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I, Claudius : Classic Books

Updated on December 20, 2014
Derek Jacobi is a magnificent Claudius
Derek Jacobi is a magnificent Claudius | Source

Claudius, the Classic Historical Fiction Novels

The Claudius Novels are superb, timeless classics, and if you haven't read them yet, you've missed one of the great works of the 20th century.

These two novels by Robert Graves on the Roman Emperor Claudius make up what has to be the greatest fictional biography ever written.

Graves moves effortlessly through the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and what was formerly an almost impossible maze of plots, counter plots, assassinations, power grabs, the complexities of the Roman political system and a cast of thousands is rendered into a gripping and readable story. And I mean gripping

Caligula questions Claudius

Caligula looked at me, uncomfortably, through narrowed eyelids.

Do you think I'm mad? he asked, after a time.

I laughed nervously. Mad, Caesar? You ask whether I think you mad? Why, you set the standard of sanity for the whole habitable world.

It's a very difficult thing, you know, Claudius, he said confidentially, to be a God in human disguise...

Claudius, his autobiographical memoir

The Claudius books are written as an autobiographical memoir by Roman Emperor Claudius.

In the midst of palace intrigues and murders, his informal narration serves to emphasise the banality of the imperial family's endless greed and lust.

Claudius, the stuttering, dribbling, reluctant contender for Caesar is in reality a man of sharp wit and high intelligence. His infirmity of mild spasticity conceals his razor intellect and deep understanding of psychological motivations. You can't help but like Claudius.

Nor can you fail to be moved by the politics, treachery and instability of men who believed themselves more than merely mortal. As for the women, there is no comparable novel anywhere which can bring to life the dazzling dauntless women of Rome.

The story concludes with Claudius ascending to the imperial throne.

I, Claudius

Physically weak, afflicted with stammering, and inclined to drool, Claudius is an embarrassment to his family and is shunted to the background of imperial affairs.

The benefits of his seeming ineffectuality are twofold: he becomes a scholar and historian, and he is spared the worst cruelties inflicted on the imperial family by its own members during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula.

The opening page of I, Claudius

I 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 Stammere", 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

Continuing the story ..

Continuing the story of I, Claudius, the unpretentious man who is suddenly catapulted to Emperor, we find a lot here on the personal characteristics which enable great leaders to rule, and also to fall.

Claudius is hugely popular when he first becomes Emperor, refusing many of the numerous titles claimed by his predecessors because he believes he has not yet earned them, but we soon enough see that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

As the likable Claudius records his memoirs we develop great sympathy for a man who began his reign with pure motives and a good heart but who was ultimately powerless to control his own destiny and that of Rome.

The two novels by Robert Graves on Claudius make up what has to be the greatest fictional biography ever written.

"Two years have gone by since I finished writing the long story of how I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, the cripple, the stammerer, the fool of the family, whom none of his ambitious and bloody-minded relatives considered worth the trouble of executing, poisoning, forcing to suicide, banishing to a desert island or starving to death - which was how they one by one got rid of each other - how I survived them all, even my insane nephew Gaius Caligula, and was one day unexpectedly acclaimed Emperor by the corporals and sergeants of the Palace Guard."

Claudius the God

Having spent his entire life trying to avoid any political office, mostly by letting his family think he's a hopeless idiot, Claudius finds himself catapulted to the throne at the age of fifty-one when his nephew, the mad Emperor Caligula, is assassinated.

Claudius doesn't want to be Emperor, He is a staunch believer in restoring the Roman Republic but eventually he is forced to accept the job.

Thus begins the ill-fated rule of one of the most interesting, and one of the very best, Emperors of Rome.

John Hurt as Caligula - A Magnificent Scene from the BBC series

Modern Classics Claudius the God (Modern Classics (Penguin))
Modern Classics Claudius the God (Modern Classics (Penguin))

Continuing the story of Claudius which ended with his unexpected acclamation as Emperor of Rome, this book focuses less on the history and more on the personal characteristics which enable great leaders to rule--and to fall.

Claudius is hugely popular when he first becomes Emperor, refusing many of the numerous titles claimed by his predecessors because he believes he has not yet earned them.

An unpretentious man who respects the people, Claudius hopes to improve their miserable lives and, one day, to bring about a genuine republic--at least at first.

