I, Claudius

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I, Claudius

Introduction
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Media Adaptations
Characters
Themes
Topics For Further Study
Style
Historical Context
Compare & Contrast
Critical Overview
Criticism
What Do I Read Next?
Sources
Further Reading

Robert Graves
1934

Introduction

The initial reason Robert Graves set out to write I, Claudius (1934) was for money. Living on the Spanish island of Mallorca with the poet Laura Riding, Graves fell into some financial difficulties, which he hoped to resolve through the writing of the historical epic. The book, the first of two fictionalized accounts of Claudius, the Roman emperor from 41 to 54 a.d., was a great success. Within a couple months it had gone into four printings both in the United States and in Great Britain. In 1937, one of Hollywood's biggest directors, Josef von Sternberg, made a failed attempt at filming Graves's epic, a failure that only enhanced the book's growing prestige.

Told from the point of view of the stuttering, physically deformed Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus (most commonly referred to as "Claudius,"), I, Claudius covers the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, and ends at the point of Claudius himself reluctantly assuming the position of emperor shortly following Caligula's assassination.

Laden heavily with political intrigue, sexual depravity, incest, conspiracies, family strife, war and pagan rituals, I, Claudius was seen by contemporary readers as an allegory of the current times and was awarded both the James Tait Black and the Hawthornden Prizes in 1935.

While the book takes poetic and historical license in several key areas, it has been widely hailed as a masterful portrayal of the Roman Empire and the families that ruled it. In Graves's version of events, Claudius was seen by most around him as a bumbling, deformed, and mentally handicapped, but generally harmless, individual who, because of those traits, was able to survive the capriciousness of Tiberius and the madness of Caligula. While those around him plotted endlessly for political power and revenge, Claudius kept to himself, quietly recording his history of Rome and of the Etruscans, but all the while keeping a keen eye on the Empire's goingson—observations of which formed the basis of Graves's novel.


Author Biography

Robert von Ranke Graves was a noted English poet, classical scholar, translator and novelist. Born July 24, 1895, in Wimbeldon, England, Graves was one of five children born to Alfred Perceval Graves, a poet and Gaelic scholar, and Amalie von Ranke Graves. (Graves's father also had five children from a previous marriage.)

After attending Charterhouse, a private English preparatory school, Graves in 1913 received a scholarship to St. John's College at Oxford. But with the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted and was seriously injured in 1916. This was clearly a crucial event in his life. During the Somme offensive, he had been abandoned as dead and only much later rescued from a pile of corpses. He was eventually nursed back to health and sent back to the front, but the event would scar Graves for years. While recovering from the wounds, he published his first collection of poetry, Over the Brazier, and over the next two years, while still enlisted, he would publish two more collections of poetry.

Although Graves would eventually become most famous for his historical novels and his studies on mythology, he considered himself first and foremost to be a poet, producing over 50 volumes of verse in his career. But his first commercial success as a writer came with the publication in 1929 of Goodbye to All That, his controversial autobiography in which he recounts his difficulties in school as well as the horrors of war. The book would quickly lead to a falling out with one of Graves's good friends, the English poet, Siegfried Sassoon.

In 1918, Graves married the painter and feminist activist Nancy Nicholson with whom he would have four children. Shortly following the war he took up a teaching position at St. John's College. He soon became known as one of the country's finest "war poets."

A turning point in both Graves's personal and poetic life occurred in 1926 when he met the poet Laura Riding. Together, they founded a press and collaborated on several publishing projects. After a series of infidelities with Riding, Graves permanently separated from his wife in 1927. In 1929 Graves and Riding moved to the Spanish island of Mallorca, but with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, they were forced to move to America. Riding would soon fall in love with Schuyler B. Jackson, whom she would marry in 1941. Graves would meet and fall in love with Beryl Hodge, the wife of a good friend. In 1946 Hodge and Graves moved back to Mallorca, and they married in 1950.

The books that gave Graves his international reputation and greatest commercial successes were I, Claudius in 1934, and its 1943 sequel, Claudius the God. In 1948 he turned to mythology with his classic, but highly controversial, study The White Goddess. His attention turned would soon to Christianity, with the publication in 1946 of King Jesus, and by the 1950s, the publication of several more significant works had cemented his international reputation as a novelist, poet, translator and scholar.

In 1962, W. H. Auden called Graves England's "greatest living poet," and in 1968 he was the recipient of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. From 1961 to 1966, Graves was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, and by the time of his death in 1985, at the age of ninety, he had published more than 140 books.


Plot Summary

Chapters 1–6

The Robert Graves novel I, Claudius begins with a depiction of the title character as a child. Claudius suffers from many ailments that cause him to stutter and give him a permanent limp. Although reviled by most of his relatives, he is prophesized by a sibyl to one day rule Rome, and as a young child a tiny wolf cub, which eagles had been fighting over, falls into his arms, a sign that he will become the protector of Rome.

Considered by most to be an idiot, Claudius is given the love of history through his tutor Athenodorus, and he eventually grows to write several historical studies, of which I, Claudius is one.

Claudius's grandmother Livia is the most important figure in these early chapters. "Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus," Claudius writes, and he describes how his grandmother turns Augustus into an instrument for her ambition to take control of Rome through her son Tiberius.

For starters, Livia uses her position to create discord between Marcellus, Augustus's son-in-law and leading candidate to succeed Augustus, and Agrippa, Augustus's oldest friend and most successful general. The end result of Livia's complex ruse is that Marcellus eventually dies of mysterious ailments (this is the first of many hints that implicitly tie Livia to the rash of food poisonings that infect Rome for generations) and Agrippa is left free to marry Augustus's daughter Julia. Nine years later, in 12 b.c., after Agrippa dies while alone in the country, Julia is free to marry Tiberius, a man Claudius describes as "morose, reserved, and cruel."

Claudius's father Drusus, on the other hand, is a virtuous man. A successful general widely known for his Republican values, he suffers a riding accident on the Rhine. Tiberius rushes to his side, but it is too late. Drusus is dying of gangrene, and his final words, whispered to Tiberius and in reference to Livia, are, "Rome has a severe mother."

With Drusus dead, Livia's plan to rule Rome through Tiberius moves forward. But now Gaius and Lucius, the sons of Julia and direct descendants to Augustus, are in her way. Gaius has become the favorite to follow Augustus as emperor. Livia, in another cunning set of moves, succeeds in getting Tiberius relocated outside of Rome, leaving his wife Julia behind. All along Livia had been feeding Julia an elixir she claims will make her irresistible to Tiberius, but it is actually an aphrodisiac that only increases Julia's sexual appetite. With Tiberius away, Julia goes wild, and her nightly orgies become legendary. When Augustus learns of Julia's activities, he banishes her for life. Meanwhile Gaius, who is sent away to Asia Minor, is given the wrong treatment for a battle wound and is forced for health reasons to retire, and Lucius, in transit to Spain, dies mysteriously. Thus, with no one else remaining to take over as emperor, Augustus has to accept Tiberius back to Rome and adopt him and Postumus jointly as his sons and primary candidates to succeed him.


Chapters 7–14

After his first love is poisoned, and after Livia's plans to have Claudius married to a girl named Aemilia are thwarted when Aemilia's parents are accused of a conspiracy against August, Claudius is forced to marry the six-foot-two inch Urgulanilla. A week after his marriage, Claudius comes across Pollio and Livy, two of Rome's most famous historians. In the course of discussions, Pollio tells Claudius how Claudius's father and grandfather were poisoned. Henceforth Claudius would be on the look-out for further clues to support Pollio's contention.

Meanwhile, Livia and Augustus's views of Postumus begin to change for the worse, and Livia conspires with Livilla, Castor's wife, against Postumus by inviting him to her room and seducing him. As soon as he embraces her, she cries out and Livia immediately breaks through the door and has Postumus arrested. Postumus is banished for life and disinherited, but not before he can tell Claudius the entire story of Livia's conspiracy against him. With Postumus gone, the lone heir to Augustus is now Tiberius.

