As part of the research for my fiction project telling the backstory of Philemon in the New Testament, I recently read I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Originally published in 1934, it is a gripping novel portraying the Roman ruling class from roughly the beginning of the common era to the assassination of Caligula and accession of the emperor Claudius in 41 CE. Although it is a novel, it hews closely to the actual history of the period, as far as I could tell. It has been claimed to be one of the best novels of the 20th Century.
The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, Claudius, who was an outcast of the ruling family as a child and young man because he was born lame and stuttered. In part as a result of his consequent isolation from most of his family, he befriended books and became a scholar and a historian. The novel is cleverly cast as a portion of his autobiography written for distant future generations (us!). As an admirer of the scholarly life, I found the descriptions of Claudius’s relationships with the Roman historians Livy (a mentor to Claudius) and Pollio to be especially clever and interesting.
The novel portrays the tumultuous and often deadly jockeying for power among Rome’s first family and those connected with them in ruling the empire. There are many, many characters in the book, most of whom are not developed to any significant degree. I found this multitude of characters laborious at first, when I was still trying to keep them all straight, but I found after a while that the best strategy was just to ride along with the story, remembering who I could and not worrying about the rest. The central characters are vivid and interesting, and the rollicking accounts of betrayal, murder, deception, manipulation, and bizarre sexual proclivities keep the story moving even if you’re sometimes not quite sure who is featuring.
Some parts of the novel had my heart pumping—such as the descriptions of the Colosseum’s gory entertainment and the mutiny on the empire’s German border. But, I eventually found myself surprisingly unperturbed by the serial injustice that is such a big part of the novel. Indeed, Graves’ portrayal of the litany of immoralities is downright comical in places. I’m not sure if this desensitization was the author’s intent, but it made me wonder if this might be part of what it felt like to live in that era: life was just more grisly for everyone, and you got used to it.
One highlight for me was the narrative describing Caligula’s reign toward the end of the book. As Graves describes him (and history corroborates), Caligula was a megalomaniacal nut-job. He made his favorite horse a Roman senator (seriously) and had him attend dinner parties. Caligula inserted himself into theater performances, foolishly dancing his favorite parts. He once officiated at a wedding and then immediately after had the groom executed, taking the bride for himself. He killed and robbed the wealthiest Romans to support his absurdly extravagant lifestyle. Caligula fancied himself as one of the Roman gods (typically, Jove) and apparently modeled his behavior after their crazy mythical example. Graves did a nice job of portraying Caligula’s childhood and the development of the sort of self-absorbed psychology that could inspire his acts as emperor.
So, if you are at all interested in Roman history, I highly recommend the book. It was a page-turner, and I found that it helped me with a lot of interesting cultural material for my own book. It is one of the best works of historical fiction that I’ve read.