Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Big Read II: I, Claudius Ch. 11-13

A third of the way into this book, I think I may be getting the hang of reading, reflecting, writing. It takes a long time, and it's not quite the same as in school, or reading for pleasure. I assume I'm writing for an audience, not trying to prove myself to teachers. I've taken to holding on to scraps of paper (thermal grocery receipts work well), scribbling little notes, and tearing it off to mark the page, thus easing the costly time of review. As I write, I toss the slips, creating a little bird's nest of debris. I really have to read The Memory Keeper's Daughter for my book group Tuesday, and a do bunch of Buddhist Festival and other BPF chapter stuff, but not only the book but this method has me hooked and I want to stick with it. I think I may do this sort of thing with A People's History by Howard Zinn.

Chapter 11: Gladiators and the betrayal of Postumus
~Drought and storms destroy the crops. With the bad harvest comes famine, and now there are too many people in Rome to feed. What do you say now, Augustus, to making babies?

~Claudius attends his first sword fight. He's always been kept from such public events. Vague scenes from movies I've never seen bounce around in my head, such as Gladiator and Spartacus. Swords and shields against nets and knives. "Livia was in the box too--a peculiar honour paid her as my father's mother. Normally she sat with the Vestal Virgins. The rule was for women and men to sit apart." Symbolically, I find this significant. If the fight between Cassius and the German soldier was not featured in those Hollywood movies, it should have been. Claudius faints just as he believes Cassius about to be killed, but Cassius turns the fight around and kills the man with his shield. "Do not forget this Cassius," Claudius informs.

~The next day, Claudius is again hidden from public sight, said to be ill. If I were him, I would have been glad. He "missed one of the most spectacular contests ever witnessed in the amphitheatre, between and Indian elephant--they are much bigger than the African breed--and a rhinoceros." The elephant won through cunning use of a tool: blinding the rhino with a stick broom left nearby.

~Livia learns that Claudius is attempting a biography of his father, and stops him...just as Pollio predicted. She sees his, and his father's, favoring of a republic over a monarchy as an infirmity. She writes:

"I think that he inherited them--his grandfather had the same curious infirmity, you remember--and it is just like Claudius to have chosen that one weakness to inherit and to have refused any legacy of physical or moral soundness!"

~Meanwhile Claudius is trying to figure out who could have poisoned his father and grandfather. "Yet I could not believe Augustus the murderer: poison was a mean way of killing, a slave's way, and Augustus would never have stooped to it." He learns rumors that the person who sent the doctor was the culprit. He puzzles over Livia's cease and desist order.

~Postumus is framed for rape by Her Voldemortness*. Before he is caught and banished, he manages to tell all to Claudius. Livilla betrayed him. So my thought that perhaps he stopped playing the game due to a rejection by Livilla was premature. Claudius can now be sure Livia is capable of all those past evil actions. He counsels patience from Postumus; he will vindicate him. "Germanicus and I will see that she doesn't [poison Augustus]. We'll warn him. ...I'll write you letters. ...Look carefully at the seventh page of any sewn-sheet book that reaches you from me. If I have a private message for you I'll write it in milk there. ...The writing is invisible until you warm it in front of a fire." Hey, Claudius could be one of those historian-whodunit-solvers that so populate kids books. Clean up the violence for the kids, anyone?

Chapter 12: Germans fight back; Julilla banned
~Claudius's talent of interpreting history comes to good use for his brother on the battlefield. He becomes Germanicus's intel gatherer, but Sulpicius gets the public credit for the book. Claudius had relied heavily on Pollio's records, not enough on Augustus, and Claudius supposes the emperor felt slighted.

~Writing about his grandfather, Claudius is again stopped by Livia.

~Tiberius conquers a rebellion in the Balkans. He wants to know why. Duh. "The chief rebel, a man called Bato, answered: "You yourselves are to blame. You send as guardians of your flocks neither shepherds nor watch-dogs, but wolves." Here I lose a little of my liking of Claudius. He discounts this, running up a bunch of conqueror's reasons why the foreign rabble should be grateful blah blah. He surmises the actual leaders were just, it was just their minions doing the dirty deeds: "...there must have been a great deal of petty jack-in-office oppression by the smaller men: perhaps it was these whom Bato called wolves, though "fleas" would have been a better word." Can you say "Abu Ghraib"?

