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Friday, February 5, 2010

I, Claudius, Approximately


Picked up my copy of I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, a few weeks back and have been winding my way thru it while riding the train. The copy is old--I used to put my name and the date of purchase in all my books, and this book is dated 8/17/91.

I'd bought the book because of a rebroadcast, also in '91, of the 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves's two 'Claudius' novels--the aforementioned I, Claudius and its sequel Claudius the God (the BBC threw both books together under the miniseries title I, Claudius). In the BBC adaptation, the most notable change to the story is the integration of Herod Agrippa to the immediate plot (no, not that Herod, but close), since the novel I, Claudius omits Herod altogether.

Quick note about the plot of the 'Claudius' novels: The books are supposed to have been written by "I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-That-and-the-other", the fourth Roman emperor. They chronicle the corruption and gallantry of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (the family of the first five emperors of ancient Rome: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula/Gaius, Claudius, and noted fiddler Nero). Claudius writes the work not for his contemporaries but for posterity--he conceals the manuscript with the hope that it will be discovered 1900 years later (which it ostensibly is, by Robert Graves, who "translated" it and published it in 1934, with the sequel coming out two or so years later). The second book, Claudius the God, is a sort of revision of the first book, by Claudius, in that he introduces a new person, a close friend from his childhood who grew into a king and oh boy it's exhausting to summarize, and you've probably lost interest already anyway, so I'll move on.

I haven't read the book since I bought it in '91, and when I was reading it way back then I was mostly replaying the miniseries's scenes in my head--I scarcely noticed the text. "Oh," I'd say while reading, "here's the part where Livia gives that look at Julia," or "Oh yeah, here's where Caligula emerges from the room with blood dripping from his beard." The text was beside the point--I might as well have been reading the shooting script of the BBC production.

Two things (of many!) I've noticed during this reading: the BBC production omits a few very vital details on the motivation of certain characters, and the entire text is a sort of essay on historical documentation.

Of the former, I'll just say this: Julia, Augustus' daughter, was portrayed in the TV adaptation as a sex-fiend who contributed to her own ruin. In the novel, though, it's mentioned in passing that scheming Livia, Julia's step-mother and wife of Caesar Augustus, regularly slipped Julia a mixture "of the crushed bodies of certain little green flies, from Spain." Hm. Seems to me a small point which should've carried over from the novel to the screen to explain why suddenly Julia wanted to fuck every man, woman or beast in Rome.

Of the latter--the essay on historical documentation--I'll say this: History is generally interesting when it is presently occurring, but grows stale quickly. Graves knew this, of course. Writing about history is a dichotomy: to do it well, one must ignore popular audiences and assume only other historians will find your work interesting, or readable, or comprehensible. To do it popularly, one must fudge a bit, employing imaginary dialogue, bending facts a bit, creating plausible (but undocumented) motivations for "characters," even creating "characters" rather than "people" for popular audiences to root for or despise.

In other words, and there are always other words, a(n) historian who wishes to be accurate cannot hope to be widely read; a(n) historian who wishes to be widely read cannot really be accurate.

And, btw, Graves was kinda-sorta writing about contemporary British Empire when he did the 'Claudius' novels. He was writing about the Windsor dynasty, not the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Graves indulges himself on the historian/posterity point about a third of the way thru the first 'Claudius' book. It's a delightful scene: young Claudius, thought by his family to be an idiot, is in a library with his tutor, Sulpicius. Two men approach Sulpicius. Old friends.

Keep in mind that Claudius, writing his own story, has stated over and over again that he wishes to be remembered as a great historian, and is writing this text for posterity because he knows his contemporaries will not believe it to be truthful. "..it [the book] will be found some nineteen hundred years hence. And then, when all other authors of to-day whose works survive will seem to shuffle and stammer, since they have written only for t0-day, and guardedly, my story will speak out clearly and boldly," Claudius explains in the opening chapter. The word 'guardedly' is the key to the Claudian novels, by the way. Graves is telling us, in no uncertain terms, that all contemporary history, whether in the first century or in the twentieth century, is guardedly written, self-censored, and largely useless. The only way to accurately write about historical events is to wait centuries, long after the vital issues of the day have been made moot by time and decay.

Anyway, back to the library, with Sulpicius, Claudius, and the two men.

The two men are friends of Sulpicius. The two men are Pollio and Livy. Pollio and Livy are historians. Perhaps you've heard of one or both--if not, google is your friend.

Livy and Pollio notice that young Claudius is reading a scroll, and the two historians place bets on the subject of the scroll. Pollio wagers that Claudius is reading crap--"The Art of Love" or some such drivel. Livy wagers that Claudius is reading a manuscript of substance. Claudius tells Pollio he loses the bet: "It's your own history of the Civil Wars and, if I may venture to praise it, a very fine book indeed."

What follows is a long, clever discussion on the nature of the writing of history, with Livy coming out very poorly in the end--Pollio relied more on facts, Livy spiced things up with a bit of poetical declarations and flowery speeches. Pollio's works were stale and matter-of-fact, and researched. Livy's works were more reliant on the gossip of the time, and on dramatic tension.

Pollio: Merchant Ivory. Livy: Michael Bay.

The passage concludes with Livy leaving the library in an alliterative huff of humiliation, and with Pollio encouraging young Claudius to "play the idiot" for as long as he can.

Which of course Claudius does.

What is indulgent about this passage--and charmingly meta--is that Robert Graves, not Claudius, is the author of it. Inside the passage, within the confines of the text, Claudius is the one relating the story to us, right? He's merely relating a precious anecdote from his teenage years, the time he encountered two men who impressed him greatly, two men who were historians, which is what he wanted to grow up to become. But outside the text, the reader is meant to be aware it is not Claudius who wrote the passage, but Robert Graves, and Robert Graves is pulling a 'Livy' on us, infusing history with a bit of poetical declarations and flowery speeches.

And of course there's the matter of Herod, previously mentioned; as much as Claudius passes himself off as a Pollio historian--a bit dry, a bit too accurate--he remains firmly in the 'Livy' style of historical documentation, since for the entirety of the first volume of his 'autobiography' he neglected to tell us of Herod Agrippa II's presence.

Claudius, for all his well-meaning intent on getting down the truth for posterity's sake, is an unreliable narrator of his own autobiography. And it's not even an actual autobiography, but an historical fiction novel pretending to be an autobiography.

So the point is, wow, 8/17/91 was a goddamn long time ago.

1 comment:

Chris Scholten-Smith said...

Love this. Could you please leave a chapter reference to the Livy/Sulpicius library chat? Cheers, Chris

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