Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Big Read II: I, Claudius

I'm not sure I have the time for this, but I am intrigued at the idea of reading a book this way. I've read books with deadlines for chapters before for classes, but I don't recall that I've ever written on one chapter by chapter. I guess this could end up being my version of a Cliff's notes, so get ready for spoilers in these posts.

What the hell am I talking about, you ask? One of my favorite book bloggers started this thing called The Big Read. This is the second one; I missed the first book. We'll be reading I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Already I am two days behind.

The schedule:
March 3 -- Chapters 1-3
March 5 -- Chapters 4-6
March 7 -- Chapters 7-10
March 10 -- Chapters 11-13
March 12 -- Chapters 14-16
March 14 -- Chapters 17-19
March 17 -- Chapters 20-22
March 19 -- Chapters 23-26
March 21 -- Chapters 27-29
March 24 -- Chapters 30-34

In case you didn't know, I, Claudius is an historical fiction about a Roman Emperor (Claudius) after Julius, Augustus, Caligula. I read that Robert Graves based it on Tacitus, among other things. I read some of that and Plutarch's Lives and Herodotus in college but I remember nothing. Not a damn thing.

Chapter 1
In which Claudius informs us he has been known as "Claudius the Idiot" and "Claudius the Stammerer." He also informs us that he wrote another book much earlier in his life, but it was so very dull.

He visits an oracle, the Sibyl at Cumae. "I came into the inner cavern, after groping painfully on all-fours up the stairs, and saw the Sibyl, more like an ape than a woman, sitting on a chair in a cage that hung from the ceiling, her robes red and her unblinking eyes shining red in the single red shaft of light that struck down from somewhere above. Her toothless mouth was grinning. There was a smell of death about me." Turns out that was literal. "The reigning Sibyl always lived with her predecessor."

And I find myself wondering, am I reading the predecessor to Monty Python?

After all, she gives a hilarious oracle. I'm already quoting quite enough, so here's just one stanza (she mocks his stammer):

But when he's dumb and no more here,
Nineteen hundred years or near,
Clau-Clau-Claudius shall speak clear.

And so the clever Claudius The Idiot (or Robert Graves) tells us that that is why we are reading his so-not-dull autobiography nineteen hundred years later. He has faith in the oracle. Claudius is 51, and is or about to be emperor.

Chapter 2
Before we get the dish on why Claudius is experiencing this "golden predicament," he figures he'd better go back to the beginning, and that is to the making of his evil* grandmother, Livia. I have to think carefully to keep things straight, as it seems in the Emperor circles in Ancient Rome, divorces and marriages are traded about like changes of clothes, and Livia knows just how to machinate this to her advantage. "Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus."

I find myself wondering how often I am going to think of America's current emperorship. "Livia realized now that the title of king could be waived so long as Augustus could control the substantial powers of kingship." He eventually controlled the armies, decided on war, controlled the treasury, and controlled the provinces. "The Senate were anxious to vote him whatever title he would accept, short of King: they were afraid to vote him the kingship for fear of the people."

Chapter 3
"The name "Livia" is connected with the Latin word which means Malignity."
More of Livia's machinations: Augustus suffers a mysterious illness; she has him name Agrippa (his friend) his heir. Conflict ensues between Agrippa and Marcellus (Augustus' adoptive son). Agrippa goes away. OK then Marcellus develops a mysterious illness, much like Augustus. Marcellus dies. Hmmm, Claudius is saying to us readers nineteen hundred years in the future. OK then there is a flurry of wife-shuffling, and Livia is pelted with rotten eggs by an angry mob. (Go mob.) Agrippa is petulant over the whole Marcellus thing, but he and Augustus make up. More wife-shuffling, Agrippa gets Julia that he's always secretly loved. Claudius says, "My grandmother Livia was far from pleased with the bargain made with Agrippa..." Livia bided her time. Nine years later Agrippa died suddenly. More wife-shuffling. Somehow the wife-shuffling seems to determine who gets the power.

The wife shuffled the most was little Julia. She was the child of Augustus' first wife, born just as Livia stole him away. Julia stayed with Augustus. Livia's child, Claudius's father, was returned to the man she'd left, even though she'd told him the baby was not his in order to get her divorce. Julia became known for her beauty, and of course her wicked stepmother Livia was jealous. For some inexplicable reason Julia went bald. Augustus got the girl a wig rumored to be "the whole scalp of a German chieftain's daughter shrunk to the exist size of Julia's head." Mel Brooks, don't you want to do this story about blond bimbo tossed around by a power-grubbing stepmother?

Oh yes, Claudius has been talking about good Claudians and bad Claudians. His uncle Tiberius, bad. His father, good, the best. As a general, Tiberius flogged his men. Claudius's father treated his like Roman citizens, and had them determine discipline amongst themselves. He inspired his troops. Tiberius created deceptive cunning criminal troops. I'm wondering, who is Caligula? Not Claudius's father? Ah, no. Here's the chart. And here's the timeline.

*I should mention, when I say "evil" I don't really mean that. I may mean pathological, or mistaken, or lost, or greedy; I don't really believe in evil. It's fun to say it though.


Max Macias said...


My classical Latin and greek instructor in college was sure those books were written about the English Royal family.

Livia is one of my favorite historical fiction characters!

Have fun with that!

We will have some good conversation about that!

Jess said...

Why didn't it occur to me that Livia had anything to do with Julia's baldness? Of COURSE she did - thanks for making me realize!

Unknown said...

I really liked that book and I hope you will enjoy it too. I felt sorry about Claudius because in my opinion he was the best Emperor in the Roman history and he was treated according to his physical appearance.