Soon after returning to Rome to help the aging Augustus, Germanicus learns from Castor of Livia's plot to banish Postumus, and in turn he tells Augustus. On the pretence of taking another trip to one of the colonies, Augustus visits Postumus on his island to help him escape. Livia catches wind of Augustus's plan, and assuming he would bring Postumus back to Rome and restore him to favor, she has to act quickly. She knows that with Postumus restored, her own life will be in danger. Coincidentally, Augustus falls sick, and though he eats only from the common table and of the figs he himself has picked, out of fear of being poisoned by Livia, he dies.

Prior to his death, Augustus expresses to Claudius his deep apologies for how he has been treated throughout his life, and says that he has taken care of a certain "document" and that Claudius will one day be compensated. Claudius assumes Augustus is referring to his will, and surmises that the emperor has come to learn of Livia's conspiracies. But Augustus did not safeguard his changes well enough, and the previous version of the will, which names Tiberius as successor, is read to the Senate. Livia finally gets her wish, and when Postumus is reported killed by a captain of the guard, her final problem, it seems, is solved.

Chapters 15–34

Soon rumors that Postumus is still alive begin circulating through Rome. The rumor proves true, but Tiberius is able to catch him and have him tortured and killed.

Roman troops in the Rhine mutiny upon Augustus's death, angry over the few shares they are given. Germanicus, remaining faithful to Tiberius, borrows money from Claudius and pays the men under the pretence that the money has come directly from Tiberius. In Rome, Sejanus, Tiberius's Commander of the Guards, begins poisoning the emperor's mind against Germanicus with several lies. Sejanus had also forms a group of professional informers whose job it is to infiltrate the populous for the purpose of weeding out Tiberius's potential opponents. When Germanicus is sent with his family, including his son Caligula, to the East, Sejanus revives Tiberius's fears by reporting a statement that Germanicus allegedly says in front of one of Sejanus's secret agents. Livia and Tiberius then send a man named Gnaeus Piso to work with Germanicus. Piso also reports back statements construed to make Germanicus appear unfaithful to the emperor. Soon Germanicus finds that his orders to his regiments or cities are not being followed; they are all being overridden by contradictory ones from Piso.

Media Adaptations

  • The most comprehensive Web site on Robert Graves can be found at http://www.robertgraves.org/ (accessed November 24, 2004) with links to many data bases and material related to Graves's scholarship, including Gravesiana: the Journal of the Robert Graves Society and archived audio recordings of the writer.
  • Academy of American Poets houses a Robert Graves page at http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=197 (accessed November 24, 2004) with audio recordings and links to other sites.
  • Blackstone Audiobooks released an unabridged audio recording of I, Claudius in 1994 that is available both through bookstores and online as a digital download.
  • One of the most critically acclaimed television series of all time, Masterpiece Theater's I, Claudius, starring Derek Jacobi as Claudius, and also staring John Hurt and Patrick Stewart, is available both in DVD and VHS format. Included in the DVD format is the 1965 television production, The Epic That Never Was, a documentary of director Josef von Sternberg's failed 1937 filming of Graves's book.

Germanicus soon falls ill and starts smelling "death" in his house. A superstitious man, he sleeps with a talisman, or good luck charm, under his pillow. A slave soon reports finding the body of a dead baby beneath the house, and soon similar discoveries are made throughout the house. After several strange and near-hallucinatory experiences, Germanicus becomes certain that Piso is trying to murder him through black magic. Germanicus dies, and for years the murder remains a mystery. Aggripina returns with her children to Rome, where the public grieves for the popular Germanicus for days.

Sejanus continues to consolidate his power and even tries to become related to the imperial family by marrying his four-year-old daughter to Claudius's son Drusillus. But a few days later Drusillus is found dead with a pear stuck in his throat. Soon Sejanus, Livia and Livilla, Castor's wife, conspire against Castor, who has just been named Protector of the People by Tiberius, a sign that Tiberius is aware of Sejanus's ambitions and intends to check them. The conspiracy works, and Castor quickly falls out of favor with Tiberius. Soon thereafter he falls ill with symptoms of consumption and dies.

Treason trials soon proliferate throughout Rome, and Sejanus once again plots to gain entrance into the imperial family by arranging Claudius's divorce and marrying his adopted sister Aelia to Claudius.

Tiberius, getting old and weak, retires to Capri, thus leaving control of Rome in the hands of Sejanus. He remains there eleven more years until his death, practicing acts too obscene for Claudius to recount.

Livia calls on Claudius and confesses all of her murders, including those of Claudius's father and son, as well as Agrippa, Lucius, Marcellus and Gaius. She also tells him of the prophecies that Germanicus's son, Caligula, will be emperor, and that Claudius will avenge Caligula's death. Livia also makes Claudius promise to deify her when he becomes emperor. In 29 a.d., Livia finally dies.

Under Sejanus's rule, Rome suffers from endless capricious arrests and executions. Claudius's mother happens to find drafts of letters between Livilla and Sejanus, implying a conspiracy to kill Tiberius. She sends Tiberius the letters, and Tiberius has Sejanus arrested for treason. After Sejanus's gruesome execution, a whole crop of equally grim executions follow.

In his final years, Tiberius indicates Caligula as his successor. After Tiberius's death, the Senate confirms Caligula's accession, and in the first days of his rule, Caligula generously pays off Tiberius's debts, observes the terms of Tiberius's and Livia's will, doubles the pay to the army, and sends millions of gold pieces from the treasury into general circulation. General amnesty is declared, and when Caligula falls ill with what is called a "brain fever," the popular consternation is so great that thousands of people stand in vigil day and night outside of the palace.

When Caligula "recovers," however, one of his first acts is to call Claudius into his room where he reveals to his uncle his "metamorphosis" into a divine being and also reveals, with pride, how as a young boy he had murdered his father Germanicus by frightening him to death and stealing his talisman.

Quickly thereafter, Caligula indiscriminately begins killing friends and family members, marries other men's wives at a whim, and puts men to death for such crimes as selling hot water. When the treasury is nearly depleted, Caligula empties the prisons by executing the prisoners and feeding their bodies to wild beasts in the amphitheaters. Claudius's own mother, rather than living under the reign of this madness, kills herself.

Caligula's "divinity" continues; he argues daily with Neptune and with the river gods. No one feels safe around Caligula, and when Claudius is summoned to the palace one night, he assumes his end is at hand. But instead he is awarded with a play in which Caligula plays the "rosy-fingered Goddess," after which Claudius is given the beautiful young Messalina in marriage.

Caligula grows madder by the day, until finally Cassius, one of his soldiers, kills him during a festival. In the melee that follows, soldiers tear through the palace, intent on plunder, and notice two feet sticking out from behind a curtain. Claudius has tried to hide out of fear for his life, but one of the soldiers recognizes him, and the group proclaims him emperor. After a brief protest, he gives in and is soon being carried around the court, fulfilling the sibyl's prophecy and the omen of the wolf cub.



Characters

Agrippa

The most important man in Rome after Augustus, Agrippa is Augustus's oldest friend. Livia favors Augustus's stepson, Marcellus, over Agrippa for the purposes of making Agrippa jealous. When a strange sickness overcomes Augustus, he is forced to name an heir. He chooses Marcellus at Livia's behest, forcing Agrippa to request a relocation out of Rome.

Agrippina

The daughter of Julia and widow of Germanicus, Agrippina becomes the de facto leader of Rome's anti-Tiberius faction following Germanicus's death.

Athenodorus

Athenodorus is Claudius's second tutor. Described by Claudius as "a stately old man with dark gentle eyes," Claudius credits the tutor with instilling in him self-confidence and a love of history.

Augustus Caesar

Augustus, or "Octavian" as he was known before he became Emperor in 27 b.c., claims to be Caesar's heir. Claudius portrays him as essentially a just, though generally weak leader, who defers to his wife Livia and is blind to her numerous conspiracies. "Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus," Claudius tells his readers early on. Every attempt he made at placing one of his direct descendants in line for succession, his second wife Livia succeeded in either killing them off or having them exiled. For most of his marriage to Livia, Augustus was unaware of his wife's conspiracies. It was not until Germanicus returns from his military excursions and informs Augustus of Livia's evil-doings does he catch on. But by then it is too late; Livia poisons the figs directly on the tree, and Augustus becomes one of her many victims.


