Robert Graves begins anew the tumultuous life of the Roman who became emporer in spite of himself. Captures the vitality, splendor, and decadence of the Roman world at the point of its decline.
Seneca was a relative of Claudius, and had many personal conflicts with the emperor. Additionally, he was the one responsible for the education of cruel Nero, who would become emperor after Claudius. So I don't think you could trust Seneca. The other two authors, Suetonius and Tacitus, were both senators. They were men of the highest rank, and these people had the tradition to look down at emperors who listened more to their freedmen than to the Senate. Claudius was such an emperor: he gave many important bureaucratic jobs to his freedmen, because he could trust them better than those wolves from the Senate. Not a very bad idea, is it? But being senators themselves, Suetonius and Tacitus didn't like this attitude and so they disliked Claudius as well. What I mean to say with this is that the image we get of Claudius in this book is not less important than the one we see in the old sources: if Suetonius is called 'objective', so should Graves be.
It's also quite interesting to compare the Roman writers with Graves. During the last months, I've read some texts by Suetonius in college, and it's striking to see how much of Suetonius' information is used by Graves as well. But while the Roman writer bluntly criticizes Claudius for everything he does wrong, Graves tries to explain the same cases in favour of Claudius. Whether Graves tells the truth or not, it is interesting to see how one tries to explain things. A good example is Claudius' order to execute Appius Silanus. Suetonius just tells that Claudius was faked by his wife, who wanted Silanus to be killed. Graves tells the same, but he adds to it that Silanus had refused to tell the truth (which was, that he was innocent) when he stood in front of Claudius. So he simply had to execute him. Another example: Suetonius tells about Claudius' habitude to allow farting and burping to his table-guests, because he once had a man at his table who nearly killed himself by holding up his farts. Of course, for ancient Romans like Suetonius, this was not done, but as a 20th-century writer Graves regards this deed as an act of mere humanity. And who wouldn't, after all?
Claudius' very human attitude is the red line of Graves' entire story: it's about a quite unconventional emperor, who is in conflict with old Roman values, presented by the Senate. According to Graves, Claudius may have been too benevolent for his job, a bit naive: he often got strangled in the large web of his relatives, particularly his wives Messalina and Agrippina (Nero's mother). Nevertheless: in Graves' story, Claudius is a good man, with whom the reader gets a lot of sympathy. He was just not entirely able to deal with the snakes that crawled around him. And look at the historical facts: there is proof that the Roman Empire was governed very well under Claudius' hands. The criticism from Roman authors is more about his personal attitude than about his regime itself. So this book, after all, is a fine example of 'explaining history'. Additionally, it's a joy to read.
Of course he's doomed from the start-there's hardly an Emperor who *wasn't* murdered, and poison probably qualifies as death by natural causes when you're Roman aristocracy-and his wife Messalina is quite a piece of work, but that doesn't stop the book from being a good read, especially in the earlier parts of the story where Claudius shows an unexpected capacity for efficient administration. The same wry humor and political intrigue that characterized "I, Claudius" are present here as well, and the cast-of-thousands are all distinguished quite well from each other. While "Claudius the God" is not as captivating as its predecessor, and is in fact quite a bit more depressing, it's a book worth reading. There is only one drawback to reading these two tales of intrigue and Imperial families: you'll find yourself wanting to go out and get a food taster afterwards...
Footnote: While this may be the wrong place to recommend videos, I strongly suggest that anyone who read and enjoyed "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God" should see the BBC miniseries. Derek Jacobi is perfect as Claudius, both as the aging Emperor and the young and gawky historian, and Sian Phillips brings the character of Livia to malevolent life with her portrayal of the woman behind the throne. A must-see for any fan of Roman history-or Rome in general!
Graves masterfully develops the character of Claudius as he ponders his life and impresses his thoughts on to his "autobiography." The reader is then taken through the ambitions and palatial intrigues of his reign. Claudius reflects on the persons and events under his rule. He finds himself with a dwindling circle of friends and in the company of a devious young wife, Messalina. Claudius ponders his life with wit and humor. With this insight, Claudius is soon appreciated by the reader as having a keen intellect as opposed to being dull and slow of wit. His desire for truth and his loathing of the imperial struggle gives his story clarity and impartiality. All of the characters are well developed; their actions and motivations all come to light in the course of the story.
Along with Gore Vidal's "Julian" this is one of the greatest works in historical fiction in this genre or any genre. A must read for anyone who enjoys history or just a good story full of intrigue and suspense.