Most noticeable about Robert Graves’s I, Claudius is that Claudius barely shows up. Had he appeared any more than he does, he makes clear in his narration, he doubtless wouldn’t have survived to record his story. Or I should say ‘history.’ Tiberius, who ascended to the throne (covered in part two of Graves’s magnum opus, Claudius the God) in 41 A.D. was mocked incessantly for having a host of afflictions and impairments. He suffered a hobble caused by a stunted leg, drooling, shaking, indigestion, and perhaps worst of all a stammer that, if perchance anyone could look past his other weaknesses, would have sealed their opinion of him once and for all as a hopeless cripple. He turned this prejudice around, and in the guise of a witless invalid, went on to excel as a historian and a public servant, letting his work speak for itself, and without ever redressing the wrongs done against him. His greatest act of self-preservation was to be entirely selfless, without betraying any aspirations, he bypassed the treachery of the power hungry elite as they usurped one another without the Roman public ever being the wiser.
It’s fitting then that Claudius’s story is that of the Roman Empire, shaped by his dances with rulers who would’ve shown no qualms over dispatching him. Graves has Claudius fully marry his life to the times, showing the progression of power and explaining his family’s part in the transformation of the Republic into the Empire. He writes in a measured voice, commenting in passing on the decadence and intrigues of the capital with a wry detachment. It never ceases to astonish that he never runs out of scandal, with ruler after ruler having his vices magnified by the weight of his power. To each his own, and every new face comes bearing a new form of depravity.
It’s to Graves’s credit that he focuses as much on the recreations of these relationships as he does on the broad history that pulls the narrative forward. The merry-go-round of politicians becomes too routine after awhile, particularly after the death of Augustus, and Graves makes no pretense of creating suspense. Reversals of fortune, death, and the like are all treated as sarcastically as the various schemes and petty feuds, and the rote melodrama begins to so overshadow the larger history of the evolution of the Roman Empire that some sweeping exposition would at times be welcome. For the sheer number of power hungry politicos, the reader is deprived the inner thoughts and backgrounds of any but those closest to Claudius.
I, Claudius is running at full steam during the decline of Augustus, when the focus shifts to his wife, Livia, who by Graves’s account ruled Augustus as much as he ruled Rome. She is the only person that Claudius is unsure of at times. He knows about her meddling behind the throne, which becomes so excessive and so effective that anything suspicious, anything that results in death no matter how incidental, may be traced back to her. She is the only person Claudius regards with fear, as Graves finds a way to use his droll writing to fill Claudius’s words with dread.
Once Livia has passed on the pace becomes sluggish, as Claudius’s dull, moody uncle Tiberius takes power, behaving erratically for much longer than it is interesting. Compared to Livia’s majestic ruthlessness, he is reclusive, and for the sake of Graves’s audience, his eccentricities are left murky (from what I’ve read elsewhere his sexual proclivities are truly appalling, of the “wish I could unthink” category) and Graves begins to draw in the players to add a little mischief to the proceedings. Thankfully it’s a stampede finish after the lull, as Tiberius’s absurd death leads to the reign of Caligula, a total psychopath whose ravings and mad exploits arrive at such a fast pace that it could be said the short-lived emperor lived quite a full, batshit insane life.
Whatever amount of this history is rooted in myth, I, Claudius benefits from a full, vibrant melding of the imaginary, the implied, and the proven. It would be impossible to enjoy without having an avid enthusiasm for Roman history. Graves relies on names to paint a picture, and with only Claudius’s word to go by, no other perspectives are shared. As Claudius reveals at the introduction to his biography, it is a history, and it’s meant for long, long posterity like the histories of Greece he cherishes so much.