I, Claudius; Claudius the God and his wife Messalina by Robert Graves (both 1934)

There’s a lovely connect between these and the TV series Fawlty Towers (also known as Farty Towels).

Any idea? Go on, have a go.

A clue? Okay.

Hag.

Do you remember that wonderful, wonderful moment in Fawlty Towers where actor John Cleese’s Basil, battered, bruised and put-upon by his nagging wife Sybil [played by Prunella Scales], foresees the end of his short, miserable life?

Zoom! What was that? That was your life, mate. Oh. That was quick. Do I get another? Sorry, mate, that’s your lot.

And while we’re about it, let’s savour some of his epithets for her. Golfing puff-adder. The dragon. Toxic midget. Sabre-toothed tart. My little piranha fish. My little nest of vipers.

Rancorous, coiffured old sow.

Now let us accompany Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus to Cumae, in Campania, about, erm, one thousand nine hundred and fifty years ago.

We’re off to see the oracle, for Claudius to question Rome’s fate and his.

Before being permitted to visit… I had to sacrifice a bullock and ewe there, to Apollo and Artemis respectively.

The cavern was a terrifying place, hollowed out from solid rock: the approach steep, tortuous, pitch-black and full of bats.

Sounds like my bedroom.

I came into the inner cavern, after groping painfully on all-fours up the stairs and saw… more like an ape than a woman, sitting on a chair in a cage that hung from the ceiling, her robes red and her unblinking eyes shining red in the single red shaft of light that struck down from somewhere above. Her toothless mouth was grinning. There was a smell of death about me.

Got it yet? No?

Okay, guess this seer’s name.

Sibyl.

Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

Thanks for being here.

(Well-spotted: yes, Sybil and Sibyl – different spelling.)

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