January 28, 2016

I, Claudius

by Robert Graves

My love for historical fiction coupled with my fascination with anything to do with the Roman empire (high school European history, yeah) led me to this awesome read: I, Claudius. Based on recent research, this novel is almost always included in best historical fiction lists, and it’s not hard to understand why. It is now one of my favorite historical fiction reads, ever.

The book is written as an autobiographical account of Tiberius Cladius Drusus Nero Germanicus, or just Claudius. He was also known as “Claudius the Idiot,” “That Claudius,” “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius,” descended from the great Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar after him.

To be honest, I don’t know much about Claudius. Perhaps there’s abundant material in history books about him, and I only haven’t had the chance to look. My high school European history was relatively limited to the conquests and travails of the more popular Julius Caesar, and Roman history in general. So reading this book raised a lot of questions on accuracy and truthfulness as to events, people, and places, which I found, strangely enough, very appealing.

Apart from Claudius, the other characters and the things that went on in their heads were so captivating that I found it hard to stop reading at times. I especially found Livia, Augustus’s wife and Claudius’s stepmother, and her evil ways to be particularly engrossing. She was depicted as the epitome of evil, and she propagated intrigue and weaved lies and deception left and right, it was hard to keep up with her! And who knows if they were all true, or which ones were made up? It was amazing how Robert Graves put all these things into Livia’s – and all the other characters’ – heads to make the reader wonder how much of it is true and how much of it are built on fiction.

The most ingenious thing about the fictionalized world of Claudius and the Rome of his time created by Graves is that for every good or evil act done by every character, there is a corresponding plausible explanation or reason that is well-anchored in history. Sort of like filling in blanks and spaces left open by the history books. You wonder if this incestuous union has basis in history, or if that particular trial and murder took place for the reason stated. For the meticulous reader, perhaps an inquiry is indispensable, but it will take time. Perhaps for the heck of it, I would embark on my own research but why should I take on the herculean task of separating every single historical detail or fact from the fiction? The pleasure is in the marriage of the history and the fiction, the real and the imagined, and for that, I love this book.

Rating: ★★★★★
Book Details: Trade paperback, brand new from The Book Depository
Read in September 2015

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