Robert Graves (1895 - 1985)

I had thought of moving on after Virginia Woolf to the writers of the period after the Second World War, since I would not describe as classic any other writers of the Inter-War period, apart from those I have written about. But it occurred to me that this would leave out many memorable works, since of course several writers produced individual pieces of great distinction.

Amongst my absolute favourites amongst all books published during this period is ‘I, Claudius’ by Robert Graves, which I still think the most memorable historical novel ever written in English. It had enormous influence on me in that it governed my determination to study classics, and to concentrate heavily on Roman history. I was never particularly good at this, but I have always cherished the comment of the scholar who took my first term of Roman history tutorials, that we got on very well because he was not so much a historian as a dramatist.Sensibly, if sadly, I opted to return to my own College for the rest of the course because I felt I would do little work otherwise. I had a wonderful summer engaging in fervent discussions of the personal motivations and relationships of the extraordinary characters who dominated Rome during its long Revolution, but scholarship seemed to me to require more. Now, having engaged in more study of politics through the ages, and been involved in it to a limited extent myself in Sri Lanka, I realize that Graves’ approach was spot on. Understanding people gives one much greater insights into the complexities of politics than political theory does.

‘I, Claudius’ is the supposed autobiography of the fourth Roman Emperor, the largely despised nephew of the second Emperor Tiberius. Tiberius had finally succeeded the great founder of the Empire, Augustus, when the latter’s own natural heirs all died off. Tiberius was the son of Augustus’s wife Livia, who dominates Graves’ book through what is presented as her relentless determination that her progeny should succeed Augustus. To achieve this she is quite happy to destroy the careers, if necessary by killing them off, of not only Augustus’ descendants by his earlier marriage, but even those of her own descendants who seem averse to her plans.

In time, by a bizarre process of human osmosis as it were, she even converts Tiberius to underhand ways. He was presented as a bluff and straightforward soldier earlier, forced to divorce the woman he loved to marry Augustus’ daughter, but when he became a tool of Livia’s ambitions he soon became ambitious and scheming himself. His possible involvement in the death of Claudius’ heroic older brother Germanicus is compellingly presented, and I recall being immensely moved in reading of that tragic episode.

Later, reading the brilliant if profoundly pessimistic Roman historian Tacitus, I realized how much Graves had derived from him, but also how effectively the slight softening Graves permitted himself contributed to the human impact of the story. Tacitus, with his universally malign view of human motivation, was probably nearer to historical truth, but humanity does need heroes, if only in fiction, and Graves certainly provided that.

Germanicus had a posthumous sort of revenge, in that Tiberius’ line also died out and he was succeeded by Germanicus’ son who was known as Caligula, ‘Little Boots’, because the soldiers dressed him in boots as a child to evoke the military memories of his father. Caligula turned out to be completely mad, and made his horse a consul, the magistracy that had been highest in the Roman hierarchy when it had been a democracy. Later Camus was to suggest, in a play that is perhaps the bleakest expression of the existentialist philosophy, that Caligula had simply kept asserting his will in more and more bizarre ways, as the only appropriate response to the ultimate meaninglessness of life.

Very French, that, one might say, whereas for Graves the man was simply unhinged, if occasionally also endearing. He was finally knocked off by his own soldiers, who then discovered Claudius hiding in a cupboard and declared him Emperor, to the chagrin of the senators who had been hoping for the restoration of democracy.

Most historians now believe that Claudius was a comparatively good emperor, though he continued to suffer from the character of a stuttering buffoon that Tacitus immortalized. Graves wrote a sequel, entitled ‘Claudius the God’, which I found less impressive, not least because Graves was trying to make the point that Claudius was a competent and thoughtful administrator, who realized that his last wife was actually determined to kill him to secure the throne for her son, but did not care enough about the matter to prevent her. That seemed to stretch credulity in a way that was avoided in Claudius’ presentation in the earlier novel of the sweep of Roman history before he became Emperor. 

Graves wrote a few more historical novels, which are also well worth reading, though none had the same impact as ‘I, Claudius’. ‘Count Belisarius’ is perhaps the most human account in English of the Byzantine Empire, and deals with its final attempt to re-establish a foothold in the West. Its hero is the Emperor Justinian’s accomplished General Belisarius who tried to reassert imperial authority in Africa, shortly before the onset of Islam.

‘Wife to Mr Milton’ is a much more peculiar book, dealing with the trials and tribulations of the young lady who married the irritable Puritan poet. Neither character seemed to me compelling, though the account of religious dissension in England, at the time of Civil War and subsequent Restoration of the Monarchy, was interesting enough.

For me the most memorable of Graves’ books after ‘I, Claudius’ was ‘Goodbye to All That’, the autobiography he wrote when only in his thirties. What might have seemed a conceit in one so young was amply justified in Graves’ presentation of what the First World War had done to his generation. In his four years as an army officer, immediately following Oxford, he had seen the world end for many, and the valedictory title seemed only too appropriate.

Graves himself lived on, into his nineties. He produced in his last active years what he termed an authentic version of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’, which seemed a travesty to the millions who had relished Edward Fitzgerald’s romantic Victorian version. I remember too a glossy magazine interview of him on the island far from England to which he had retreated, which ended with the story that, some time after lunch, he seemed to have forgotten that he had eaten and so he and the interviewer had lunch again.

All this seemed a world away from the young man who had recreated so many worlds after seeing the destruction of the one he had grown up in. But that was also one of the strengths of ‘I, Claudius’, the presentation of the ordinary man who survived a wildly spinning world, and conveyed through a very matter of fact narrative its whole volatile intensity.