Review: I, Claudius by Robert Graves

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  I've not really reviewed historical fiction here before, but this week I'd like to break the trend by reviewing I Claudius, By Robert Graves

Written in the 1934 ‘I,Claudius’ is the story of the Julio-Claudian royal family of ancient Rome as told by the stuttering ‘half-witted’ Claudius, the uncle of the infamous Caligula and, eventually, reluctant emperor of Rome. A man who is far more resilient than he seems.

If you’re a history fan like me then ‘I,Claudius’ is a great way to learn about the complicated family tree and assassinations of the emperors and their heirs. While of course, even if well researched, you can’t rely on the historical accuracy of it, it does bring a real emotional reality to what often can be a stale list of names and political manoeuvres and murders that one finds in history books or on Wikipedia.

However, as a work of fiction in of itself, the long time period - spanning past emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and finally Claudius - sometimes has a detrimental effect on the narrative. 


Often we are marched from event to event, anecdote to anecdote, when sometimes we want instead to dwell more on particular scenes and characters and the emotions and relationships behind them. But the narrator Claudius is a historian, and Graves keeps true to this voice, but for me it left me a little lacking at times when the gems of stories and relationships that Claudius tempts the reader with are often wrapped up quite quickly. 

For example, I was interested by the relationship of Germanicus and Agrippina and the excitements and difficulties of their lives on campaign after being tempted by stories of how the heavily pregnant Agrippina and Germanicus dealt with mutinies. I was intrigued to learn more of Tiberius’ debauchery and his relationship with Caligula. And charismatic minor characters, while given short scenes to shine, were often passed by quickly in the marching narrative through the decades. This, of course, is necessary in order to keep the book short and compact, but I did yearn for more. This, naturally, is the sign of a good creative mind in developing these hooks, but I was nevertheless left a little frustrated at times.

All this is not to say that ‘I,Claudius’ is bland, of course! It has some wonderful characters and these situations and scenes, while often short, are entertaining.

I,Claudius’ has perhaps the best villianess I have come across in a long time: Livia Augusta. This Machiavellian wife of Augustus is charismatic in her self reliance, wickedness and in her skill as working as the prime-mover in the plot through her aims to manipulate the running of Rome. Historical characters are truly brought to life, and some of the horrible deeds that are so easily glossed over by the scholastic resistance to emotion are utterly brought into engaging emotional reality.

All in all, while not the most gripping of page turners (I am, in the end, a tricky customer for this as I am quite partial to break-neck paced thrillers) it has it’s thrilling moments and overall for a history fan ‘I,Claudius’ is an interesting read. In the end, despite the inevitable accusations of inaccuracy in any historical fiction, I,Claudius certainly feels authentic at its core.

I feel that I will enjoy the DVD box set more as it is far more visual and paced differently. And, after all, who cannot be charmed by the cast list? Derek Jacobi is Claudius, Brian Blessed (sans beard) is Augustus, John Hurt is Caligula and Patrick Stewart (with hair!) is looking somewhat tasty as Sejanus. (Don’t judge).

And, to top it all off, you can watch the entire series on youtube.

Here’s episode 1

And here’s the rest


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