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Robert Graves (1895 - 1985)

I, Claudius
Vintage, 1934


The subject of this renowned historical novel is the emperor Tiberius Claudius. Claudius has, essentially, seen it all between the years 44 B.C. and 54 A.D. Growing up in the house of Augustus, Claudius has a limp and a stammer, and is thought to be mentally deficient. In Graves's hands, Claudius's defects are precisely what enable him to survive the intrigue, murder, betrayal, and backstabbing of the members of the courts of Augustus, the vicious Tiberius, and the crazed and decadent Caligula. The novel was made into a BBC miniseries and broadcast to much acclaim in the U.S. as well. It was also the winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Hawthornden Prize in 1935. -Borders

- Borders, 11/27/2005

Robert Graves was not only the author of several historical novels such as King Jesus and Count Belisarius, but above all an excellent writer and poet, one of the great names of contemporary English literature. Regardless of its merits as historical fiction, I, Claudius is a great work. I, Claudius is the fictional autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, the fourth Roman Emperor (41-54 AD), between the arguably most famous, and tyrannical, emperors,Caligula and Nero. Although Claudius had always been regarded by ancient and modern historians as a more benign ruler than either, his image was often that of a fool, easily controlled by his freedmen and wives, with moments of tyrannical caprice. He wasn’t helped by the fact that, by all accounts, he had visible physical defects. He was lame, stammered, his head twitched, he was partly deaf. Those defects were serious handicaps in Roman public life, where your speech and the ability to behave in a dignified manner were important. That led Augustus and his wife Livia, Claudius’s paternal grandmother, to leave him outside their plans for preparing younger members of the imperial family for public roles. While Claudius’s contemporaries were commanding legions and attending the Senate, Claudius led a secluded life, writing history books. Thus, he also escaped the dynastic war during Tiberius’s and Caligula’s reigns, so that he was the only male member of the imperial family alive when Caligula was murdered, becoming emperor at around fifty. Graves’s Claudius narrates not only his own life from his birth in 9 BC but goes back a few years. The novel thus covers the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Graves claimed to base his book on all the available historical evidence, and I don’t think that there are factual errors. The problem is Graves’s interpretation. For the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula, he accepted the traditional version given by, mainly, Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio; Caligula being clinically mad, Tiberius a very troubled man with tendencies towards paranoia and vengefulness. Both are portrayed as tyrants, Tiberius more of a traditional one than the lunatic Caligula. For the reign of Augustus, he chose to elaborate on a rumor reported by Dio, that his wife Livia had poisoned him in order to assure the accession of her son Tiberius. Livia is the great villain of the novel, responsible for almost every death of members of the imperial family that might jeopardize her own plans. As a literary creation, Graves’s Livia is a fine work. As a plausible historical portrait, I doubt it. Having chosen to portray Livia in that way, Graves had to find ways to make all the available historical facts adjust to it. He did not shrink from the task, even though his explanations became far-fetched at times. For instance, he portrays Augustus as a rather kindly man, occasionally led into brutal acts by his rigid sense of morality, as when sending his daughter Julia into exile, and by Livia’s machinations. Augustus is shown as a psychologically weak man, easily influenced by Livia: “Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus”. I cannot reconcile Graves’s Augustus with a man who, at nineteen, outmaneuvered Cicero and Antony, marched on Rome, condemned thousands to death or exile, and obviously had personal leadership, long before he married Livia. Graves’s Augustus stands only if one forgets his actions when known as Octavian. That aside, the book has considerable appeal, for Claudius, especially when describing his childhood, is the classical outcast, despised by his mother and most of his relatives, finally retreating to his own world of historical pursuits. Graves aims to make the reader identify with Claudius, and he succeeds. That is, I think, the source of the book’s enduring popularity. It also flows very well: Tiberius’s reign is a dreary affair, but Caligula’s madness, despite his cruelty, can be outrageously funny at times, making the last part of the book a joy to read up to its climax, Claudius’s own accession as Emperor following the murder of Caligula. Graves's real love was poetry, and he gives some nice examples of his talent when translating Roman verses and in his poem about the Julio-Claudians, in the form of a Sybilline prophecy. There isn’t much to advise against I, Claudius being read by younger students, and the book is an excellent introduction to the early Julio-Claudian period. One must only be careful about its being taken as the accepted version of the period.

- Roman Fiction, 11/27/2005

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