Claudius the God and his wife Messalina – Robert Graves

After finishing I, Claudius this summer, I immediately put the novel on my ‘Favorite Books’ list. Robert Graves 1934 fictionalized autobiography of the the history of Rome and the ascension of it’s fourth mperor Claudius, was informational and simply a great read. In the first  novel, Claudius is secretly writing his memoirs, which display the melodrama that encapsulate Rome.  Graves continued his history a year later with the sequel Claudius the God and his wife Messalina.

Instead of hiding in the shadows and filling in as the butt of jokes, Claudius is now emperor of all Rome-a title reluctantly thrust upon him after Caligula’s assassination. After a brief power struggle between the distrustful Senate and Army’s preference for Claudius, the newly crowned emperor eventually allowed power to speak for him. But unlike the selfish and nonsensical deeds of his predecessors, Claudius’s reign was to improve general life in Rome.

As the rational figurehead, Claudius manages to bring about a wondrous collection of reforms to the judicial system and expand the boarders of the Empire to Britain. Though if there is anything you can be sure of in Old Rome, it’s that peace and prosperity are fleeting. Claudius’s young wife Messalina begins to abuse her power as the Emperor’s wife and plans to usurp the ivory clad crown with the help of overly ambitious Senators. Will Claudius be able to save himself from the violent fate that ended his predecessors?

Graves sequel to his 1934 novel is certainly a stand alone achievement. The poet-author does justice to the 13 year reign of Claudius into a neat 500 page volume. But the novel is also much more than simply a story of a former outcast turned emperor. Graves also flexes his historical muscles by including the history of Herod Agrippa (Better remembered as Herod the Great’). This interruption, while informational, reads a bit excessively. After hyping up the continuation of the cliffhanger I, Claudius ended on, Graves diverts us within the first chapter. A major love I have for the collective novels is the bawdy tales that occur within Rome, and while Herod is by no means a morally upstanding citizen, his tales fail in comparison to the insanity of Tiberius or Caligula. But where Herod fails in impurity, he makes up for in advice to his closest friend, Claudius:

“Nevertheless’, he said, ‘since you appear to be in need of my advice I am prepared to speak frankly. The republican form of government appears to me in certain circumstances a most estimable thing. I would say the same of a benignant monarchy. Nobody can, in my opinion, make a hard-and-fast pronouncement that one form of government is essentially better than the other. The suitability of each form depends on the temper of the people, the capacity of the ruler or rulers, the geographical extent of the State, and so on. Only one general rule can be made, and it is this: No sensible man would give -that” (here he gave a contemptuous snap with his fingers) “for any government, whether democratic, plutocratic, aristocratic, that cannot count on the loyal support of the armed forces of the State over which it pretends to rule. And so, my Lords, before I begin to offer you any practical advice I must ask you a question. My question is: Have you the army behind you?”

In I, Claudius the most compelling stories concerned everyone except the title character, but in the subsequent volume he is truly the only character I cared about. Graves tellingly long sentences craft the newly crowned emperor with regal prose. He ages his Roman mouthpiece with despotic and physical manner that pleases fans of the first novel as well as making a compelling history:

“I continued my reforms at Rome, especially doing all I could to create a sense of public responsibility in my subordinates. I appointed the Treasury officials whom I had been training and made their appointments run for three years. I dismissed from the Senatorial Order the Governor of Southern Spain becuase he could not clearn himself of the charges brought against him by the troops serving in Morocco that he had cheated them of half their corn rations. Other charges of fraud were brought against him too, and he had to pay a hundred thousand gold pieces. He went round to his friends trying to gain their smpathy by telling them that the charges were framed by Posides and Palllas whom he had offended by remembering their slavish birth. But he got little sympathy. One early morning this governor brought all his house furniture, which made about three hundred wagon-loads of exceptionally valuable pieces, to the public auction-place. This caused a lot of excitement because he had an unrivalled collection of Corinthian vessels. All the dealers and connoisseurs came crowding up, licking their lips and searching round for bargains. But they were dissapointed. When the spear was stuck upright in the ground, to show that a public auction was in progress, all that the senator sold was his gown. Then he had the spear pulled out again to show that the auction was over, and that night at midnight, when wagons were allowed in the streets again, he took his stuff back home. He was merely showing everyone that he had plently of money stll and could live very comfortably as a private citizen. However, I was not going to let the insult pass. I put a heavy tax on Corinthian vessels that year, which he could not evade because he had publicly displayed his collection and even listed them on the auction board. “

