Claudius the Historian

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have just finished reading both of Robert Graves’ Claudius novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. The first book follows the life of Claudius in the years before he becomes Emperor, during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula, ending with Caligula’s assassination and Claudius’ acclamation. The second book relates the events of Claudius’ own rule, which was a fairly benevolent lull between his insane predecessor, Caligula, and his sadistic successor, Nero.

Both novels are narrated by Claudius himself, as a “confidential” autobiography that he says will provide the kind of details that his earlier official autobiography could not. He claims to be writing it through his own hand, and he takes great pains to convince his readers of his sincerity and his truthfulness, even if he is constantly reminding them also that his poor memory and his gullibility make him somewhat unreliable. Graves often uses the unreliability of this narrative voice ironically, revealing the sincerity and the credulity that make Claudius simultaneously an oblivious idiot and a successful emperor.

The first book, both by general consensus and by the irresistible logic of the sequel, is regarded as the better of the two, and I would agree with this conclusion, though the second is very good as well. The advantage of the first is that its focus is on other figures who are often more interesting than Claudius himself, like his grandmother Livia, with her poisonings and her manipulations, or like Tiberius, with his sexual perversities, or like Caligula, with his delusions of divinity.

Claudius’ own reign can hardly compare to these others. He is far too noble and too careful and too intellectual and too moral to be of much interest, so most of the narrative tension in the second novel comes from his friend Herod and his wife Messolina, both of whom eventually betray him. Even in these cases, however, Claudius’ narrative no longer moves as freely and as engagingly as in the first novel. It is now too involved in the events that it is describing, and the tone moves from amusing commentary to tragic confession. Where the first book is the comedy of a wise fool becoming a reluctant Emperor, the second is the tragedy of a foolish wiseman becoming a reluctant god, and it is undeniable that Claudius makes a better comic than a tragedian.

The most interesting aspect of the novels to me, however, is the way that they comment on the writing of history generally and the way that this commentary implicates on the writing of its own genre, the historical novel. Claudius’ very first subject is the question of how to write history. He is a historian by training, he tells us, and has written several histories, including an earlier official autobiography. He feels that this new unofficial account is necessary, however, in the interest of accuracy. It is not that his official version had any intentional errors, he hastens to assure us, but there are some things that the official record does not permit him to write, like who poisoned her own grandchildren and who had incestuous relationships with his sisters. This new confidential version, which he intends for posterity only, will have no such reservations.

From the beginning, then, Graves has Claudius raise the question of truth and history, the problem of how time and place and circumstance and audience and a thousand other things determine the form that a history will take. He also represents Claudius as being an advocate of a personal and accurate history rather than an official and propagandistic one. Though he is capable of the latter, he is unsatisfied with it, feeling the necessity to supplement and even supplant it with the former.

Graves later reinforces this portrayal of Claudius, when he has his protagonist relate an incident that occurs in the Apollo Library. Claudius is only a young man at this point and is largely regarded as the idiot of the imperial family, but he has already decided to dedicate himself to the study of history. While researching one day, he is approached by the historian Livy, to whom he has already been introduced, and by Livy’s colleague Asinius Pollio, whose history of the civil wars Claudius just happens to be reading at that very moment. Livy introduces Pollio, who soon realizes that Claudius is not the idiot that he is commonly thought to be, and who then asks Claudius whether he prefers the historical style of Livy or of Pollio himself.

This puts Claudius in an awkward situation, because his personal affection and admiration for Livy does not prevent him from preferring the style of Pollio, and the differences between the two are not merely cosmetic. Livy prefers to put noble and heroic speeches into the mouths of his historical figures, apart from any historical evidence, while Pollio prefers to adhere strictly to the historical record. Livy defends his method by saying that history should provide a noble example of the past in order to instruct and moralize its readers, but Pollio argues that it is better to serve the cause of truth, and Claudius agrees with him, though he offends a friend and mentor by saying so.

As the argument progresses, Claudius summarizes the two positions concisely. “There are two ways of writing history:” he says, “one is to persuade men to virtue, and the other is to compel men to truth,” and “perhaps the two are irreconcilable.” Though it may be, as Livy says, that a history can be “true in spirit” even if it is not “true in factual detail,” Claudius cannot accept this manipulation of the facts. Hiding the wickedness of the past does not encourage people to virtue, he suggests, it just conceals the possibility that there may be little difference “between their wickedness and ours.” His decision, then, is to emulate Pollio’s factuality.

This incident goes some way to reveal Claudius’ character, particularly his reasons for writing a personal history to supplement his official one. In doing so, he is following Pollio’s example both literally, since Pollio himself has published such a supplement to his history of the civil wars, and also methodologically, since Pollio has advocated that the truth be told even if it is not flattering to those whose history is being told. It is not only the truth that Claudius wants to write, but the whole truth, however disagreeable it might be.

Of course, considering that Claudius claims to be writing such a strictly factual history, in the mode of Pollio, it is a great irony that his character is being made to say and do many things for which there is no historical justification, in the mode of Livy. After all, though Claudius’ purpose as a narrator is “to serve the cause of truth” as much as possible, Grave’s own purpose as an author is clearly closer to telling the “truth in spirit,” since there is no record for much of what his character thinks and feels. The novels are narrated by a disciple of Pollio, but they are authored by a disciple of Livy.

To be fair, Graves is different from Livy in at least one important respect: that is, the “truth in spirit” of his history is not one that hides the wickedness and the failings of his subjects. He does not put speeches into their mouths in order to make them nobler than they were. He does not make them into ideals on which his readers should model themselves. His “truth in spirit” seems more concerned to show that there may indeed be little difference between the wickedness of the past and that of the present, and, in this respect at least, he and Claudius manage to tell the same history. Perhaps, though I am attributing intentions to the historical Graves that I cannot myself justify, this joint history suggests that the modes of Livy and Pollio can be reconciled after all, whatever Claudius might have said.


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