Briseis

Briseis, one of Claudius's slaves, offers faithful friendship and support to her master, and is most remembered in the narration by a dream she relates to Claudius that foretells the way in which he will assume the position of Emperor.


Caligula

After Tiberius dies in 37 a.d., Caligula, takes over. His first acts as Emperor are to make amends for the unjust reign of Tiberius, and in the first months of his own reign, the Roman public comes to love him. However, after a "brain fever" nearly kills him, Caligula comes to believe he has metamorphosed into a god. Thereafter his reign as Emperor is marked by madness and capricious acts of sadism, sexual depravity, and cruelty. Friends and family members are killed for no reasons, the private fortunes of citizens are plundered, and the women of Rome are considered the emperor's personal property. Caligula is eventually killed at the hands of Cassius, one of his soldiers, and succeeded by Claudius.


Calpurnia

As Claudius's longtime mistress, the prostitute Calpurnia provides Claudius with advice and friendship and is the only woman who ever truly loves him. Her true feelings for Claudius are revealed by her visible hurt when Claudius announces his marriage to the beautiful Messalina.


Cassius

First known for surviving the massacre in the German forests, Cassius becomes more famously recognized as the solder who assassinates Caligula.

Castor

Castor is Tiberius and Vispania's son and the husband of Livilla. He is as cruel as his father. When he was named Protector of the People by Tiberius, a clear sign that he would be heir to the emperor, a conspiracy against him unfolds. He dies of consumptive-like symptoms, thus leaving Sejanus with even greater power.


Claudius

Officially known as Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, and referred to variously as "Claudius the Idiot," "Claudius the Stammerer," and "Clau-Clau-Claudius," he is the narrator of the story and emperor of Rome during his narration. The son of Drusus and grandson of Livia, Claudius is considered by most Romans to be little more than a harmless, if bumbling, idiot, allowed to remain in the company of the imperial family only because of his birthright. But Claudius, over time, proves to be a keen observer of the political and familial intrigue that Rome had become famous for. While taking no sides in any of the familial struggles, he is able to survive the poisoning of Livia, the tyranny of Tiberius, and the madness of Caligula. His deformities make him a figure of scorn, but they also help to keep him under the radars of the legion of conspirators stalking Rome's streets. Upon Caligula's assassination in 41 a.d., Claudius is forced against his will to accept the position of emperor, a title he maintains for 13 years.


Drusilla

Drusilla, one of Caligula's sisters, is known for having sexual relations with him from a very early age. She is referred to as a "she-beast" by Claudius's mother.


Drusus

Drusus is Claudius's father. He is highly respected by his son and wildly popular with Romans for his belief in the liberties of the Republic. As a general in the army on the Rhine he is wounded slightly. In a letter to his brother Tiberius, he exhorts Augustus not to continue his rule, for the sake of Republican values. The letter is accidentally read aloud to Augustus and Livia. Augustus replies immediately, asking Drusus to return to Rome, but by the time Augustus's letter arrives, Drusus has fallen from a horse and is severely injured. It is revealed later that Livia poisoned him. At his deathbed he whispers to Tiberius, in reference to Livia, "Rome has a severe mother." His death feeds into Livia's plan to rule Rome through her son, Tiberius.

Gaius

Gaius is Julia's oldest son by Marcus Agrippa and a favorite of Augustus. Shortly after being made Governor of Asia Minor, he falls sick and dies, another of Livia's poison victims.


Gemellus

Gemellus is the young son of Livilla and Castor. Caligula kills him for no apparent reason.


Germanicus

Germanicus is the older brother of Claudius and a hugely popular general in the Roman army. Devoutly faithful to Tiberius, Germanicus borrows money to pay mutinous troops and forges a document indicating that the gift came directly from the emperor. As Tiberius's military successes grow, he becomes more and more unpopular among the populace. Tiberius sends him and his family to Antioch, where a series of foreboding and mysterious events unfold, culminating in his death. It is eventually revealed that his son Caligula had killed him, but the belief at the time is that Piso and his wife Plancina, had done the deed.


Julia

Julia is Augustus's daughter by his previous marriage. She is married to Marcellus until he dies, then to Agrippa until he dies, and then to Tiberius. Tiberius never loves her, and after he leaves Rome, she engages in nightly orgies throughout the city and is eventually banished for life by Augustus. It is eventually revealed the Livia has been feeding her an aphrodisiac under false pretences. Julia dies of starvation during Tiberius's reign.


Livia

Livia, the second wife to Augustus and mother of Tiberius and Drusus, is undoubtedly the most powerful individual in the Roman Empire. Her name, Claudius tells us, relates to the Latin word meaning "malignity," an apt description of her relationship to Rome. "Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus," Claudius writes. Livia has fooled her husband into divorcing her so she can marry Augustus, whom she has convinced, falsely, that his wife, Scribonia, is having an adulterous affair. Livia's marriage to Augustus is never consummated; Augustus is a mere instrument in her boundless ambitions. She even provides Augustus with beautiful women with whom he can satisfy his sexual needs. Just before dying, she admits to Claudius that she poisoned several political opponents, including Claudius's father and son. Livia's monomaniacal desire is to bring her son Tiberius into the line of succession to the emperor, and she uses every ounce of cunning to see that desire through.


Livilla

Livilla is Claudius's sister, Castor's widow, and Sejanus's mistress. She helps conspire against Postumous by seducing him and having him arrested for attempted rape.


Lucius

Julia's second son by Marcus Agrippa and adopted son and heir to Augustus, Lucius is an obstacle in Livia's plan to control Rome. On a trip to Spain, Lucius mysteriously dies, leaving Tiberius as Augustus's obvious heir.


Macro

Commander of the Praetorian Guard under Tiberius following Sejanus's execution, Macro serves briefly under Caligula until he is executed by Caligula.


Marcellus

Octavia's son and Julia's husband, and adopted son of Augustus, Marcellus is considered a leading candidate to be Augustus's heir. After being named Augustus's heir, thus taking Agrippa out of the picture, he is elected to a city magistracy. However, he quickly dies from the same sickness as Augustus, thus leaving Agrippa as the only possible successor. Like so many others, Marcellus falls victim of Livia's touches of poison.


Medullina

A beautiful girl of thirteen who befriends Claudius and whom Claudius loves and sets out to marry, Medullina is poisoned on her way to the wedding and dies before the marriage can take place.


Messalina

Claudius's third wife, Messalina, is given to him by Caligula. She is the first woman Claudius loves since his youth. Although I, Claudius ends before Messalina's true colors are revealed, she comes to be known as one of the most famous harlots in history.


Aelia Paetina

Claudius's second wife and Sejanus's adopted sister, Aelia is used by Sejanus to help him become a member, by marriage, of the imperial family.

Piso

Appointed the Roman governor of Syria and Tiberius's agent, Piso conspires against Germanicus by spying on him and sending false reports back to the Roman Senate. When Germanicus becomes ill, he suspects Piso of black magic. Following Germanicus's mysterious death, Piso is accused of the murder and forced to stand trial. Because he holds documents that indict the emperor and his wife, before a the trial can be completed, Livia arranges for his wife Plancina to kill him and make the death appear to be a suicide.


Plancina

Out of fear of losing everything she owns, Plancina, Piso's wife, with Livia's help, kills her husband Piso and makes the death appear to be a suicide. She herself is then tried, and acquitted, of Germanicus's murder.


Postumus

One of Claudius's best friends and grandson to Augustus, and therefore a possible successor to Augustus, Postumus is daring and adventuresome. At the age of fourteen, he protects Claudius from a beating by Cato, Claudius's tutor. He loves Livilla, which proves to be his downfall. Livilla seduces Postumus and then cries rape, causing Postumus to be banished from Rome. He was eventually freed secretly by Augustus, who had finally come to learn of Livia's treachery, but it was too late for him to become Emperor. Livia's further treachery kept him out of Augustus's will, and when his whereabouts were eventually discovered, he was tortured and killed by Tiberius.


Sejanus

Born of humble origins, Sejanus becomes Commander of the Praetorian Guard under Tiberius and effectively ruled Rome with an iron fist when Tiberius retired to Capri. His thirst for power became too much, however; his excesses, which cause the indiscriminate arrests and deaths of many officials and everyday citizens, lead to his own hideous execution at the hands of Tiberius.


