Reviewed by David Maclaine
I, Claudius may be the most famous and highly-regarded novel on the ancient world aside, perhaps, from those written by Mary Renault. Its fame is due in large part to its brilliant adaptation for television by the BBC in the 1970s - film and television always outdraw novels, but they also draw attention back to the source - and the novel certainly deserves its reputation. It takes the form of an autobiography by Claudius, for over fifty years the stammering, limping odd-man-out in the family of Caesar Augustus. Unexpectedly raised to the purple, Claudius became one of the strangest of the Roman emperors who were not complete madmen. This first of two novels traces the life of Claudius only to the point where he became emperor - the sequel Claudius the God covers his reign - and it centers less on its narrator, doing his utmost during those decades to remain inconspicuous, than on the other members of his family who either ruled Rome or were in line to rule. Those characters include some of the most astonishing people in history, and Graves' pointed portrayal of them makes the novel a delight.
Most memorable is perhaps Claudius' nephew Gaius, better known by his nickname Caligula. Graves records that emperor's outrageous acts in some detail, while the legendary private orgies of his debauched uncle Tiberius earn only a passing mention. But the presiding evil genius of I, Claudius is the narrator's grandmother Livia, who ruthlessly culls her husband Augustus' direct heirs so that her own son, grandson and great-grandson can rule the empire. Although this conspiracy-theory take on history is full of juicy details, the number of family members who die in the course of its pages can slow down the reader who's trying to place them all. In my second time through, I found it a great help to refer to the family tree in Graves' translation of his primary source, Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars. (1934, 468 pages)More about I, Claudius at Powell's Books or Amazon.com