First Sentence: I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus this-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles), who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as 'Claudius the Idiot', or 'That Claudius', or 'Claudius the Stammerer', or 'Clau-Clau-Claudius', or at best as 'Poor Uncle Claudius', am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the 'golden predicament' from which I have never since become disentangled.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)
I, Claudius is possibly the only book on The List that's included solely because it's fun. I have no idea how it made its way up so high otherwise.
It's got a subtitle which tells you all you need to know: From the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, born 10 B.C., murdered and deified A.D. 54. Well, that's not all you need to know. This is the story of how the Roman Emperor Claudius became Emperor, despite various physical and speech infirmities and more importantly despite being surrounded by a conniving and murderous Imperial "family."
I won't get into the particulars of this because I can't remember them and they aren't important. There are like a hundred named characters in this novel, many of whom have five or six names which are duplicated among each other. It's very hard to keep track of who is who else's grandfather, uncle, adopted son, etc., plus they're all divorcing and remarrying so good luck figuring out whose kids belong to who. Either this is the point or it's beside the point, but here are the stars of this show: Augustus, Livia, and Caligula, names which anyone with a passing acquaintance with classical Rome will instantly recognize.
Augustus was the successor of Julius Caesar, Livia was his wife, Caligula was the crazy young emperor who followed Tiberius (who of course appears in this novel as well).
I'm rambling a bit because that's the style of the book—it's a first person "memoir" by Claudius, written "in Greek" for the sake of being more chatty, or rather in Claudius' words:
[...] I have chosen to write in Greek, because Greek, I believe, will always remain the chief literary language of the world, and if Rome rots away as the Sibyl has indicated, will not her language rot away with her? Besides, Greek is Apollo's own language.(You'll perhaps note that Claudius isn't quite agreeing with me there that it's about chattiness, but it comes through quite clearly when reading the book.)
Claudius is a gregarious, likeable narrator, not always willing to reveal just how active a role he's taking in the events he relates. He's barely the protagonist, considering that a lot of the action takes place before his birth and/or not in his presence. The other characters are well-developed, too, with Livia really stealing the show at some points.
I'd never read any Robert Graves before but I'd like to read more after this. I'm not sure how much of him is in the character of Claudius but I'd be glad to encounter that narrative voice again if I can. (There is actually a sequel to this book, called Claudius the God, which for whatever reason seems to have faded away in the mists of time. It's not available at my local public library or university library, which I find astonishing considering the fame of the original. Possibly some day I'll track it down.)
Still, there doesn't seem to be much of a point to this besides entertainment, which it finally dawned on me is the point. Chapter IX of the novel comes about 100 pages in and concerns a meeting between Claudius as a very young man and the historians Gaius Asinius Pollio and Titus Livius, aka Livy. The two older men have a bit of an argument about writing history: should it aim to report the facts and just the facts, or should it be livened up with speeches and characters and themes? Or is there room for both of these things? I certainly think so—it's easy to forget that those ancient names were human once, without having books like I, Claudius to remind you of the fact. I think Graves must've agreed with me, or he wouldn't've written this book as he did. It's obviously extremely well-researched, so that the facts and the fiction and the myth blend seamlessly together.
So, while this book didn't exactly move me in any particular way, I do think it's a really entertaining historical novel. You may like it, too.