Jewel Parker Rhodes in an interview, a few years ago had highlighted one of the most most unique features of Historical Fiction. She said, “I love historical fiction because there’s a literal truth, and there’s an emotional truth, and what the fiction writer tries to create is that emotional truth.” This to me is one of the best definitions of Historical Fiction, where facts becomes woven in a narrative through an emotional thread and one of the most telling example of such genre, is I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
Published in 1934, I Claudius was a significant departure in the style from the usual, writings of Robert Graves, who had already received much accolades first as a War Poet and then for his World War 1 autobiography, Goodbye to All That, all of which focused on the 20th century socio-political developments. I Claudius, went back in time to ancient Rome and gave voice, to one of the more able, albeit relatively neglected Emperors of the Julio-Claudian clan, Claudius, and tells to story of the successors of Julius Caesar, from the time of his assignation, to Claudius’s coming to power in 41 AD, after Caligula’s assignation. Taking the reader, through the lives and actions of Augustus and his ruthless wife Livia, to the profanity and yet able administration under Tiberius and finally the desecration of the Rome under Caligula, the book gives a rich insight into the intrigue and the sly diplomacy that went into keeping the power of Rome at the helm, in a way which would also ensure that the Julio-Claudian clan continued to rule the affairs of the state, in the name of the “Republic”. Claudius, a weak child with a limp, born to the Drusus, Livia’s second son from her first marriage, he is mocked for weakness and often considered dim witted because of his stutter. Shunned as a child, with the only friend and champion in form of his elder brother Germanicus and is cousin Postumus, he develops a intellectual abilities beyond the ordinary, and begins writing histories about Rome and her subjects. During all this, he also watches from the sidelines as Augustus’s favored and presumptive heirs lose their lives or are banished, and the rise of Tiberius, the eldest son of Livia to the throne, finally followed by the base Caligula, which brings Claudius closer to the throne, surviving, treachery, tragedy and humiliation, to be finally declared an Emperor himself!
This book has often been sighted as one of the best modern classics and one of the most outstanding examples of historical fiction! I have to agree with these kinds of sentiments. Roman politics written even by the most adept authors can be difficult and despite all the best efforts, it becomes dry, despite the scandalous conduct of many of its subjects. And yet here, Mr. Graves not only produces a fine nuanced piece of literary writing and make it so interesting, that you stay up the night to finish the book! The plot never flags, though there are repetitive actions of murder and mayhem, and herein lies the brilliance of the author to make each event interesting by some unique twist of the narrative. While, I am not very well acquainted with Roman History (on account of the dry narratives) but from my megre reading, it does seem that Mr. Graves has kept to authenticity of the actual unfolding of events as much as possible taking very little artistic licenses. In this work of historical fiction, one can easily see how Mr. Graves supplied the “emotional truth” to the “literal truth” to make this an edgy, interesting novel. Claudius is hardly a hero you would cheer for and there are times when Graves’s protagonist comes as too much of a namby-pamby, that bends as per the blowing wind! But that I think was the point, that the author was trying to showcase; that Claudius was great not because he was a standard strong and brave hero, but because he knew what his weaknesses were and knew how to use them as a strength to survive one of the most tumultuous and bloody ages of Roman Empire. Claudius remains on the side lines for most of the narrative, observing, commenting with sly humor and with touch of distaste, but always, interesting and somehow involved that while, you know he is not the hero, you cannot fathom the events, without his presence, regardless of impact he makes or fails to make. And while you are never really cheering him on, you are nevertheless sympathetic and invested in his survival and eventual prosperity. The other ensemble is equally well drawn, especially with the portrayal of Livia, in whom we find an exceptionally talented administrator, far to capable for the times she was living and ruthless, in determining what is best for her family and for Rome. Augustus and Tiberius again portrayed very clearly, and drawn very much close to life, while holding good on their own, still pale in representation of Livia.Finally to end, one can easily say that written in an an easy language, with minimum description and with more focus on action, the book is a great, entertaining read, that gives an interesting and absolutely, fascinating glimpse into the Roman world!
This book was my July Read for The Official 2018 TBR Challenge.