Claudius the God: And His Wife Messalina by Robert Graves (1935)
If you asked the average person to name a Roman emperor, Claudius would likely not be on the tip of his tongue. Their thoughts would likely turn first to one of the notorious emperors, such as either Caligula or Nero. If they were thinking about the “more pleasant” emperors, they might mention either Augustus or Marcus Aurelius. However, unless they were familiar with the Robert Graves novels, I, Claudius or Claudius the God: And His Wife Messalina, or the BBC miniseries adaption, Claudius the emperor would likely be unfamiliar. This is due to a variety of reasons. Claudius was not considered a warrior-emperor unlike a number of his predecessors and successors, even though he completed the annexation of Britain. Compared to other emperors, his personal life was not as debauched, although the shenanigans of his family affected him and his reign. In his lifetime he was considered mentally dull although he was likely one of the most intelligent men to rule the Empire. He also initiated numerous reforms which caused his reign to be a period of stability before the tyranny of Nero and the chaos of civil war in 69-70 C.E. So how could an interesting story be written from the history of his latter day life?
It is to be admitted that many of the characters featured in Claudius the God are not as enjoyable as those featured in the preceding novel, I, Claudius. What could compare with the childish cruelty of Caligula, the mean-spiritedness of Tiberius, or the cunning of Livia? Claudius is still portrayed as the man of wit that he is. Being the emperor of Rome he is able to express it more fully without worrying that he will end up in fatal disfavor. His last wife Agrippina and her son Nero remind readers of Livia and her son Tiberius from I, Claudius (although with an additional creepy incest subtext). Yet Livia and Tiberius, although they are depicted as cruel, are definitely more appealing. This is because there is a sense of nobility about them that is lacking in Agrippina and Nero. Robert Graves is likely showing how decayed Roman Society has become. Claudius welcomes both the societal decline and Nero’s advancement to influence and power because he hopes that Rome will eventually tire of the imperial system and return to the republican form of government. History shows how wrong his judgment was.
How does the novel relate to its predecessor? It’s a good work of historical fiction. Like I, Claudius, it’s highly readable despite its publishing date, the subject matter, and the huge cast of characters. I still find I, Claudius more enjoyable as it’s basically the story of the ascent of an underdog. Claudius the God is the story of the underdog as the top dog and how he copes. It is good but not as good (a good comparison would be among the Rocky films; Rocky 1 and 2 are commercially famous and critically praised because one wants to see the journey of the underdog; the other Rocky sequels, while fun, don’t have that journey, and the viewers don't have the same emotional investment). It’s still one of the top historical novels that has both critical and commercial appeal. Of course, read first I, Claudius, and then if you can’t escape the pull of ancient Rome, take some time to follow Claudius’s life to his fateful conclusion.
-November 27, 2013