Graves, Robert, Historical Fiction

Review of I, Claudius

What was it about?

Claudius, the future Roman Emperor, writes his autobiography for posterity. He consults the Sibyl who prophesies in verse the fall of the Roman Empire and describes the kind of men who will assume the throne before its fall. Because Claudius has a severe stutter his family considers him unfit for administration. Still, he is well-respected as a historian. Claudius describes the Julio-Claudian dynasty until his accession to the throne, emphasizing the influence of Augustus’ wife Livia on the fate of the empire. He insists that there are two kinds of Claudians – the good and the bad. But even the best Claudians are tyrants and self-professed gods. Inbreeding results in a highly complicated family tree; characters have similar-sounding or even the same names. Marriage is almost always a back-stabbing institution.  Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is not only an imaginative retelling of the history of the life and family of Emperor Claudius but a commentary on Ancient Roman historiography.

What did I think of it?

I actually read this book six months ago, but I never wrote a review for it. This is definitely the greatest work of historical fiction I’ve ever read. The writing is gorgeous, the characters are complex, and the story is exciting. I spent hours drawing a family tree to keep straight all of the characters (a family tree at the start of the book would have been nice), but I did not want to give up on the book. Graves does so much more than tell a good story. He makes insightful commentaries on the politics of language and Ancient Roman historiography (here is a sample passage). Historians today try to reproduce a historical event as accurately as possible, but this was not the goal of ancient and medieval historians. History was not only written by the victor but was deliberately distorted by him. In one scene, two historians fight over the purpose of writing and reading histories. Before reading the sequel, Claudius, the God, I will reread I, Claudius because I am sure that I have forgotten many details in the book. After finishing the books I will watch the award-winning 1976 mini-series. Even if you normally dislike historical fiction I suspect you will enjoy I, Claudius. It is incredible how much violence and deception can exist in one family!

Favorite Passage

“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.”

Historical Fiction, Plays, Schiller, Friedrich

Review of Don Carlos (Mike Poulton Adaptation)

What was it about?

Don Carlos, the Prince of Spain, is the son of the tyrannical King Philip II. At the start of the play, King Philip has commissioned the Duke of Alba to violently impose Spanish rule on Flanders. Carlos hates his father for two reasons: for marrying Elizabeth, a woman whom Carlos loved first, and for his ruthless political policy. With the help of Rodrigo (the Marquis of Posa), Don Carlos attempts to stop the Duke of Alba from enslaving Flanders. In the background is the passionate love of Elizabeth for her step-son. Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos is a fast-paced, intrigue-filled play centered on the tumultuous relationship between an ambitious monarch and his naive son.

What did I think of it?

I have never read the original play by Friedrich Schiller or seen a performance of Poulton’s adaptation, so I don’t know how this book stacks up against other versions of Don Carlos. However, I did enjoy this version. While some of the characters (such as Elizabeth and especially the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor) were not as well developed as I would have liked, the intrigue kept me engaged. This was definitely a page-turner. Don Carlos is a visionary, but because of his age, he is very short-sighted. He doesn’t really understand the forces at play in his father’s court. The whole play is in verse, but this speeds up rather than slows down the action. My only major criticism was the pacing. While most of the play was at a reasonable but engaging pace, the denouement was too steep. The story wrapped up too quickly. It would be interesting to compare this adaptation to the original Schiller play. Maybe there is more character development in the original. Regardless, I enjoyed Don Carlos and recommend it to anyone interested in a light historical drama.

Favorite quote

[Carlos]:
“Of all the fathers in the world
why do the Heavens punish me with him?
Of all the sons that could have pleased a king
why was God pleased
to displease this King with me?
No two minds are more at odds,
yet here we remain – we three – unnaturally linked
in a single chain of love. Impossible equation!
Wretched, wretched fate!”