Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: Claudius by Douglas Jackson

"Claudius" by Douglas Jackson really isn't about the emperor Claudius but about his invasion of Britain as seen through the eyes of his elephant handler, a slave named Rufus and the opposing chieftain of  of the Catuvellauni tribe, Caratacus.

The story begins shortly before one of the decisive battles at a crossing of the River Medway near present-day Rochester.  We learn that Rufus is not just an experienced slave but an animal trainer for the arena once mentored by one of Rome's most famous gladiators, Cupido.  His skill attracted the attention of the Roman emperor, Caligula who gives Rufus the task of caring for the emperor's elephant.  A position he was allowed to retain after Caligula is assassinated and the emperor Claudius ascends the throne.

After I had already started  reading "Claudius", I discovered it had a prequel, "Caligula".  However, enough of Rufus' back story is provided so "Claudius" can be read stand alone without any lapses in story continuity. (I was suitably impressed by "Claudius" and have now purchased "Caligula" so will review it in the near future.)

Rufus winds up in Britain along with Beersheba (the elephant) when Claudius' freedman, Tiberius Claudius Narcissus, develops an invasion strategy to provide Claudius with a crucial military victory to strengthen his hold on the imperial purple. As part of the invasion force, however, Rufus is viewed with disdain by some of the legion's veterans.  Although his position shields him from such mundane camp chores as digging defensive ditches, a disgruntled centurion assigns him to a foraging party that is subsequently ambushed by the Britons.  Rufus is knocked senseless in the fighting and wakes up in the belly of a dreaded wicker man.
A Wicker Man photographed at the 2011 Beltain festival
by AngusKirk 

But before he can be consumed by the flames made sacred by the wild gestures of a demonical Druid, he is spotted by Caratacus, recognizing Rufus as the handler of the beast so feared by his fellow tribesmen, and is wrenched from certain death.

We find Caratacus is a thoughtful leader consumed with intellectual curiosity.  Although Caratacus doubts he can learn much about the impending battle from Rufus, he questions him for hours about the Romans, particularly the Roman emperor, in an effort to learn as much as he can about his enemy.
We also discover Caratacus' position as war leader is a tenuous one with other tribal kings jockeying for position to ensure a generous portion of any spoils that might result from future clashes.  One of the most troublesome of his coalition is his own brother, Togodumnus.

In this novel Togodumnus is in an inferior position to his brother Caratacus but historically Togodumnus is thought by some scholars to have been the king of the Catuvellauni and the kingship only passed to Caratacus after Togodumnus was killed early in the invasion.  Caratacus is shrewd and calculating here where his brother, Togodumnus, is painted as brashly impulsive, thinking little of strategy. Placing little value on unit discipline and group tactics, Togodumnus is convinced that brute force alone will ensure victory.  So Caratacus must use every relationship with other tribal chieftains he can call upon to restrain the Britons until a plan can be set into motion that will give the Britons the edge they need to overcome the Roman war machine.

Sculpture of a Druid photographed at the Louvre
by Paul Kohler 

Jackson also portrays Caratacus as politically forced to tolerate the blood-thirsty Druid priests because of their influence with many tribesman, but not particularly superstitious or appreciative of their ritual sacrifices.  This may be Jackson's way of incorporating the fierce Druids into the narrative without giving them much sway with Caratacus since there are persistent legends about Caratacus' conversion to Christianity before he is ultimately taken to Rome.

The legend with the most historical evidence surrounds one Claudia Rufina, a historical British woman known to the poet Martial ( Martial, Epigrams, XI:53 (ed. & trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Harvard University Press, 1993).  Martial describes Claudia's marriage to a man named Pudens thought to be Aulus Pudens, a friend of Martial's.  Since the 17th century, this pair have been identified with the Claudia and Pudens mentioned as members of the Roman Christian community in 2 Timothy of the New Testament (2 Timothy 4:21 - "Eubulus saluteth thee, and Pudens, and Linus, and Claudia, and all the brethren.") . Some biblical scholars have further claimed Claudia was Caratacus' daughter, and that the historical Pope Linus, described in an early church document as the "brother of Claudia" was Caratacus' son. These scholars point to the basilica of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, and with which St. Pudens is associated, which they say was once called the Palatium Britannicum and was the home of Caratacus and his family.

