Coming from a long time fan of Ancient Rome, though quite under educated on the subject, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is everything a reader could want and more. Written in the form of a fictional autobiography, it’s quite clear that the English-born author, as shown by his famous translations of Ancient Greek and Latin text, has done his homework.
I, Claudius recounts the story of the fourth Emperor of Rome, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus (or simply Claudius). Born into royalty, but plagued with a stammer and a limp, young Claudius was outcasted by his family. Spending much of his time in the library studying, for Claudius was still expected to receive an education even if he wasn’t allowed to mingle with others, the rejected adolescent forms a friendship with a few Roman historians. Compelled by the truth in important past events, rather than questionable fabrications given by the Emperor, Claudius develops an interest in historical writing.
Meanwhile, when he’s not discovering alarming secrets about his family and country’s history, Claudius records present events as well. As he grows older, until he’s crowned Emperor of Rome in his late 60’s, the outcasted historian becomes an integral part in recoding the infamous, often insane, Roman royal family of his day.
Spanning from somewhere in the middle of Augustus reign as Emperor, through the messy rule of Tiberius, and finally the madness of Caligula, Graves’ novel is history without the headache. While written from the perspective of displaced Roman royalty, I, Claudius‘s true gift actually derives from the author’s English roots. With comical quips at his own deficiency as well as others, Grave’s cheeky humor is just as accurate as his history.
So is the Roman history of I, Claudius still hip in our modern world? Absolutely. Written in 1934, the novel presents, more than anything, the theme of uncontrolled liberty versus the abuse of power. Where one fails, the other succeeds and vice-versa. The examples that Graves’ uses for his thesis seem even more frightening and relevant than Orwell’s 1984.
Sadly, my copy of the novel did not include the supposedly stand-alone sequel, Claudius the God and his wife Messalina. Judging by how much I enjoyed it’s predecessor, a review is definitely forthcoming. In the end, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is full of accesible prose, witty dialogue, and a stranger than fiction story for anyone and everyone to enjoy.