22 July 2015
I recently became Faculty Senate President at my university. Were I a practical person, I might spend some of my summer reading Robert’s Rules of Order so that I can run senate meetings in good order. Instead, I decided on I, Claudius.
Robert Graves has been in the background for years. Watching I, Claudius with my parents is one of my favorite memories of growing up and it turned me into a lifelong Derek Jacobi fan. I was a young adolescent and my father started turning out the lights when there’d be an orgy scene to preserve us all from mortification. A few episodes in to the series, and we didn’t even bother to turn on the lights.
But I didn’t read him. I used The White Goddess extensively, but only dipping in here and there, when studying for my comprehensive exams. But I didn’t read Goodbye to All That as part of my modernist training or in my more recent World War I reading. I only read a few of his poems. But, last summer, I took a break from World War I and read Emma Straub’s beachy The Vacationers. Set in Majorca, where Graves lived much of his live, it has a Graves subplot. I started paying attention. Then, as I have been learning the ropes of the Senate, I thought that perhaps the tale of a middle-aged historian who successfully outwits the Roman Senate and some pretty mad emperors to become emperor himself might amuse me.
Boy did it!
I listened on my (very slow) runs, which turns out to be a lovely way to experience Graves. While some of the descriptions of battle tactics were of limited interest, they were mainly about battles with Germany and that, in itself was fascinating: to imagine Graves, a World War I veteran who’d been wounded at the Somme, studying Roman history and combing it for stories of German bravery, German military might, German failures of leadership. Some of the digs are a little silly—as when Claudius, who narrates the story in a wonderfully intimate, confiding, slightly fussy voice, pretends to explain what beer is to his imagined future Roman audience: the Germans love this fermented beverage made from grain which somewhat resembles wine. Others are more poignant. There is an extended meditation on what power the Germans might wield if they ever overcome their barbarity and become civilized that, if a bit heavy-handed, moved me.
I also enjoyed the reflections on power and strategy: what senators did to stay alive in spite of Tiberius’s increasing tyranny, Tiberius’s preference for Caligula because a tyrant who needs to be loved should pick a lesser man and a more evil one as his successor.
Best of all, to me, however, were Claudius’ reflections on the difference between scholarship and public life. As he’s impressed into the emperor-ship on the final page, he muses—and asks us to wonder what it is that he thinks of—Graves offers a great list: his great, murdered brother Germanicus, his family, the Republic which he would have preferred to restore? No. He thinks: well, now people will certainly read my histories. That did make me laugh.
Telling all this to a friend, he suggested that perhaps I should read The Godfather next. Perhaps I will.