I, Claudius by Robert Graves

When I decided, a few years ago, to include I, Claudius on my list of books to read for the Classics Club I didn’t really expect to enjoy it. It was a book that I felt I should read, due to its status as a work of classic historical fiction, rather than one that I actually wanted to read. The reason I didn’t particularly want to read it was because Ancient Rome was not a setting I found very appealing. That has slowly begun to change since reading Robert Harris’ excellent Cicero trilogy in 2015 and then Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero earlier this year. It’s probably a good thing, then, that I, Claudius has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end – it meant that when I did finally pick it up last month, I was much more receptive to it than I would have been a while ago.

I, Claudius, as you would expect, is narrated by Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor. It takes the form of a fictional autobiography:

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot”, or “That Claudius”, or “Claudius the Stammerer”, or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius”, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.

Claudius doesn’t actually tell us about his time as emperor in this novel – that will come later, in the sequel Claudius the God – but instead he gives us a very detailed account of his family background, his childhood and what it was like to live through the reigns of his three predecessors, Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, who seemed to become progressively more corrupt, unstable and dangerous. However, it is obvious that the real power in Rome is wielded by Livia, the wife of Augustus (and Claudius’ grandmother) who systematically removes various rivals to the throne to ensure the succession of her own line. The ambitious, manipulative Livia is a great character and a constant presence throughout the novel as she works to control and shape the future of the Empire.

Of course, life for someone part of the imperial family as Claudius is comes with its own set of dangers. With his stammering, his twitching and his limp, he is regarded as an embarrassment, kept in the background and not taken seriously as a possible contender for the throne. There are hints and omens from the beginning – including one memorable scene which takes place early in the novel involving a poetic prophecy spoken by a Sibyl – but otherwise the very qualities that appear to make Claudius unsuitable as an emperor seem to keep him safe as those around him are methodically poisoned, exiled or assassinated. This might not be entirely down to luck, though, as Graves has the historian Asinius Pollio advising Claudius to exaggerate these qualities as they could be his only means of survival.

Although I did enjoy I, Claudius, it was a bit of a challenging read for me at times – but that was mainly due to the fact that I haven’t read a lot of fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter) about the Roman Empire so I only have a basic familiarity with the important events and people of the period. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary to have any prior knowledge before starting this book, but it would certainly help! A piece of advice for future readers: you may find it useful to draw a family tree as you read, if your edition doesn’t already include one. The relationships between the characters quickly become very complicated, especially as so many of them marry and divorce several times, with children from each marriage (as well as adopted children) – but with a little bit of effort and attention, keeping track of the major players in the story isn’t too difficult.

If I have a criticism of this book it would be that as Claudius spends most of his time telling us about events that happened before his birth, elsewhere in the Empire or in which he had no personal involvement, this occasionally takes away the sense of drama and immediacy that there could have been had our narrator always been at the heart of the action. It’s still quite gripping in places – such as the sequence of events leading up to the death of his cousin Postumus, or the ‘haunting’ of his brother Germanicus (two of the few people to actually show Claudius any kindness) – but it’s probably worth being aware that this is not just a book about Claudius himself but also the history of the Roman Empire in general (the real Claudius was a writer and historian so Graves’ decision to have him tell the story in this way feels authentic).

I can’t comment on the accuracy of this novel, the sources Graves has used or the way he has chosen to interpret the characters, because I simply don’t know enough about the subject, but I do know that I found it much more enjoyable than I’d exected – and that I’m glad I decided to read it, despite my ambiguous feelings about Roman history. I’ll look forward to continuing the story soon with Claudius the God.

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

It’s been a few years since I read Margaret George’s Elizabeth I – still the only one of her novels I’ve read – but I’ve always intended to read more and the publication of The Confessions of Young Nero, the first of two volumes on the life of the Roman Emperor, seemed a good opportunity. Until recently, this particular book wouldn’t have appealed to me (Ancient Rome has never been a favourite historical period of mine) but tastes changes and, having read the wonderful Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris, I now feel more enthusiastic about the subject.

The Confessions of Young Nero is a fictional account of the early years of Nero – or Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, to give him the name by which he was known as a child. Narrated in his own words, Nero begins by taking us through the events of his childhood, starting with one of his earliest memories: the time his uncle, the Emperor Caligula, tried to drown him. This is the young Nero’s first experience of the ruthless plotting and scheming which surrounds those close to the imperial family; it is never far from his thoughts as he grows older and, following the deaths of first Caligula and then his successor Claudius, becomes emperor himself.

