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12 Things You Might Not Know About I, Claudius

In a city rife with backstabbers, an overlooked member of Rome’s ruling family plays dumb to stay alive and unwittingly becomes the most powerful man on earth. Robert Graves’ brilliant novel has been enthralling readers since 1934. Presented as a long-lost memoir supposedly written by a real-life emperor, I, Claudius straddles the fine line between history and fiction. 

1. Graves Wrote I, Claudius Purely Out of Financial Need

Though they're his best-known works by far, Graves didn’t take much pride in I, Claudius or its sequel Claudius the God (1935). “Neither of them is of any real worth,” he once opined. At the time, however, Graves desperately needed some quick cash, since an ill-advised business venture had plunged the author into a £4000 debt. Working fast, he powered through both books in eight months—and the post-publication rewards were immediate. "Claudius has been very helpful in the money way,” Graves confessed, “I am now able to support my children."

2. Several Ancient Sources Were Consulted

As a Classical scholar, Graves knew his way around Roman texts. I, Claudius leans most heavily on two key volumes: Annals by Tacitus (written in 109 CE) and Suetonius’ The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 CE). Both chronicle the empire’s early decades with incredible detail. In fact, they’re so comprehensive that some critics accused Graves of having merely "run them together and expanded the result with [his] own 'vigorous fancy.'" As a rebuttal, he listed nearly two dozen additional sources in the preface to Claudius the God. These include writings by Julius Caesar, the great philosopher Seneca, and good old Claudius himself.

3. Livia Might Not Have Been the Villain She’s Made Out to Be

Augustus’ wife comes across as a Machiavellian puppet-master, orchestrating the deaths of just about everyone who gets in her way. This is more or less consistent with how Roman historians tended to paint the infamous woman. But was Livia really a serial murderess? As biographer Anthony Barret points out, there’s no documented proof that she ever offed anyone for political gain. Then again, any good conspirator knows to cover her tracks. Maybe Livia deserves the vile reputation she’s been dealt. Maybe she doesn’t. Regardless, the case is open.

4. … And the Real Caligula was Probably a Bit Saner Than his Literary Counterpart

Most of the truly decadent stories about Caligula’s behavior first show up in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which was written 80 years after he was slain by his own guards. Therein, the short-lived emperor gets accused of everything from declaring war on Neptune the sea god to having sex with his sisters in front of guests. Book Caligula follows suit, even though Suetonius’ outrageous tales were most likely nothing but hearsay. 

5. Graves Chose Claudius as a Protagonist Because He Was "A Historian"

As he once told T. E. Lawrence (a.k.a.: "Lawrence of Arabia"), "I identify myself with [Claudius] as much as any historical character I know." Graves felt that because Claudius—like himself—was a detail-oriented academic, he’d be an ideal narrator, even if his leadership skills were imperfect at times. "The best he could do," stated Graves, "was to be a historian and keep a historian’s faith. The more he tried, as Emperor, to interfere with the process of disintegration, the madder things got."

6. Moreover, He Believed that Posterity Had Undervalued Claudius

For the most part, Rome’s great writers dismissed Claudius as an incompetent ruler. Graves couldn’t have disagreed more. "I had noted in my diary," he revealed during an interview, "a year or two before, that the Roman historians—Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dion Cassius, but especially Tacitus—had obviously got Claudius wrong, and that one day I’d have to write a book about it."

7. Graves Took a Few Linguistic Liberties

At one point, Claudius reports on a gladiator fight that involves two Germans going at it with pointed stick weapons he calls "assegai." According to a colleague of Graves’, these should’ve been referred to as "javelins," since assegai is an African term. However, Graves ignored this advice because in addition to being a "savage sounding" word, the British-Zulu wars had given it "renewed vigor" in the minds of English-speaking readers. 

8. Claudius Really Did Exaggerate his Limp and Stammer to Survive  

Being ambitious is a sure way to get killed in I, Claudius. Given these dire circumstances, our protagonist learns to never underestimate the value of being underestimated. Physically, the historical Claudius looked like a pushover. We know from several firsthand accounts that he stammered, drooled, twitched, and limped (some doctors now blame his symptoms on cerebral palsy). He later admitted—as Graves’ fictionalized version does—to deliberately playing up these defects, which convinced many that he was a harmless oaf. 

9. Alec Guinness Would’ve Starred in An Unmade Movie Adaptation

In 1956, Graves was asked to turn his novel into a screenplay and started doing so. For the lead role, producer Vincent Korda chose Guinness, who quickly accepted. Early on, the star argued that their movie shouldn’t become a Ben Hur-style sword & sandal epic. Instead, he envisioned I, Claudius as a "domestic palace drama." Graves quite liked this attitude, but, unfortunately, the whole project fell through.  

10. The Book Was Once Considered "Cursed"

For the better part of 40 years, I, Claudius seemed un-filmable. The first attempt at throwing it onto the silver screen came in 1937, but an automobile accident involving one of the lead actresses abruptly halted that production. Afterward, bad luck always seemed to befall anyone who took a crack at adapting the novel. Until the BBC struck gold with its 13-part I, Claudius miniseries in 1976, a curse was said to hang over the source material—much like the one that still allegedly plagues A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. 

11. Graves Gets a Cryptic Nod in the BBC TV Drama

During the show’s final episode, elderly Claudius (played by Derek Jacobi) starts hallucinating. "The man who dwells by the pool shall open graves," he mutters—an obvious homage to screenwriter Jack Pulman and, of course, Robert Graves.

12. In 2005, Time Magazine Ranked I, Claudius Among the "100 Best English Language Novels Published Since 1923"

"Claudius bears enduring witness to a moment when the virtues of the Roman republic, which has already been disposed of by the time he begins his tale, are being lost to the bloodlust and hubris of the Roman empire," waxed critic Richard Lacayo.  

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
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People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

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