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Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina

Robert Graves


  ROBERT GRAVES was born in 1895 in Wimbledon, son of Alfred Perceval Graves, the Irish writer, and Amalia Von Ranke. He went from school to the First World War, where he became a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Apart from a year as Professor of English Literature at Cairo University in 1926 he earned his living by writing, mostly historical novels which include: I, Claudius; Claudius the God; Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth; Count Belisarius; Wife to Mr Milton; Proceed; Sergeant Lamb; The Golden Fleece; They Hanged My Saintly Billy; and The Isles of Unwisdom. He wrote his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, in 1929 and it rapidly established itself as a modern classic. The Times Literary Supplement acclaimed it as ‘one of the most candid self-portraits of a poet, warts and all, ever painted’, as well as being of exceptional value as a war document. His two most discussed nonfiction books are The White Goddess, which presents a new view of the poetic impulse, and The Nazarine Gospel Restored (with Joshua Podro), a re-examination of primitive Christianity. He translated Apuleius, Lucan, and Suetonius for the Penguin Classics series, and compiled the first modern dictionary of Greek Mythology, The Greek Myths. His translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (with Omar Ali-Shah) is also published in Penguin. He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1961, and made an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, in 1971. Robert Graves died on 7 December 1985 in Majorca, his home since 1929. On his death The Times wrote of him, ‘He will be remembered for his achievements as a prose stylist, historical novelist and memorist, but above all as the great paradigm of the dedicated poet, “the greatest love poet in English since Donne”.‘

  BARRY UNSWORTH is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and holds an honorary doctorate from Manchester University. He is the author of 15 novels, among them Sacred Hunger, which won the 1992 Booker Prize. Pascali’s Island (1980) and Morality Play (1995) were shortlisted for the same prize. His most recent novel, The Ruby in Her Navel is due for publication in 2006. He lives in Italy.


  Claudius the God

  and his wife Messalina

  The troublesome reign of Tiberius Claudius

  Caesar, Emperor of the Romans

  (born 10 BC, died AD 54),

  as described by himself;

  also his murder at the hands of the

  notorius Agrippina

  (mother of the Emperor Nero)

  and his subsequent deification,

  as described by


  with an Introduction by BARRY UNSWORTH



  Published by the Penguin Group

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  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published by Arthur Baker 1934

  Published in Penguin Books (Volumes I and II) 1943

  New edition in one volume 1954

  Published in Penguin Classics with an Introduction 2006


  Copyright 1934 by Robert Graves

  Introduction copyright © Barry Unsworth 2006

  All rights reserved

  The moral right of the introducer has been asserted

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser


  The success of Goodbye to All That, his memoirs of the First World War, enabled Robert Graves to quit the industrial civilization he so much detested for a simpler style of life. In the year the book was published, 1929, he and the American poet Laura Riding went to Majorca and the island became his permanent home. It was in his early years here that the Claudius books were written, appearing in 1934, when his reputation as a poet was already established. They were brought out by Penguin in 1943 and have enjoyed continuous success ever since.

  How Graves came to fasten on Claudius as his narrator I have no means of knowing, whether it was after long deliberation or came as a shaft of light. But it is hard to imagine a better vehicle for recounting the first half-century of Imperial Rome – a chronicler who lived at the very centre of its far from healthy heart.

  Others lived there with him but none of them would have done. His grand-uncle Augustus, founder of the Empire, was too much concerned with promulgating his own glory and establishing the central authority of the State to give us more than propaganda; his cruel and gloomy uncle Tiberius was too secretive to make any kind of autobiographer; it could hardly have been his demented predecessor Caligula, who believed himself to be a god, or the posturing and perverted Nero who followed.

  No, Claudius is the only one in all that company who we can believe in as a chronicler, the only one who would have been capable of the detachment and introspection needed. He was an outsider, always a good thing in a writer. Childhood illness left him with a permanent limp, he had a speech impediment that earned him general derision, he suffered from acute abdominal pains all his life. ‘Cripple, stammerer, fool of the family’, as he calls himself. He was in fact regarded as little better than an idiot by the imperial family, and left to his own devices. This was the saving of him, of course. In that world of murderous power struggles no one took him seriously as a rival, no one thought him worth killing. This enabled him to live to the advanced age of 51 before succeeding to the imperial purple, and it was his own character, timorous certainly, but quick-witted and surprisingly firm in emergencies, that enabled him to survive 13 years as emperor and so to become, in the words Graves gives him, the recorder of his own life and times.

  He was otherwise qualified too. In his lonely and neglected childhood he took naturally to study, encouraged in this by the historian Livy, who was one of the few to recognize his talents. He became a historian in his own right, and one of astonishing industry – he wrote 20 volumes of Etruscan and a further eight of Carthaginian history, all in Greek, plus an autobiography, a treatise on the Roman alphabet and an essay on dice-playing, to which it seems he was addicted. Not one syllable of all this has survived. All we have is a couple of letters and a speech in the Senate to the Conscript Fathers, urging them to extend Roman citizenship to provincials. (He was interrupted, even heckled, but bore it with patience.)

