I, Claudius

The novel, I, Claudius, [1934] by Robert Graves is a clever work of historical fiction spanning 80 years of early imperial Rome. The book, which narrates the lives of the Emperors from Julius Caesar’s death at the hands of the Senate in 44 BC to Caligula’s assassination in 41 AD, is written as an autobiography and memoir of the Emperor Claudius.

Long before HBO gave us ROME and other mini-series, Graves account boldly takes on the behind the scenes account of family machinations, wives, mothers, lovers and alliances pulling the strings of history.

rome

 

The novel recounts Claudius’ life within a family who view him as somewhat of an idiot. This was largely due to his nervous tics, stammering and a significant limp. He was in fact no dolt. He was of good stock. His mother Antonia was the daughter of Marc Antony and his father Drusus was the second son of brilliant but evil Livia, Augustus’ wife.

Graves, a British scholar and historian, translated the works of Roman historian Suetonius from Latin into English and claimed that Claudius came to him in a dream and demanded that his real story be told. Since Claudius, is known to have written an autobiography that covered the lives of the Caesars, an eight volumes, a work which is now lost, Graves determined to “discover” the work in his own way.

 

i claudius

 

The fact that he was always perceived to be mentally deficient was in fact a boon to Claudius, since he was not perceived to be a threat to his ambitious relatives.In Graves’ version, he uses the peculiarities of Claudius’ nature to develop a sympathetic character whose survival in a murderous dynasty depended largely upon his family’s incorrect assumption about him. The novel, afforded Graves a way to write about the lives of the first four Emperors of Rome (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius) from an insiders view. In doing so he draws back the veil of history to show behind the scenes of court life, into the family machinations of a treacherous dynasty.

rome 2

 

hbo-rome-859

 

In an early episode, Claudius is privy to a prophecy contained in the book of “Sibylline Curiosities”. This concerns the fates of the “hairy ones” (i.e. The Caesars – from the Latin word “caesar”, meaning “a fine head of hair”) who are to rule Rome. The penultimate verse concerns his own reign, and Claudius can tell the identity of the last emperor described. From the outset, then, Graves establishes a fatalistic tone that plays out at the end of Graves’ second novel, Claudius the God in which he himself is poisoned by his own wife, and succeeded by her wicked son Nero.

                        II.

“A HUNDRED YEARS OF THE PUNIC CURSE
AND ROME WILL BE SLAVE TO A HAIRY MAN,
A HAIRY MAN THAT IS SCANT OF HAIR,
EVERY MAN’S WOMAN AND EACH WOMAN’S MAN.
THE STEED THAT HE RIDES SHALL HAVE TOES FOR HOOVES.
HE SHALL DIE AT THE HAND OF HIS SON, NO SON,
AND NOT ON THE FIELD OF WAR.

THE HAIRY ONE NEXT TO ENSLAVE THE STATE
SHALL BE SON, NO SON, OF HIS HAIRY LAST.
HE SHALL HAVE HAIR IN A GENEROUS MOP.
HE SHALL GIVE ROME MARBLE IN PLACE OF CLAY
AND FETTER HER FAST WITH UNSEEN CHAINS,
AND SHALL DIE AT THE HAND OF HIS WIFE, NO WIFE,
TO THE GAIN OF HIS SON, NO SON.

THE HAIRY THIRD TO ENSLAVE THE STATE
SHALL BE SON, NO SON, OF HIS HAIRY LAST.
HE SHALL BE MUD WELL MIXED WITH BLOOD,
A HAIRY MAN THAT IS SCANT OF HAIR.
HE SHALL GIVE ROME VICTORIES AND DEFEAT
AND DIE TO THE GAIN OF HIS SON, NO SON-
A PILLOW SHALL BE HIS SWORD.

THE HAIRY FOURTH TO ENSLAVE THE STATE
SHALL BE SON, NO SON, OF HIS HAIRY LAST.
A HAIRY MAN THAT IS SCANT OF HAIR,
HE SHALL GIVE ROME POISONS AND BLASPHEMIES
AND DIE FROM A KICK OF HIS AGED HORSE
THAT CARRIED HIM AS A CHILD.

THE HAIRY FIFTH TO ENSLAVE THE STATE,
TO ENSLAVE THE STATE, THOUGH AGAINST HIS WILL,
SHALL BE THAT IDIOT WHOM ALL DESPISED.
HE SHALL HAVE HAIR IN A GENEROUS MOP.
HE SHALL GIVE ROME WATER AND WINTER BREAD
AND DIE AT THE HAND OF HIS WIFE, NO WIFE,
TO THE GAIN OF HIS SON, NO SON.

