Saturday, June 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Well, that was a struggle. I finally got through my Back-to-the-Classics Challenge Historical Novel pick. You’d think that would be one that I would fly through and truly enjoy. Especially since this book has been on my shelf awhile (2014 TBR pile challenge!) and it’s been something I really expected to love once I got around to it. (And, of course, this counts toward the Historical Fiction challenge too.)

Written in 1934, I, Claudius by Robert Graves is considered a masterpiece of historical fiction and has won many awards. However, it’s probably best known nowadays because of the extraordinary BBC television series from 1976. I don’t think I ever watched the whole series from beginning to end. That was back in the day when you had to actually sit down and watch a show when it was on, or else catch the re-run. So I saw episodes out of order at various times when the series was being re-run. Despite never knowing exactly what was going on, it was always riveting. I still intend to watch the whole thing in order someday. But the book has been on my TBR pile for a long time, because, of course, I expected the book to be even better.

My verdict is: I think I prefer the T.V. miniseries.

I, Claudius is the fictional autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, who, in 41 A.D. became the fourth emperor of Rome. Claudius never wanted to be emperor. He would have preferred that Rome return to the days of the Republic, according to this novel. His own preference was to be a historian. And this novel purports to tell the truth about the early days of the empire.

The empire was a hot mess.

The power behind the throne was Livia. (The same woman from Phyllis Smith’s wonderful novel, I am Livia.) Being a woman, she couldn’t rule in her own right, so she had to manipulate the men in her life, first Augustus and then her son, Tiberius. In order to ensure that her son (who was not Augustus’s son) would be named emperor, Livia poisoned every male relative that might possibly be a rival. Claudius escaped only because he had a birth defect that left him with a limp. He also stammered and twitched when nervous. Because everyone thought him stupid, no one thought him dangerous and he was able, more or less, to stay out of harm’s way.

Claudius relates how the "good" people in the family were all eliminated and the "bad" members thrived–until they, too, were eliminated, usually by the next worse person. This goes on down the line until we get to Caligula, who was literally insane. The amazing thing is that he ruled as long as he did before men brave enough to assassinate him did the deed.

Claudius (Claudius’s voice, given to us by Robert Graves) is a meticulous historian. He is also writing this history a bit as a memoir and given to rambling and digression. So interspersed with entertaining anecdotes and interesting bits of history that move the plot forward are some historical infodumps and other asides that made me feel like the book was never going to end. I usually have much more patience for historical fiction that really delves into the history. And it isn’t a problem with the complexity of Roman history. (I loved Colleen McCullough’s Roman series.) But I think there was just something dry about the delivery of this material. Claudius related everything in a tell-don’t-show fashion. I could admire the characters he told me I should admire. I could be appalled when he told me to be appalled. I could appreciate the subtle humor where he injected it. But I never independently felt anything for the characters. They never came alive for me. It was just one awful tyrant after another doing something horrible.

In all honesty, if it hadn’t been for the challenges for the blog, I might have given up on it halfway through, bogged down somewhere in the German wars. So, I’m glad for the challenges, because I would have felt bad giving up on this one.


  1. This is on my TBR pile challenge list as well -- I've been putting it off for a bit. Many people seem to love it, so I'll give it a shot. I've made it halfway through my list so far, including "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair, which was a slog in parts.

    Thanks for linking your review for the Back to the Classics Challenge!

  2. I just finished I, Claudius -- I completely agree with you on so many points! Hot mess! Info dumps! Showing, not telling!! Plus, I couldn't keep some of the characters straight, which isn't surprising since everyone kept getting divorced and remarried and so on. I think the only character I really liked was Claudius' courtesan who kept telling it like it really was and squirreling cash away for him. I forgot her name already. And Germanicus seemed like a good guy. It took me awhile to read this since there was so much information packed into it. Overall, I rather liked it, but I don't feel compelled to rush out and read the sequel, though I've requested the miniseries from the library, since I've never seen it.

  3. I think for its time it was an achievement to put voice to this cast of ancient tyrants, but I too found it impersonal, repetitive, and dry. The most fun I had was diagramming the complex royal family tree.