Graves, Robert, Historical Fiction

Review of I, Claudius by Robert Graves

What was it about?

Claudius, the future Roman Emperor, writes his autobiography for posterity. He consults the Sibyl who prophesies in verse the fall of the Roman Empire and describes the kind of men who will assume the throne before its fall. Because Claudius has a severe stutter his family considers him unfit for administration. Still, he is well-respected as a historian. Claudius describes the Julio-Claudian dynasty until his accession to the throne, emphasizing the influence of Augustus’ wife Livia on the fate of the empire. He insists that there are two kinds of Claudians – the good and the bad. But even the best Claudians are tyrants and self-professed gods. Inbreeding results in a highly complicated family tree; characters have similar-sounding or even the same names. Marriage is almost always a back-stabbing institution.  Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is not only an imaginative retelling of the history of the life and family of Emperor Claudius but a commentary on Ancient Roman historiography.

What did I think of it?

I actually read this book six months ago, but I never wrote a review for it. This is definitely the greatest work of historical fiction I’ve ever read. The writing is gorgeous, the characters are complex, and the story is exciting. I spent hours drawing a family tree to keep straight all of the characters (a family tree at the start of the book would have been nice), but I did not want to give up on the book. Graves does so much more than tell a good story. He makes insightful commentaries on the politics of language and Ancient Roman historiography (here is a sample passage). Historians today try to reproduce a historical event as accurately as possible, but this was not the goal of ancient and medieval historians. History was not only written by the victor but was deliberately distorted by him. In one scene, two historians fight over the purpose of writing and reading histories. Before reading the sequel, Claudius, the God, I will reread I, Claudius because I am sure that I have forgotten many details in the book. After finishing the books I will watch the award-winning 1976 mini-series. Even if you normally dislike historical fiction I suspect you will enjoy I, Claudius. It is incredible how much violence and deception can exist in one family!

Favorite Passage

“As you see, I have chosen to write in Greek, because Greek, I believe, will always remain the chief literary language of the world, and if Rome rots away as the Sibyl has indicated, will not her language rot away with her? Besides, Greek is Apollo’s own language.”

5 thoughts on “Review of I, Claudius by Robert Graves”

  1. The television adaptation is wonderful even if so,ermines the sets look rather staged. But I find the prospect of reading the book rather daunting because of all those names which I cannot keep straight. You’re right though about the body count and instances of treachery and devauchery.

    1. When I reread it I am going to remake the family tree and share it on my blog. It may help others. I tried to find one online for the Julio-Claudian line but it was way too huge. While the cast of characters in I, Claudius is huge it’s not THAT huge.

  2. I remember that in school I had a teacher who loved this book, and would constantly bring it up in Classics class. I think he made us watch the first episode of the miniseries, too. The comparison between the way that we write history today and the way that the Romans wrote it is very interesting. I wonder if the Romans weren’t, ironically, a little more honest by writing history that was so clearly biased and subjective; these days, despite developments in postmodern theory, we still tend to write history that fails to acknowledge the fact that history is a text, and therefore inevitably coloured by individual and social influences.

    1. Yes. History is still taught in textbooks as if it is objective, but I really like how post-modern theory looks at assumptions and motivations. I wish history textbooks would spend more time discussing the philosophies that underpin actions in a society.

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