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Claudius the God: And His Wife, Messalina Audio CD – Jan 1 2010
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Picking up where the extraordinarily interesting I, Claudius ends, Claudius the God tells the tale of Claudius' 13-year reign as Emperor of Rome. Naturally, it ends when Claudius is murdered--believe me, it's not giving anything away to say this; the surprise is when someone doesn't get poisoned. While Claudius spends most of his time before becoming emperor tending to his books and his writings and trying to stay out of the general line of corruption and killings, his life on the throne puts him into the center of the political maelstrom. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Because of his success in the writing of I, CLAUDIUS and its sequel CLAUDIUS THE GOD, many today think of Robert Graves as primarily a novelist, but in fact most of his writing falls into the nonfiction realm, much of that with a historical bent. Graves was a passionate student of antiquity, both the Greeks and the Romans, and his goal in writing I, CLAUDIUS was to chronicle the period in Roman history immediately after the collapse of the republic and near the beginning of the rule of the Caesars. On the one hand, he wanted to adhere as closely to the documentary evidence for the events in the period as is compatible with a work of fiction, and on the other produced a first rate historical novel. He succeeds splendidly on both counts. His history is not pristine, but it is very close, with imaginative additions only for the sake of making sense of the narrative. The historical details are sufficiently solid and comprehensive for this novel to serve an excellent introduction to the early days of Imperial Rome.
In order to tell his story of Imperial Rome, Graves chooses as his narrator and eyewitnesses none other than the future emperor Claudius, once considered to be one of the weakest and most inept of the early Roman emperors, if also the least corrupt and ruthless. In the early 20th century several historians of Ancient Rome began revising their assessment of Claudius, not least the great Italian classicist (who relocated to England and America) Arnaldo Momigliano. Following the lead of these scholars, Graves presents Claudius as a cautious, sagacious, humble, unambitious, and scholarly soul, one who is simultaneously a gifted survivor and a closeted adherent to republican values. Though a stutterer and physically deficient, Grave's Claudius is a highly eloquent and intelligent observer of his world, a sage analyst of the personalities populating his Rome, and a gifted student of human nature. He also emerges as a highly likable and even admirable soul. One of the great achievements of Graves's novel has been to re-enforce on the popular level that reassessment of Claudius undertaken by the scholars mentioned above.
The precise period covered by Grave's novel begins roughly midway through Augustus's (formerly Octavian) career, the reign of Tiberius, and the shorter but extraordinarily horrid (though immensely entertaining) rule by Caligula. A host of other characters populate the story, but two above all others. One is, not surprisingly, Claudius himself, but the other is in many ways the dominant personality in the entire book, Claudius's grandmother, Tiberius's mother, and Augustus's wife Livia. She emerges as one of the great villains in modern literature, larger than life and exceptionally vile. One of the most brilliant moments in the novel is when Livia confesses to Claudius what motivates and drives her wretched behavior.
I, CLAUDIUS did not inspire a host of imitations among the other top fictional writers in the past century, but Graves did prove that it is a genre that still has potential to inspire, entertain, and educate. It also graphically illustrates the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The world of Claudius may be long past, but the motives driving the actions of novel's characters are as alive now as then, and though the events of the novel took place two thousand years ago, Claudius feels very much our contemporary.
Told through the eyes of Tiberius Claudius, the intellectually gifted but physically deformed relation to a series of emperors, the book winds from the last half of Augustus' (the first emperor after Julius Caesar) reign through the notorious times of Caligula, all the while keeping the reader enthralled.
The most remarkable thing about this book is simply that so much HAPPENS. Unlike most works of fiction, Graves' work does not busy itself with flowing descriptions of scenery, beautiful women, or romantic philosophy. Instead, the plot moves from event to event in a fast-paced but still rich combination of history and literary skill. Graves is able to strike an impressive balance between massive amounts of raw information (the history part) and uniquely adept storytelling prowess. Never have I read a book so full of historical fact and yet so utterly enjoyable.
You need NO prior knowledge of Roman history to appreciate this novel. Highly recommended.
Graves based this work (and the sequel Claudius the God) on Claudius's actual autobiography. Clearly many of the details must be fictional (i.e. what was on the menu on such and such night, words said during conversations, etc.), but all major events and many of the minor plot elements are ostensibly substantiated by historical text and hence are probably true to fact. That's scary. How can politics within a single city get as ridiculously inane and out of touch with regard for human life as portrayed in this work? Then again we need to remember that the Roman people condoned the spectacle of people killing each other for sport, so their thought patterns were obviously different from ours today. The Roman empire was a civilization, certainly. A *modern* civilization (with regard to Western core values as taught today), no.
Replete with wit and humor, "I, Claudius" is undoubtedly one of last century's masterworks in literature. Step into Claudius's shoes and warp back two thousand years to the epicenter of the largest ancient empire ever created. Enter the royal palace and be privy to secret plotting of heinous crimes necessary to retain power within the family. And shudder. Because you can't do anything about it, you're just a camera and microphone. You can't help the victims of the plots, even when you know that they could prevent or at least slow the decline of the empire.
It's all about power. Wait until you discover Livia's true purpose in all her scheming! Or read about how the insane Caligula handles the reins of the empire. A must read for all fans of history and anyone who just likes a good story.
But, laying historical accuracy to one side, this is a clever and interesting read. It is not, to my mind, the masterpiece some reviewers here make it out to be. But I enjoyed it. The impression one has on closing the book and reflecting on the murders, mayhem and madness that occur on almost every page leaves one feeling about the book as Claudius felt about the last, ebrious conversation he had with Livia:
"The conversation was like the sort one has in dreams - mad but interesting."
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