Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves

Colleen McCullough's First Man in Rome series left off with Augustus' final victory over Antony and Cleopatra, which left him as undisputed Princeps over a Roman state that did not yet quite realize that the Republic had ended and the Empire had begun. Idealistic dreams of restoring a perfected Republic no doubt outlived the Julio-Claudian dynasty that began with McCullough's ultimate Roman, Julius Caesar, and ended with the assassination of Nero almost 120 years after the crossing of the Rubicon.

Those idealistic dreams lived on through more than half of those years in the heart of Robert Graves' fictionalized Claudius, the family embarrassment who was made emperor against his will and thought to open the Roman people's eyes to the evils of autocracy by arranging for the succession to pass from him to the worst possible candidate - his nephew Nero.

Rereading I, Claudius and Claudius the God after many years reminded me how seminal the novels were in the now-crowded field of Roman historical novels. Graves literally invented the sub-genre, so much so that he apparently feared that his audience would be put off by use of Latin words (or direct English translations) describing various aspects of Roman life, culture, politics and military matters. Indeed, my biggest criticism of Graves' writing is that the terms he chose to substitute, while undoubtedly more familiar to a British readership of the 1930s, are often highly inaccurate. To cite just one glaring example, a Roman legion was nothing like a British regiment. In other cases, however, Graves chose the obscure over the familiar - assegai instead of spear or javelin. As a poet, maybe he just liked the sound of the word.

That sort of nit-picking in 2013, however, is only possible because Graves showed that readers would pay money for historical fiction set in ancient Rome. As a result, readers who enjoy well-written Roman stories have had an embarrassment of riches over the past 30 years or so and, as a result, we Romanophiles know our aediles from our tribunes - we don't want them lumped together as "officials". For opening up the mysteries of that fascinating age to fiction readers, we still owe Graves a huge debt of gratitude. I've read that Graves did not think much of his own novels; that he only wrote them for the money, etc. It doesn't matter - he's the godfather of Roman historical fiction.

The other literary device that sets I, Claudius apart is the use by Graves of what I call "plausible alternative explanations" for historical events. Such subplots enliven what could otherwise be an unimaginative recital of known historical events, with a veneer of inconsequential fictional action. Speculative "hidden" history is great fun, and is employed to wonderful effect by the best modern hist-fiction authors. In addition, the ability to construct a truly plausible alternative history demonstrates the author's mastery of the history underlying the fiction.

The "hidden" history in I, Claudius is partly in the revealed depths of the Claudius character, but even more in the role of Livia, wife of Augustus. Graves casts her as the prime mover behind dynastic events throughout the reigns of Augustus and Tiberias, and on into Caligula's years before her death. Livia's evil genius is extrapolated from contemporary rumors of her being a poisoner and behind-the-scenes political schemer. The suspicions are entirely plausible and understandable, given the poorly explained deaths of so many of Augustus' designated successors who were not Livia's son Tiberias.

It's not easy to create and sustain dramatic tension in a historical story when everyone already knows how it ends, but Graves accomplishes that feat through Claudius' gradual realization of just how powerful and ruthless his grandmother really was, and his constant fear that he too will come to be seen as a threat to Livia's plans. The crowning irony of Graves' plot comes when it turns out that Claudius is the only one left who can grant Livia's last and greatest desire (no spoilers here).

By contrast, Claudius the God (and his wife Messalina) is weaker on both plot and dramatic development. Right off the bat, the narrative diverges into a background story of Herod Agrippa, a boyhood friend and schoolmate of Claudius who had become the Roman client-king of Judea. After Herod's untimely end, the remainder of the book follows the reign of the emperor Claudius and his aforementioned plans concerning Nero. Graves attempts to cast Messalina in a role similar to Livia in the first book, but with less success.  

Continuing my efforts to keep some factual backup near to hand while reading historical novels, I found an excellent concise history called The Sons of Caesar: Imperial Rome's First Dynasty, by Philip Matyszak. It actually goes a bit farther than Graves to cover Nero's brief reign and the following 'Year of Four Emperors', which was as chaotic as it sounds.

There's not much criticism in the five criteria for these two novels:
  1. Did the novel(s) inspire me to further historical research?
Yes, as they did when I first read them years ago. Score = 5
  1. Did the novel(s) include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Inclusion/description of historical events and people was actually more comprehensive than in Matyszak's history. Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. I found no significant conflicts with the companion history text. My only criticism, as noted above, is the unnecessarily confusing use of non-congruent descriptive terms. Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes, within the normal limits set by contemporary sources. Graves' assignation of subjective judgements of character and motive often differ from Suetonius or Tacitus, but don't require alteration of known facts. Indeed, contemporary sources often differed from one another when assessing historical actors. That's the genius of Graves' fictional "hidden" history - it works without resort to outlandishly implausible behavior or extremely unlikely actions.  Score = 5
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. I haven't read any of Graves' other historical novels, but eventually I will.  Score = 5