Sibyl at Cumae

Claudius relates his visit to the Sibyl at Cumae, who foresees his ascension to emperor and further tells him that 1900 years hence, despite his "stammer, cluck and trip," he "shall speak clear," a reference to the history he writes.

Tiberius

When Augustus dies in 14 b.c., Tiberius, his adopted son and the natural son of Augustus's wife Livia, becomes emperor. His lasts for twenty-two years, most of them in self-imposed exile on the island of Capri. Claudius portrays Tiberius as being a cruel and degenerate ruler who comes to power primarily as the result of his mother Livia's murderous plots. Claudius also tells us of Tiberius's depravity, hinting at acts of bestiality and other depraved sexual practices. Tiberius is on his deathbed, but not quite dead, when he is suffocated by Caligula's commander Macro.


Urgulanilla

A huge, six-foot two-inch woman whom Livia forces Claudius to marry, Urgulanilla has little to do with Claudius.


Themes

Fatalism

The Romans believed that the Fates had already determined their futures, which could not be altered. Claudius describes a visit to the Sybil of Cumae, who foretells of his becoming emperor. He also describes how the Roman Senate would order consultations with the books of prophecies whenever strange portents or disasters occur. Tiberius consults Thrasyllus and acts in response to the soothsayer's prophecies. Livia, near her own death, calls Claudius to tell him of the omens that point to him both becoming emperor and eventually avenging Caligula's death. As described by Claudius, these omens and prophecies were far more than mere superstitions; they effectively guided the Romans in their decision-making and actions. Both Livia and Caligula, for instance, had ample opportunities to kill Claudius, and given all that Claudius knew about their goings-on, it would have made sense to do so. But the fact that Claudius is prophesied to become Emperor and one day avenge Caligula's death helped explain his ability to stay alive.


The Recording of History

Claudius is, first and foremost, a historian. His explicit aim with these chronicles is to offer "readers of a hundred generations hence" this "confidential history" of his life. In what seems at first a digression, Claudius, shortly after his first marriage, meets the historians Pollio and Livy in the library. While there, they have a discourse on the uses and abuses of history. "Yes, Poetry is Poetry, and Oratory is Oratory, and History is History, and you can't mix them," Pollio chides his fellow historian. Ironically, Claudius, the narrator of I, Claudius, claims to be following Pollio's dictum, but Graves, in his creation of Claudius and his imaginative turns of events, certainly mixes "poetry," or imaginative liberties, with "history." While Graves rightly argues that the characters and events of I, Claudius are all historically based, he nevertheless took great liberties in enhancing the characters' traits and filling in the historical detail. Perhaps Graves's most liberal use of "poetry" occurs in his depiction of Caligula. While there is general agreement as to the vicious and capricious nature of Caligula's reign, there is no consensus as to Caligula's psychological state. History certainly suggests that Caligula may have been certifiably mad, but Graves offers an extreme view of that madness that few others have previously, or since, depicted.

Topics For Further Study

  • In Chapter IX of I, Claudius, the reader is introduced to two historians of the day, Pollio and Livy. They proceed to argue over their respective views of historical writing. Livy maintains one can spruce history up by providing its figures with "poetical feelings" and "oratorical ability." Pollio asserts that "Poetry is Poetry . . . and History is History, and you can't mix them." Explain in fuller detail the basic arguments that each historian is presenting here. Which side do you think Graves would side with? Which side do you agree with, and why?
  • Caligula is presented by Graves as a perverted, capricious, and certifiably mad emperor. However, not all historians agree with this account. Research Caligula's life and explain how your findings either support or reject Graves's portrayal.
  • Research the meaning of the term "femme fatale." Are there any "femme fatales" in I,Claudius? If so, who are they and what function do they play in Claudius's narration?
  • Sibyls play a major role in Roman society during Claudius's lifetime. Research the history of sibyls in Ancient Rome. What literary function do they serve in I, Claudius? Similarly, astrologers are also important in the story. How do astrologers and sibyls differ? How are they similar?
  • In Chapter 17 of I, Claudius, Claudius goes on record as saying that he and "never at any time of [his] life practices homosexuality" and goes on to explain his position. Although sexuality plays a major role in the book, this is one of the few occasions where homosexuality is mentioned. Whey does Claudius feel compelled to make this assertion? Research the life of Robert Graves and describe his views on homosexuality. How do they fit with these remarks by Claudius?

Nepotism

Much of the political power in the novel is relegated according to the nepotistic desires of the characters, or the characters' desire to secure the emperor's seat for their own blood relatives, resulting in conniving and murderous competition. With the demise of the Republic, political power in Rome has become concentrated in the hands of the emperor. It is through the emperor's will that a successor is chosen, and it is clear in Augustus's case, at least, that he wants at all costs to choose one of his direct descendants. Unbeknownst to him, however, Livia is constantly scheming to place her own son, Tiberius, in the line of succession. Throughout most of the narrative, it is unclear exactly how Livia is doing this, but near her deathbed, she admits to several poisonings and plots that effectively kept Augustus's children and grandchildren from being able to take over as Emperor. In fact, one could argue that the primary tension that fuels the early action of I, Claudius is the continual battle between the wills of Livia and Augustus in this regard. Livia is able to manipulate Augustus through her strategic use of poisoning and plotting, and she wins supremacy for her bloodline.


Paganism

Rome, during these years, is still a pantheistic pagan society, with multiple gods. Christianity, as such, has not yet been established. The Senate, for instance, allows Augustus to be deified in Asia Minor; Livia asks that Claudius promise to deify her upon her death; Caligula believes himself to be a god and, in fact, goes to war, like a god, against Neptune. Sibyls and oracles are consulted, and the emperors retain astrologers to advise them on political matters.


Political Tyranny

Under the Republic, a considerable amount of power was conferred upon the elected officials of the Senate. When August was made emperor, the senate conferred all power to him. As a result, Rome suffers under years of endless plots and conspiracies as Augustus's potential successors and their followers vie with one another for advantage. The winners of these stratagems tend to be those who are most merciless in their acts, such as Livia, Sejanus and Macro, and otherwise innocent politicians, officials and citizens are denied their basic rights and summarily exiled or executed. Although Augustus was generally viewed as a just leader, the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula are noted for their brutal and tyrannical characteristics.


Sexual Activity

Although Claudius is, on most accounts, remarkable for the objectivity of his narration, he does not hesitate in passing judgment in regards to issues of certain types of sexuality. In one noted digression, he states emphatically that he has never engaged in homosexual practices, a sexual lifestyle he considered degenerate. This digression is all the more odd considering that at no time in the narration does he explicitly describe observing any homosexual practices. Also, on several occasions he remarks that the depravity of Tiberius was too revolting to describe, without actually stating what that depravity is, though he does allude to the emperor's practice of bestiality, and he describes one of the Roman wives killing herself as a result of being forced to endure unspeakable acts by Tiberius. Julia is described for her excessive wantonness, and Caligula comes off as being the most depraved of them all, with his inclination to sleep with his sisters and couple with whomever he desired. The sexuality that Claudius describes is effectively used to enhance the atmosphere of "depravity" in Rome; since Claudius makes little, if any, mention of his own sexual activity, this effectively lends a greater air of objectivity to his narrative. (Though it is interesting to note that Claudius is more judgmental of Roman sexual practices than he is of his family's proclivity for grisly murders.) As is the case in virtually all aspects of his life, Claudius is a passive observer of Rome's sexuality; he only acts when acted upon.