Anyway, back to our story.  Caratacus decides Rufus will best serve the Britons by setting Rufus free to return to the Roman lines so he can report the strength of the tribes in the hope that the sheer numbers will convince  Aulus Plautius, the Roman commander, to withdraw.  But Plautius does not give withdrawal a second thought and formulates a master plan with his legates the Flavian brothers, Vespasian and Sabinus.  Rufus, as a slave,  is not privy to any of the strategy and is once more subject to the whims of Narcissus who decides Rufus and Beersheba will be part of a "river rat" Batavian cohort that is being sent upriver to outflank the Britons.  Beersheba is the lynch pin in a dangerous river crossing where she will pull leather leads tied to rafts bearing the Batavian armor and equipment.  Obviously the author decided to use a ploy mentioned by Vegetius (De re militari III.7) in the 4th century describing how the Batavians were able to ford rivers with full armor (although an elephant was not mentioned).

A Batavian cavalry mask in the collections of
the Nijmegen Museum.
The flanking maneuver was to be supported by Vespasian's Legio II Augusta but Vespasian is delayed by  fierce resistance and Rufus must join the battle line as the Batavians numbers dwindle after repeated assaults.  [SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD] Fortunately, Rufus is a skilled swordsman thanks to his earlier friendship with the gladiator Cupido and he not only stands firm but kills Togodumnus.

As for the actual historical record, there is some confusion about the fate of Togodumnus.  Cassius Dio says Togodumnus was killed in a battle along the Thames River.  Other scholars, including Barry Cunliffe of Oxford University, point to references in Tacitus that indicate a war leader with a similar name submitted to the Romans and became a client king over the territories of the Regini, the Atrebates, the Belgae and the Dobunni with a headquarters at Chichester, the site of Fishbourne Roman Palace.  (I've actually visited the Roman remains in Fishbourne and they are very impressive!) Jackson handles this discrepency by having another British leader who sided with the Romans against Togodumnus and Caratacus formally take the name Cogidumnus as part of his alliance pact.

Claudius finally makes his appearance and symbolically leads the legions in a string of followup skirmishes where he is hailed imperator and seals his place in history.  In Jackson's story, Claudius is not the drooling, stammering, frail individual portrayed in other tales.  Claudius actually assumes an imposing military posture, looking every bit the brother of the famous general Germanicus.  Jackson also portrays Claudius as able to address the Senate without a hint of a stammer and easily able to bend the assembly to his will.

The emperor Claudius photographed at
the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli by
Mary Harrsch.
Apparently, Jackson has chosen to take Suetonius' description of Claudius with a major dose of salt and instead present a character capable of drafting authoritative legislation regulating commerce, slavery, taxes and marriage, envisioning comprehensive public works such as the development of the port of Ostia  as  well as roads, canals and tunnels and utlimately dodging numerous assassination attempts while maintaining a firm grip on the reins of power.

However,  Jackson is not as generous in his portrayal of Claudius' freedman, Narcissus, who is revealed as cunning, manipulative and utterly. The ambitious courtier uses everyone around him, including Rufus, to promote his own ends although he protests that such actions are ultimately for the good of Rome.   This portrait of Narcissus as essentially faithless to all except Claudius is consistent with his behavior reported in the ancient sources.

The ancient sources say that Narcissus conspired with Messalina to convince Claudius to execute certain individuals that Narcissus may have deemed too powerful or too influential.  But later Narcissus turned on Messalina, reporting her infidelity to Claudius and when Claudius wavered about her punishment, gave the order for her execution himself.  Afterward, fearing Messalina's son, Britannicus, Narcissus tried to convince Claudius to remarry the emperor's second wife, Aelia Paetina, so Claudius would name Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix, the husband of Claudius' daughter with Aelia, Claudia Antonia, as heir instead of Britannicus.  But when Claudius chose to marry Agrippina instead and named her son Nero to be his heir, then Narcissus allied with Britannicus against Agrippina and Nero.  So, as in this novel, he was truly a friend to no one, only an opportunistic courtier ultimately concerned only with his own future.

