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I, Claudius - Robert Graves Poor Clau-Clau-Claudius. He stuttered, had a limp, and was deaf in one ear. Considered the family idiot, he had the misfortune to be born into a family that suffered from a congenital lack of compassion.

Robert Graves’s choice of the hapless Claudius as the narrator for this work of historical fiction was ingenious. Seen as dull-witted and harmless by his ruthless relatives, Claudius managed to avoid almost the poisoning, banishment, starvation, stabbing, and suicide to which many of his more prominent associates fell victim. He was the family outcast, but innocuous enough to be left alone to observe the antics of those around him, and, as a historian, he recorded it all to share with us.

emperor-claudius
Claudius, Emperor of Rome from 41 to 54 AD

Graves does an excellent job of taking us into Claudius’s mind, despite the 2,000 year gap in time. Claudius would have considered himself a “good Claudian” (compared to most of his relatives), but he had his flaws, including a cold indifference to slaves and conquered nations and a fondness for drink and gambling. Still, compared to his nephew Caligula, who made his horse a Senator and had entire sections of the crowd thrown to the lions out of boredom, Claudius can not help but seem refreshingly sane and humane.

Claudius’s grandmother, Livia, is depicted as a devious schemer and poisoner, but Claudius even managed to be fair to her. Though he disliked her as much as she disliked him and had the good sense to be afraid of her, he tells us, “...however criminal the means used by Livia to win the direction of affairs for herself...she was an exceptionally able and just ruler” (p. 228).

livia
Livia, the real power behind Caesar Augustus

Graves occasionally allows himself to give commentary through Claudius. I, Claudius was published in 1934, on the eve of World War II, and Graves doesn’t miss the opportunity to stick it to the Germans. He has Claudius’s brother, Germanicus, say, “The Germans...are the most insolent and boastful nation in the world when things go well with them, but once they are defeated they are the most cowardly and abject. Never trust a German out of your sight, but never be afraid of him when you have him face to face” (p. 249). He gives a plug to the English, too, when he lists as one of three impossible things the idea of subduing the island of Britain (p. 232).

Historical fiction is always a bit risky; when it’s bad, it can be really bad, particularly when characters from hundreds of years ago talk like they’re on an MTV special. I, Claudius, however, is excellent historical fiction. The characters are believable, depicted with wit and even a touch of modern relevance. There is the added bonus that modern taxation doesn’t seem nearly so onerous when compared to Caligula’s, when he imposed “a tax...on all married men for the privilege of sleeping with their wives” (p. 425). This is the kind of story that lets you imagine what it would have been like to live in a different age, and then to feel very grateful that you don’t.