I, Claudius: Part Four

Cover of "I, Claudius : From the Autobiog...

Cover via Amazon

Rating: 3 out of 5

I’ve exceeded my own expectations and finished Robert Graves’ I, Claudius a day ahead of schedule! I must say that the last 150 pages went by so much faster, not only because I was determined to beat the clock, but also because the book finally gets to my favorite part: Caligula’s reign as Roman emperor!

Chapters 22-34 narrate the downfall of Tiberius, who in his 70’s is smothered on the whim of his grand-nephew Caligula. Tiberius had appointed Caligula as the next emperor because he thought someone even more evil than he would make him seem virtuous.

At first, the people rejoice that Germanicus’ son has taken the throne. But sure enough, Caligula proves to be one of the cruelest, craziest emperors of Rome. He succumbs to a grave fever, and even though he survives, he becomes absolutely mental.

He believes himself to be a god, and condemns anyone who doubts his immortality. In the vein of Jove, he decides to engage in incest with his three sisters. He also makes his favorite horse a senator. Not to mention, his lavish parties, festivals, fights, and orgies completely bankrupt the empire, so he has to murder rich Romans left and right to steal their assets.

The best scenes include Claudius’ clever responses to Caligula’s madness. He manages to save his own skin multiple times by depicting himself as the poor buffoon of an uncle. This tactic works, because eventually a group of conspirators corners Caligula after a theatrical performance and stabs him to death.

The novel ends with a huge riot between Caligula’s devoted German army and the Roman populace. The soldiers find Claudius hiding behind a palace curtain and declare him emperor, as he is one of the only remaining members of the Julio-Claudian family and a pretty weak one at that. Claudius’ hilarious final thought is that as the ruler of the empire, he can finally force people to read and listen to his histories. The ending sets up Graves’ sequel Claudius the God, which covers his  years as emperor until his own assassination.

As I’ve said in previous parts, I love the history of this novel. No one can determine how much of it is factual, but at least it draws from the accounts of a few ancient writers. If only the HBO show “Rome” was still airing, because this story would make for excellent television. Sex and violence galore!

Unfortunately, though, I have to mark I, Claudius down for missing that entertainment quality that is so essential to historical fiction. I felt myself relieved to finish it, when I should feel depressed that it had to end. I would only recommend this book to die-hard Roman history buffs–and even then, I think the original Latin texts (such as Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis) are better reads.

And speaking of Latin, I am going to carpe the heck out of the diem when my brother and I jet off to Tokyo in a couple days! We just received our yen in the mail and now all that’s left is to pack! I will be bringing books with me, of course, for the 10-12 hour plane rides, but no promises on being able to blog while I’m there! I’ll try my best, but if I can’t, I will return the first week of July!

Stay tuned!

I, Claudius: Part Three

Well, I’m back from Vegas, only to find out that a literary legend has been lost. Even though I have only read one novel of Ray Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451, I will definitely read more of his work, as he is celebrated as one of the greatest speculative fiction writers of all time. We owe so much to his words, and for that he will be missed.

In other news, I’m 300 pages into I, Claudius (only 150 pages to go!). I really hope I can finish it before I hop the pond to Japan, because my package from Amazon just showed up at my door today with some new books and manga.

Don’t you hate it when your to-read list is taunting you, reminding you of how impossible it is to even make a decent dent in the amount of fantastic literature out there?

Anyway, Chapters 15-21 are an improvement from the previous 100 pages. After Augustus dies, the Roman soldiers start to create mutinies due to the limited reward they received from his will. Tiberius proves to be an ineffective ruler, so his commander son Germanicus must forge a letter in his name to appease the troops.

This doesn’t work too well, and Germanicus has to send his family away for their own safety. This decision upsets the soldiers even more, as they have fallen in love with Germanicus’ son Caligula. They agree to behave if the little boy can return to camp.

One hilarious scene narrates an exchange between Hermann, a German chieftain, and his brother Flavius, who served in the Roman army. On opposite ends of the Rhine, they yell at each other about their treacheries–Hermann in German and Flavius in Latin, as neither man wants to offend their fellow soldiers.

The dialogue is so funny, since the brothers shout insults, ranging from one’s drinking problem to losing an eye in battle. Things get especially cruel when they each lie about their mother and wives’ lack of love for the brothers. It was amusing to picture these armed men yelling essentially what were “Yo Mama” jokes to each other across a river.