But the book is not without its faults. When Graves finds his poetic rhythm Claudius the God it’s a real treat, but it’s definitely less lucid than it’s predecessor. While doing fair justice to all of Claudius’s achievements and blunders, the author is willing to dull his audience. In particularly, the excessively long and dull British campaign.

In the end, I hesitate to call Claudius the God a sequel, but rather a lengthy epilogue. While there are frequent allusions to characters and events, the tone of the subsequent novel is much less fulfilling-that shouldn’t stray you from reading the novels though. What Graves may lack in passages of excitement, he makes up for in his accurate voice of his muse, his outcast, his Emperor, his Claudius.

-Surviving fragments from an actual speech from Claudius on allowing citizenship to the French provinces:

“It was the will of my uncle, the Emperor Tiberius, that all leading colonies and provincial towns in Italy should have representatives sitting in this House; and representatives were indeed found with the necessary qualifications of character and wealth. ‘Yes’, you will say, ‘but there is a difference between an Italian senator and a senator from abroad.’ Well, when I begin justifying to you part of my action, as Censor, in extending full Roman citizenship to the provinces, I shall show you just how I feel on the matter. But let me say briefly that I do not think we ought to debar provincials from a seat in this House, if they can give credit to it, merely because they are provincials. The renowned and splendid colony of Vienne, in France, has been sending us Senators for a long time now, has it not? My dear friend Lucius Vestinus comes from Vienne: he is one of the most distinguished members of the Noble Order of Knights and I employ him to assist me with my administrative duties. “

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5 thoughts on “Claudius the God and his wife Messalina – Robert Graves

  1. The author’s name is “Robert Graves”, not “Peter Graves”, who was an actor best know for his role in the television series “Mission Impossible”. Robert Graves was the author of numerous novels and volumes of poetry, as well as his work as a mythographer in “The White Goddess”, and “The Greek Myths”. The later are often published in two volumes although a single-volume version is available. Robert Graves left a deep mark on English literature of the 20th century, whereas Peter Graves merits nary a blip in the history of acting. I do hope you will be able to correct the erroneous attribution of authorship of a staggering masterpiece of the historical novel.

    • Cate Trevana,

      Thank you for correcting my “erroneous”(and grossly overlooked) mistake.

      For some odd reason, I consistently confuse these two gentleman.

      Though ‘I, Claudius’ was much better.

      • What a gracious reply to a grouchy old ‘schoolmarm’! I understand the type of confusion you have with the two “Graves” gentlemen, for I often confuse “Ronald McDonald” with “Ronald Reagan”! How’s that for absurd? Although now that I think about it, both were highly overpaid actors who caused great suffering and death from the “products” they sold to generations of children and their parents!

        Btw, if you enjoy reading the history of Rome in works of fiction, I cannot recommend both Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series and Steven Saylor’s “Roma Sub Rosa” mysteries highly enough. Both authors possess uncanny knowledge of all things Roman–from the patois of the Subura to the inner workings of the legal and religious institutions of Rome. Both bring the “twilight of the Republic” so vividly to life that you may find yourself longing to to become a “Forum Frequenter” and you will know how to hurl the vilest of insults in proper Latin to your detrractors!

      • Haha, mistaking Reagan and Ronald is one confusion I approve of!

        Thank you for very much the recommendations. Really looking forward to trying out some vile Latin!

        Cheers-

  2. Pingback: Authors on Film: Robert Graves Shaves in the Mirror | eReading just got social

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