~Ah, the arrogance of invaders. After reversals in Germany, Augustus blamed himself: "The disaster had been due to his imprudence in trying to force civilization on the barbarians too rapidly." Give me a break. Wouldn't all conquerors be at least slightly aware that no people wants to be occupied by a foreign government? Two clever "barbarians" ingratiated themselves with the Governor, they "appeared to be completely Romanized. ...These two often ate at Varus's table and were on terms of the most intimate friendship with him." Clever spies.

~The Germans routed the Romans, luck and weather on their side. "Only one officer kept his head--the same Cassius Chaerea who fought that day in the amphitheatre." He "broke through the enemy with a sudden charge." And he "awed the Germans." They looked for easier prey.

~Julilla is banished, like her mother Julia, for promiscuousness. I really must make that chart so I can keep these significances straight. Why is the absence of Julilla important to Livia? Oh, her unborn child "would be a great-grandson of Augustus, and unrelated to Livia; Livia was taking no risks now." I keep asking myself, WHY does Livia care about what happens to the succession? She's killed her own flesh and blood before, hasn't she? She has no human feeling for others in her house, why should this matter? Why even should the future of Rome matter to her as long as she gets hers?
~Augustus orders the burning of all copies of Ovid's Art of Love. He blames it for Julilla's supposed promiscuity. Let this be a lesson to all book banners. You can't do it.

Chapter 13: Augustus frees Postumus; Augustus dies
~Augustus is over 70 years old. Talk about foreshadowing, Claudius. Do you have to be that obvious?

~Augustus's blind spot continues: "Though Fate had decreed against his grandsons succeeding him he would surely one day reign again, as it were, in the persons of his great-grandchildren."

Agrippina always accompanied Germanicus when he went to the wars, as my mother had accompanied my father. She did this chiefly for love of him but also because she did not want to stay alone in Rome and perhaps be summoned before Augustus on a trumped-up charge of adultery.
Clever Agrippina.

~Claudius reads publicly from his latest book. He does well until a fat knight enters and disrupts. The comical scene breaks his concentration. He never reads his books publicly again.

~Germanicus gets his proof of Postumus's innocence. True to his word, he tells Augustus.

~Claudius flash-forwards to news he will get in the future. Augustus creates a cover story, and secretly removes Postumus from his island of banishment, replacing him with a slave related by bastardry. Still, Livia is suspicious of Augustus's travel by sea, something he wouldn't normally do. She learns that Fabius is the one man who accompanied Augustus on the little fishing trip, so she beguiles the poor man's wife into revealing his secrets.

~Livia's agents trail Fabius, but cannot discover where Postumus is hidden. She decides to waste no more time. "[Fabius] was waylaid in the street one night on his way to the Palace and stabbed in twelve places: his masked assailants escaped." Remember poison being a slave's method? Remember Livia joining the men at the sword fights? She has now graduated to the methods of men.

~Meanwhile Livia and Augustus dance around each other's secrets.

He positively forbade her to worry about his health; she had enough cares without that. He laughingly refused to eat anything but bread from the common table and water from the pitcher which she used herself.... Nothing in his manner to Livia seemed altered, nor was hers altered towards him, but each read the other's mind.

~Claudius almost puts himself in harm's way, shouting, "Poison is Queen, Poison is Queen!" when he learns of Augustus's death; he blames a dream.

I say, too little too late, old man. While Livia was publicly praised as a paragon of virtue, she was widely distrusted. The people knew. I would glean from this that a great leader, no matter how trusted his advisors and his intimates, should always find the opinions of the common people. He should always seek the grain of truth in those rumors he does not want to believe. How did Augustus live so blind for so long?

*Voldemort is, in case any of readers live on another planet or don't read books, the evil entity that Harry Potter spends so many books fighting. (love you sweetie!)

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