Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Oh, those Romans!

Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934) purports to be the autobiography of Claudius, a late-period Roman emperor whose reign fell between those of Caligula and Nero. Before his accession, Claudius was regarded as feeble and inconsequential due to a variety of physical ailments, the nature of which historians still debate. He walked poorly, stuttered, drooled, and suffered fits, but he was smart, canny, and underestimated by those around him, and those qualities allowed him to outlast all his rivals.

Graves makes the mistake of affecting a somewhat antiquated, awkward style, presumably to retain some of the tone of the Roman histories from which he drew his story. And because Claudius is writing the story of his life rather than a novel, Graves gives the book far too little structure, relying instead on chronology. Because Roman society was so complexly intertwined, and because the book spans more than eighty years, there are also far more characters than someone writing a proper novel would deem sensible. While some minor characters, like the Praetorian Prefect Sejanus and the captivatingly brave Praetorian Prefect Cassius Chaerea, come to life, dozens of others appear only long enough to add confusion to an already crowded narrative.

Despite all that, the decision to cast I, Claudius as fiction was probably the correct one. What Graves gains thereby is the freedom to present the dizzying machinations of high-level Roman politics through the consciousness of someone who is at the heart of the struggle, but often unnoticed. For most of the book, Claudius is the Nick Carraway of Rome: marginal, yet deeply complicit. His perspective sharpens our understanding of both the players and the destructive consequences of their actions.

But it’s the source material that makes the book. The Romans are perpetually fascinating, an incredibly fertile source of stories. At times, they seem very near to us in their thought and daily lives; some of Cicero’s speeches could almost be delivered by a particularly forceful and eloquent politician today. But then there are moments where the distance between us gapes wide, as when the Emperor Augustus’s wife, Livia, relates the portents that accompanied his succession:
And at that fateful interruption of history what monstrous portents had not been seen? Had there not been flashes of armour from the clouds and bloody rain falling? Had not a serpent of gigantic size appeared in the main street of Alexandria and uttered an incredibly loud hiss? Had not the ghosts of dead Pharaohs appeared? Had not their statues frowned? Had not Apis, the sacred bull of Memphis, uttered a bellow of lamentation and burst into tears?

Or when a noble boy chokes to death on a pear, and
As was the custom in such cases, the pear tree was charged with murder and sentenced to be uprooted and burned.

Graves knows that that disjunction is a big part of why we read the Romans, and he supplies plenty. When Claudius’s brother, Germanicus, becomes a political threat to the Emperor Tiberius, he is cursed by a witch:
The next day a slave reported with a face of terror that as he had been washing the floor in the hall he had noticed a loose tile and, lifting it up, had found underneath what appeared to be the naked and decaying corpse of a baby, the belly painted red and horns tied to the forehead. An immediate search was made in every room and a dozen equally gruesome finds were made under the tiles or in niches scooped in the walls behind hangings. They included the corpse of a cat with rudimentary wings growing from its back, and the head of a Negro with a child’s hand protruding from its mouth. With each of these dreadful relics was a lead tablet on which was Germanicus’s name.

To no one’s surprise, Germanicus dies soon after.

And that’s the other reason we read about the Romans: the murders and machinations. I, Claudius features plenty. Through the reigns of Augustus and his stepson, Tiberius, who succeeded him, Augustus’s wife, Livia, is the manipulative power behind the throne. She’s the most compelling character in the book, utterly amoral and always several steps ahead, not just of her opponents, but of the reader as well. All possible rivals to Augustus and Tiberius end up dead, but in ways that no one ever manages to pin on her or either emperor. The ingrown, incestuous nature of Roman politics makes her ruthlessness more breathtaking: nearly everyone she murders is a relative. As Claudius realizes about his grandmother at a young age,
Most women are inclined to set a modest limit to their ambitions; a few rare ones set a bold limit. But Livia was unique in setting no limit at all to hers, and yet remaining perfectly level-headed and cool in what would be judged in any other woman to be raving madness.

The plotting and counter-plotting is dizzying. To be celebrated for any success, to achieve any public popularity, is to be noticed by Livia, and to be noticed by Livia is a death sentence.

But all the astonishing amorality supplied by the characters in the first two-thirds of the novel is just a warm-up. When the truly depraved Caligula appears, he makes his predecessors look like amateurs, like Karl Christian Rove showing up at a College Republicans gala.

Though there’s a fair amount of uncertainty among historians about just how insane Caligula was—Graves’s primary source, Suetonius, is generally agreed to have painted him in the worst possible light—there’s no question that he was a capricious, cruel, destructive emperor. He utterly discarded the pretense, maintained in varying degrees by his predecessors, that he was anything but an unfettered dictator, murdering at will and in public rivals whom Livia would have done away with more circumspectly. He spent profligately, nearly bankrupting the imperial treasury. He famously threatened to make his horse a senator. He also made a senator of a captain of guards who
had volunteered to drain a three-gallon jar of wine without removing it form his lips, and had really done so and kept the wine down in the bargain.

To refute a prophecy that he could no more be emperor than he could ride a horse across the Bay of Baiea, he
collected about four thousand vessels, including a thousand built especially for the occasion, and anchored them across the bay, thwart to thwart in a double line. . . . Then he boarded the double line across and threw earth on the boards and had the earth watered and rammed flat; and the result was a broad firm road, some six thousand paces long from end to end. When more ships arrived, just back from voyages to the East, he lashed them together into five islands which he linked to the road, one at every thousand paces. . . He installed a drinking-water system and planted gardens. The islands he made into villages.

Despite all the ruthlessness and violence that’s preceded him, Caligula manages to shock and horrify. Part of what’s awful and fascinating about Caligula—as with all of Roman history—is the level of detail that the historians have passed on to us, and Graves makes sure to incorporate as much as possible. A drunken Caligula causes the death of a prized hostage, Eleazar,
who was the tallest man in the world. He was over eleven foot high. He was not, however, strong in proportion to his height: he had a voice like the bleat of a camel and a weak back, and was considered to be of feeble intellect. He was a Jew by birth. Caligula had the body stuffed and dressed in armour and put Eleazar outside the door of his bed-chamber to frighten away would-be assassins.

Such are the glories of history: we know about the speaking voice of an utterly inconsequential Roman slave who was fated to suffer the indignity of being a scarecrow for assassins.

If you know any Roman history—or even if you’ve just read this far in this post—you’ll not be surprised to learn that it doesn’t work. Caligula is eventually murdered, and Claudius, perpetually underestimated, surprises everyone by succeeding him. Graves continues the story in Claudius the God, which will now go on my stack. But I may have to wait a bit before I dive into it. I can only take so much Roman nastiness at one time. I may have to read some Barbara Pym first. Or a Hard Case Crime novel. After Romans, grifters and gunmen seem positively saintly.

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