Robert Graves, the 800-Pound Gorilla

I’ve been wrapped up in the biography of Augustus Caesar by Anthony Everitt that I got from a friend. I’ve read every history of Rome I can get my hands on, I’ve even tackled Livy and Polubius and Tacitus and Suetonius and all those guys, but even so I’ve learned a lot from this book.

But when you write a biography of Augustus, you have to deal, one way or another, with the 800-pound gorilla. That would be Robert Graves and his masterwork, I, Claudius, in which Augustus’ wife Livia is a fiendish villain who poisons heir after heir until her son Tiberius at last succeeds Augustus.

I Claudius was also made into a another masterwork of the stage by the BBC, starring Derek Jacoby, who also portrays another favorite character of mine, Brother Cadfael from the Ellis Peters books.

Robert Graves is a(n) historical scholar of the first order, and the author of Goodbye to All That, his memoir of World War I. Graves was a British officer in World War I. British officers in World War I had a miniscule chance of survival, less than ten percent, I believe.

But in Goodbye to All That, and in the Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes, we find that they were still able to be incredibly snooty to one another to the very last, even when they knew they were all going to die. Junior officers still could not have whiskey at the officers’ mess.

So Graves is a true scholar who went through hell. But I Claudius is a work of the imagination. Hard for a modern historian to deal with. Everitt had to decide if Livia really was as cold blooded as Graves (and her contemporaries) suggested, poisoning every possible heir to Augustus.

He takes a middle course, which may have satisfied him, but not a discerning reader. Either Livia was an adept poisoner, or she wasn’t. Everitt suggests that she was innocent of all the crimes Graves accuses her of, and at one point says, “Here’s this poor woman who can’t defend herself.” Hear it? The world’s tiniest violin?

But then he admits that she poisoned Augustus himself by painting a paste on some figs on a fig tree he grew himself, eating some un-pasted figs herself. In this dopey intro to the book he presents this scenario where Livia poisons Augustus, but when he realizes that’s what she’s done, he approves: it’s what he really wants. It sounds like one of those ideas you have in the middle of the night that seem so brilliant until the next morning.

Even if this dopey scenario were true, which no discerning reader could possibly believe, I have to ask, “Did Livia, in her old age, take up the art of poisoning? And if so, why?”

That’s what you get when you mess with a 800-pound gorilla like Robert Graves. You do your best, but you’re always going to come out on the short end of the stick.

I predict there will not be a lot of copies of this book available at flea markets and tag sales in the future. But if you’re interested in the books of Robert Graves — well you’ll find them all over the place. And if you buy them and read them, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.