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I, Claudius

Robert Graves



  Penguin Books Ltd. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

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  Copyright ©1934 by Robert Graves.

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  Made and printed in Great Britain by Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd.

  Bungay, Suffolk Set in Monotype Times


  THE "gold piece", here used as the regular monetary standard, is the Latin aureus, a coin worth one hundred sestertii or twenty-five silver denarii ("silver pieces"): it may be thought of as worth roughly one pound sterling, or five 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 B.C. 776. 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 recognised —while placing them in Gallia Transalpina or, as the Greeks called it, Galatia. (Greek geographical terms are most confusing: Germany was "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.

  It has been difficult at times to find suitable renderings for military, legal and other technical terms. To give a single instance, there is the word "assegai". Aircraftman T.E. Shaw (whom I take this opportunity of thanking for his careful reading of these proofs) questions my use of "assegai" as an equivalent of the German framed or pfreim. He suggests "favelin". But I have not adopted the suggestion, as I have gratefully adopted others of his, because I need "javelin" for "pilum", the regular missile weapon of the disciplined Roman infantryman; and "assegai" is more savage sounding. "Assegai" has had a three-hundred year currency in English and acquired new vigour in the nineteenth century because of the Zulu wars. The long-shafted iron-headed ''frames'' was used, according to Tacitus, both as a missile and as a stabbing weapon. So was the assegai of the Ama-Aaro warriors, with whom the Germans of Claudius' day had culturally much in common. If Tacitus' statements, first as to the handiness of the ''frames'' at close quarters, and then as to its unmanageability among trees, are to be reconciled, the Germans probably did what the Zulus did—they broke off the end of the ''frames'' long shaft when hand-to-hand fighting started. But it seldom came to that, for the Germans always preferred strike-and-run tactics when engaged with the better-armed Roman infantryman.

  Suetonius in his ''Twelve Caesars'' refers to Claudius' histories as written "ineptly" rather than "inelegantly". Yet in certain passages of the present work are not only ineptly written but somewhat inelegantly too—the sentences painfully constructed and the digressions awkwardly placed—this is not out of keeping with Claudius' literary style as exhibited in his Latin speech about the Aeduan franchise, fragments of which survive. The speech is, indeed, thickly strewn with inelegancies of this sort, but then it is probably a transcription of the official shorthand record of Claudius' exact words to the Senate—the speech of a tired man conscientiously extemporising oratory from a paper of rough notes. ''I, Claudius'' is a conversational piece of writing; as Greek, indeed, is a far more conversational language than Latin. Claudius' recently discovered Greek letter to the Alexandrians, which may however be partly the work of an imperial secretary, reads much more easily than the Aeduan speech.

  For help towards Classical correctness I have to thank Miss Eirlys Roberts; and for criticism of the congruity of the English, Miss Laura Riding.


  I, TIBERIUS CLAUDIUS DRUSUS NERO GERMANICUS This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "Claudius the Idiot", or "That Claudius", or "Claudius the Stammerer", or "Clau-Clau-Claudius" or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius", am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the "golden predicament" from which I have never since become disentangled.

  This is not by any means my first book: in fact literature, and especially the writing of history—which as a young man I studied here at Rome under the best contemporary masters—was, until the change came, my sole profession and interest for more than thirty-five years. My reader must not therefore be surprised at my practised style.

  [It is indeed Claudius himself who is writing this book, and no mere secretary of his, and not one of those official annalists, either, to whom public men are in the habit of communicating their recollections, in the hope that elegant writing will eke out meagreness of subject-matter and flattery soften vices.]

  In the present work, I swear by all the Gods, I am my own mere secretary, and my own official annalist: I am writing with my own hand, and what favour can I hope to win from myself by flattery? I may add that this is not the first history of my own life that I have written. I once wrote another, in eight volumes, as a contribution to the City archives. It was a dull affair, by which I set little store, and only written in response to public request. To be frank, I was extremely busy with other matters during its composition, which was two years ago. I dictated most of the first four volumes to a Greek secretary of mine and told him to alter nothing as he wrote (except, where necessary, for the balance of the sentences, or to remove contradictions or repetitions). But I admit that nearly all the second half of the work, and some chapters at least of the first, were composed by this same fellow Polybius (whom I had named myself, when a slave-boy, after the famous historian) from material that I gave him. And he modelled his style so accurately on mine that, really, when he had done, nobody could have guessed what was mine and what was his.