Although, as I’ve mentioned, most of the story is narrated by Nero, there are several much shorter sections scattered throughout the book narrated by two other characters: Locusta, a poisoner whose skills are very much in demand, and Acte, the former slave who becomes Nero’s lover. This was one of the least successful aspects of the book, in my opinion. I really don’t think those sections added anything to the story and I’m not sure why those two characters in particular were chosen, as there were plenty of others who had just as much significance in Nero’s life.

Nero himself is portrayed much more sympathetically than I’d expected. Admittedly I don’t know a huge amount about him, but from the little I had previously read I had formed a very different impression of Nero than the one given by this novel. I can see from Margaret George’s author’s note that she has deliberately taken a revisionist approach to Nero’s story, believing that he has been unfairly treated by history and that some of the accounts we rely on for information about him were written to discredit him. I can accept this (it reminds me of the way Tudor propaganda was intended to discredit Richard III) but I personally found this version of Nero far too nice! Nothing was ever really his fault and on occasions where he did commit a wicked act, it was because he had been driven to it and left with no choice. I think a more complex, morally ambiguous character would have been of more appeal to me.

I did like the characterisation of the main female characters in the novel, particularly Messalina, Agrippina and Poppaea, three ambitious women each of whom wields power in her own way. Something which comes across very strongly throughout the novel – and especially when one of these women is involved – is the continuous sense of danger and the way in which anyone of importance in the Roman Empire had to be constantly on their guard against an attempt on their life.

Having such limited knowledge of Ancient Rome, I found the complicated family relationships difficult to follow at first, but I think Margaret George does an excellent job of clarifying them for readers like myself and by the time I was a few chapters into the book I was starting to get Nero’s family tree clear in my mind. As this is quite a long novel and only tells the first half of Nero’s story, it allows plenty of time to explore the major personal and political incidents which take place during this stage of Nero’s life; some of this was familiar to me, but much of it was new and I found it all fascinating. While important events such as Boudicca’s revolt are described in detail, Margaret George also devotes many pages to discussing Nero’s love of music, poetry and sport. I can appreciate how much research must have gone into the writing of this novel!

I’m pleased that I’ve read this book as I think I’ve learned a lot from it – and despite having some negative feelings about it as well as positive ones, I do want to read the rest of the story and will be looking out for the sequel. Meanwhile, I’ve been reminded that I have Margaret George’s novel on Mary, Queen of Scots on my TBR – I’m looking forward to it as that’s a period of history I’m much more comfortable with!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Dictator by Robert Harris

Dictator This is the third and final volume of Robert Harris’s fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman philosopher, lawyer and statesman. I loved the previous two novels, Imperium and Lustrum, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I loved Dictator too. Until recently, I didn’t have much interest in Ancient Rome and would never have thought that I could find reading about the intricacies of Roman politics so exciting and fascinating. How wrong I was! In fact, the only negative thing I can say about this trilogy is that it has now come to an end.

Dictator covers the last fifteen years of Cicero’s life, though as the title suggests, the focus of the book is on the rise and fall of Julius Caesar. At the beginning of the novel, Cicero has been forced into exile by his enemy, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and with the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus now governing Rome it seems unlikely that he will be able to return. Loyalties and allegiances change quickly in the Roman Republic, however, and eventually it does become possible for Cicero to come home, to be reunited with his family and to return to politics and the senate.

As he tries to settle back into his old life in Rome, Cicero discovers that it is not the same city he left just a year before and when the tensions between Caesar and Pompey lead to civil war, he knows he is witnessing the destruction of the republic. With the assassination of Caesar after several years of dictatorship comes the sense that Rome is entering a new era, but Cicero will face further challenges with the rise to power of the dictator’s adopted son, Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire).

As Dictator is the book which brings the trilogy to a close, there’s a sadness which wasn’t present in the first two books, with the deaths of several major characters and the collapse of the Roman Republic. It’s also sad to see Cicero’s relationship with his wife, Terentia, deteriorate beyond repair. It was never a very happy marriage, but now Cicero acknowledges that Terentia has had enough:

“Only at that moment did I realise how much she must have suffered, living in Caesar’s Rome and being married to me. I cannot say I felt love for her any more, but I did feel great pity and affection and sadness, and I resolved there and then to make no mention of money or property – it was all done with, as far as I was concerned.”

