When the main character of a story has little to no say in the events happening to them – when they are just swept along the with the story – it makes for a boring character. And a boring book.
And this is a very boring book.
Here’s the problem: Claudius can only watch as events unfold around him, he rarely gets to participate in anything that is interesting and when he does it’s usually to beg for mercy or play the fool. The people around him are interesting – or they would be had they been written better, anyway but he is not. He can only watch (and so we too can only watch) as we are told how one thing happened and how another thing happened.
What I don’t get is Graves wanted to write a realistic story of what happened during Claudius’ lifetime, he wanted to explore what life in Rome was really like and try to figure out how events really happened, yet he gives everyone the most wooden and stilted dialogue and has everyone running around making absolute statements. Everyone is certain of their actions and nobody ever stops to think that some issues might not be black or white. Nobody struggles with morality here and how someone could write an entire novel about the beginnings of the Roman Empire without giving us at least one character who spends more than an afterthought wondering if all this is a good idea isn’t just a missed opportunity, it’s just dumb.
I’ll give Graves credit for creativity and for taking the old Roman stories and looking at them in a fresh light. He has some fun ideas here, but it’s just poorly put together.
The biggest problem is a problem almost all stories like this run into : they have the wrong main character. Claudius is unable to really influence the events happening around him and to him so he’s a terrible character to spend an entire book with. I get that he’s a historian and that he’s telling us this story, but you can’t have it both ways, you can’t update the stories of Rome to show modern audiences that people even 2000 years ago were just like us but then write the whole book as if everyone is stiff and antique and mimicking an old Roman history book. If the whole point of this book was to show us how Rome was a vibrant, modern place, then why make everything feel stuffy and have everyone act wooden? The whole purpose of this book is baffling.
Anyway, my biggest problem with stories like this, such as biopics, are that you should never make the character at the center of your interest the main character. In the film Amadeus Mozart isn’t the main character, Salieri is. Salieri is much more interesting because he’s much more like us – he’s filled with rage and jealousy and he doesn’t possess the genius that Mozart does. We can understand Mozart’s brilliance better by looking at him through the flawed Salieri. In the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford the main character isn’t Jesse James, it’s (the coward) Robert Ford. Ford is far more interesting and we learn about both men by following Ford around. Even The Last King of Scotland gets this right by not making Idi Amin the main character, but making the fictional Nicholas Garrigan our eyes to the brutality of that dictator.
Now to be fair, Claudius isn’t the center of Rome through most of the book; he’s telling the stories of Augustus, his wife Livia, Tiberius, and Caligula, as well as a few other historical figures because he wants us to know how he wound up finally becoming Emperor, but we have to look at the first problem I brought up and that is Claudius is just telling us things he had no control over and played almost no part in.
Maybe it really was dumb luck that Claudius became Emperor, however, that makes for boring fiction. And besides I doubt the real Claudius had no influence and I’m sure he was more political than this book makes him out to be. Nobody is just handed the absolute rule of all of Rome just because a few senators are afraid of a few more Germans. I just don’t buy any of it.
Anyway, like I said, I give Graves credit for undertaking an interesting project, and there are some interesting moments, especially anything with Livia or Caligula, but the overall book is stiff and Claudius is one of the most boring main characters I’ve ever come across. He’s like little kid Anakin Skywalker in the terrible The Phantom Menace where he has no idea what’s going on around him, and no power to do anything about what happening. He’s boring, undeveloped, and the whole thing feels like a waste of time.
Oh, and do I feel like I understand Rome better now than when I started? No. Graves gives us some possible insight into how a few well-to-do Romans lives and some insight into the crimes and lavish festivals of the times, but none of the people here jump off the page as real human beings and Rome just feels like a collection of wooden sheep whose only function is to cheer at the games.
Poor Clau-Clau-Claudius? Poor us.