By Robert Graves
Unabridged recording published by Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Read by Frederick Davidson
And now we climb into Mr. Peabody’s “Way-Back Machine” and once again return to ancient Rome. Instead of the late Republican period, however, let us visit the early days of the Empire. Robert Graves mined Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars and Tacitus’ Annals and a few other histories of Rome during the Julio-Claudian dynasty and put together the same story in novel-format with Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus (aka Emperor Claudius I) as the first person voice.
The story is a well-known one to classicists and I dare say it was equally well known to that same crowd back in 1934 when it was first published, but even though anyone versed in Roman history knows where the story is going, Graves tells in in a charming manner.
Admittedly, in keeping with the sensibilities of readers in the 1930’s, Mister Graves cut out some of the juiciest bits of those ancient histories he borrowed from. The book describes some pretty racy scenes and yet they are tame compared to what might have been included. Many viewers, in fact, were shocked by the nudity and sexual content of the BBC serialized adaptation of I, Claudius (which included the sequel Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina), but that really was mild considering what might have been shown. Don’t believe me? Read Tacitus and Suetonius… I have… come to think of it I have an audio edition of Suetonius around somewhere too. One of these weeks I may review that too…
However, Graves was not trying to write a tawdry bit of fiction intent on grabbing readers by their prurient tastes. He was writing an historical novel as told by a largely despised cripple, who, somehow managed to survive through the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, where many of his more promising relatives did not, for one reason or another.
There is some debate as to just how accurate Graves’ portrayal of Claudius is. For that matter there is debate as to just how accurate some of Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ accounts were in places. One must keep in mind they were not writing about the early emperors while those emperors were still alive. One way to write a history that finds imperial favor is to make the current ruler look good by comparison, but certainly many of the stories had some basis in truth, even if Tiberius actually had quite a few positive accomplishments as emperor which are overlooked in favor of portraying him as an aging pervert, which apparently he was in his later years too. Even Caligula’s brief reign was not one prolonged orgy, although it did involve a series of prolonged orgies. I guess even deranged, over-sexed and incestuous creeps need a break now and then.
But while Graves does omit some of the more exciting incidents, such as the time Caligula decided he wanted to ride his horse, Incitatus, across the Bay of Naples simply because Tiberius’ soothsayer once said Caligula had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae.”So he lined as many ships up as he could across the bay and used them as the foundation of a bridge over which he amused himself by riding back and forth from Baiae to Puteoli.
Even with omissions, however, it’s a fun read and easier on the eyes and mind than reading the originals. I do actually recommend reading Tacitus and Suetonius, but keep in mind they were written as histories, not novels, so along with the fascinating incidents they cover serious situations as well.
I said in my review of Stephen Saylor’s Roman Blood that due to the “Masterpiece Theatre” performance of I, Claudius, I always expect ancient Romans to speak English with a British accent. Frederick Davidson’s reading came close to curing me of that.
Most of his performance is in that “Stiff Upper Lip” manner that I see all too often in movies and television shows. It’s an unfair stereotype most of the time, but the fault may not be entirely that of Mister Davidson. A lot of it has to be due to the way Robert Graves wrote the book. Claudius is portrayed as quite a sober individual and since this is a first person narrative he only shows emotion in rare instances. Davidson’s reading is not entirely flat, but it does not have the emotional range that one saw in the BBC’s I, Claudius. At the beginning of the book, in fact, Davidson makes Alistair Cooke sound like a fount of emotion in comparison.
However, as the book continues, it is not hard to acclimate to Davidson’s reading and to be able to detect the subtle emotional nuances he projects. It could have been a more exciting reading, admittedly, but I rate Davidson’s performance as “Good.”
All told, I, Claudius is an interesting popularization of the ancient texts it draws from and Mister Davidson’s performance does not detract from it.