Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Graves

Critical Evaluation

In this sequel to I, CLAUDIUS, Robert Graves continues the development of the historical novel that he had begun in his earlier work. Before Graves, this literary form was seldom other than a romance, contemporary to whatever age in which it was written and covered over with a thin veneer reminiscent of exotic climates and distant times and places. Graves, however, uses the form of the historical novel not to disguise the present but to explore and bring to light the past. In I, CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD AND HIS WIFE MESSALINA, Graves does successfully what Gore Vidal has done in JULIAN and more recently in BURR. Graves studies the original historical sources—Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, Varro, Josephus, and many others—and tells the story of the Emperor Claudius. It is a measure of Graves’s talent and skill that he can make his evocation of the past seem real and vivid, even to those with a solid grounding in the history of the early Roman Empire.

The solid historical background of CLAUDIUS THE GOD AND HIS WIFE MESSALINA is only one of the reasons why it is worth the reader’s time and effort. Another is Graves’s skill with language. Readers of this book are not only educated about Roman history and enlightened by the author’s interpretation of it, but they are entertained as well.

The form Graves uses is that of a memoir; the book is supposedly written in Claudius’ own words and from his point of view. Claudius is known to most students of Roman history as a rather dull person, stupid and silly in equal measure. Graves, however, takes some of the historical anomalies of Claudius’ life and reign and explains them from the Roman’s point of view; for example, he describes Claudius’ relationship with Messalina as a case of a decent and trusting man whose very decency and honesty is exploited by his wife. History seldom happened as the historians wrote it, and the great historical characters were only human beings living their everyday lives. Graves makes this point very forcefully, and his tool to do so is the poet’s way with words and knowledge of motivations. Graves illustrates the fact that either poets should write more history or historians should be more poetic.