By Robert Graves
- Date finished: May 9, 2014 (there abouts)
- Genre: Fiction
- Year: 1934
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25, Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, Newsweek’s Top 100 Books, Spring 2014
- Grade: A
- Thoughts upon reading:
Following on the heels of A Clash of Kings was going to be a difficult move for I, Claudius, but you know, I’m happy to say Robert Graves delivered – and he delivered well. I, Claudius tells the story of the Roman emperor Claudius from his childhood right up until he is made emperor of Rome, giving readers a novel and engaging look into the Roman empire, its ruling families, and all the crazy shit that went down behind those castle walls. Written from the perspective of Claudius himself (as an autobiography), the story of his rise is both fascinating and compelling; Graves manages to take the real history of ancient Rome and turn it into something that is neither dry nor boring, but instead oddly addicting. Reading I, Claudius is like watching a reality show based on ancient Rome – it’s entertaining, and yet you still feel like you’re learning something.
I didn’t know much about ancient Rome and its emperors besides the well-known names (Nero, Caligula, Augustus, etc.), and so reading this book taught me a lot (and sent me to browse Wikipedia at length after finishing to learn more). For example: it’s no wonder Rome “fell” when its ruling class was a bunch of crazy mother f*ckers, always poisoning each other and whatnot. Let’s not even talk about Caligula, who slept with his sisters, thought he was a god, yet wet his pants at the idea of fighting. Or, how about evil grandma Livia, who basically killed all her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and maybe even her husband.
I love how Claudius essentially survives his murderous family because everyone thinks he’s simple and mentally enfeeble, when in reality, he was probably the smartest of them all. I think it’s interesting that Graves tackles the subject of Claudius and (in the sequel) his reign as emperor. At some point in history, historians formed the opinion that Claudius was a weak, bloodthirsty ruler who let his associates influence him too strongly. And yet, in I, Claudius, we meet a quiet, simple man – a historian and writer at heart – who lacks the ambitions of his family and has no desire to rule. Throughout his life, he seeks to know the truth, treats people (including his servants) kindly and decently, and is loyal to the better members of his family (as he says, there are good Claudians, and bad Claudians, and he knows which is which). I haven’t read the second book about his reign, and yet despite his unpopularity among historians and the fact that he was eventually assassinated, he was known as a ruler intensely interested in the justice process and other infrastructure projects that helped all of Rome. All in all, you realize that Claudius wasn’t such a bad guy. In fact, it makes you think: what other “bad guys” in history, then, were just misunderstood?
Of course, you know that Graves had to take some artistic liberty with I, Claudius, and yet the history is pretty spot on. The best part of the book, though, is really how entertaining it all is. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about the book, but I ended up loving it in the end.