The Big Read II: I, Claudius

Chapter 4: I’m impressed by how stoically Claudius’ father died. Just, “she read my letter?” and off he goes, a victim of his mother’s ambition. Nobody seems to get angry about these things (Livia is really the only one to show anger) – they just retaliate. Or renegotiate their political positio. And carry on.

Claudius manages to slip in his own birth after telling us about his father’s death – clearly we’re not going from egg to apple (I just looked it up – seems to refer to the order of a Roman feast, not like a chicken/egg thing) if Claudius was born a year before his father died. “But as my mother always accompanied my father on his campaigns a child had to be very hardy to survive.” Um, we have it SO EASY these days. Just saying.

Chapter 5: So I used to live on Palatine Hill. Not THE Palatine Hill, obviously a different one, but still, that’s what I picture with every mention of the place. Even though I’ve been to Rome and wandered up Palatine Hill (at dusk – very picturesque and the only time of day that such a walk was bearable in the hideous heat). It’s mildly distracting.

He refers to his illnesses so off-handedly. “I have heard it said that this pain, which they call ‘the cardiac passion,’ is worse than any other pain known to man except the strangury. Well, I must be thankful, I suppose, that I have never had the strangury.”

I’m really intrigued by the incident of the bear cub falling from the sky. While I think I get what it’s supposed to mean, I’m in disbelief that everyone who witnessed it managed to keep it a secret. They were all bound by an oath “never to refer to the portent either directly or in a roundabout way, in the lifetime of anyone present.” Even creepy little Livilla managed that? And all the other kids? Don’t buy it. Of course, if they were all killed off before too long, that might explain it.

Chapter 6: I suddenly got confused with all the names. While certain characters are active in the story, I can keep track of names, relationships, histories – but once the story moves on, I lose my grip on it, and any reference to a previous drama or relationship throws me for a loop. I remember that Livia killed Marcellus, but I don’t remember how, or who his parents were, or how long ago it was. I need a timeline and a vast family tree. But, it’s not so bad that I’m discouraged. I just don’t feel very sharp.

I’m in awe of Livia. I wouldn’t want to get within a hundred years of her, but wow, does she have a tight grip on things. Impressive in a thoroughly horrific way. Plotting to recreate history with Gaius and Lucius? To do to them what she did to their father’s rival, and then to do to their rival what she did to their father? And Tiberius is the only one who’s figured out that Livia is poisoning people? I flat out don’t believe that. Not only does Livia create her own elaborate plots, but she takes into consideration what elaborate plots others might be hatching: “which would make him [Tiberius] secure against assassination by Gaius, should Gaius think of removing him.”

Also, overall with the book, it’s difficult not to notice how history repeats the same depressing patterns. I, Claudius was published in 1934. Graves fought and was wounded twice in WWI. So I can’t help but think of parallels Graves saw between Classical history and his own time; and of course it all still holds true today.

“And who brought the Punic Curse on Rome? That same old Cato who, whenever he was asked his opinion in the Senate on any matter whatever, would end his speech with: ‘This is my opinion; and my further opinion is that Carthage should be destroyed: she is a menace to Rome.’ By harping incessantly on the menace of Carthage he brought about such popular nervousness that, as I have said, the Romans eventually violated their most solemn commitments and razed Carthage to the ground.”

Sound familiar? Except we don’t believe in curses anymore.