  It is not enough for us to form any judgement of his merits as a historian or his qualities as a stylist. It is Graves that gives him a voice, and what a voice it is: garrulous, digressive, spiced with gossip and scandal, at the same time str
angely dispassionate and sober. There is a range of tone here that enables Claudius, in his persona as professional historian, to deal with matters widely diverse, to be equally convincing whether talking about the waste and excess of military triumphs, the fate of Varus and his regiments in the forests of Germany, or the endless intriguing for power and influence among the members of the imperial family. To take one example among many of the capacity of Graves’s style to encompass incongruous elements, often within a short space, there is the account of the assassination of Caligula in 41 AD and the immediate hailing of Claudius as his successor. We move from the brutal and bungled killing of the crazed Caligula, who firmly believes he is divine even while his limbs are being hacked off, to the violent confusion of the aftermath with the German bodyguards clamouring for vengeance on the killers, to the discovery of the terrified Claudius hiding behind a curtain, and his acclamation as the new emperor. The scrambled killing, the disordered movement as the Guards search out the conspirators, the grotesque comedy of the trembling Claudius borne aloft, represent together a sustained triumph of narrative.

  Occasional vivid images spring through this chronicle of the crime and folly that accompanied the birth and early years of the Roman Empire. Athenodorus, who replaced the hated Cato as Claudius’s tutor, had the most marvellous beard. ‘It spread in waves down to his waist and was as white as a swan’s wing,’ Claudius says. It is a comparison that does justice both to its amazing extent and to the purity of its whiteness. But he hastens to assure us that this is no mere idle figure of speech, that he is a serious historian, he means it literally. And he goes on to tell us that one day he actually saw Athenodorus feeding swans from a boat on an artificial lake in the Gardens of Sallust and was struck by the fact that his beard and their wings were of an identical colour. The relation of this occupies a few lines only, but the disclaimer is of first importance for the appreciation of the method that characterizes the whole. In all the annals of our western history there can be no period less in need of rhetoric or even metaphor. This was a time when a cruel and debauched ruling class, in whom hysteria and madness were never far below the surface and were often made manifest in acts of public outrage, sought and maintained power through systematic murder, a time when the demoralised and unruly masses had to be pacified by the distribution of free grain on an ever larger scale and entertained by shows and spectacles ever more bloody and ferocious. It is lurid enough, it needs little in the way of emphasis or descriptive flourishes.

  Claudius of course is not really a reliable narrator, though frequently reminding us of his bona fides as a historian. Even a genuine autobiography can never be more than a version of events, there will always be gaps and glosses in it. How far are the silences and exaggerations in this account those of a man who lived in the world, who was named Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, who was fourth emperor of Rome from 41 to 51 AD and went often in fear of his life? How far are they due to the fact that he is a fictional figure whose creator is exploiting the uncertainties inherent in all periods of the past, even those so relatively well-documented as this one? These questions can be formulated in other ways, by addressing the text more closely. Why the long digression in which Claudius attacks Cato the Censor, for example? Is there some concealed political motive, or is he just letting off steam? Then there is the story of Julia’s love potion. She was advised to drink this herself, not the usual way with love Potions – surely it should have been administered to Tiberius whom she wanted to make fall in love with her. It was an aphrodisiac, Claudius tells us. Why did she go on so long with it when it was obviously having no effect on Tiberius? Is Spanish Fly addictive? It looks as if the whole thing is a fabrication designed to excuse Julia for her notorious licentiousness and to discredit Livia Drusilla, the detested grandmother who is said to have made up the potion and prevailed on Julia to take it.

  Much of the earlier part of the autobiography is devoted to the evil machinations of this Livia, third wife of Augustus, her lust for power at any cost, her unswerving aim to have her son Tiberius succeed as emperor and so rule through him, the strong suggestion that she used poison to eliminate any who stood in her way. (There seems to be no firm evidence of this, but it is true that obstacles to her ambition tended to disappear at just the right moment.) Above all, Claudius lays great emphasis on her influence over Augustus, who was, he says, more or less completely under her thumb.

  Now Augustus, who died when Claudius was 24, is regarded today as having been a brilliant military commander, a consummately skilful politician and an administrator of genius who brought stability and prosperity to the Greco-Roman world. It is true that those nearer his own time viewed him differently. Tacitus, writing within a century of his death, saw him more coldly as the last of the warlords who dominated the Roman Republic. But whichever view we take it seems highly improbable that it was Livia who was making the decisions.

