Have I read this before: Nope! First time.
Review: Man, I was not expecting to like this book, but I got into it, yo. My knowledge of Roman emperors is (was?) close to 0%, especially with respect to timelines, families and relationships, and who did what. So I started this book thinking “haha, I’m not going to be able to place any of this in any sort of historical context, I’m not really interested in the time period, and I’m probably not going to get much enjoyment out of this.” But the way it’s written is so engaging and does such a good job of creating a clear timeline and a clear setup of the relationships amongst a lot of important historical characters that I’m now finding myself wanting to read more about that period of Roman history. The book is written as a fictional autobiography of Claudius and basically covers the period between Julius Caesar’s assassination and Caligula’s assassination, at which point Claudius becomes emperor. It’s a mixture of his telling of the history of many of his family members and relations and his personal experiences from childhood onward. He’s written as a very intelligent and sympathetic character. Great book. Read it.
Favorite part: There were a few lines/sections that were pretty great.
[Claudius had a stutter among other things, and people assumed he was stupid (he wasn’t; he was quiet but very observant and intelligent). This is Claudius’ grandmother, Livia, explaining to Augustus why Claudius speaking clearly through a declamation didn’t mean he wasn’t an idiot]
“The surprise that you had behind that curtain was no greater and no less than the surprise we once had when the Indian Ambassador took the silk cloth off the gold cage…and we saw the bird Parrot for the first time with his emerald feathers and ruby necklet and heard him say, “Hail Caesar, Father of the Country!” It was not the remarkableness of the phrase…but that a *bird* spoke it astonished us. And nobody but a fool would praise Parrot for his wit in coming out with the appropriate words, for he did not know the meaning of any one of them. The credit goes to the man who trained the bird, by incredible patients, to repeat the phrase…So with Claudius, though it is hardly complimentary to Parrot, an undeniably handsome bird, to compare my grandson to him: what you heard was without the least doubt a speech that he (Claudius) had happened to learn by heart.
[Caligula, now emperor, has told Claudius that he (Caligula) and his sister are gods.]
I grovelled on the floor again and retired, backwards. Ganymede stopped me in the corridor and asked for the news. I said: “He’s just become a God and a very important one, he says. His face shines.”
“That’s bad news for us mortals,” said Ganymede. “But I saw it coming. Thanks for the tip. I’ll pass it on to the other fellows. Does Drusilla know? No? Then I’ll tell her.”
“Tell her she’s a goddess, too,” I said, “in case she hasn’t noticed it.”
[Talking about more Caligula doing Caligula stuff.]
Another chance remark that I made at supper about this time had an unexpected effect on Caligula. Someone mentioned epilepsy and I said that Carthaginian records showed Hannibal to have been an epileptic, and that Alexander and Julius Caesar were both subject to this mysterious disease, which seemed to be an almost inevitable accompaniment of superlative military genius. Caligula pricked up his ears at this, and a few days later he gave a very good imitation of an epileptic fit, falling on the floor in the Senate House and screaming at the top of his voice, his lips white with foam – soap-suds, probably.
[Even more Caligula madness.]
Soon after this he had a thunder-and-lightening machine made. He lit a fuse and it made a roar and a flash and catapulted stones in whatever direction he wanted. But I have it on good authority that whenever there was a real thunderstorm at night he used to creep under the bed. There is a good story about that. One day a storm burst when he was parading about dressed as Venus. He began to cry: “Father, Father, spare your pretty daughter!”