War and Xenophobia

Part of the popularity of I, Claudius when it was first published may have had to do with the historical and political context in which Graves was writing. The year before the book's publication, Hitler had just come to power in Germany, and although it was still early, there was growing sentiment that Germany would one day soon be on the march to war. I, Claudius depicts one of the most aggressive imperial forces in world history. The Roman Empire was able to expand throughout the world as a result of its continual military incursions and victories. Augustus was one of the most successful emperors in this regard, helping Rome to solidify its holdings in the Balkans and Germany. Roman citizens were generally excited at the news of new military victories, for it usually meant that they would soon profit from new supplies of food and an infusion of new wealth into the Roman economy. War also provided military leaders, such as Germanicus, with a way to advance themselves in the eyes of the Roman Senate and emperor. And as in the case with most imperial forces, Rome played on its citizens' fear of the foreign "barbarians." Such a fear of foreigners is known as xenophobia. Without vigilance, these barbarians could one day be knocking down Rome's gates. In Rome's particular case, just as it already was for Graves to a large degree, the Germans were considered particularly barbaric, and Augustus and Tiberius expend serious resources on their German military incursions. Claudius describes massacres of Roman regiments at the hands of the German barbarians, and he describes the fear of the citizens when news of Rome's losses spreads.


Style

Foreshadowing

I, Claudius is narrated by Claudius during the final years of his life. Throughout his narration, Claudius hints at events that are yet to come, oftentimes with the help of sibyls, oracles or other methods of divination. His visit to the Sybil of Cumae, for instance, foretells of his becoming emperor, and a dream that his slave Briseis has describes how his succession would take place.


Historical Novel

As a novel relating a particular period in the history of the Roman Empire, I, Claudius relies on certain, verifiable historical facts. The characters he describes all existed in the chronology and relationships that he lays out. Graves seldom fudges dates or the details of significant events, such as the deaths of major Roman figures. However, much of I, Claudius is based purely on the author's power of speculation and imagination, and as such should be considered for what it is: a fictional account of the reign of three Roman emperors. However, the purpose of historical fiction is not to portray the "facts" of a particular historical time or event as would a scholarly study; rather, its purpose is to portray the general "truth" of the times in the hopes of providing insights in the readers' contemporary times. A good historical novel reveals universal truths about other people and cultures, and transports us to another historical time through good storytelling, but not through ponderous academic research.


Narrative Objectivity

While Claudius, by the nature of his own existence as a member of the imperial family, cannot but help to be involved in many of the plots and subplots unfolding around him, he nevertheless consciously strives to provide his reader with an objective view of events. His early speculation of Livia's involvement in various deaths is eventually proven true, establishing his credibility as a narrator, and rarely do his other speculative thoughts fail on the grounds of his own biases and subjectivity. Claudius is an historian. As such, he should not lift one historical character above another in the eyes of his eventual readers, but rather reveal the truth as he sees it. This narrative technique is one of the most remarkable characteristics of I, Claudius, and Claudius himself, as depicted through his narration, is one of Graves's most ingenious inventions and certainly one of literature's most memorable. Claudius—introduced to his readers as "'Claudius the Idiot,' or 'That Claudius,' or 'Claudius the Stammerer'"—comes across as a remarkably self-deprecating individual. A stuttering, limping, bumbling fool, he is seemingly out of favor with Rome's power structure. But the course of his narration proves him to be an insightful and brilliant figure with a sharp intellect and flawless memory, and as a result, he is able to survive the caprices of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula before being named emperor himself.



Historical Context

I, Claudius was written from the Spanish island of Mallorca in 1934. Within two years, the Spanish Civil War would force Graves and his partner, the poet Laura Riding, to flee for America. Meanwhile, the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, Spain's right-wing General Francisco Franco, and the German National Socialists, under the leadership of Adolph Hitler, were gaining power in their respective countries and threatening greater Europe.

To understand how the convergence of these historical and political events affected the reception of I, Claudius, it is necessary to understand the historical background of the book's story. Although a work of fiction that relies on the author's imagination to fill in some historical voids, the book itself is generally accepted by critics as a historically accurate reflection of the Roman Empire.

In 23 b.c., the Roman Senate granted Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Octavianus, the grandnephew of Julius Caesar and more commonly known simply as Augustus, the titles and powers of Imperium proconsulare maius and tribunicia potestas for life, effectively ending the Roman Republic and turning over to him the complete control of the Roman state.

Although Augustus's reign is generally viewed as a just one, with the growing stability of the empire listed as one of his greatest achievements, the seeds of what would evolve into decades of capricious, corrupt and vengeful rulers were planted with the demise of the Republic. In 14 a.d, Augustus died and Tiberius Claudius Nero, commonly referred to as Tiberius, came to power. For twenty-three years, until his death in 37 a.d, Roman citizens and political leaders were on the receiving end of Tiberius's reign that was marked by seemingly capricious assassinations, poisonings, and banishments. In 26 a.d, Tiberius retired to the island of Capri, where he is said to have lived a life of complete depravity and debauchery, effectively leaving Rome in the hands of the praetorian prefect Sejanus, a man whose sole vision was to become emperor at all costs. But the brutality and corruption of Sejanus was even too much for Tiberius to ignore, and in 31 a.d he was arrested and executed.

With Tiberius's death, rumored to have come from the hands of his praetorian prefect Macro, his nephew Caligula took over, and thus began a reign marked by what many believe was the apex of Roman madness. Shortly after becoming emperor, Caligula suffered what doctors at the time referred to as a "brain fever." He survived, but his mental acuity suffered irreparable damage. For the remainder of his reign he believed himself to be immortal, was known widely to be having incestuous relationships with his sisters (often with his wife in attendance). His acts of cruelty to opponents, common citizens and criminals were unprecedented in Roman history. After only five years in his reign, an officer of the praetorians, or imperial guard, with the help of several colleagues, assassinated him. In the melee that followed, Claudius was found, literally hiding behind some curtains. The praetorians guards dragged the fifty-year-old, stuttering and physically deformed uncle of Caligula to their camp, where they named him emperor.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1934: After years of unprecedented economic growth in the 1920s, the United States suffers from the stock market crash of 1929, leading to the Great Depression.

    Today: After years of economic growth and prosperity in the 1990s, stemming from the unprecedented growth of the hi-tech industry, the United States enters into their greatest recession since the Great Depression.

  • 1934: Europe faces the rise of anti-democratic movements in Germany, Italy and Spain. Fascism and National Socialism are threatening the stability of Europe and, by extension, of the world.

    Today: Although Europe has experienced the spread of democracy since the fall of communism in the 1980s and 1990s, the region faces increased threats of terrorism from Islamic extremists and Russian secessionists.

  • 1934: Labor unions are still struggling to make inroads into the private sector. As a result, workers do not have basic benefits such as guaranteed wages, overtime pay, or health insurance.

    Today: Although labor unions made huge advances following World War II and helped union and non-union workers achieve basic rights, since the 1980s unions have lost political ground, and the wages and rights of many United States workers are being threatened.

  • 1934: Germany is in the early stages of trying to extend its influence across Europe and around the world. Hitler makes no pretence in his desire to spread the ideology of National Socialism around the world.

    Today: While generally speaking there are no military powers that are explicitly trying to take over the world, in the eyes of many the world over, particularly in the eyes of many observers in the Middle East, the United States, with its invasion of Iraq, is trying to extend its influence and ideology across the globe.

  • 1934: Classical education, especially among the upper classes, is very much in vogue in colleges and universities, both in the United States and in Great Britain. Most students in private schools must learn Latin and Greek, and most students are well versed in the Greek and Roman classics and history.

    Today: With some notable exceptions, most students are not required by colleges or universities to study foreign languages or the classics. Classical studies, including the study of Greek and Latin, has been relegated to small academic departments, and the vast majority of students graduate with very little knowledge of the classics or classical languages.


I, Claudius covers the period of the Roman Empire that saw the end of the Republic and an increased concentration of power in the hands of the emperor, thus leading to an endless number of conspiracies and political intrigues among the Roman elite. Each successive emperor seemed to outdo the previous in capriciousness and terror, with the innocent bystanders and citizens suffering the most. It also covers a period in which Rome was intent on consolidating, and increasing, its hold on outlying territories, particularly Germany. Claudius's descriptions of the Germans in particular paint an unflattering picture of barbarity.

