Politics lessons from Claudius

 

Claudius crop

Robert Graves recreates the life of the Roman Emperor Claudius, as if Claudius were writing his biography in secret.  The first part of his story, I Claudius, follows events up until the fearful and comic moment when, against all expectations, Claudius, the stutterer, the fool, the gauche academic, becomes emperor of the Roman Empire.  Claudius the God describes his subsequent years as emperor.  If Claudius could have chosen his life, he would have been a historian working quietly in some pleasant university.  Through Graves’ imagination, Claudius’s subject becomes himself, and the way people organise leadership.  In I Claudius, we saw the dark consequences of deciding that the messy business of life is all too much.  Instead of frustrating debate, disagreement, and compromise, why not throw all of that out of the window and get yourself a tyrant?  In some of the most charming sections of Claudius the God, we actually see the advantages of this plan.  Claudius is a good emperor who uses his power to defeat short-term self-interest and small mindedness.  Corn merchants, for example, object to plans to improve Rome’s harbour at Ostia, because a secure supply of corn coming in through a safer harbour might depress prices.  Claudius has the power to cut through all that and transform Ostia.  Sadly, at the end of the book, with the promise of Nero’s rule to come, we see that these advantages will be short-lived.  It is very difficult to get yourself a good tyrant, to find someone with the humility to see that power does not rest in themselves, but in the fear of others.

I loved the second book as much as the first.  Graves seems to get into Claudius’s mind so successfully, that a reader sees the world from a completely different viewpoint.  We see Britain as a backward place, where at a push some of the best men might make good coachmen.  And we see early Christianity as a confused mass of Life of Brian events, different people claiming to be messiahs, unexpected births in a down-at-heel Bethlehem inn, an earthquake moving a rock covering the entrance to a tomb, all somehow becoming the familiar story of Christianity we know today.

The story Claudius tells us is over two thousand years old, but we see our own world in it.  We see where our present situation evolved from, and realise that the dilemmas we face in selecting leaders remain strangely familiar.

 

 

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