Claudius the Critical Thinker

Though fictional, Robert Graves’s I, Claudius does a good job of putting you into the ancient world. In chapter 9 there is a pointed disagreement between Livy and Asinius Pollio on the way history books should be written. The young Claudius says:

“There are two ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. The first is Livy’s way and the second is yours [Pollio]: and perhaps they are not irreconcilable.”

The response is equally telling:

“Why, boy, you’re an orator,” said Pollio delightedly.

Sulpicius… now summed up: “Yes, Livy will never lack readers. People love being ‘persuaded to ancient virtue’ by a charming writer, particularly when they are told in the same breath that modern civilization has made such virtue impossible of attainment. But mere truthtellers- ‘undertakers who lay out the corpse of history’ (to quote poor Catullus’s epigram on the noble Pollio)- such men can only hold an audience while they ahve a good cook and a cellar of Cyprian wine.”

p 122-123

Pollio’s calling Claudius an “orator” is a pun from an earlier part of the discussion. Pollio had expressed his view that historians ought not to add oration into their history. This was not because oration was bad, but simply because Julius Caesar didn’t give those sorts of speeches on the battlefields. Instead, he told dirty jokes.

At the end of it all, Claudius ends up choosing Pollio’s model.