This, the sequel to the magnificent “I, Claudius” deserves to be reviewed differently to it’s predecessor. While there is little doubt in my mind that the first is a better novel, this book deals with much bigger issues and given the limits the author found imposed by history and his sources, it does so very well.
Claudius, history tells us, became Emperor of Rome after the justifiable murder of Caligula, and this book explores the realities of that reign through the eyes of Claudius himself. Here is the first contradiction – Claudius (as many emperors before him) is a committed Republican, longing for a return to the golden age of the Roman Republic, but constrained by existing circumstances. His initial plan to refuse the throne, is quickly blocked by reality, as he realises this would result in his own death and civil war for the empire. For British readers, Claudius is also important as the emperor who finally subdued the rebellious people of Britain.
Claudius spends the next 14 years of his reign trying to solve this contradiction – that the absolute power granted in the hands of a monarch cannot be resolved with his belief in democracy and republicanism. Granted, he attempts to be a “good” emperor. He repairs and rebuilds the damage wrought by years of misrule, but he cannot escape the fact that his total power enables him to right personal wrongs and deal his own brand of justice.
Ultimately you feel that Claudius becomes what he despises. An Emperor more concerned with spectacle, rather than honest rule. In that he is nothing more than a victim of his circumstance. Indeed the last months of his rule are marked by the fact that he really doesn’t rule anymore – letting others, freedmen and his fourth wife govern in his name. At the end, you feel that the sympathy you felt for the somewhat unlikely commentator on history from the first book is overshadowed by what he has become. In trying to select his son as his heir rather than the brash individual that became Emperor Nero, Claudius says it rather well:
“I knew that Nero is fated to rule as my successor, carrying on the cursed business of monarchy, fated to Plague Rome and earn everlasting hatred, to be the last of the mad Caesars. Yes we are all mad, we Emperors. We begin sanely like Augustus and Tiberius and even Caligula ..... And monarchy turns our wits.”
Claudius (and we must presume Robert Graves) is using the old argument that power corrupts. Since the Roman Republic was never restored, even though many continued to proclaim its importance and necessity, it’s hard to argue anything different. Once again a fantastic novel and a great introduction to a confusing but important period of Roman history.