I, Claudius is well-known to the modern reader for its evocation of ancient Rome and its terrible cruelty and vice. Brought to a wide audience by the BBC mini-series, the book is the most famous historical novel dealing with the period. The book is meticulously researched and conjures up a picture of Rome and its principal characters that at once seems real and allows the modern reader to understand. The author Robert Graves was an expert in the ancient world. Principally Graves was a poet, but he also excelled as a scholar of myth, Greek myth in particular. His research of the historical period and its culture appears to the lay-reader to be first class.
The book deals with the murderous family history of the Claudians and their relatives which gave Rome its first emperors starting with Augustus through to Claudius himself and his nephew Nero. The degree of cruelty and vice is almost incomprehensible to the modern reader especially as the book was written before the horrors of the second world war. The main character is the narrator Claudius who is also positioned as the writer of the book, having wished to leave a testament of his times to the readers of the future, in perhaps nineteen hundred years time. The unlikely hero narrates the story of the rulers of Rome from his grand-uncle Augustus down to the end of his mad nephew Caligula’s reign. The style is very much as if the book were a work of history with only the occasional descriptive passage of events witnessed by Caligula or dialogue that involves him. In an early commentary on this style Claudius compares the history writing of Livy, who was fond of creating speeches for his historical characters, and Pollio who would only recount the facts. Claudius’s method is to follow Pollio in style.
As a reader this was not what I expected. I had vague memories of the TV drama and was expecting an exciting and in-depth novelisation of the times rather than a faux-history. The book lacked immediacy for me because of the narrative construct, although I can’t fault Graves’s commitment to historical veracity (although he pushes hard his speculation that Livia, Claudius’s grandmother, was the power behind the throne for most of this period). As a novel the book didn’t stand-up well.