If, by some quirk in the time-space continuum, I was able to time travel, probably one of the last places I would want to end up would be ancient Rome. It’s not the food, the constant wars, or the public toilets that bother me (derail: sat on one of those at a Roman archeological dig in Israel—I prefer to do my business when I don’t have a neighbor’s butt about five inches from mine). Nope, it’s about the murdering—the constant, constant murdering.
When I set down Robert Graves’s I, Claudius for the final time, I tried to figure out how many of the main and secondary characters had been taken out by poisoning, bludgeoning, or neglect. It’s a pretty staggering number. We have mothers killing daughters by walling them up in a room and listening to them starve to death, grandmothers gradually poisoning grandsons, and emperors getting their jaws hacked off by assassins. Neither rank nor blood can protect you from an inevitable and unnatural death.
Unless, of course, you’re an idiot. Or, at least, you’re perceived as an idiot, like the titular Claudius. Born twisted, small, and with a dreadful stammer, Claudius is immediately discounted by his family, a powerful combination of Claudians and Caesars. When he’s not being the punching bag for his mother, grandmother, sister, or a whole host of other family members, he spends his time learning and observing. It’s this quiet behavior that allows him to watch the goings-on unharmed. Claudius watches as Rome goes through three emperors: Augustus (who you might recognize as Octavian from Rome), Tiberius, and Caligula, the “little boot” who nearly ran Rome into the ground.
Throughout, I had trouble deciding whether Claudius was in fact an idiot or not. True, much of his perceived idiocy comes from his self-imposed dumb show, but the situations that he puts himself in are kind of ludicrous. Maybe it’s the comparison between him and his brother Germanicus that makes Claudius come out looking out of it, cowardly, and unmanly in the Roman sense. Then again, Claudius outlived his brother, so that shows how much I know. I’m sure that I might find the answers to my questions in the sequel, Claudius the God, where Claudius comes up against the challenge of his life as emperor. And I'll also end up hiring someone to taste-test my food as my poison paranoia grows.