I, Claudius is the fictionalized autobiography of Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius, also known as Clau-Clau-Claudius, Claudius the Idiot, Claudius the Stammerer, That Claudius, and Poor Uncle Claudius. Before he became Emperor, Claudius was a historian, and he records his family’s wild story in his autobiography. And what a cast of characters – there is the Emperor Augustus, second husband of Claudius’s grandmother, the Lady Livia (deliciously evil, cunning and manipulative – I wondered if Lady Macbeth could trace her history back to Livia!), Claudius’s parents – descendants of Marc Antony – and his siblings, his courageous and kindhearted brother Germanicus and his malicious sister Livilla. And there are a host of minor characters, each one perfectly drawn and amusing in his or her own way.
When the story begins, Livia has divorced her husband (Claudius’s grandfather) and married Augustus to help him rise to power. Claudius’s father is a General leading Roman troops against the German barbarians, a role that Germanicus later takes on. Livia schemes to remove all of Augustus’s potential heirs, by poison, intrigue or banishment, so that her own sons and grandsons will inherit the monarchy instead. One by one, she dispatches with them until only her own line remains, taking out several of Claudius’s few friends, including his cousin Postumus. Claudius himself manages to avoid the scourge not just because he is a member of Livia’s line, but because no one considers him a threat. Born lame and painfully shy, Claudius is relentlessly mocked and despised by his own family for his limp and his stammer. Only a few people – namely, Germanicus, Postumus and the tutor Athenodorus – have bothered to discover that Claudius is actually witty, intelligent and loyal. Even Claudius’s own mother can’t stand him, and his grandmother Livia refuses to allow him to eat at her table (probably for the best, because people who ate at Livia’s table didn’t always survive the night). That’s one dysfunctional family!
Precisely because Claudius is so despised, he manages to skate through three Imperial reigns – that of the bumbling Augustus, his paranoid uncle Tiberius, and his insane nephew Caligula. I, Claudius is the story of how Claudius manages to fly under the radar long enough to survive three very bloody regimes and ultimately become Emperor of Rome himself. The story was fantastic and the writing vivid and engaging. I could picture the ancient Roman streets and see the characters walking in their processions or attending gladiator competitions. Oh, and this book was funny. I laughed during so many scenes – for instance, the moment when Claudius described his brother Germanicus’s ambush of some German tribes, surprising them at their beer, and then goes on to define “beer” and explain that the Germans drink it to “extraordinary excess” was simply hilarious. The dry humor of the book definitely worked for me. Altogether, such a fun read and highly recommended.
I, Claudius, by Robert Graves (not an affiliate link)