27 June 2014

I, Claudius and Quo Vadis

Ah, it’s summertime and time for the proverbial summer reading. So what do I, a teacher of ancient history and literature, do in the summertime? Well, this year I decided to read two historical fiction novels about the early Roman Empire simultaneously: I, Claudius by Robert Graves and Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz.


The premise for I, Claudius is that it is the long-lost autobiography of Emperor Claudius. In writing this book in the 1930s, Robert Graves was attempting to represent the latest scholarly data on Claudius. Claudius was a weak-legged man whose head shook and who spoke with a stammer. Because of this, his nephew Caligula never viewed him as a threat, and he survived Caligula’s reign while every other member of the royal family was killed. However, as emperor, his symptoms improved and he claimed to have exaggerated his malady in order to survive. Most ancient historians held a low view of Claudius and didn’t seem to buy this excuse. However, writings of Claudius, discovered in the early 1900s, show that he was an erudite and scholarly man with extensive knowledge of history. By telling the story from Claudius’s perspective we get to see both this private Claudius and the public Claudius of the ancient historians.

Claudius begins his book by telling of how Augustus became emperor, and of his grandparents and parents in that time period. The book continues through his childhood during the reign of Augustus, his life under Tiberius and Caligula, and finally through Caligula’s assassination and Claudius’s accession to the throne. This covers the period from 31 BC to AD 41. The characters were all well crafted, in addition to being real historic figures, and I really came to sympathize with Claudius despite his numerous faults. Of course, the novel is being written from Claudius’s perspective, so one must always wonder if Claudius’s perspective is completely accurate in every situation.

Along the way Robert Graves takes numerous opportunities to show the “true story” behind the commonly accepted history through various conspiracies and plots. Part of my joy in reading the story was seeing these little excursions. For example, when Augustus died, his nephew, Postumus, who was in exile, was put to death. A few years later, a slave named Clemens appeared in Rome claiming to be Postumus and causing quite a stir until he was captured. In I, Claudius, before he dies Augustus decides to pardon Postumus, and, to keep his actions hidden from his wife Livia, he secretly goes to the island where Postumus is in exile and switches him for the slave Clemens. Thus when Augustus dies it is Clemens who is executed and the man who pops up in Rome a few years later is the real Postumus. Because of these things, it is best not to get your history from I, Claudius (one should never get one’s history from historical fiction), but more importantly, I would suggest reading Tactius’s Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars before reading I, Claudius to get the maximum enjoyment out of all the inside jokes.

Near the end of I, Claudius, we meet Marcus Vinicius, one of the conspirators who join in the assassination of Caligula. The novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz opens under the reign of Nero around AD 64, about 23 years after I, Claudius ends, and features the fictitious son of the real Marcus Vinicius. This son, also named Marcus Vinicius, may be fictional, but almost all of the other main characters in the story are real people who were nobles in Rome in the time of Nero.

Returning from the wars, Vinicius meets Ligia, the daughter of a foreign king who was taken as a hostage when she was very young and has been raised in the house of Aulis Plautius and his wife Pomponia. Vinicius immediately falls in love with Ligia and decides he must have her. His friend Petronius pulls some strings with the emperor and has her removed from Aulis’s house and brought to the palace from which Vinicius plans to take her to his house as a slave/lover. However, Ligia is a Christian, like her adoptive mother Pomponia, and when she is on her way to Vinicius’s house a group of Christians from the city surround the litter and carry her off to a secret and safe place. Vinicius is enraged to be cheated of his woman and hires a Greek spy to find out where she is so that he can get her back. This inevitably brings him into contact with Rome’s Christian community and even into contact with the apostles Peter and Paul.

I don’t want to say much more about the book for fear of spoiling the plot. However, while this private drama is playing out, politics are moving forward as well, and for those who know their history, this can only lead to one thing: the burning of Rome and the persecution and mass slaughter of Christians in the aftermath. And though, like Vinicius, Ligia is a fictional character, the Christian Pomponia as well as most of the other major characters are real. By the last quarter of the book, there are some heart-wrenching and gruesome scenes to slog through, made all the more difficult to read by the fact that similar things really did happen in Nero’s Rome.


The two books, I, Claudius and Quo Vadis are both superb examples of historical fiction. (Quo Vadis even won Sienkiewicz the Noble Prize for literature.) I, Claudius is a more sweeping story about the family of the emperor over the course of about 70 years, whereas Quo Vadis is a more intimate story centered on the relationship between Vinicius, Ligia and the Christians in Rome. It takes place all in the course of about a year with an epilogue that briefly narrates the last few years of Nero’s reign. I, Claudius is plot-oriented and fast-paced; Quo Vadis is more slow-moving and focused on characters instead of events. I highly recommend both for those interested in a snapshot of Roman culture in the first century.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves 5/5 stars
Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz 4/5 stars

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