(Cover picture courtesy of Bookyurt.)
Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus lived from 10 B. C. to 54 A. D. Despise as a weakling and dismissed as an idiot because of his physical infirmities, Claudius survived the intrigues and poisonings that marked the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and the mad Caligula to become Emperor of Rome in 41 A. D. I, Claudius, the first part of Robert Graves’s two-part account of the life of Tiberius Claudius, is written in the form of Claudius’s autobiography and stands as one of the modern classics of historical fiction.
I love both Roman history and historical fiction, so when I got the classic I, Claudius for my birthday, I was incredibly excited. But did it live up to all of the hype?
I, Claudius is written from Claudius’ point of view and really did a lot to repair the reputation of one of the most unlikely emperors in the history of Rome. Claudius was often portrayed as an inept fool who survived only because he was the butt of the Imperial family’s jokes, but Robert Graves’ classic really did make people start to examine the real Claudius. Due to my interest in Roman history, I was lucky enough to be introduced to this Claudius through Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast. Both Mike Duncan’s incredible podcast and I, Claudius do Claudius justice and shed a lot of light on the complicated politics of Imperial Rome.
One thing I didn’t like, and this is more of a personal matter, is the fact that Robert Graves seemed to subscribe to the Livia-poisoned-everyone theory. Did the Augusta poison people? Almost certainly. But did she really have Augstus, Agrippa, Lucius, Marcellus, Gaius and Claudius’ grandfather poisoned (and many, many others)? Almost certainly not. However, this particular theory makes for excellent fiction and some of the incidents related by Claudius are probably embellishments, but that’s why it’s called historical fiction. These things could have happened, but they likely did not.
Claudius himself is a great character. Because of the autobiography format of the novel, we get to see him as he grows up through his eyes. The writing style is as if Claudius is writing many years later, so there is quite a bit of foreshadowing of certain events and we do get insight into some incidents we never would have gotten otherwise. My only real complaint was that the book ended just when things were going to get good: his ascent to the purple, so to speak. That’s also why I’m eager to read the much overshadowed sequel to this classic novel, Claudius the God.
I give this book 5/5 stars.