Book Talk: Roman holiday

Vernon librarian Peter Critchley takes us back in time with a look at two books from the annals of ancient Rome.

Christmas, as we now know it, evolved out of the Roman tradition of Saturnalia, a festival honouring their god of agriculture, Saturn, on the winter solstice.

The origins of other traditions that define this seasonal celebration, such as carols, mistletoe and wreaths, can also be directly traced to ancient Rome.

I, Claudius (1934) by Robert Graves is a masterpiece of historical fiction – HBO is currently developing a new series based on the book – and the perfect introduction to a civilization that continues to strongly influence the Western world.

The author tells the tumultuous tale in the first person, in the form of Claudius’ secret autobiography, and it is as brilliantly conceived as it is executed.

The nobleman Claudius is despised for his weakness –childhood illness left him with a limp, he has a speech impediment that earns him general derision and he suffers from acute abdominal pains, and he is regarded by his imperial family as little better than a stammering idiot. But he is highly intelligent and the quiet, studious life he lives ironically saves him from the intrigues, bloody purges and mounting cruelty of the imperial roman dynasties.

He watches intently from the sidelines to chronicle the reigns of the Roman emperors: from the wise Augustus and his deadly wife Livia to the sadistic Tiberius and the insane excesses of Caligula.

Claudius is an outsider and nobody in that world of murderous struggle for supreme power considered him a rival worth killing. This allowed Claudius to live to the relatively advanced age of 51 before succeeding to the purple, a position he never sought. He survived 13 years as emperor thanks to his own character, timorous certainly, but quick-witted and decisive in emergencies, and in the process recorded his own life and times, at least in the words the author gives him in this volume and Claudius the God, the acclaimed sequel published one year later in 1935.

The Annals of Imperial Rome (c. A.D. 117) by Cornelius Tacitus is a nonfiction classic that continues to resonate with a modern ring almost 2,000 years after being written. The author’s theme is that the terrifying reigns of the Roman emperors who succeeded Augustus, particularly the dark years from A.D. 14 to 96, must be remembered and condemned. But the work and the theme simply failed to register with the modern world until the terrors of the Second World War.

There is no question Graves extensively consulted The Annals of Imperial Rome.

It is one of the few primary sources to survive from that period written by one of the most remarkable historians of any age. Tacitus, in addition to being a leading historian, became a public official, probably commanded a Roman legion, served as a consul of Rome and finished his career as governor of a province in Asia Minor. And when we read his accounts of politics and military affairs there is a sense that he writes from a wider experience than a historian such as Livy.

The Annals of Imperial Rome is Tacitus’ masterpiece and still speaks to the world today. This great work perfectly complements the brilliant novels written by Graves and introduces readers to the wonders and terrors of ancient Rome.

Both titles are available through your Okanagan Regional Library

– Peter Critchley is a reference librarian with the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.


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