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Reading the Classics: A History Lesson?!?

After digging into Orwellian literature last month, I really became a bit captivated by the whole genre of utopian/dystopian satire. So much so that I actually read a few of the really big ones…following Animal Farm with Huxley’s A Brave New World, and then Orwell’s 1984. But as I don’t find any real joy in putting anyone through a string of such gloominess (we’ll get back to dystopia in following months), I instead jumped into another favorite subject, Roman History. I know what you’re thinking! Blech! History? Isn’t school out for the summer? But this is different. I, Claudius by Robert Graves is a bona fide classic AND it’s a darn good read. Hey! If you’re not into reading there’s also a very good, Emmy award-winning video recording of it starring big names like John Hurt, Derek Jacobi & Patrick Stewart. I think there is also talk of a new television version of it from the same producers that made HBO’s very excellent Rome television series. If you’re familiar with that series then you might know what to expect in the (hopefully) 2013 version of I, Claudius…probably a bit more debauchery than the late ‘70s version of it. I can hardly wait!

Now, I consider myself fairly familiar with ancient history, particularly Roman History. And though Graves obviously had to create much of the basic storyline in the novel, he has also stuck very closely to what we know is true of the Early Roman Empire. Most of the sources Graves had to pull from were pretty ancient themselves. These older sources can be a bit of a win/lose. On the one hand, they are ancient and a couple of them, Tacitus and Plutarch were very nearly contemporaries of Claudius and his reign. Thus the sources were written in living memory of many of the events making them possibly quite reliable.  On the other hand, it is well known that some writers of the day had a habit (voluntarily or forcibly) to write highly of the man that happened to be emperor at the time and quite lowly of the emperor that most recently had been deposed. I think this type of thing may have led to the bad press that emperors such as Caligula and Nero suffer from to this day. Sure, Caligula was a bit odd and perhaps even slightly evil, but much of his oddness may have actually been political maneuverings on his part that were later described as acts of a crazy man. And Nero, I believe, has been unjustly demonized. Fact is, he didn’t fiddle as Rome burned. Fact is, the fiddle had not yet been invented! True, he did stand on his balcony and compose a lament on the lyre to his beloved burning city. But eyewitness accounts tell of this balcony scene taking place well after Nero had personally helped pull victims from burning buildings and into his own palace that he’d ordered be set up as a triage station. Only later was Nero blamed for indifference during the fire, or worse, for actually setting the fire himself to make room for a new palace!

Of course Graves doesn’t agree with my version of history! No. He sticks pretty much to the sources as written but what he adds is personality. Never before or (in my opinion) since, has any author brought a Roman Emperor to life the way Graves does of Claudius! I can really believe that the Emperor Claudius had the dry wit, intelligence and fatalistic tendencies that Graves gives him. So if you enjoy some Roman history or if you might just want a good historical basis for when HBO starts their I, Claudius series here soon, pick up the Robert Graves classic. It will be worth it!  -Dan Winsky, Acquisitions

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2 Comments

  1. tdavin says:

    I read a good addition to this topic called “We” by a Russian author named Yevgeny Zamayatin. It was written before Orwell’s “1984″ and there was some speculation that Orwell got his idea from this book. More information can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_(novel)

  2. Dan says:

    Yep! I’ve heard of “We” and have been planning to move it to the top of my To-Be-Read list. Maybe I can get a hold of it and return to my dystopian reading project. It looks like the library’s copy is currently checked out but I’ve got a hold placed on it the audiobook version of it! It’ll likely show up on an “in the Spotlight” post soon.
    -Dan

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