I,Claudius is an historical novel set in ancient Rome, written in the style of the memoirs of to-be emperor Claudius. Graves decided to write I,Claudius after the overlooked emperor allegedly came to him in a dream, imploring him to write an account of the ‘real’ Claudius. The novel covers the period from the rule of Augustus to the death of ‘mad’ Caligula and the subsequent accession of Claudius to the role of emperor; Graves’ sequel, Claudius the God, covers the reign of Claudius.
Graves brings ancient Rome alive. Through the eyes of poor old belittled and stammering “Clau - Clau - Claudius” we are made privy to the many debaucheries and scandals of the ancient Roman Imperial household. Moreover, Graves’ account is largely accurate - or at least adheres very much to the images promoted by the ancient source material - with falsities usually being gross exaggerations for the purposes of entertainment rather than pure fabrication.
Graves was classically educated and he really knew his stuff; the novel reads a lot like an history textbook, only much more exciting. Graves is very much concerned with giving a fairly detailed historical overview of the Julio-Claudian period, making I,Claudius a great place to start if you have an interest in Roman history.
Our narrator, Claudius, is typically remembered as a stammering, lame fool but he has a wonderful and very entertaining narrative voice that makes this historical novel anything but bland. Despite the largely negative memory Claudius has, Graves manages to write a sympathetic Claudius; he is clever, sensible and likeable. The other characters however are for the most part very unlikeable; Graves uses ancient sources extensively, so they tend to stick to the image the ancient authors have written. Augustus is under the thumb of his scheming and vile wife Livia - who is presented as having the true control of Rome - and Caligula is as mad as a hatter, who believes he has been reborn as a god and is famously known for appointing his horse as consul.
I, Claudius is definitely worth a read, but I’d say it’s essential if you have even a slight interest in Roman history. It is a little bit slow and heavy in some parts, but it is beautifully written, funny, educational, highly original and clever, with a host of horrible characters you just love to hate, and some amusing anecdotes from ancient authors. All aspects of which combine to make I,Claudius accessible and entertaining for the average reader as well as the history buffs, and a novel that I would recommend to almost anyone.