THE HAIRY SIXTH TO ENSLAVE THE STATE
SHALL BE SON, NO SON, OF THIS HAIRY LAST.
HE SHALL GIVE ROME FIDDLERS AND FEAR AND FIRE.
HIS HAND SHALL BE RED WITH A PARENT’S BLOOD.
NO HAIRY SEVENTH TO HIM SUCCEEDS
AND BLOOD SHALL GUSH FROM HIS TOMB.”


I CLAUDIUS, PAGES 11-12

The novel illustrates the terrors and limits of power. The imperial family unravel over the course of the book; a maddened dynasty, subjecting one another to greater and greater indignities in their quest for power.  Claudius himself, though unwilling to take the throne, has gone down in history as bloodthirsty ruler from an iron throne.

An able politician nevertheless, the reign of Claudius included the invasion and conquest of Britain in 43 AD, the addition of Thrace, Noricum, Pamphylia, Lycia, Judea and Mauretania to the territorial empire, and the granting of Roman citizenship to the provinces – a right spoken of by the apostle Paul (Acts 22:25).

roman empire

As such, a novel like I, Claudius, paints a vivid picture of the world into which the early church was born.  The political and social environment of the Julio-Claudian dynasty lays the backdrop for events in the outpost of Judea and the New Testament.

  1. The claims of Jesus, directly contrasted to claims of the Emperors.

Australian historian and theologian Bruce Winter’s body of work (Seek the Welfare of the City [1994], Paul and Philo Among the Sophists: Alexandrian and Corinthian Responses to the Julio-Claudian Movement [2002]), points out the many claims of Christ came directly in opposition to the claims of the deified Emperors:

god, Son of a god,

prince of peace,

saviour of the world.

These sentiments and the establishment of the Imperial Cult across the Empire, instituting games and festival to pay homage to the divine and semi-divine rulers, were an effective method of establishing Pax Romana, the Roman peace. However, as the Sibyline prophecy portends, the slavery of the state by these Roman leaders, deified within their own lifetime, led them to sacrifice the lives of others to ensure the continuance of their rule. Bloodthirsty would be an apt description of the lives of these Caesars.

augustus

In contrast, Jesus Ben Joseph of Nazareth, goes down in history for giving his life up for the people he claimed to rule.

Tacitus in Annals 15:44 writes:

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

roma

Most, ironically, the ultimate claims to divinity by the Emperors was punctuated by their mortal ends. Christ’s however was marked by his own followers and eyewitnesses claims of his resurrection from the dead.

This leads us to the next point.

2. The Jews, from whence Christianity first sprung, were the most unlikely to make claims of Christ’s divinity.

In an empire which deified mortal leaders, the Jews would have nothing of it. The indignation of the religious elite and their agitations against Christ were in fact incited by his daring claims to equality with God – Luke 22:70-72.

It did not end with his execution. Claudius appears in the New Testament in Acts 18:1-4, when Paul encounters Jewish Christians Priscilla and Aquila who have been expelled from Rome by Claudius [dated around 54 AD] due to riots happening there between religious Jews and Christians over the matter of the identity of the Messiah.

Roman Historian Suetonius in Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Claudius 25, confirms Acts 18

He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus [Christ].

Acts 12: 21-23 roundly judges Herod Agrippa for accepting adulation as a god, saying his painful death eaten by worms, was punishment from God for not giving due praise to the Lord.

herod agrippa

Josephus writes in Antiquities 19.8.2 343-361

Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, just as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity.

3. It was eyewitnesses of Christ who made divine claims about Christ.

As shown above it was within 25 years of Christ’s death, that the Jews were stirred up enough about claims of Jesus’ messiah/ Christ to already be a thorn in Claudius’ side. This means that it was the eyewitnesses of Christ who were agitating. Christ’s identity was not a fabrication of scholars and theologians in the centuries to come.

roman art

Emperor Claudius in his  Letter to the Alexandrians denounces the Jews: 

“I explicitly order the Jews not to agitate for more privileges than they formerly possessed ……….otherwise I will by all means take vengeance on them as fomenters of which is a general plague infecting the whole world”

Paul the apostle is one whom many critics and commentators of the Bible claim, “invented” the divinity of Christ. However, it was Claudius’ friend and companion Gallio who excused the accusations against Paul in Corinth, reported in Acts 18:12-17.  Gallio’s behaviour on this occasion showed the impartial attitude of Roman officials towards Christianity in its early days. Gallio’s rule in Achaia can be dated to between 51-52 AD and means the life and writings of Paul can be accurately dated to this time.

ancient rome

All in all, historical sources such as Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus and others can validate many of the claims of the New Testament writers. Moreover, Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius provides a backdrop of the imperial court, from which the claims and person of Christ stand in stark contrast.

Where one reigned with terror and death, the other gave his life for those he ruled. And his followers changed the world.

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  1. Pingback: A New Hope | Bear Skin

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