Graves wrote I, Claudius shortly after the tremendous and hedonistic excesses of the 1920s had imploded with the Great Depression and left the Western industrialized world in economic collapse. By 1934, there was also a growing anxiety with respect to Germany's intentions and Italy's growing fascist threat. Europe seemed to be precariously balanced between hyper-anxiety that fueled the 1920s and the hyper-aggression that would erupt with World War II. Europeans watched helplessly as the influence of fascists and Nazis grew. The severe prejudice against the German race as a result of World War I was also fueled by Hitler's rise to power. The rest of the Western world felt helpless as Europe seemed fated to repeat the debacle of World War I. As a result Western society seemed to be suffering from a severe moral angst that led to several unanswered questions: How can an individual survive in such a seemingly unresponsive and amoral world? What can the average person do to positively contribute to such chaos? Is it possible for a society to move forward without repeating its destructive past? These questions were questions of life and death for millions of Europeans in 1934, and by addressing these issues through the eyes of a seemingly powerless, and even inept, individual, and by using an ancient time and world as the backdrop, Graves was able to throw light on the dark questions that the readers of 1934 in Great Britain and the United States may have been asking themselves.

Graves was not alone in using the Roman Empire as a backdrop for epic stories at this time. In 1934, the novelist Jack Lindsay published Rome for Sale and Caesar is Dead, and within a couple years several more would appear, including Phyllis Bentley's Freedom Farewell in 1936, Leslie Mitchell's Spartacus in 1937, and Naomi Mitchison's The Blood of the Martyrs in 1939. Rome, with its fascist-like praetorian guards and regalia, proved to be a good backdrop to explore issues of the political tyranny and excesses that were spreading across Europe. Even more important, I, Claudius covers the period of Roman history that followed the demise of the more democratic principles of the Republic. Democracy across Europe was on the defensive in 1934; Tiberius and, possibly, Caligula-like rulers were threatening Western civilization.



Critical Overview

I, Claudius was the most widely read and commercially successful book Robert Graves had written to that point. Although his autobiography Good-Bye to All That and his growing reputation as a war poet had placed him on the literary map, it was not until I, Claudius that he was able to make a reasonable living from his writing.

Within a few months of its publication, the book had been reprinted four times in Great Britain and the United States. Although Graves considered the book to be a potboiler that he wrote only for the money, it went on to win the James Tait Black and Hawthornden Prizes of 1935. Writing in The Nation & Atheneum, the novelist Mary McCarthy wrote that the book was "amazingly full of color and imagination." In 1935, Alexander Korda purchased the film rights to I, Claudius with the intention of making a movie starring Charles Laughton. The movie, eventually to be directed by one of Hollywood's finest directors, Josef von Sternberg, was never completed.

Posterity was very kind to Graves. In 1976, the British Broadcasting System produced a television series based on I, Claudius and its successor, Claudius the God, starring Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart and John Hurt. The series was one of the most successful mini-series ever produced, and following its broadcast in the United States, the book, which has been selling a couple thousand copies a year, was reprinted by Vintage for its Vintage Classics series and became an international bestseller. The book's crowning achievement came in 1998 when the Modern Library listed it as the fourteenth best novel of the twentieth century.



Criticism

Mark White

White is publisher of the Seattle-based Scala House Press. In this essay, White argues that while Graves's novel is well-researched and well-written, it does not deserve the critical acclaim it has received.


In 1933, Robert Graves and the poet Laura Riding Jackson were living on the Spanish island of Mallorca and in desperate need of money. Graves' brilliantly received 1929 autobiographical book Good-Bye to All That was a commercial success, but its royalties only helped Graves to get out of debt and set himself up for a writing life with Riding on Mallorca. So when pleas to friends, including the British poet Siegfried Sassoon, failed to rescue them, Graves turned to a project he had been working on for some time.

Written primarily for the money and referred to variously by Graves as a "potboiler" and as a "bestseller," I, Claudius was a huge success, selling out of three printings within its first year of publications in both Great Britain and the United States. By the end of 1934, Graves was not only temporarily out of financial difficulties, but he had also become an international literary sensation.

Over the years, I, Claudius would continue to do reasonably well, selling on average some 2,000 copies a year. But in 1976, when the British Broadcasting Company produced a mini-series based on I, Claudius and its successor, Claudius the God, and a few years later when the series ran on American television, sales of Graves's fifty-year old novels skyrocketed, and the eighty-year old writer suddenly found himself on the bestseller lists again on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1998 the book would receive another unexpected boost when the Modern Library named it as number fourteen on its list of the best 100 novels of the twentieth century. So not only did this unlikely story of a stuttering and limping Roman Emperor dig Graves and his lover out of financial ruin, it also helped to secure him a place in literary posterity.

There is certainly no question that Graves would have deserved to have his name etched into the annals of literary posterity regardless of the fate I, Claudius. The author of more than 140 books, including over 50 volumes of poetry, several studies of mythology, and scores of critical studies, Graves was, by any standard of measure, deserving of a respectful place in English literary history.

But does he deserve to remembered critically for I, Claudius? Certainly the success of the television productions alone have guaranteed him many more years of popularity, but has it been a popularity that the book deserves in its own right? Does it belong alongside the likes of James Joyce's Ulysses, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, as the Modern Library list suggests? In other words, should one take Graves at his word when he called the novel a potboiler, or is there something lurking behind the words of the stuttering emperor that give this novel a greatness beyond its obvious commercial attributes?

As is usually the case with such queries, the answers to most of these questions are yes, and no. Yes, I, Claudius is far better than a mere "potboiler." Graves knew how to write, he knew how to tell a story, and he knew the point at which history should stop and fiction should begin. But no, the book does not deserve the critical immortality that it seems to be on the verge of acquiring. I,Claudius was written to make money, and it succeeded brilliantly because its author was a brilliant enough scholar and writer to make all the right literary moves. With I, Claudius, Graves fed on Great Britain's and America's bottomless appetite for sexual depravity, political intrigue, femme fatales, and even good, old fashioned German bashing. Add to the mix his ingenious use of age-old fairy-tale themes that one finds in such stories as "Cinderella" and "The Ugly Duckling" and in such venues as elementary school playgrounds where bullies are forever beating up on the lame and innocent, along with an atmosphere beginning to smell ripe with the familiar stench of war, and the result was well-timed, well-written and imaginatively inspired historical soap opera that hit the hearts and charts of the English-reading populace.

Graves was, by any account, a serious scholar and a man of high literary talent. With I, Claudius, Graves spent several years of assiduous research into Roman history and customs. While I, Claudius relies on Graves's boundless imagination for its storytelling, the major events depicted in the novel have a historical basis, and the dates within the story coincide with what we know of Rome's history. But a historical novel must do more than simply provide an accurate recording of history. A good historical novel, in addition to offering the reader a compelling story to follow, should also provide an insight into the times in which it was written. By any measurement, did I, Claudius provide its readers of 1934 insights into their own worlds?

An obvious place to look for an answer to this question is in the way the book portrays Rome's relationship with its outlying areas, particularly the Germans. Doing so would show how Graves presented his reader, if he did so at all, with insight into the "German question," a growing and pressing concern for him and his fellow Europeans in 1934.

In 1933, Adolph Hitler had come to power in Germany. While it would be a few more years before Germany would invade its neighbors, the psychological and political war had already begun. Europe could already hear the figurative echoes of the marching black boots of the National Socialists.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) received the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named by the Modern Library as one of the twentieth century's 100 Best Non-Fiction Books. It analyzes the effects of World War I on several major writers, including Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen.
  • Known as one of the bitterest autobiographies ever written, Graves's Good-Bye to All That (1929) is a scathing critique of World War I and the military and political leaders who led Great Britain during the war.
  • Wild Olives: Life in Majorca with Robert Graves (1995), by William Graves, and A Woman Unknown: Voices from a Spanish Life (2000), by Lucia Graves, offer glimpses into the writer's life from the perspectives of two of his children.
  • In 1937, shortly following her husband's success with I, Claudius, Laura Riding published A Trojan Ending, her attempt at classical historical fiction. Graves supplied Riding with the necessary historical material that formed the basis of the book.
  • In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914–1946 (1982) and Between Moon and Moon: Selected Letters of Robert Graves 1946–1972 (1984), both edited by Paul O'Prey, are the first collections of Grave's abundant correspondence to have been published.

