It’s been a couple of years since I read I, Claudius, but I remembered liking it enough to request Claudius the God from the library, and the first few pages wasted no time in reminding me why.
The story picks up where I, Claudius left off. While the first book detailed the lives and reigns of Rome’s early emperors through the eyes of the stammering, sly, perennially underestimated Claudius, the second chronicles the reign of Claudius himself. Written under the same conceit as a purported autobiography, it retains much of the flavor of its predecessor, reading more like a second volume of a single work than as a standalone sequel.
Graves writes with supreme confidence in his subject matter. He adopts the persona of Claudius with impressive commitment, the style and substance of his prose lending a great sense of authenticity to the story. He clearly knows the history of the Roman Empire inside and out, and this knowledge comes across in the tiny details, and in references to historical figures great and small.
While I, Claudius stayed largely in the confines of Western Europe, Claudius the God ventures farther east, spending many pages chronicling the machinations of Herod Agrippa in consolidating his grip on the Jewish throne. There’s also a recurring reference to Christianity, which in Claudius’ eyes is little more than a bothersome sect with bizarre practices. It’s interesting to consider how Claudius would view Jesus, and Graves paints his reaction in mingling tones of amusement and contempt for a figure he doubtless assumed would be a footnote in history whose presence he would easily dwarf.
Writers of historical fiction walk a fine line between drowning their reader in explanatory text and stranding them in a world they little understand. This is especially true for books like this one, which don’t merely adopt a historical setting, but set out to retell the stories of men and women who actually lived. Graves strikes the right balance here. While I occasionally got lost in the thicket of Roman names, particularly while Claudius described some finer points of palace intrigue, I generally had a good sense of what was happening politically and socially, and why people were acting the way they were. Descriptive passages felt authentic, less the shoehorning of key details than the lectures of a ruler with a solidly academic bent, which the real Claudius had.
The story itself isn’t quite as engaging as I, Claudius, but I wouldn’t fault Graves for that—when you’ve got a guy like Caligula running things in book one, a steady hand at the rudder doesn’t allow for quite as much intrigue. Still, I read it quickly and with pleasure, and even find myself considering a reread of I, Claudius at some point.