When in Rome . . .

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The older boy’s name was Squire. I was 14 and reading in the house study under the Honours Board, with its gilded list of those who had left school with Oxbridge scholarships. My paperback, brand- new from the school bookshop, was The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, in its imperial purple Penguin Classics livery. I was a few pages into the life of Julius when Squire came up behind me and snatched the book out of my hands.

‘This is a dirty book, Blake.’

‘No it’s not. It’s Roman history.’

His nostrils twitched in disapproval.

‘It’s dirty Roman history, and it’s confiscated.’

He put the book in his pocket.

How could bloody Squire confiscate a book that I’d bought, with my own money, in the school bookshop? Because he was a bloody House Monitor and knew he could do as he liked! The injustice stung, and it still does.

Actually I was well aware that Suetonius was a bit racy – in particular the chapters on Tiberius, Caligula and Nero – but regretfully I had not yet reached the salacious bits. Anyway, they were not the prime reason I’d bought the book. I’d just finished Robert Graves’s Claudius novels and wanted to look at one of their principal sources, which Graves had himself translated for Penguin. And the reason I wanted to do that was because I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1934) had kept me profoundly gripped in every spare moment for a good half of that term.

For several years before this I’d been slightly addicted to the Roman Empire. I used to pore over historical atlases tracing its rise, decline and fall, rather like a young zoologist getting hooked on the life cycle of the hippopotamus. I had been to the Roman Museum at York (known to me as Eboracum) and had become an expert on the fighting tackle of a legionary. I could talk knowledgeably about denarii, solidi and sestertii and had recently devoured Leonard Cottrell’s bestse

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The older boy’s name was Squire. I was 14 and reading in the house study under the Honours Board, with its gilded list of those who had left school with Oxbridge scholarships. My paperback, brand- new from the school bookshop, was The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, in its imperial purple Penguin Classics livery. I was a few pages into the life of Julius when Squire came up behind me and snatched the book out of my hands.

‘This is a dirty book, Blake.’

‘No it’s not. It’s Roman history.’

His nostrils twitched in disapproval.

‘It’s dirty Roman history, and it’s confiscated.’

He put the book in his pocket.

How could bloody Squire confiscate a book that I’d bought, with my own money, in the school bookshop? Because he was a bloody House Monitor and knew he could do as he liked! The injustice stung, and it still does.

Actually I was well aware that Suetonius was a bit racy – in particular the chapters on Tiberius, Caligula and Nero – but regretfully I had not yet reached the salacious bits. Anyway, they were not the prime reason I’d bought the book. I’d just finished Robert Graves’s Claudius novels and wanted to look at one of their principal sources, which Graves had himself translated for Penguin. And the reason I wanted to do that was because I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1934) had kept me profoundly gripped in every spare moment for a good half of that term.

For several years before this I’d been slightly addicted to the Roman Empire. I used to pore over historical atlases tracing its rise, decline and fall, rather like a young zoologist getting hooked on the life cycle of the hippopotamus. I had been to the Roman Museum at York (known to me as Eboracum) and had become an expert on the fighting tackle of a legionary. I could talk knowledgeably about denarii, solidi and sestertii and had recently devoured Leonard Cottrell’s bestselling history of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy, Enemy of Rome. So when the Claudius books appeared, as orange Penguins at 3/6d, I immediately shelled out the necessary solidi.

Robert Graves himself had never been particularly crazy about the Romans, but he was given a solid classical grounding at Charterhouse and, when he found himself in need of cash, it was to first-century Rome that he turned. It was the early 1930s, and he was living on Majorca with the formidable, dangerous American writer Laura Riding. Goodbye to All That, his memoir of the Great War, had been a bestseller but he was in need of another success to fund his and Riding’s Spanish house-building, and to support his abandoned first wife Nancy and their children.

The two books take the form of the intimate memoirs of Claudius himself, telling of his unlikely ascent to the imperial throne, and his surprisingly successful thirteen-year reign. Previously he had been known around Rome as Claudius the Idiot, or Clau-Clau-Claudius the Stammerer, and regarded as being in general an axe short of the full fasces. After his death the younger Seneca wrote a satire on Claudius’s death, The Pumpkinification of Claudius, in which the Emperor dies giving a noisy fart and saying, ‘Oh, good heavens, I believe I’ve made a mess of myself.’ ‘Whether this is actually so I can’t say,’ writes Seneca, ‘but all agree that he always made a mess of things.’

For a long time historians had no more respect for Claudius than Seneca had – Edward Gibbon called him ‘the most stupid of all the emperors’ – but by the twentieth century opinion had shifted. The influential Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its celebrated 1911 edition, says that Claudius was an able administrator and stabilizing hand who rescued the empire from the tyranny of Tiberius and the ravages of Caligula. He was also ‘a liberal-minded man of kindly nature anxious for the welfare of his people’. I am sure Graves read that brief article: it looks like a draft outline of his Claudius novels.

There was a stock character in Plautus’s Roman comedies known as the Cunning Slave, outwardly dim and servile but inwardly a great schemer and survivor. That is Graves’s Claudius, but with added self- deprecating humour and charm. He suffered from a number of handicaps, including a deaf ear after measles, a partially withered leg from polio, the aforementioned stammer and what I suppose we would now call Autism Spectrum Disorder. The suggestion of ASD may derive from Suetonius, who writes that the Emperor was ‘so careless in what he said, it was thought he never reflected on who he himself was, or amongst whom, or at what time, or in what place he was speaking’. The fact that Graves’s character is both detail-oriented and prodigally indiscreet, with some highly individual added quirks, shows how far Graves took Suetonius’s characterization as a model.

Claudius was born into the Claudian family and so carried the genes of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in his DNA. A running motif in the story is that his family is split into Good Claudians and Bad Claudians, of whom the Bad not only outnumber the Good but generally tread them underfoot, then banish, bully, persecute, plot against and poison them. That is what happens to the two Good Claudians whom the narrator most admires, his father Drusus Nero and his brother Germanicus. The most poisonous Bad Claudian – in every sense – is Livia, wife and power behind the throne of the first emperor Augustus. Livia is a villain in the mould of Lady Macbeth and Lucrezia Borgia – manipulative in getting her way while making the Emperor think he made the decision. An important factor is that the God-Emperor, though he adores Livia, literally wilts as soon as he gets into bed with her. She exploits this by acting as procuress, providing him with a supply of nubile female flesh to fill the void.

Livia levers Tiberius, her son by a previous husband, into the suc- cession. He has been an effective soldier but proves, in power, to be another Bad Claudian, his twenty-three-year reign descending into tyranny and gross dissipation. Written in the early 1930s, Graves’s account of the political terror instigated by Livia and Tiberius looks like an uncanny copybook for the purges of Stalin and Beria that began just a few years later in the Soviet Union. First come the informers and the torture, then the accusations of treachery based on jokes or incidental remarks about the Emperor, followed by show trials in front of the Senate, in which the accused are forced to admit their guilt. Finally there are the banishings, the forced suicides and the brutal executions.

In one case that Claudius recounts in detail an unassuming sena- tor is overheard by a snitch declining to explain to his wife some graffiti in which reference is made to a homicidal drunkard. Hauled before Tiberius, the poor fellow is forced to admit the thought-crime of believing the graffiti is about the Emperor, whereupon his cowed fellow senators sentence him to be hurled from the Tarpeian cliff, ‘a punishment reserved for the worst traitors’. Under the Tiberian regime the slightest slip of the tongue can mean death and, as one character puts it, ‘complacent anticipation of the monarch’s wishes’ is the only worthwhile political skill left.

In the latter part of his reign Tiberius retires to Capri, with the fixed idea of reviving his flagging sexual powers. The Caprian goings-on are detailed by Suetonius with greater specificity than by Graves’s Claudius, which is exactly why I found my book being expropriated by the House Monitor at school. Not that there is any- thing erotic about the account in either book. I, Claudius makes it clear these are dour, joyless, sadistic sex-ercises, involving adults and children, of both genders and neither, whether willing or (more often) forced.

Tiberius’s successor Caligula comes to power in his twenties, and reigns for just three years of insane extravagance and excess, in which his favourite horse is appointed Consul (akin to a Prime Minister) and he himself undergoes what he tells Claudius is a ‘metamorphosis’ into a living god. Temples, prayers and ceremonies are instigated, with observance being enforced on pain of very painful death. Caligula is the archetypal fun-loving psychopath: Brett Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman in a toga and with unlimited powers.

Through all this Claudius crouches as best he can below the para- pet but he is often dragged up into the firing line. Caligula likes to have Uncle Clau-Clau-Claudius around as a butt for his distinctly Bullingdon Club-like jokes. But Caligulan joking always has its sinister side and, more than once, Claudius seems to be heading for the Tarpeian cliff himself.

Caligula’s ghastly antics are very entertaining, but the reader is delighted when he is assassinated and Claudius to his amazement is put on the throne. He is supposed to be a stop-gap – a pliable Emperor who will ease the way back to republican rule. Indeed his own inclinations are that way, but he quickly realizes the empire needs deep-reaching reforms and an economic revival before any change is possible. He determines to take on the job.

Claudius the God, which picks up the story at this point, is subtitled . . . and His Wife Messalina, but Messalina herself never quite comes to life in the way that Livia has done. Possibly Graves was inhibited by her historical notoriety as the paradigm of a rapacious femme fatale. We are aware of her sexual and political activities early on (no point in concealing what the reader already knows) and Claudius portrays himself as a hapless besotted January to her scheming and wildly promiscuous May, he being 50 and she only 15 when they marry at Caligula’s mischievous bidding. The only reason Claudius offers for his failure to see through Messalina is her beauty and his blind, devouring love.

The first hundred pages of Claudius the God consist of what amounts to a subplot involving the adventures of Claudius’s childhood friend, the Jewish prince Herod Agrippa, who is the grandson of the biblical Herod the Great. Herod Agrippa is a Byronic figure for Claudius, an adventurer but with his ear to the ground and a good head on his shoulders. He provides Claudius with useful counsel but, after burning bright as a rocket, comes like so many characters in the Claudius novels – actually almost all the characters – to a sorry end.

The big set-piece of the book is the invasion of Britain in which, with the help of war-elephants, the British king Caractacus is defeated in a battle witnessed by the Emperor and described by Graves the old soldier with great brio. At the end, says Claudius, ‘we reached Colchester and . . . I travelled on elephant-back like an Indian Prince’. The final struggle with Messalina is then played out. She loses, but by now Claudius’s spirit is broken and during the period when he is notionally writing his memoirs he has largely withdrawn from government. The narrative can’t encompass Claudius’s own death, so Graves rounds off the book with some Roman accounts of it, including Seneca’s satire and an extract from Suetonius.

So ends what might be classified as one of the best potboilers ever written in English. It has always been revered. Three years after its publication Claudius almost won Graves the Nobel Prize (‘What a waste of false modesty,’ commented Riding) and, while Alexander Korda’s film starring Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon was never completed, the BBC’s 1970s serialization in which Derek Jacobi played Claudius was an international success. The books themselves have never been out of print.

And, by the way, in the meantime, I did never get my Twelve Caesars back.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Robin Blake 2021


About the contributor

Robin Blake is the author of seven mystery novels about the eighteenth-century coroner Titus Cragg and his forensic friend Dr Luke Fidelis.

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