Meanwhile, Claudius moves to Capua and spends his days writing and enjoying time with his beloved prostitute-companion Calpurnia. He receives a secret message that Postumus is still alive (as his doppelganger slave was executed in his place), but sadly Tiberius finds out the news as well. Postumus is soon captured, tortured, and beheaded.

Tiberius then plots against his own son Germanicus. He sends Germanicus to Syria and appoints a man named Piso as governor to spy on him. Piso poisons the emperor’s mind, convincing him that his son is trying to overthrow him.

Eventually, Germanicus gets sick and strange things start occurring. He finds bloody rooster feathers and dead babies and animals hidden in his home. Suspicious of witchcraft, he keeps a talisman under his pillow. After 25 days (25 being Germanicus’ most-feared number), the talisman goes missing and he dies.

The rest of this section follows Rome’s mourning of Germanicus and anger at their despicable emperor. Livia convinces Piso’s wife Plancina to murder Piso and stage it as a suicide, in exchange for her own freedom. Germanicus receives many semi-divine honors, and his wife Agrippina becomes a martyr among the Roman populace.

These chapters further illustrate how messed up this imperial family is, with all the back-stabbing and assassinations. The only reason Claudius has lasted this long is because none of his relatives consider him a threat. I enjoyed this section much more than the previous, because I remember studying Germanicus’ death in Roman history class and finding it fascinating. So I’m intrigued to read how the rest of the story will go!

If I read 30 pages a day, I can wrap up I, Claudius by Thursday. Wish me luck!

I, Claudius: Part One

Cover of "I, Claudius : From the Autobiog...

Cover via Amazon

So, I’m officially graduating in two days, and in the whirlwind of wrapping things up, I haven’t had much time to read. Right now, I’m over 100 pages into Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, and since it’s quite a long book, I thought that it would be best to post my reviews in installments, like I did with Tender is the Night.

Published in 1934, the novel is written in the form of Claudius’ autobiography. Claudius was Roman Emperor from 41-54 CE, but due to his infirmities, suffered a poor reputation. With a stutter, limp, and nervous tics, his family considered him  useless. However, much to everyone’s surprise, Claudius was also a well-read intellectual.

Inspired by the historians before him, Claudius’ autobiography covers the entire story of his oh-so-famous royal family–which included Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Caligula. So one word of warning: if you’re not familiar with this monarchy, keep a family tree in front of you while you read. The book holds A TON of names, many of which are extremely similar due to Roman customs.

Did you know that women had no choice whatsoever when it came to their names? If you were a man named Julius, all of your daughters would be named Julia, and it was your job to give them nicknames or just call them “Julia the Elder,” “Julia the Younger,” and so on.

Thus, Claudius’ full name is Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, all parts of which come from other relatives. Confusing, right?

I’m not going to lie to you: this novel takes a while to get going. Robert Graves does an excellent job in imitating the Roman writing style (I swear, every ten pages I have to remind myself that this is fiction, because it sounds like it was literally translated from a Latin text).

Unfortunately, this devotion to style might turn many readers off. I had one friend take one look at my book, and ask, “You’re reading that for fun?” Apparently, she was forced to read excerpts in a college class, and considered it more of a textbook than a beach read.

I agree: I, Claudius is not a beach read. It’s heavy, weighty material about a historical time period most people never learn about. But I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a total nerd, and I love all the Roman references. Livy! Ovid! Cicero! Call me crazy, but I can’t get enough of that stuff!

I’m glad I kept reading, because once Claudius stops with the ancestor stories and starts discussing his own adolescence, the novel becomes much more intriguing. He suffers through constant bullying, difficult disabilities, and the shadows of more beloved siblings. Even after catching a break by falling love with his first fiance (at the ripe age of 13), she gets poisoned on the way to the wedding ceremony. You just want to give the guy a hug!

I should also mention that I’m enjoying I, Claudius more because when I was taking Advanced Latin at UC Santa Cruz, I translated Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis (yes, try saying that three times fast!). The title translates to the “pumpkinification,” meaning turning into a pumpkin rather than a god. It’s a hilarious Menippean satire which portrays Claudius as a cruel, idiotic leader.

Granted, Seneca was actually banished by Claudius, so you have to take the tale with a grain of salt. Neither man was innocent in their volatile relationship. But I find it interesting to compare Apocolocyntosis to I, Claudius, especially since one is an original Latin text and the other is a 20th-century fictional autobiography.

Ok, well this post turned out longer than expected, but as of now, I’m slowly liking this novel and look forward to reading its progression. Don’t let me nerd out all by myself–share the Latin love and let me know what you think!