Like the first two novels, this book is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, a man who really did exist and who is credited with inventing an early form of shorthand. After Cicero’s death, Tiro published his master’s letters and collected works, and is thought to have also written a biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Tiro’s role in this trilogy is primarily to tell Cicero’s story, recording his words and actions and making observations on his master’s character and the characters of Rome’s other leading figures. Here he describes meeting Julius Caesar:

“How unreal it felt to watch the approach of this titan who had so dominated everyone’s thoughts for so many years – who had conquered countries and upended lives and sent thousands of soldiers marching hither and thither, and had smashed the ancient republic to fragments as if it were nothing more substantial than a chipped antique vase that had gone out of fashion – to watch him, and to find him, in the end…just an ordinary breathing mortal!”

Over the course of the three novels we see how Cicero comes to rely on Tiro not just as a servant but also as a friend – one of the only people in the world he knows he can truly trust. Tiro’s admiration and affection for Cicero also come across strongly but this doesn’t mean he is unable to see Cicero’s faults. Through Tiro’s eyes, Cicero is portrayed as a brilliant yet flawed man, his wisdom, talent and generosity offset by vanity and self-importance. He is sometimes too quick to speak before he thinks, particularly when he is unable to resist making a joke at someone else’s expense, and this often has serious consequences. I enjoyed getting to know Cicero, with all his faults, and was sorry to come to the end of his story.

Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator are three wonderful books – well-written, well-researched and with a feeling of authenticity. Highly recommended, but try to read them in order if possible. I’m now looking forward to returning to the Roman Empire with an earlier Robert Harris novel, Pompeii.

Lustrum by Robert Harris

Lustrum Lustrum (also published under the title Conspirata) is the second of a trilogy of fictional biographies of the Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The first book in the trilogy, Imperium, was one of my favourite reads of the year so far and I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed Lustrum even more. A note from the author at the beginning of the book states that both novels can be read independently, but my advice would still be to read them in order, particularly if, like me, you have never read about Cicero’s life before.

The three novels (the third is called Dictator) are narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, a real historical figure believed to have invented an early form of shorthand and thought to have written a genuine biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Imperium is a recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and covers the beginnings of Cicero’s political career, ending just as he is elected one of Rome’s two consuls. Lustrum continues the story, taking us through the year of Cicero’s consulship and the four years that follow (the term ‘lustrum’ is the name given to a five-year period in Ancient Rome).

The period of Cicero’s life covered in Lustrum is a time of highs and lows. As consul for the year 63 BC, he faces the biggest challenge of his career so far when he uncovers a conspiracy led by the senator Catilina to assassinate him and overthrow the Roman Republic. Cicero is awarded the title “Father of the Country” for the part he plays in dealing with this threat to Rome, but even his newfound popularity can’t protect him from the further plots and machinations of his enemies Gaius Julius Caesar and Publius Clodius Pulcher.

What a great book this is! I was completely gripped from beginning to end, immersed in Cicero’s world, watching as he struggles with his conscience, tries to make difficult moral decisions and attempts to outwit powerful men like Caesar, Crassus and Pompey the Great (the First Triumvirate). I realise a book about Roman politicians may not sound very exciting, but this one really is.

While I found it difficult to keep track of some of the minor characters and the relationships between them (bearing in mind I have very little knowledge of Ancient Rome) there is some great characterisation when it comes to the more well known names. I particularly loved the portrayal of Cato the Younger! Caesar comes across very much as the villain in this trilogy, but remembering that we only see things from the perspective of Cicero (via Tiro), we are obviously being given a biased view of his actions. The same story told from Caesar’s point of view would clearly be very different.

By Glauco92 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Tiro himself remains in the background, as he did in Imperium, but there is a small amount of character development for him; he even finds a love interest, although nothing really comes of it. But at the heart of the story, of course, is Marcus Tullius Cicero. The portrait of Cicero given to us by Tiro is generally very positive – he is clever and ambitious and usually (though not always) tries to do what he believes is best for the Roman Republic. But he also has a lot of faults and flaws: his arrogance and overconfidence lead him to make some poor choices and he is not above entering into dubious political alliances with men such as his fellow consul, Hybrida, whom he knows are corrupt or incompetent and don’t have Rome’s best interests at heart.

One of the things I love about the way Robert Harris portrays Rome is that he manages to make it feel historically accurate yet strangely contemporary at the same time. There are debates over foreign policy, a court case involving a sex scandal and questions asked over politicians’ expenses, all things which still happen in modern politics. As with Imperium, the scenes set in the senate are particularly dramatic and full of tension, making me wish I had been there to hear one of Cicero’s famous speeches for myself.

