Well, here is another historical novel that I actually quite enjoyed, but that may be because, unlike most historical novels that deal with fictional characters placed in an historical time period, this deals with real characters, namely the Imperial Family from the establishment of the empire to the ascension of Claudius to the throne. As can be seen by the title, the main character is the emperor Claudius before he became emperor (the story of when he was emperor is the subject of the sequel Claudius the God).
I appears that Graves stuck quite close to the two major sources we have on this time period, namely author and Tacitus, though he also used a lot of poetic license since a much of the book deals with the interactions of Claudius with many of the other major figures at the time (though he does footnote a couple of things, such a Nero, since we are likely to think he is the emperor Nero when he isn't). Okay, the book did drag a bit in the middle, but it began to pick up again when Caligula ascended the throne and we begin to see how the power went to his head.
Claudius is an interesting character, which is why Graves chose him as the subject of the novel. He suggests it is because he gives us a good sweep of the early imperial period, something that Augustus and Tiberius don't, and Nero and Calligula are simply too obsessed with power to be able to adequately write from their point of view. Also, Graves suggests, since Claudius was also a writer (then again most Emperors were), he felt that writing a history from his point of view would be the most plausible. This, of course, is despite the fact that he is a cripple and a stutterer, however that does not necessarily mean that he is neither unaware of the world around him, nor eloquent in the use of the written word.
One of the things that struck me as I read this book was the idea of how the transition of an empire from a non-functional democracy to a dictatorship does not necessarily bring about better times for the subjects. I decided that instead of discussing that to a large extent here it would be better to have a look at a couple of case studies – namely France and Rome – in my blog (and I will link the two posts below). However, I will say a few things about the period after the fall of the Republic here because it does relate closely to this book.
Now I, and probably many others, would consider Augustus to be a benevolent dictator. At the time of his ascension the Republic had effectively collapsed into warring factions and Augustus, after dispatching his enemies, brought about stability and peace to the empire under his rule. While he remained in control the ancient historians seem to hold him in high regard and do not indicate that he ever abused his power. From what it appears Rome once again began to prosper under his rule and the average person on the street got a pretty good deal.
However that all changed when he died because while Tiberius began as a reasonably benevolent ruler he did not remain that way. As it is suggested, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As Graves points out, Tiberius became a sexual deviant and in fact pretty much had sex with whomever he chose, and because he was emperor nobody could actually say no. It is even suggested that women committed suicide rather than living with the thought of having been violated by him.
Calligula went one step worse – he was outright insane. In a way he was like a spoilt brat that never grew up (much like a certain King Joffrey whom I believe nobody actually likes). In Calligua's mind, the Roman Empire was his and his alone to do with what he wished. All property belonged to him, and if anybody even showed a hint of wanting to do away with him, they would be executed (and Tiberius was much the same – he quite enjoyed throwing people off of the Tarpeian Rock). Calligula did end up meeting a rather sticky end, and since he had pretty much dispatched all of his rivals, there was only one person left to rule – poor old Claudius.
In a way Graves does very really in crafting his character, and in many ways to begin to empathise with them. He is born a cripple and treated like an idiot, yet manages to survive two brutal dictatorships to find himself inheriting the throne by default. It is also interesting that despite Caligula being put to the sword, his assassins decide that returning to the Republic would not be the best for the future of Rome and instead decide to put what they consider to be a harmless, and mailable, person on the throne.
My case study on the French Revolution can be found here.
My case study on the Fall of the Roman Republic can be found here.