A large part of Graves' novel is devoted to the German campaigns of Claudius's brother Germanicus. The Germans that Germanicus' and Claudius's father Drusus had conquered, Claudius tells us, had quickly adapted to "Roman ways, learning the use of coinage, holding regular markets and even meeting in assemblies that did not end, as their former assemblies had always ended, in armed battles." In other words, Roman occupation had relieved the Germans of "their old barbarous ways," but when Varus, a political appointee of Augustus, entered the picture, he began abusing the Germans who, in turn, secretly planned a mass rebellion. Varus, believing the Germans to be a "stupid race" of men who respected you only when you hit them, ignored warnings of a rebellion from his own staff, and a horrible massacre ensued, in which only Cassius, the officer who would one day assassinate the Emperor Caligula, survived. News of Rome's previously unimaginable defeat spread panic throughout Rome, and Romans believed that the German hordes were ready to knock on the city gates. News and rumors of German barbarity spread. As Claudius/Graves note:

Meanwhile, the Germans hunted down all the fugitives from Varus's army and sacrificed scores of them to their forest-gods, burning them alive in wicker cages
... The Germans also enjoyed a long succession of tremendous drinking-bouts on the captured wine, and quarreled bloodily over the glory and the plunder."

When Germanicus later returned to the front to avenge the massacre, he wrote to Claudius:

The Germans are the most insolent 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.

Can an argument be made that Graves is merely using the facts of Roman history to lift a mirror to the situation of 1934 Europe? If that is the case, then what "insight" does Claudius's account afford the reader?

Any possible argument that Graves is building a case for Great Britain to defend itself against Germany here falls short when one considers the story of I, Claudius as a whole. Rome, under Augustus, and then less successfully under Caligula, was an imperial country with imperialistic aims. Its vision was to rule the world, from horizon to horizon; any useful analogy in this context would bring the reader to view Germany, not Great Britain, as the modern day Rome. If that is the case, then who would the Germans be? Certainly not the Brits, and certainly not the Americans—both races of people who considered themselves among the most civilized in the world and far from the barbaric natures that Claudius depicts.

The problems Rome was having with its colonies were problems all imperial forces have always had, and will always have, with their colonies: whenever the colonizer has tried to impose its own will on its subjects, the subjects have rebelled forcefully and usually violently.

No, the only purposes these passages effectively served, aside from the obvious ones of relating the history of Rome as it actually was, were to feed into the existing and growing fear of the German threat. After World War I, European leaders could not trust Germany's intentions, and their imposition of the humiliating Versailles Treaty only fanned the flames of German anger. That anger, in turn, fanned the flames of hatred against and fear of the German race. Whether conscious or not, Graves had pulled from ancient history the same themes of fear of the "outsider" and "other" that Europeans were still experiencing nearly 2000 years later. Graves is offering nothing insightful here; he is merely fanning the flames of anti-German sentiment, a sentiment that would help in the sales of his book.

So what of the possible argument that Graves is using ancient Rome to depict Germany or, better yet, the fascist states of Italy or Spain? On a superficial level, one could make this argument, as there are several characteristics that both the fascists and the national socialists shared with Rome of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. For starters, as already mentioned, the Roman Empire, like Nazi Germany, had visions of world domination. The consolidation of political power in the hands of a single individual—Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany—also mirrored that of Rome, and like Rome, once power was consolidated by the respective parties, no method was considered too cruel to help the parties retain that power. Rome's praetorian guard also found distant relatives in the fascist and nazi states, as did Roman regalia and the classical attributes and themes on which the Roman Empire was built. But beyond that, one would be hard pressed to see any useful parallels. For instance, one of the most striking features of Germany and Italy were their regimentation; while the elites certainly had opportunities for the same illicit and licentious behavior as the Roman elite, and while they certainly did not hesitate to indulge in them, the ultimate ideology of the parties was always of paramount importance. Although the Holocaust was certainly as "depraved" as anything that Claudius described, Germany's execution in exterminating Jews and other "undesirables" was far more planned and systematic than any of the cruelties enacted by Rome.

What I, Claudius does offer contemporary readers, however, is the opportunity to rubber-neck at the figurative train wrecks that littered the Roman empire. Powerful men and women, immortalized by their lineage and their positions of power and prestige, were done in by their own lasciviousness, greed, sexual depravity, and conspiracies. I, Claudius was provided with all the makings of a high-brow soap opera decades before General Hospital, As the World Turns, or West Wing would rivet generations of Americans and Brits to their couches. And comparing I, Claudius to television series is by no means anachronistic or mixing metaphors, for it was the British Broadcasting Company and America's Public Broadcasting System, with the help of a brilliant performance by the British actor Derek Jacobi playing Claudius, that one could argue ultimately raised the book from its place as a solid, if forgettable, novel, to that of one the greatest novels ever written, at least in the eyes of Modern Library's panel of judges.

Of course, one could argue with equal vigor that regardless of the success of the television series, the book would not survive if it was not good. There are countless examples, after all, of stellar movies that are based on all-but-forgotten books. This is true, and this brings us back to the original argument that Robert Graves knew what he was doing. By creating an archetypal character in Claudius (a composite "ugly duckling," "Cinderella," and bullied school boy), surrounding him with some of the richest and most memorable characters in history, and describing their respective demises in agonizing detail, Graves found for himself a winning recipe for a money-maker. But to be considered great, Claudius's account of his life through 41 a.d. would have to have offered us insights into the 1934 world of its readers. If the insight that Graves is offering his readers is how train wrecks rivet us, then, yes, his novel is a great one, but otherwise I, Claudius the book offers little more than I, Claudius the television series and takes much longer to get through.

Source: Mark White, Critical Essay on I, Claudius, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.


Lois Kerschen

Kerschen is a freelance writer and adjunct college English instructor. In this essay, Kerschen shows how Graves used the structure of the historical novel, as well as imaginative speculation, to create a new portrait of the Emperor Claudius.


The historical novel is a type of novel that generally distinguishes itself by being set in a time period previous to the one in which the author lives. Most storylines can be set in the past, usually for the simple purpose of establishing a backdrop to a story that is peopled by fictional characters. Even when the social situation of the time period is essential to the plot, it is the characters that dominate the story. For some plots, the historical time period is an interesting enhancement but is otherwise irrelevant; for example, the plot and characters of Cold Mountain could have been set in any war time, just as Romeo and Juliet has been adapted to a variety of time periods and worked very well in the twentieth-century New York City adaptation we all know as West Side Story. Certainly, the author and editor take pains to assure the accuracy of the historical setting, being careful not to use inappropriate fashion or language, or mention any event that had not yet happened or any device that had not yet been invented. With some historical novels, such as the currently popular Patrick O'Brian naval series set in the Napoleonic era, it is the remarkable extent of the detail about life in those times that has fascinated readers and gained the most acclaim. Then there is the type of historical novel as written by Robert Graves in I, Claudius.

From among the genre's options, Graves chose to write a fictional story using real characters in a real setting; that is, his story was based on historical figures as well as a historical time period. The difference between a history book and a historical novel about real people is that the history book should be based solely on known facts, while the historical novel contains elements that may not be verifiable. In fact, some of the story may be a total invention of the author. Richard Cavendish, a reviewer for History Today, commented that "When the authors know their stuff, historical novels can make as enticing and informative a path to history as proper history books, which are not after all invariably free of fiction." In the case of I, Claudius, the story is based on careful and extensive research on the part of Graves, but then he filled in the areas that historians would ordinarily leave blank or mark as questionable, unknown. Graves connects the known history with plausible assumptions and unique interpretations about the unknown motivations and behind-the-scene intrigues of the figures involved.

Graves took theories and suggestions from historians and wrote a story that plays out the possibilities. Daniel Aaron in an article for American Heritage, suggests that when a novelist, such as Gore Vidal writing Lincoln as a novel and not as a biography, "mixes disagreed-upon facts and agreed-upon facts, he is creating an extra but not necessarily nonhistorical compound." In other words, when Graves addressed the "what if" of history through fiction, he might have actually guessed the truth. After all, those who were recording events at the time they were occurring might have done so with bias or malicious intent. Is a record of history always a fact just because it is written down, or might there be more to the story? Might some important link have been left out for purposes of discretion or just lack of space? If so, might not a writer be able to reconnect the links through both research and imagination?

