Top positive review
A journey into the mind of a reluctant Roman emperor
on 25 April 2016
I Claudius is a work of recreated autobiography, telling the life story of a reluctant Roman emperor, who introduces himself as “Tiberius, Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles).” As a story it’s a compelling read, starting in the relatively sunny days of the rule of jovial Augustus – Claudius’s grandfather - where we meet the young Claudius, a shy boy with a limp, a stutter and a love of reading, writing and history. We then follow Claudius, protected by the fact that everyone thinks him a harmless fool, through the increasingly cruel reign of Tiberius, into the demented period under Caligula. Then finally, following Caligula’s assassination, a terrified Claudius, stuttering his reluctance, finds himself hoisted shoulder high and proclaimed emperor himself.
As well as a good story, the book is also a reflection on what history actually is – a record of past events, a story built out of past events, and the use of the past to bolster the narrow interests of the present. It’s also a book about politics, with much to tell us about our own times. One of the characteristics of the benign period under Augustus, for example, is “freedom of the press” – a reluctance to punish writers or comedians who make the emperor the butt of their criticism or jokes. Modern Europe could take note.
Above all, I loved the ending. Claudius was primarily a writer, and if you were a writer who finds himself becoming emperor what would go through your mind? Robert Graves, another writer, realises you would be thinking, “ah well, at least I can get people to read my books now.” I would be thinking the same.