  It was a dull book, I repeat. I was in no position to criticize the Emperor Augustus, who was my maternal granduncle, or his third and last wife, Livia Augusta, who was my grandmother, because they had both been officially deified and I was connected in a priestly capacity with their cults; and though I could have pretty sharply criticised Augustus' two unworthy Imperial successors, I refrained for decency's sake. It would have been unjust to exculpate Livia, and Augustus himself, in so far as he deferred to that remarkable and—let me say at once—abominable woman, while telling the truth about the other two, whose memories were not similarly protected by religious awe.

  I let it be a dull book, recording merely such uncontroversial facts as, for example, that So-and-so married So-and-so, the daughter of Such-and-such who had this or that number of public honours to his credit, but not mentioning the political reasons for the marriage nor the behind-scene bargaining between the families. Or I would write that So-and-so died suddenly, after eating a dish of African figs, but say nothing of poison, or to whose advantage the death proved to be, unless the facts were supported by a verdict of the Criminal Courts. I told no lies, but neither did I tell the truth in the sense that I mean to tell it here.

  When I consulted this book to-day in the Apollo Library on the Palatine Hill, to refresh my memory for certain particulars of date, I was inter
ested to come across passages in the public chapters which I could have sworn I had written or dictated, the style was so peculiarly my own, and yet which I had no recollection of writing or dictating. If they were by Polybius they were a wonderfully clever piece of mimicry (he had my other histories to study, I admit), but if they were really by myself then my memory is even worse than my enemies declare it to be. Reading over what I have just put down I see that I must be rather exciting than disarming suspicion, first as to my sole authorship of what follows, next as to my integrity as an historian, and finally as to my memory for facts. But I shall let it stand; it is myself writing as I feel, and as the history proceeds the reader will be the more ready to believe that I am hiding nothing—so much being to my discredit.

  This is a confidential history. But who, it may be asked, are my confidants? My answer is: it is addressed to posterity. I do not mean my great-grandchildren, or my great-great-grandchildren: I mean an extremely remote posterity.

  Yet my hope is that you, my eventual readers of a hundred generations ahead, or more, will feel yourselves directly spoken to, as if by a contemporary: as often Herodotus and Thucydides, long dead, seem to speak to me. And why do I specify so extremely remote a posterity as that? I shall explain.

  I went to Cumae, in Campania, a little less than eighteen years ago, and visited the Sibyl in her cliff cavern on Mount Gaurus. There is always a Sibyl at Cumae, for when one dies her novice-attendant succeeds; but they are not all equally famous. Some of them are never granted a prophecy by Apollo in all the long years of their service. Others prophesy, indeed, but seem more inspired by Bacchus than by Apollo, the drunken nonsense they deliver; which has brought the oracle into discredit. Before the succession of Deiphobe, whom Augustus often consulted, and Amalthea, who is still alive and most famous, there had been a run of very poor Sibyls for nearly three hundred years. The cavern lies behind a pretty little Greek temple sacred to Apollo and Artemis—Cumae was an Aeolian Greek colony. There is an ancient gilt frieze above the portico ascribed to Daedalus, though this is patently absurd, for it is no older than five hundred years, if as old as that, and Daedalus lived at least eleven hundred years ago; it represents the story of Theseus and the Minotaur whom he killed in the Labyrinth of Crete. Before being permitted to visit the Sibyl I had to sacrifice a bullock and a ewe there, to Apollo and Artemis respectively. It was cold December weather.

  The cavern was a terrifying place, hollowed out from the solid rock, the approach steep, tortuous, pitch-dark and full or bats. I went disguised, but the Sibyl knew me. It must have been my stammer that betrayed me. I stammered badly as a child and though, by following the advice of specialists in elocution, I gradually learned to control my speech on set public occasions, yet on private and unpremeditated ones, I am still, though less so than formerly, liable every now and then to trip nervously over my own tongue: which is what happened to me at Cumae.

