would otherwise be obvious to native Latin speakers, who Claudius (correctly) believes will not exist in the future.