Lustrum was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2010. I am grateful to the Prize for pointing me in the direction of Robert Harris; as well as the two Cicero books, I also loved An Officer and a Spy (the 2014 winner). I’m now looking forward to finishing this trilogy with Dictator and also to reading more fiction set in the Roman Republic and seeing how other authors portray the same characters and events.

Imperium by Robert Harris

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

These are the words of the Roman statesman, orator, philosopher and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero, a man who lived many centuries before I was born and of whom, thanks to Robert Harris, I am no longer ignorant. I had heard of Cicero, of course, but knew very little about his work and nothing at all about his personal life. Now that I’ve read Imperium, the first in a trilogy of novels narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, I know much more about both.

Imperium Tiro, like Cicero, really existed and is thought to have written a biography of his master which was unfortunately lost during the fall of the Roman Empire. Imperium is a fictional recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and follows Cicero from his humble beginnings as he progresses up the ladder of Roman politics and pursues his ambition of becoming one of Rome’s two Consuls.

As a ‘new man’ – in other words, the first in his family to be elected to the Roman Senate – Cicero’s incredible rise to power is a result of hard work, intelligence and natural ability. He is able to put these skills to good use in his position as lawyer, as we see in the first half of the book when he agrees to prosecute Gaius Verres, the governor of Sicily, who has the support of Rome’s aristocracy despite being accused of corruption. The court case is a victory for Cicero but the drawback of this is that he has made enemies of the aristocrats, who will do whatever they can to prevent him rising any further…

As I’ve mentioned before, Ancient Rome has never been one of my favourite periods to read about, so a few months ago I compiled a list of books that I hoped would change the way I feel about Roman history. Imperium is the first novel I’ve selected from that list and it was a fantastic choice. I’d had high hopes for it anyway, because another book by Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy, was one of my favourite reads of last year, but I enjoyed this one even more than I’d hoped! A book about Roman politics may sound boring, but I can assure you it’s not. Harris is an author of thrillers as well as historical fiction and this is an exciting, entertaining read, not just an educational one. The trial of Verres is as gripping as anything I’ve read and there are more tense moments later in the book, such as when Cicero sends Tiro to spy on a secret meeting of rival senators.

The characterisation of Cicero is wonderful. Seen through the eyes of Tiro, I felt that there was a slight distance between Cicero and the reader at first, but as the story went on I started to like and admire him more and more, especially during his investigations of Verres, when he conducted himself with so much honesty and integrity. It’s not long before some flaws start to appear – as he sets his sights on the positions of aedile, praetor and finally consul, we see him beginning to sacrifice some of his principles for the sake of ambition – but this just makes him more human. Tiro himself is the perfect choice of narrator – someone who is happy to get on with telling the story without intruding into it too much. As the inventor of one of the earliest forms of shorthand he becomes indispensable to Cicero so it’s quite believable that he accompanies Cicero almost everywhere, taking notes and recording conversations.

Cicero was known as a great orator and Harris really captures the power of some of his speeches in the senate and the court. Many of his letters, writings and transcripts of speeches are still available which means Harris would have been able to draw on those to put words into the fictional Cicero’s mouth. While I don’t have enough knowledge to be able to comment on the historical accuracy of the novel, there’s nothing that feels noticeably inaccurate – as he says in his author’s note, the things in this story either really happened, could have happened, or didn’t definitely not happen.

There’s still so much I would like to say about Imperium, but this post is already becoming very long so I will just quickly mention a few other things I liked: the portrayal of other famous Roman figures of the time, particularly Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great; the details of Cicero’s family life and his relationship with his wife, Terentia; the descriptions of how the Roman legal and political systems worked, especially the complex voting methods that led to high levels of corruption during elections; and the exploration of class differences in Ancient Rome.

Having loved this book so much I’m now looking forward to reading the other two in the trilogy. My copy of Lustrum awaits!

Historical Musings #2: Books about Ancient Rome

Historical Musings For my second monthly post on history and historical fiction (see last month’s here) I’m going to focus on a topic I know very little about: Ancient Rome. Despite living close to Hadrian’s Wall, I’ve never been particularly interested in Roman history and have only ever explored one or two of the many sites along the wall, but last weekend I decided to take advantage of my English Heritage membership and visit Corbridge Roman Town.

The granary at Corbridge Roman Town

The granary at Corbridge Roman Town

Hadrian’s Wall was built in AD122-30 during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian and stretches for 73 miles across the north of England. It does not separate England from Scotland, as many people believe! Corbridge, in Northumberland, was the site of a busy Roman town and supply base and the remains of the streets and buildings can still be seen today. As well as walking around the ruins, there’s also a museum where you can see a display of some of the items excavated from the site, including the Corbridge Hoard (a collection of Roman weapons and armour found buried in a chest) and the Corbridge Lion (a large stone statue which was originally an ornament from a tomb).