  Claudius the historian and Claudius the private person with his grudges and prejudices part company here as they do often enough in this autobiography. We know little for certain of Livia. We know she was powerful and influential; we know she was devoted to Augustus and a faithful counsellor to him; we know – if the marble bust of her in the Vatican Museum can be trusted – that she had great beauty and dignity. The extreme wickedness attributed to her in this account is an invented thing and the invention serves Graves extremely well. She becomes a symbol, almost a personification, of ruthless manipulation, a sort of presiding evil genius. Like the real Claudius himself and all the Julian emperors of Rome, she has become in the popular imagination untethered from history, criminal matriarch in a family of monsters and freaks. Their misdeeds have become legendary to us, like those of the Plantagenets or the Borgias. Involved with them, and of their time, there was a different set of legends, and these too breathe in Claudius’s pages, a nostalgia for the republic that was never to return, not in its disordered latter days but in its prime of discipline and virtue, a remote past exemplified by heroes like Cincinnatus, who in the fifth century BC at a time of grave peril to Rome, was elected dictator. Those who came to tell him found him ploughing on his small farm. He answered the call and saved the Republic. Sixteen days later he resigned his dictatorship and returned to his farm.

  Graves takes something of a risk at the start of the second volume, or so it least it seems to me, devoting a substantial section to the career of Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, relating his travels and adventures prior to the death of Caligula, the event which bound his fortunes to those of the newly honoured Claudius. The escapades of this engaging con-man and political opportunist are very well told and make entertaining reading but we sense the absence of Claudius from the narrative – or at least his much greater distance. We realize how present he has been before and we want him back.

  He returns at the beginning of Chapter Five, still being borne aloft in triumph by the Praetorian guards. And almost at once, in his handling of the Senate and in his dealings with Caligula’s assassins, he shows a mixture of firmness, judgement and political cunning that takes us by surprise. And so we are launched on the main narrative theme of this second book. Claudius is the classic underdog, yes. But he is the underdog who makes good, or at least is very far from the dismal failure that is anticipated on every hand. He cultivates the loyalty of the army on which future emperors will be increasingly dependent. He invades Britain in AD 43, conquering much of it and establishing client kingdoms. He acquires Mauretania in North Africa. He improves the empire’s judicial system and extends Roman citizenship in the provinces. We follow him through 13 years of absolute power and growing paranoia and we leave him at the age of 64, worn out and sick at heart, awaiting the death which has been foretold by the soothsayers – he is soon to be poisoned by his niece and fourth wife Agrippina, who is set on ensuring the succession of her son Nero.

  ‘Write no more’, he enjoins upon himself – they are the last words of the book. The end of his writing spells the
end of his life. He has failed to protect his son Britannicus, whom he knows to be doomed. His marriage to Messalina, the only woman he is said to have truly loved, has followed an appalling course. When a man of fifty marries a girl of fifteen he is bound to have trouble, Claudius sagely reflects somewhere. The prospect of trouble in this case is ludicrously enhanced when the girl turns out to be sexually insatiable – in his Sixth Satire Juvenal famously depicts her as an empress by day and a common prostitute by night.

  The questions persist. Was it his paranoid fears or Messalina’s whims and lusts that brought about the reign of terror when so many public figures were executed on Claudius’s orders? Did he give the order for her execution as is generally believed, or was it done without his knowledge by his freedman Narcissus, as he asserts in these pages? We don’t know, nobody does. But of course it doesn’t matter. Yet again we have to remind ourselves of what we are always in danger of forgetting as we read this compelling narrative, with its impeccable research, the tremendous intellectual feat of organization that it represents. It is fiction, after all.

  Barry Unsworth

  Author’s Note

  THE ‘gold piece’, here used as the regular monetary standard, is the Latin aureus, a coin worth 100 sestertii, or twenty-five silver denarii (‘silver pieces’): it may be thought of as worth one pound sterling, or five (pre-war) American dollars. The ‘mile’ is the Roman mile, some thirty paces shorter than the English mile. The marginal dates have for convenience been given according to Christian reckoning: the Greek reckoning, used by Claudius, counted the years from the First Olympiad, which took place in 776 B.C. For convenience also, the most familiar geographical names have been used: thus ‘France’, not ‘Transalpine Gaul’, because France covers roughly the same territorial area and it would be inconsistent to call towns like Nîmes and Boulogne and Lyons by their modern names – their classical ones would not be popularly recognized – while placing them in Gallia Transalpina or, as the Greeks called it, Galatia. (Greek geographical terms are most confusing: Germany was called ‘the country of the Celts’.) Similarly the most familiar forms of proper names have been used – ‘Livy’ for Titus Livius, ‘Cymbeline’ for Cunobelinus, ‘Mark Antony’ for Marcus Antonius. Claudius is writing in Greek, the scholarly language of his day, which accounts for his careful explanation of Latin jokes and for his translation of a passage from Ennius quoted by him in the original.