Book Review by JGolomb
As part of my "advance reading" for a trip to Rome this past summer, I read Robert Graves' I, Claudius. I found Roman history rather intimidating - it's so rich and varied, and the sources are so many, that it was hard to find the right place to jump in. And so I began with history "lite" - historical fiction. I started with Claudius to tap into this key period of Roman History - the early Empire and the first emperors. I sought history "lite", though there's nothing particularly light-weight about Graves' masterpiece.
Graves' seminal work, which is also well known from its British TV offering, is dense. It's not for those looking for nice light beach reading. I, Claudius is an exceedingly well-crafted history of the first four Emperors of the Roman Empire - roughly from 30 B.C. when Augustus rose to sole power, through Tiberius and Caligula, to 41 A.D. when Caligula is murdered, and Claudius is declared emperor.
Graves gives voice to his story by writing through a series of Claudius' own memoirs. The bulk of the book focuses on the empire's first two emperors - Augustus and Tiberius - and the rather strong-willed, smart, and devious Livia, Augustus' wife and Tiberius' mother. Much of the story's perspective is naturally biased however much Claudius (and Graves) posit alternative opinions on who murdered whom, by what method, and whether or not anyone really cared.
One must keep in mind how much of the story is "history" and how much is "fiction". I've dug into a good bit of Roman Empire non-fiction and have found many of the stories to be consistent with at least some of the ancient sources. Even in the non-fiction realm, there's plenty of room for debate over facts and details.
The book contains an inordinate amount of detail around historic names and relationships, but I realized about half-way through that this was a necessary evil considering the topic.
I, Claudius is beautifully written, and creatively conveys the nature of lives lived in near omnipotence, as well as fear and paranoia. Claudius comes across as erudite, insightful, rational and caring. His musings on palace intrigue run from humorous to serious to sad. I, Claudius is one of those rare epic tales that will drift into your consciousness well after you've finished. It's also one of those stories that will push you into wanting more. And fortunately there is more.
Grave's Claudius the God covers his reign and unfortunate taste in spouses (Messalina and Agrippina, who ultimately poisoned him). While not as strong as I, Claudius, it'll feed your need for Roman intrigue.
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