Book #8: I, Claudius
- I, Claudius is the first in a series of two novels about the Roman Emperor Claudius. The second, Claudius the God, covers the time period of Claudius’ reign.
- The book is ranked 14th on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 books. Time Magazine didn’t rank the books on their list.
- While a movie has yet to be completed about the novel, the BBC featured I, Claudius as a television mini-series in 1976. The series won three Emmys in 1978.
- The Epic That Never Was is a 1965 documentary about an I, Claudius movie that was aborted in 1937. The documentary includes clips of the surviving footage.
- I, Claudius author Robert Graves produced 140 works, including many poems, before his death in 1985.
- Graves’ most popular works include Goodbye to All That, his memoirs from World War I and The White Goddess, a book of essays on poetry.
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.
I’ll sum up I, Claudius in two words.
Word #1: Paranoia.
Word #2: Poison.
Let me explain. If you lived in the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus, Tiberius, or Caligula, then you better watch your back, you better not piss off the emperor, and—most importantly—you better not piss off the emperor’s wife.
If you simply looked the wrong way at an emperor you could get stabbed and thrown over a cliff while your wife was banished to an island the size of a soccer field and your daughter forced into prostitution. Living in a world like that produces a lot of paranoia brought on a by a lot of poison. If you’re going to a party at the palace, take your own wine.
Robert Graves account of the survival-of-the-fittest Roman Empire in I, Claudius is told through Claudius—a stammering, stuttering member of the imperial family who walks with a limp and is regarded by everyone in the empire, with the exception of a few people, as a bumbling idiot.
His mother loathes him, his grandmother (Augustus’ wife, Livia) can’t stand him, and the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius will have little to do with him. Caligula is the only Emperor who even notices Claudius’ presence, and it’s usually because he’s playing some sort of sadistic joke.
Unbeknownst to most, though, Claudius is a brilliant guy and an excellent writer. The book itself is written as Claudius’ autobiography told from his point of view. He spends most of his days holed up in a library writing historical books while ducking the chaos outside.
The book follows Claudius’ slow, and almost accidental, rise to power while he suffers through the reign of the spineless Augustus (and his power-hungry wife Livia), the sex-fiend Tiberius (with the same power-hungry Livia, his mother), and the absolutely-off-his-rocker Caligula.
These emperors ruled over a political structure that thrived on chaos, deceit, and murder—all of which were either ignored or, in the case of Caligula, encouraged.
Political ties were fickle. Mothers poisoned daughters. Fathers prostituted daughters and murdered sons. Emperors could be bludgeoned to death in an instant. And talk about dirty jobs, the Roman senators had it rough. Vote against Tiberius or Caligula, and it could be your last vote.
This is an absolutely fascinating book. It’s an underdog story. It’s a soap opera on a grand scale. It’s just pretty freaking awesome. The book has so many highlights, so many moments of brilliance, that it’s really ridiculous for me to even start trying to sum them all up in a flimsy book review.
So I’ll choose one scenario involving one of the most memorable, and most insane, characters in the novel–the Emperor Caligula.
At one point, Caligula is convinced that the god Neptune–who had dominion over the sea–is his arch nemesis. So after Claudius (to test Caligula’s insanity) hints that Caligula should declare war on Neptune, Caligula does just that. Here’s what follows:
“The next day drew up his army in order of battle on the sea-front…nobody knew what on earth was going to happen. He rode forward into the sea as far as Penelope’s knees and cried: ‘Neptune, old enemy, defend yourself. I challenge you to a mortal fight. You treacherously wrecked my father’s fleet, did you? Try your might on me, if you dare.’
A little wave came rolling past. He cut at it with his sword and laughed contemptuously. Then he cooly retired and ordered the ‘general engagement’ to sound. The archers shot, the slingers slung, the javelin men threw their javelins; the regular infantrymen waded into the waters as far as their armpits and hacked at the little waves, the calvary charged either flank and swam out some way, slashing with their sabres…Caligula then put to sea in a war vessel and anchored just out of range of the missiles, uttering absurd challenges to Neptune and spitting far out over the vessel’s side. Neptune made no attempt to defend himself or to reply, except that one man was nipped by a lobster, and another stung by a jellyfish.
Hilarious scene that produced a great mental image.
The only downside to I, Claudius is the seemingly hundreds of characters in the novel. And since many of them “kept it in the family” (which explains their craziness), everyone has very similar names. At times, I felt like I needed a flow chart or a family tree to keep up with all the people.
And, to my surprise, while doing a little extra research for this review, I stumbled across just that—thanks to our friends at Wikipedia. The graphic does an excellent job of showing the confusing nature of the imperial family during Claudius’ time in Rome.
Though many of the peripheral characters play important roles at times, the story comes down to about a dozen central people—mainly Claudius, the Emperors, Livia, and other family members who would’ve come into power if not for some well-timed (read: poisoned) deaths.
To me, the main theme of the novel is the corrupting influence of power. Take Caligula, for instance. He was always a little crazy. But, once he became emperor, he declared himself a god more magnificent than any of the Roman gods. He thrived on knowing that he could slit someone’s throat with the snap of his finger. Thankfully for Rome, he didn’t stay in power long .
On that note, I mistakenly believed the book at least partially covered Claudius’ reign over Rome. But, as I mentioned in the Quick Facts, Claudius the God is about that period of time. [Spoiler Alert!] The last pages of the novel detail the moments in which Claudius reluctantly becomes emperor following Caligula’s assassination. [Spoiler Alert End!]
To close, I can’t say enough good things about I, Claudius. This novel caught me by surprise. I randomly picked it off the list, simply because I wanted to read a book that I wasn’t familiar with—and, now, I’d have to say it is one of my favorite reads so far.
I’ll give I, Claudius a five out of five bloody daggers.
The Meaning: This isn’t a book out of which you try and decipher some hidden meaning. It’s a point A to point B, linear novel that walks you through Claudius’ fascinating rise to power. I, Claudius is historical fiction at its best.
Highlights: While reading the book, one question kept coming up—who’s going to die next? The fact that I knew almost everyone would die and Claudius would ultimately come to power didn’t take away from the story at all. That’s a testament to Robert Graves. I’ll never get tired of reading through the top 100 because I love being introduced to authors like Graves. I’m a bit ashamed that I haven’t read his work before now.
Lowlights: The sheer amount of characters in the novel, many of which have similar names, can be pretty confusing. Since I, Claudius is historical fiction, I wonder if every character was needed? Even so, it’s easy to follow the plotlines of all the people in the story who matter.
Memorable Line: Does it get any better than the opening line? It’s one of the best I’ve read so far, and it pulled me in instantly. I put the entire quote in the “opening line” section above, so I won’t rewrite it here.
Final Thoughts: Even if you aren’t into the history of the Roman Empire, this is a fascinating novel. I, Claudius has all the qualities of a great story—complete with murder, paranoia, assassination plots, espionage, political scandal, war, and even a little witchcraft—all of it on an epic scale. I loved the book so much that I’m tempted to break away from Time’s list to read its sequel, Claudius the God. But I won’t do that…for now.
Up Next: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe