THE MAN of the MONTH
[Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, $3.00]
READERS of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius will remember that that book ended with the assassination of Caligula and the election by the army of Claudius as emperor. Claudius the God is not so much a sequel as a second volume of the same autobiography. It begins exactly where the former left off and continues the narrative to Claudius’s deification and death.
It will be recalled that laudius, nephew of Tiberius, brother of Germanicus, and husband of Messalina, had been looked upon as something of a fool, and that, living in an age when merely to survive was an accomplishment, he had not hesitated to use his reputation as a protection. He avoided all political activity and gave his time to the writing of history. Besides, he was at heart a republican, dreaming of the return of Rome to its former integrity and simplicity, and he accepted his election as emperor merely because the only alternative was death.
The books have therefore an ironical theme, — and the irony is quite perceptible to Claudius himself,— that, having accepted the purple, it was impossible for him to escape being a despot. Try as be might to treat the people as sovereign, the people expected, indeed wanted, tyranny. The consequence was that his depraved queen and her favorites secretly exercised the despotism which he avoided and ultimately involved him in their ruin.
The author has not adopted the usual view of Claudius, that he was a well-meaning weakling. He has portrayed him as a humorous rationalist, who found himself unable to take seriously the imperialism of less imaginative rulers and who, when he found that his republican principles had been completely undermined by those he trusted, simply refused to rule at all; remained Cæsar only in name, married Agrippina in order to give Rome the worst ruler possible, — for she was Nero’s mother,—and met death almost with relief.
Claudius, we know, really wrote an autobiography, though it was apparently never read by anyone but himself; and it was a clever device of the author to reconstruct it from known sources aided by fiction. The result is not so much a novel as a very entertaining history of the period between A.D. 10 and 54, as seen by a principal actor. It appears to be fairly true to fact, though historians may, of course, challenge its interpretations. Its great virtue is that, while it divests the Romans of the somewhat spurious pomp and circumstance they have had ever since Gibbon, it makes them extremely alive.
As a whole, the present volume is less engrossing than the former, perhaps because the author’s purpose necessitated a great deal of attention to Claudius’s engineering schemes and statecraft, and perhaps because he has here no such series of powerful figures to portray. And yet the portrait of Herod Agrippa is even better than any in the other book; the account of the campaign in Britain is both exciting and extremely amusing; and the gradual completion of the character of Claudius himself is fascinating to watch. When Herod read Claudius’s History of Carthage, he remarked: ‘There’s too much meat in that sausage, and not enough spices and garlic. ‘He meant,’ Claudius explains, ‘that there Was too much information in it and not enough elegant writing.’
Claudius is an appealing figure, somehow combining ingenuousness with astuteness, democracy with tyranny, and, until his last disillusionment, love with cynicism. As his first wife, Urgulauilla, wrote of him in her will: ‘I don’t care what people say, but Claudius is no fool. The effect upon his personality of his early experiences is finely studied. That he does not impress us as a tragic figure is due mainly to the fact that he refused to view himself as one. Too many people had called him during his youth a clown, a figure of fun. He is always aware that his ungainly exterior seems to belie the dignity of his mind. By showing in Ids hero the struggle between the outer and inner life and at the same time the struggle between republicanism and despotism, Mr. Graves has built up a complex character in which comedy and pathos are finely blended.
R. M. GAY