I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)
To many individuals history is boring. To them history is just names, dates, and places with little connection among them. Unfortunately, too many textbooks contribute to this impression among the populace. As a result, many people will roll their eyes if they’re told some historical subject is interesting. Though I, Claudius is a historical novel, and thus not completely factual, it’s both educational and entertaining. It’s definitely not boring.
Robert Graves’s novel concerns the struggles and machinations of the Roman imperial household. The end result after decades of bloody internal feuding is that Claudius is made emperor in 41 C.E. An important factor is that Claudius, who’s physically lame and clumsy, is viewed as a dunce by the majority of those around him, though he is an intelligent individual. Also, unlike many of his relatives and their associates, he has no ambitions for political power; his only desire is to become a distinguished historian. In fact, Claudius is one few remaining republicans in a society that has become accustomed to imperial rule. It’s his lack of political ambition that causes many characters to overlook him as they poison and order the executions of their rivals. In effect, he becomes the last man standing.
The story is written in autobiographical form. This correlates with the historical Claudius, who is reported to have written an autobiography which is now lost. Given that Graves’s literary fame began with his own autobiography, Goodbye to All That, and that he viewed himself as a scholar of classical antiquity, it seems fitting that he would use the technique of a first-person point-of-view to chronicle the historian Claudius’s collected remembrances of events that eventually lead to the climax of his imperial ascension.
Although Claudius is the most interesting character in the novel, the supporting characters also help enliven the work. The male characters express external power, a given due to the traditional nature of Roman society. However, it’s the female characters that often “pull the strings” and maneuver matters that advantage themselves, their husbands or lovers, or their offspring. For instance, Augustus Caesar is portrayed as a warm but naïve paterfamilias. His wife Livia, on the other hand, is portrayed as a shrewd but cold woman. It’s implied that she has killed multiple times to insure both the stability of her household and the fragile structure of the then-new imperial system. Though the Roman subjects view Augustus as their figurative head, Graves reveals that Livia is “the neck turning the head” behind the scenes.
Having been written in 1934, does I, Claudius hold up as an engrossing work of fiction? I would give a resounding yes. It’s written in literary but fluent modernistic language. Though it’s a fairly lengthy novel, you’ll become lost in the world that history and Robert Graves have created, though it revolves around characters that lived and events that happened 2,000 years ago. It’s a meditation on the notion of power and how its use or misuse affects the wielder and those around them. Also, another theme seems to concern how events and chance surrounding these events move people to situations and places they never expected. These are concerns that still interest individuals 2,000 years later.
-November 19, 2013