Steps leading to the 'Strongroom'

Steps leading to the ‘Strongroom’

This brief sojourn into Roman history made me wonder why it is that I so rarely choose to read books about the Romans. It’s just not a time period I’ve ever felt drawn to, though I’m not sure why that should be. A quick search for posts using the ‘Ancient Rome’ tag on my blog brings up only two novels set in Rome that I’ve read in the last few years – Colossus: The Four Emperors by David Blixt and Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran – and I’m having trouble thinking of any others that I may have read before I started blogging. I would love some recommendations!

Corbridge Roman Town

Corbridge Roman Town

I already have copies of The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff and I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Do you think I would like either of these or is there something else you would recommend? Fiction or non-fiction, books set in Rome itself or in other parts of the Roman Empire – all suggestions are welcome!

What are your favourites?

Colossus: The Four Emperors by David Blixt

Colossus - The Four Emperors This historical fiction novel by David Blixt is set in Rome in the 1st century AD and follows the story of one ambitious but honourable man, Titus Flavius Sabinus, and his family. This is actually the second in the Colossus series and I haven’t read the first, but fortunately it doesn’t seem to be essential to read them in order. Rather than being a conventional sequel to the first book, Stone and Steel, this one adds another layer to the same story, choosing to focus on some different characters and events.

The Four Emperors begins near the end of Nero’s reign. An unpredictable and eccentric emperor, Nero is capable of acts of great cruelty, and Rome under his rule is a dangerous place to live. When Nero commits suicide to avoid assassination, a power struggle begins with four different claimants becoming emperor in the space of a year. We see the events of this turbulent period from the perspective of Sabinus and the other members of his family, including his elderly father, his two sons, Tertius and Clemens, and a cousin, Domitian. Domitian’s father, Vespasian, has been sent to Judea to put down a Jewish rebellion there, and Sabinus hopes this will be a chance for the family to rise in the world – but when he visits the Oracle of Delphi, he learns that he may be fated to be forgotten by history…

Ancient Rome is not one of my favourite periods for historical fiction, but having enjoyed another of David Blixt’s books (The Master of Verona, set in 14th century Italy) I was happy to try this one. Because I don’t read about the Romans very often, I was fascinated by Blixt’s portrayal of their daily lives, their beliefs and customs. I thought his descriptions of the Oracle’s prophecies and the wildness of the Saturnalia celebrations were particularly vivid. The book also explores the politics of the period, the military campaigns, and how Jews and Christians were treated by the Romans.

Another storyline I found interesting involved a young Greek shepherd boy called Spiros, who was forced to marry Nero because his face reminded Nero of his dead wife Poppaea Sabina’s. This and many other incidents showed how dangerous and uncertain life could be during this period and how everyone had to obey the Emperor’s every whim, however cruel or outlandish. Life under the other rulers who succeeded Nero during the Year of the Four Emperors was no less precarious and unpredictable. Of all the time periods in history, this is not one that I would like to have lived in!

At first I thought it would be hard to remember who all the characters were, as so many of them had very similar names thanks to the complicated Roman naming system, but it was actually a lot easier to understand than I thought it would be. Sometimes when I read fiction set in Ancient Rome I find it difficult to connect with and relate to the characters. I’m not sure why it should really be any different from reading about the Tudor or medieval periods but for some reason, for me, it is. I didn’t have that problem with The Four Emperors; every character came alive on the page. I’ve only really mentioned the men so far, but there were some interesting female characters too, including Vespasian’s mistress, Caenis, and two slaves, Abigail and Perel.

My only problem with this book was that, after such a great start, in the second half of the novel there are some long battle sequences which, although they were well written, I didn’t really enjoy reading. I just don’t find battle scenes very interesting and my attention often starts to wander so much that I struggle to follow what’s happening. That was the case again here and it meant that I didn’t love the book quite as much as I had expected to at the beginning, but this is just due to my personal taste and not the author’s fault. Apart from this, I did enjoy The Four Emperors and although I didn’t feel at any disadvantage as a result of starting with the second book in the series, I would now like to go back and read the first one, Stone and Steel, which is told from a Judean perspective.

The Four Emperors tour

I read The Four Emperors as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. There’s only one more stop on the tour, but if you’d like to read more about the book and the author you can find a list of previous reviews, guest posts and interviews here.