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on December 23, 2003
Roman Emperor Claudius (41-54) has long been regarded as a so-called 'bad emperor', standing in the line of notorious guys like Caligula, Nero and Domitianus. The main reasons for this image were the books of Latin authors like Seneca, Suetonius and Tacitus. These writers all shared the same image on Claudius: a messy guy 'who was not a master, but rather a servant', as Suetonius puts it. Apparently there are some reviewers on this page who regard these 'original' sources as genuine reports on this emperor. According to them, Graves, who paints a quite sympathetic image of the emperor, is just making a funny story and not offering the facts. But those aforementioned Latin writers were not very objective either, if you look at the facts.
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.