Jackson employs and interesting literary device in his story that I had never seen before, too.  Narcissus betrays a minor character in the novel and the way that the plot point is injected into the story reminded me of the execution of Anne Boleyn.  I have read that when the French swordsman prepared to cut off Boleyn's head, he signaled to an assistant who made a small commotion that caused Anne to turn her head in the direction of the disturbance therefore (mercifully?) distracting her at the moment the fatal blow was administered.   In this book, the author distracts the reader with a minor little battlefield drama just before assassins deal the death blow to a character not involved in the mini-drama, jarring the reader with its unexpected suddeness.  I'll have to remember that tactic if I ever write a novel myself!

The book closes with an epilogue describing Caratacus' entry into Rome.  A passage from an epic poem by William Mason came to mind:

I was born A king and 
Heav'n who bade these warrior oaks 
Lift their green shields against the fiery sun 
To fence their subject plain did mean that I 
Should with as firm an arm protect my people 
Against the pestilent glare of Rome's ambition 
I fail'd and how I fail'd thou know'st too well 
So does the babbling world and therefore 
Druid I would be any thing save what I am
Caractacus by William Mason, 1759

Despite years of defeat by superior forces and betrayal by a queen many thought may have been his former lover, Caratacus still walks proudly among the shouting crowds, awestruck by the magnificent architecture and opulence.  He courageously approaches the palace where he expects to be ritually strangled like the hapless Vercingetorix all those years before.  There he finally meets the emperor Claudius, and is surprised to find a rather frail-looking old man.   He must have thought:

Ye never felt the sharp vindictive spur 
That goads the injur'd warrior the hot tide 
That flushes crimson on the conscious cheek  
Of him who burns for glory
- Caractacus by William Mason, 1759

But this old man holds a defeated enemy's life in his withered hands and Caratacus has no doubt that a signal will be given to end his.   Instead Claudius gives him a chance to address the crowd expecting him to plead for his life.  But, Caratacus  simply asks "With all of this,  you covet our  huts?"

 Caractacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome
Engraving by Andrew Birrell of a painting by Henry Fuseli, 1792
Historically, Caratacus was brought before the Senate where he made such an impression he was pardoned and allowed to live out his life peacefully in Rome after saying:

"If the degree of my nobility and fortune had been matched by moderation in success, I would have come to this City as a friend rather than a captive, nor would you have disdained to receive with a treaty of peace one sprung from brilliant ancestors and commanding a great many nations. But my present lot, disfiguring as it is for me, is magnificent for you. I had horses, men, arms, and wealth: what wonder if I was unwilling to lose them? If you wish to command everyone, does it really follow that everyone should accept your slavery? If I were now being handed over as one who had surrendered immediately, neither my fortune nor your glory would have achieved brilliance. It is also true that in my case any reprisal will be followed by oblivion. On the other hand, if you preserve me safe and sound, I shall be an eternal example of your clemency." - Tacitus, The Annals, translated by A. J. Woodman, 2004;

However, after he was freed, Cassius Dio says the famous Briton asked, "And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?" - Dio Cassius, Roman History, Epitome of Book LXI, 33:3c

Obiviously, the author thought a paraphrase of just the last quote would make a more elegant ending and I agree.

A note about the author:  Douglas Jackson is the assistant editor of The Scotsman in Edinburgh, Scotland.  He has spent 30 years working for various local and national newspapers around the UK.  His first up-close-and-personal experience with the Roman Empire came to him while he was a young student and spent a summer restoring a Roman marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviot Hills.  He has followed "Caligula" and "Claudius" with a series featuring Gaius Valerius Verrens, a tribune of the 20th Legion who faces off against Boudicca in "Hero of Rome".   In Jackson's latest novel,  "Defender of Rome,"   then Verrens is charged by Nero with capturing the leader of a new religious sect, the followers of Christus.
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