Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#18 - "I, Claudius" by Robert Graves

History and fiction, combined into one book.  I may be in heaven.  Part of the reason I started the list, was to expand my horizons, and start reading a little more fiction.  For ten years after University, I could probably count the number of novels I read on one hand.  Meanwhile, I had put back half the World War II section at Chapters.  With, I, Claudius, I was able to combine my old reading habits and my new reading habits, in a spectacular novel from 1934.

The book is written as an autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, who lived from 10BC to 54AD.  Born with physical disabilities causing a lifelong limp and stutter, Claudius spends his life in the Imperial Family, forgotten as an idiot and of no consequence.  He lives and writes about the turbulent times of the Roman Empire, an era filled with murder, treason, assassination, corruption, incest and war.  Very interesting times to say the least.  One gets the idea life was pretty cheap in Roman times, as murder seems to be as common as reading the paper.  Husbands are killed by wives, sons by mothers, daughters by fathers, brothers by sisters, and everybody by the emperor.  But through all these treacherous years, Claudius is able to avoid execution laying in the political weeds and eventually rise to become Emperor of the Roman Empire.  Having an interest in history, Claudius prides himself on being a capable historian, and spends most of his life writing about the scandals and politics of his family.

Basing most of the events in some way on historical record, the book, while fiction, can still be taken seriously as a rough guide to Roman times.  Myself, I had never really been too interested in that era, but see now that I was really missing out.  So much going on, so many political games, so much to learn.  What makes Graves' book so good, is the ease with which it reads.  Unlike a textbook, or other works focusing on the Roman era, I, Claudius uses more modern prose to tell its' story.  In the words of Time magazine, "Readers for whom the life of ancient Rome has been mummified by academic historians, museums and Latin grammar will give Author Graves a rising vote of thanks..."  I couldn't sum it up better myself.

You can read TIME's original review from June 18th, 1934 here.  Interesting to note, that in this review, the magazine refers to Claudius as "...a Roman of the Old School..."  Could this be the very first use of the expression 'old school'?  I always thought that had originated in the last five or ten years.

Listen to my discussion of I, Claudius on the CBC Eyeopener, right here.

For my next book, I am planning on reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.  It was quite an ordeal to get my next book from the library, but I shall save that story for another day.

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