I, Claudius – Robert Graves

Despised for his weakness and regarded by his family as little more than a stammering fool, the nobleman Claudius quietly survives the intrigues, bloody purges and mounting cruelty of the imperial Roman dynasties. In I, Claudius he watches from the sidelines to record the reigns of its emperors: from the wise Augustus and his villainous wife Livia to the sadistic Tiberius and the insane excesses of Caligula. Written in the form of Claudius’ autobiography, this is the first part of Robert Graves’s brilliant account of the madness and debauchery of ancient Rome, and stands as one of the most celebrated, gripping historical novels ever written.

Sometimes, reflecting on the literature that you like is disturbing, especially with a novel such as this which is full of violence – although surprisingly less detailed gore than one would imagine for the era – and debauchery .  It is a pleasure to report that I unashamedly loved this book in all its blood soaked storytelling.

This novel and its sequel Claudius the God were written in a hurry and only due to pressing financial needs Graves claimed, which makes it an astonishing feat for the impressive quality of the work on offer.  Whilst it has some gross distortions of history and the featured personalities, it is wonderfully entertaining and highly readable as a fictional autobiography should be.  You don’t need to be familiar with the era, part of the charm of the work is to research as you go and see what is correct, contentious and what is pure propaganda on Claudius’ part.

Claudius is a likeable narrator, his observant nature makes for a considered historian – his chosen profession – largely ignored because of his disabilities and perceived lack of intelligence, this allowed him to avoid the jealousies (and untimely fates) of his power seeking contemporaries.  Watching from the sidelines as our narrator does, the reader is given the impression of happy accidents or small triumphs that are attributed to Claudius yet with what we know from history, this adds another unreliable slant to the narration which is pleasantly and sometimes endearingly human.

The plot is a seething mass of machinations from the off and curiously, for an autobiography, begins before the birth of Claudius.  The sheer volume of scheming and drama put all modern soap operas to shame and the amount of detail – fictitious or otherwise – shows why this is considered to be a modern classic in the historical fiction genre.  Although it seems convoluted, and it is in a good way, everything is made clear and the reader is never swamped with too much information at one time.

There is a handy family tree at the back which does help, especially when people with similar or the same name start to pop up.  Thanks to the clear layout you can see the near incestuous (and at times most definitely incestuous) ties between the Imperial family and their connections.  Our ever helpful narrator does a good job at distinguishing between characters of the same name so it never becomes too taxing to work out who is who, who they are related to, and what they are up to.

There was one part of the book that let it down for this reader. I expected Caligula to be presented in a much darker light, that wasn’t the case and I am not sure if I am happy about that or not.  I was anticipating a lot of grimness as the madness of his reign really got going, instead he came across as an almost camp, comic relief super villain and so the derangement came across more as feared eccentricity than anything else.  It is a fairly minor point though, as the chronicling of his reign is still a bizarre read with plenty of ‘that’s got to be made up’ moments which prove to be based on fact.

The motives of power and greed stand the test of time and echo back and forth through history.  The stellar amount of conniving and scandal keeps the reader hooked to the end and most probably confused with how such a dysfunctional family could run an empire. I am very much interested in finding a copy of the sequel Claudius the God which carries on narrator’s story and promises to be another great read.


24 Replies to “I, Claudius – Robert Graves”

  1. This was fascinating review and i really enjoyed reading it.
    I wonder if i should first read Claudius the God first? Before i read Claudius I
    Reading your review reminded me if Stalin i mean he was great schemer and most of his contemporaries never thought highly of him,
    I guess pretending to be stupid can save you in politics

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is one of my all-time favourite books. It is a masterpiece and the sequel, Claudius the God is a brilliant depiction of a cynical ruler who is governed only by realpolitik.
    Although you were disappointed by Caligula, you have to admit that Livia is one of the all-time great villains as she psychotically manoeuvers her favourites into positions of power.
    I went to Robert Graves’ grave a couple of years ago in the town of Deia where he lived on Mallorca. It’s an astonishingly remote place even on the island. You understand why he chose to live there once you’ve read his extraordinarily honest autobiography ‘Goodbye to All That’.