  I came into the inner cavern, after groping painfully on all-fours up the stairs, and saw the Sibyl, more like an ape than a woman, sitting on a chair in a cage that hung from the ceiling, her robes red and her unblinking eyes shining red in the single red shaft of light that struck down from somewhere above. Her toothless mouth was grinning.

  There was a smell of death about me. But I managed to force out the salutation that I had prepared. She gave me no answer. It was only some time afterwards that I learned that this was the mummified body of Deiphobe, the previous Sibyl, who had died recently at the age of one hundred and ten; her eye-lids were propped up with glass marbles silvered behind to make them shine. The reigning Sibyl always lived with her predecessor. Well, I must have stood for some minutes in front of Deiphobe, shivering and making propitiatory grimaces—it seemed a lifetime. At last the living Sibyl, whose name was Amalthea, quite a young woman too, revealed herself. The red shaft of light failed, so that Deiphobe disappeared—somebody, probably the novice, had covered up the tiny red-glass window—and a new shaft, white, struck down and lit up Amalthea seated on an ivory throne in the shadows behind. She had a beautiful, mad-looking face with a high forehead and sat as motionless as Deiphobe. But her eyes were closed. My knees shook and I fell into a stammer from which I could not extricate myself.

  "O Sib... Sib... Sib... Sib... Sib..." I began.

  She opened her eyes, frowned and mimicked me: "O Clau... Clau... Clau,..." That shamed me and I managed to remember what I had come to ask. I said with a great effort: "O Sibyl: I have come to question you about Rome's fate and mine."

  Gradually her face changed, the prophetic power overcame her, she struggled and gasped, there was a rushing noise through all the galleries, doors banged, wings swished my face, the light vanished, and she uttered a Greek verse in the voice of the God:

  Who groans beneath the Punic Curse

  And strangles in the strings of purse,

  Before she mends must sicken worse.

  Her living mouth shall breed blue flies,

  And maggots creep about her eyes.

  No man shall mark the day she dies.

  Then she tossed her arms over her head and began again:

  Ten years, fifty days and three,

  Clau—Clau—Clau—shall given be

  A gift that all desire but he.

  To a fawning fellowship

  He shall stammer, cluck and trip,

  Dribbling always with his lip.

  But when he's dumb and no more here,

  Nineteen hundred years or near,

  Clau—Clau—Claudius shall speak clear.

  The God laughed through her mouth then, a lovely yet terrible sound—hoi hoi hoi... I made obeisance, turned hurriedly and went stumbling away, sprawling headlong down the first flight of broken stairs, cutting my forehead and knees, and so painfully out, the tremendous laughter pursuing me.

  Speaking now as a practised diviner, a professional historian and a priest who has had opportunities of studying the Sibylline books as regularised by Augustus, I can interpret the verses with some confidence: By the Punic Curse the Sibyl was referring plainly enough to the destruction of Carthage by us Romans. We have long been under a divine curse because of that. We swore friendship and protection to Carthage in the name of our principal Gods, Apollo included, and then, jealous of her quick recovery from the disasters of the Second Punic war, we tricked her into fighting the Third Punic War and utterly destroyed her, massacring her inhabitants and sowing her fields with salt. "The strings of purse" are the chief instruments of this curse—a money-madness that has choked Rome ever since she destroyed her chief trade rival and made herself mistress of all the riches of the Mediterranean. With riches came sloth, greed, cruelty, dishonesty, cowardice, effeminacy and every other un-Roman vice.

  What the gift was that all desired but myself—and it came exactly ten years and fifty-three days later—you shall read in due course. The lines about Claudius speaking clear puzzled me for years but at last I think that I understand them. They are, I believe, an injunction to write the present work. When it is written, I shall treat it with a preservative fluid, seal it in a lead casket and bury it deep in the ground somewhere for posterity to dig up and read. If my interpretation be correct it will be found again some nineteen hundred years hence. And then, when all other authors of to-day whose works survive will seem to shuffle and stammer, since they have written only for to-day, and guardedly, my story will speak out clearly and boldly. Perhaps on second thoughts, I shall not take the trouble to seal it up in a casket: I shall merely leave it lying about. For my experience as a historian is that more documents survive by chance than by intention. Apollo has made the prophecy, so I shall let Apollo take care of the manuscript.

  As you see, I have chosen to write in Greek, because Greek, I believe, will always remain the chief literary language of the world, and if Rome rots away as the Sibyl has indicated, will not her language rot away with her? Besides, Greek is Apollo's own language.

  I shall be careful with dates (which you see I am putting i
n the margin) and proper names. In compiling my histories of Etruria and Carthage I have spent more angry hours than I care to recall, puzzling out in what year this or that event happened and whether a man named So-and-so was really So-and-so or whether he was a son or grandson or great-grandson or no relation at all. I intend to spare my successors this sort of irritation. Thus, for example, of the several characters in the present history who have the name of Drusus—my father; myself; a son of mine; my first cousin; my nephew—each will be plainly distinguished wherever mentioned. And, for example again, in speaking of my tutor, Marcus Porcius Cato, I must make it clear that he was neither Marcus Porcius Cato, the Censor, instigator of the Third Punic war; nor his son of the same name, the well-known jurist; nor his grandson, the Consul of the same name, nor his great-grandson of the same name, Julius Caesar's enemy; nor his great-great-grandson, of the same name, who fell at the Battle of Philippi; but an absolutely undistinguished great-great-great-grandson, still of the same name, who never bore any public dignity and who deserved none. Augustus made him my tutor and afterwards schoolmaster to other young Roman noblemen and sons of foreign kings, for though his name entitled him to a position of the highest dignity, his severe, stupid, pedantic nature qualified him for nothing better than that of elementary schoolmaster.

  To fix the date to which these events belong I can do no better, I think, than to say that my birth occurred in the 744th year after the foundation of Rome by Romulus, and in the 767th year after the First B.C. 10 Olympiad, and that the Emperor Augustus, whose name is unlikely to perish even in nineteen hundred years of history, had by then been ruling for twenty years.

  Before I close this introductory chapter I have something more to add about the Sibyl and her prophecies. I have already said that, at Cumae, when one Sibyl dies another succeeds, but that some are more famous than others. There was one very famous one, Demophile, whom Aeneas consulted before his descent into Hell. And there was a later one, Herophile, who came to King Tarquin and offered him a collection of prophecies at a higher price than he wished to pay; when he refused, so the story runs, she burned a part and offered what was left at the same price, which he again refused. Then she burned another part and offered what was left, still at the same price—which, for curiosity, this time he paid. Herophile's oracles were of two kinds, warning or hopeful prophecies of the future, and directions for the suitable propitiatory sacrifices to be made when such and such portents occurred. To these were added, in the course of time, whatever remarkable and well-attested oracles were uttered to private persons. Whenever, then, Rome has seemed threatened by strange portents or disasters, the Senate orders a consultation of the books by the priests who have charge of them and a remedy is always found. Twice the books were partially destroyed by fire and the lost prophecies restored by the combined memories of the priests in charge. These memories seem in many instances to have been extremely faulty: this is why Augustus set to work on an authoritative canon of the prophecies, rejecting obviously uninspired interpolations or restorations. He also called in and destroyed all unauthorised private collections of Sibylline oracles as well as all other books of public prediction that he could lay his hands upon, to the number of over two thousand. The revised Sibylline books he put in a locked cupboard under the pedestal of Apollo's statue in the temple which he built for the God close to his palace on the Palatine Hill. A unique book from Augustus' private historical library came into my possession some time after his death. It was called "Sibylline Curiosities: being such prophecies found incorporated in the original canon as have been rejected as spurious by the priests of Apollo". The verses were copied out in Augustus' own beautiful script, with the characteristic mis-spellings which, originally made from ignorance, he ever afterwards adhered to as a point of pride. Most of these verses were obviously never spoken by the Sibyl either in ecstasy or out of it, but composed by irresponsible persons who wished to glorify themselves or their houses or to curse the houses of rivals by claiming divine authorship for their own fanciful predictions against them. The Claudian family had been particularly active, I noticed, in these forgeries. Yet I found one or two pieces whose language proved them respectably archaic and whose inspiration seemed divine, and whose plain and alarming sense had evidently decided Augustus—his word was law among the priests of Apollo—against admitting them into his canon.