Robert Graves: Claudius

August 21, 2013

71EWMD2JV2L._AA160_I watched the epic BBC TV series when it was first shown in the 1970s, and it made a lasting impression. I was glad to be able to see it again when it was repeated recently, and also somewhat alarmed to hear that there was talk of a re-make of the series. Watching it again reminded me of how brilliant it was in the 1970s, and also helped me realise why a re-make will probably be necessary for a twenty-first century audience: although the cast is excellent, we now expect much more realistic and graphic violence, and also much more explicit portrayal of sexual activity, and there is scope for both of these in a new filmed version of the novels; current tastes and expectations do make this old version seem extremely coy and reserved, if not actually laughable in places.

However, watching I Claudius again sent me to the novels, which I realised I’d never read. Having studied Ancient History at school, I was aware of how little (relatively speaking) information had survived two millennia, and so had imagined that it was basically Graves’¬†imagination at work. However, it’s clear that he researched thoroughly and went back to all the available sources, not just the obvious ones, and so there is evidence for most of what he writes, in terms of their accuracy as historical novels.

Eight hundred pages of the life and adventures of Claudius and his family and ancient Rome is a little tiring, but also fascinating: Rome (although I’m not sure about other parts of the empire) is a horrifically bloody place, utterly corrupt in terms of economics and morals. What came across quite strongly to me was the power of women behind the scenes, in terms of manipulating powerful men, and poisoning them in order to get their way, and also the inevitability of the empire and its corruption, in that what was originally a small city-state could not manage its control of most of the known world ‘democratically’ (no change there, then!). There’s also a detailed portrayal of Roman religious rites and rituals, and the genesis of Christianity, which also took place during the time-frame of Claudius’ account, treated from a Roman and Jewish perspective.

In the end, unless you’re seriously interested in Roman History, the TV series will do.

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