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Amber Paulen

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Robert Graves

I, Claudius

26 April 2011


The best thing to do before beginning this book is to print out a copy of the Julio-Claudian family tree. Just take a look and you’ll understand; it’s a wonder that the Julio-Claudians themselves could keep track of all that parentage: deaths, divorces, remarriages, adoptions. Anyway, being related never stopped this family from killing each other.

There is a soap opera-esque quality to I, Claudius; fault could fall on the story that Robert Graves wanted to tell more than how he told it, in any less able hands it would have disintegrated into the overly emotional. Graves didn’t even want to write this book but did so out of a financial need. Yet its importance as historical fiction has kept it in circulation. The writing is not stylized, maybe a stylization in itself or I became convinced that it was, the voice of Claudius as he faithfully told history. Not to be confused with the history as written by Robert Graves, who took liberties and with such a story, who wouldn’t.

The intrigues, the scandals, the determination to usurp the Republic, to remain in power. Augustus was a mere weakling in the domineering shadow of his wife Livia, who hungered to rule the Empire through her husband or through her family’s line (the Claudians). Livia’s ambition moves the first half of the book, as does pity for Claudius, though Graves never tries to extract it. I just can’t help it, the poor guy, born into the royal family with a limp and a stutter, hidden from view, disliked by his mother and grandmother Livia. Yet Claudius only betrays the slightest emotion over these shortcomings and deaths of his family members, preferring to be the steady historian.

A discussion in the library between Claudius, Pollio and Livy illumines Claudius’ view on the writing of history. When asked who he would choose as a model, Pollio or Livy, Claudius responds:

I think I would choose Pollio. As I am sure that I can never hope to attain Livy’s inspired elegance, I shall do my best to imitate Pollio’s accuracy and diligence.

That’s why there’s so much action in I, Claudius. Once into the book, the pages turn: what will the tragicomic people-in-charge do next? Livia seemingly wipes out her whole family: her husbands, her stepkids and step-grandkids, children and grandchildren, all to pave the way for Tiberius to become Emperor who is a nasty ruler and unfit for power but a Claudian and that’s all that matters. Then followed Caligula, who was crazy. The book ends with the beginning of Claudius’ reign, so I have to read the sequel to discover if he was any better.

I, Claudius then, is very rarely about Claudius. As he grew up he became a recluse, choosing to stay out of the public life and being physically not up for it. I would like to think that he was a better Emperor, being well-read and having a consciousness, but power and fate are like a wave that takes no notice of who or what gets washed away with it. Good intentions have a way of getting decimated. In this way, I, Claudius makes a good balance to Marguerite Yourcenar’s idealistic Hadrian, though I would choose the latter as a ruler any day.



Commentary for I, Claudius


1 On Saturday 16 June 2012 dia tsung wrote:

Here is what Robert Graves had to say about Tiberius –

“Well, now—Caligula was born bad. Tiberius was a marvelous man. But too much pressure was put on him, and he warned the Senate of what was going to happen. He foresaw a severe psychological breakdown. If you’ve always been extremely clean—always brushed your teeth and made your bed—and you get to a point of intolerable stress, you break down and display what is called paradoxical behavior: You mess your bed, you do the most disgusting things. Tiberius had been noted for his chastity and manly virtues, and then he broke down. I now feel the greatest possible sympathy for Tiberius.”


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