Graves was actually a poet who brought his literary sensitivities to his historical research as well as a gift for psychological analysis. With these attributes, he was able to discern relationships and an unfolding of events that an academic historian would not have reported. Graves was also aware of the social and political biases of Roman historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus that caused them to disregard any evidence of intelligence and savvy in Claudius. In an interview about I, Claudius, Graves explained that he felt that Roman historians:

... had obviously got Claudius wrong . . . I didn't think I was writing a novel. I was trying to find out the truth of Claudius. And there was some strange confluent feeling between Claudius and myself.... It's a question of reconstructing a personality.

Graves studied a number of documents that Claudius wrote in an effort to get to know the onetime emperor of Rome. Adding this knowledge to the realization that Claudius had cerebral palsy led Graves to conclude that "The whole scene is so solid, really, that you feel you knew him personally, if you're sympathetic with him. The poor man."

Thomas Fleming, himself a historical novelist, notes that "Sometimes it is a special insight into a historical character that triggers an imaginative explosion." Indeed, when Graves dared to venture into the mind of Claudius, he discovered that Claudius was perhaps not the deformed idiot that his family thought him to be, but a wily intellectual with enough survival instincts to play up his infirmities and thus put himself at a safe distance from the imperial intrigues. Then Graves was ingenious enough to construct the novel as if it were the autobiography of Claudius. What better proof of Claudius' abilities and insights? Who better to explain his deception and serve as a bird's-eye observer to important historical events than Claudius himself?

Fleming also advises that "fact can and should be woven into fiction so seamlessly [that] readers never stop to ask what is true in the literal sense and what is imaginative." Graves certainly accomplishes that feat, even though he uses language that is very British, which sometimes jars the reader out of the illusion that the novel is the autobiography of Claudius. When Tiberius calls for an omelet and a couple of beef-cutlets, one has to wonder if these items were ever really on the menu in ancient Rome. "It has been difficult at times to find suitable renderings for military, legal and other technical terms," Graves tells the reader in the "Author's Note." Nonetheless, his care in using correct terms in technical areas may or may not have carried over to other areas as well. In addition, the plan to hide the autobiography "in a lead casket and bury it deep in the ground," trusting the Sibyl's prophecy that it will be found in nineteen hundred years, is a contrivance of the author, as is the "confidential history" explanation. Therefore, the reader starts out knowing what game the author is playing with imagination and historical events. Nonetheless, as the novel progresses, everything seems so perfectly plausible that readers eventually forget the device of the novel. As Fleming adds, "All that should matter is the conviction that they are being taken inside events in a new revelatory, personal way." There is nothing more personal than an autobiography, and revelations abound as Claudius confides in the audience.

Graves also saw the members of the Roman imperial family during the life of Claudius in a different light from historians. Using the character of Claudius as an observer and astute, skeptical reporter, Graves is able to turn rumors—that historians are obligated to ignore—into the juiciest parts of the novel. Consequently, there are some differences between his characters, drawn from history, and the generally accepted description of these people found in the annals of history. In other words, Graves may have assigned guilt or credit to different parties than the ordinary history book would because he felt that he had discerned the truth that was kept out of the public record.

Although some critics feel that historical fiction is most successful when it precisely and consistently reproduces the attitudes and lifestyles of its time period, it seems to be the nature of historical novels that they include a note of satire on contemporary times. Graves indicated an interest in using his novels to convey a modern message, and there are some telltale signs of this practice in I, Claudius, written in 1934. Graves was one of the first in Britain to warn of the potential trouble with the growth of fascism in Europe, particularly Germany. His description of Germans in I, Claudius are quite revealing of an attitude:

If Germans ever become civilized it will then be time to judge whether they are cowards or not. They seem, however, to be an exceptionally nervous and quarrelsome people, and I cannot make up my mind whether there is any immediate chance of their becoming really civilized.

Some readers feel that I, Claudius was written to parallel the fall of the British empire, although the fall of the Roman empire came long after the life of Claudius. Since the novel concentrates on relationships within the ruling family, other readers might suspect that I, Claudius is a parody of the Mafia since there are coincidentally so many striking similarities in the operation of this "family business." For example, the remorseless Livia said that she "never contrived a murder" for her own benefit but only to remove those people who might stand in the way of the succession of her own sons and grandsons. This mentality is classic Mafia: knock off the competition to increase your own power and territory, but do not feel guilty because it is only business.

The historical novel can be a valuable educational tool because it teaches history in a format that readers find palatable and enjoyable. Readers start out reading a story and end up with new knowledge about a certain time period. Also, just as when movie-goers see "based on a true story" in the credits and dash home to look up the facts or check to see if there is a book on the subject, the historical novel has the potential to revive popular interest in the time period of the story (e.g., the renewed interest in the actual events connected to the Titanic after the blockbuster movie named after the ill-fated ship). Even more, Aaron, writing about what we can learn from a historical novel, speculated that "in reshaping popular conceptions of the past [historical fiction] might even revolutionize the study of history." An ethical historical novelist will not purport that his/her version of history is closer to the truth than what has been previously established, but will stimulate scholars into considering the "what ifs" and perhaps reexamining the records in a new light. Such is the accomplishment of Graves and I, Claudius in that his extensive research, combined with psychological analysis and compassionate sensitivity, results in previously unconsidered possibilities for the motivations, credit, and blame for some of Roman history's most famous people, and perhaps raises the reputation of "poor Claudius."

Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on I, Claudius, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.


Sources

Aaron, Daniel, "What Can You Learn from a Historical Novel?" in American Heritage, Vol. 43, No. 6, October 1992, pp. 55–56.

Blowen, Michael, "How the Movie Sells the Book," in Boston Globe, January 12, 1986, Sec. B, p. 1.

Buckman, Peter, and William Fifield, "The Art of Poetry XI: Robert Graves," in Conversations with Robert Graves, edited by Frank. L. Kersnowski, University of Mississippi Press, 1989, p. 100.

Burton, Philip, "The Values of a Classical Education: Satirical Elements in Robert Graves's Claudius Novels," in Review of English Studies, Vol. 46, No. 182, May 1995, pp. 191–218.

Cavendish, Richard, "Historical Novels," in History Today, Vol. 53, No. 5, May 2003, p. 88.

Fleming, Thomas, "How Real History Fits into the Historical Novel," in the Writer, Vol. 111, No. 3, March 1998, pp. 7, 11.

Graves, Richard Percival, "Book Four: Robert Graves and Laura Riding in Majorca, 1929–1936," in Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926–1940, Viking, 1990, pp. 125–244.

Hopkins, Chris, "Robert Graves and the Historical Novel in the 1930s," in New Perspectives on Robert Graves, edited by Patrick J. Quinn, Susquehanna University Press, 1999, pp. 128–35.

McCarthy, Mary, Review of I, Claudius, in The Nation & Atheneum, June 13, 1934, quoted in Snipes, Katherine, "Historical Novels: On Claudius" in Robert Graves, Ungar Publishing Company, 1979, p. 180.

Snipes, Katherine, "Historical Novels: On Claudius," in Robert Graves, Ungar Publishing Company, 1979, pp. 173–88.


Further Reading

Gibbon, Edward, and David Womersley, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, abridged ed., Penguin, 2001.

First completed in 1788, Gibbon's classic study of the Roman empire continues to be considered one of the major works on the subject. Womersley's abridgement keeps the major themes and style of the original.

Graves, Richard Percival, Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926–1940, Viking, 1990.

The second of a three-volume biography of Graves by his nephew, The Years with Laura covers the period in which I, Claudius was written.

Graves, Robert, Claudius the God: And His Wife Messalina, 1940, reprint, Vintage, 1989.

Picking up where I, Claudius left off, Claudius the God: And His Wife Messalina covers the 13-year reign of Claudius as emperor of Rome.

Seymour, Miranda, Robert Graves: Life on the Edge, Doubleday, 1995.

One of the most insightful biographies of Graves available, Seymour's work profited from the unprecedented cooperation she received from Graves's widow and son.

Seymour-Smith, Martin, Robert Graves: His Life and Work, rev. ed., Bloomsbury, 1995.

This 1995 edition, updated from its original 1983 edition on the occasion of the centennial of Grave's birth, is considered among the finest of Grave's biographies, even if it is also considered one of the most opinionated.