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.