    1. I am excited to read Claudius the God and now Goodbye to all That, now you have brought it to my attention. Livia was great, she held so much of the story together, Caligula for me was the great hope to carry that to further extremes. I must say of all villians in literature she is one of the best/worst depending on your point of view.


  3. I had a most unnerving and strange experience with this book, or at least the idea of this book. When I was in graduate school, and therefore should have known better, but was obviously being visited by an early mental senior moment, I enthusiastically dragged a friend to a movie house, where I thought a movie of “I, Claudius” was playing. I really wanted to see what it was all about, but I got that and more. Neither of us could figure out why the movie was sponsored by “Penthouse Magazine,” and in an early shot had a woman in an absolutely see-through negligee running around in a forest with a man, but so it was. We restrained our doubts, but the farther we got into it, the more pornographic it became. There was a tendency on our parts, I’m afraid, to assume that that was just a correct portrait of the Roman Empire, and that whatever exaggerations “Penthouse” was assuming were probably pretty close to the truth, in the same way that men often say they read “Playboy” for the intellectual articles. Finally, when we were about 3/4 of the way through and were almost beyond being shocked, a light dawned: the title of the movie hadn’t been “I, Claudius,” but “Caligula”! Somehow, we had both blanked on the correct name of the emperor concerned and had gotten the two confused. It was a real eye-opener, I’ll tell you. I don’t know why the “X” rating hadn’t made us suspicious at the start, but intellectuals are often stupid in that way: i.e., they will give an audience to utter bilge and tripe in the name of intellectual curiosity. Believe me, I had no curiosity left when that film was over. I really should have stuck to the book, if only I hadn’t inadvertently confused the name!


    1. I just did a quick search for great authors who have written for Playboy and John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Arthur C Clarke, Margaret Atwood, Arthur C. Clarke and Haruki Murakami have all written for the magazine so maybe there is something to the articles. I think I will stick to the books they published though.

      I love your adventures, I am impressed you didn’t catch on but am happy that you didn’t so I could delight in your mistake. Some intellectuals would give it rave reviews for obscure wordy reasons that don’t make sense. You will enjoy the book a lot more, guaranteed.


  4. I’m not sure I’ve read the book but remember the tv series like it aired yesterday. Derek Jacobi and Sian Phillips were particularly spectacular. I must confess I also have a penchant for scheming and gore, I’ll have to dig out my copy and give it a whirl.


    1. It’s so easy to get lost in it and I am glad that I only knew the basics of the time so a lot of the fates of major characters were unknown to me, except for the inevitable of course, nobody can ever escape that. Well in literature maybe but not this sort of literature.


    1. If my reviews were tweets, I’d be knocking out hundreds a day! Thinking back on it, a better way to term it would be conversationally gory, as there is little in the way of action, it’s all in the reporting thereof.


  5. I haven’t read the book but I watched the TV series which I remember being very good. I have read Goodbye to All That and some of his poetry, which I like. I suppose what has put me off reading I, Claudius is my indifference to Roman history but I really ought to give the book a go because of Graves’ writing.


    1. What makes this so fun is it’s approach to Roman history through through scandal, it allows you to satisfy the historical side with a shedload of gossip as well. It kept me hooked all the way through (apart from one bit when there’s a vacuum left by one of the main characters but that was soon filled. I need to read more Graves and maybe find the TV series of this too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am sure the TV series will look so dated now but when it was made (mid 70’s I think) it was excellent! You have convinced me – I’ll have to read the book!


    1. Everybody loves the debauchery and all round ‘a bit mad’ style of life. It’s one of those books that after you’ve read it, you wonder why it took you so long to do so.

      Liked by 1 person

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