But 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely', no matter the age we live in..... As Claudius himself says, "Monarchy turns our wits".


Who was Claudius?

Claudius was born in 10 BCE in what is now Lyon, France, into the powerful ruling family of Rome.

Suffering from ill-health and an alarming lack of social skills, believed to be intellectually handicapped, cursed with a bad stutter, he was considered an embarrassment and endured public disrespect and scorn.

When the truly awful Emperor Caligula was assassinated in January 41, Claudius fled to one of the apartments of the palace and hid behind the curtains. He was discovered by the Praetorians (the elite military corps and palace guards) and hailed as the new Emperor.

Claudius was an exceptional ruler

He abolished the treason trials, burned criminal records, destroyed Caligula's infamous stock of poisons and returned many confiscations. He took the army to Britain, and settled them there and, almost as an afterthought, annexed two Thracian kingdoms.

Claudius overhauled the financial affairs of the state and empire, offered insurances against losses of grain ships on the open sea and built up stocks against winter times of famine. He set up extensive public building projects and instituted judicial reforms, particularly legal safeguards for the weak and defenceless.

Overall he served the people of Rome well for thirteen years.

I, Claudius - boxed set of the acclaimed BBC series - Including "The Epic that Never Was"

The story of Claudius was broadcast by the BBC, and admirable series and very true to the books. Among other awards, it won three BAFTAs in 1977 (Derek Jacobi, Best Actor, Sian Phillips, Best Actress, Tim Harvey, Best Design).

The series was subsequently broadcast in the United States as part of the PBS Masterpiece Theatre series, where it received critical acclaim. Tim Harvey won a 1978 Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction.

In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, I, Claudius was placed 12th.

© 2009 Susanna Duffy

Srcatch on a Scroll to Claudius - Comments are always appreciated

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      sybil watson 3 years ago

      I absolutely love the books and the BBC series. I learned so much from both. It truly is amazing that Claudius was as successful as he was considering his challenges.

    • Meganhere profile image

      Meganhere 4 years ago

      One of my favourite tv series. Derek Jacobi was brilliant as Claudius but John Hurt as Caligula. Superb. Loved the books too.

    • Monika Weise profile image

      Monika Weise 4 years ago from Indianapolis, IN USA

      I loved the TV series. I'm off to my library's website to request the book!

    • melissiaoliver profile image

      melissiaoliver 6 years ago

      I adore the TV series but am ashamed to say that I have never read the books. Must do that at some point!

    • profile image

      Karen1960 6 years ago

      I watched the TV series first, then read both the books, and was happily surprised at how faithful to the text the TV adapation had been. I guess someone realised it wasn't possible to improve on what Graves had written!

    • jeffersonline profile image

      jeffersonline 6 years ago

      Thanks for putting this great lens together for us all. I've lived by the maxim 'if you come across anything by Robert Graves in a bookshop, just buy it!'

      I found RG through his autobiography of the First World War, 'Goodbye To All That', and progressed right through to the Greek Myths. Exceptional stuff.

    • natashaely profile image

      natashaely 6 years ago

      Fantastic books and an excellently written page. I remember watching the series and thinking it was good then going back and reading the novels and remembering how clever they were and enthralling! Added into my library! :)

    • profile image

      reasonablerobby 6 years ago

      I l..l..l..l..loved I C..C..Claudius played by Derek Jacobi. The story is both gripping and terrifying.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 6 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      I remember being enthralled by the BBC Series I, Claudius. Now I want to read the books! Blessed by an angel on the Memorial Day bus trip.

    • Lemming13 profile image

      Lemming13 7 years ago

      I read both Graves' Claudius novels at high school, thanks to a wonderful English teacher who encouraged me to explore literature and didn't think incest, murder and depravity were topics for a 12 year old to avoid, bless her! Magnificent work. I have the box set on dvd, having replaced my video set which in turn had replaced the audio tapes I recorded from the tv, so you're preaching to the converted here, but it's wonderful to have such an informative lens bringing it to others.

    • andrasnm lm profile image

      andrasnm lm 8 years ago

      I enjoyed your lens very much. Robert Graves is my favorite author, and I have studied Roman history as a hobby since childhood.

    • pkmcruk profile image

      pkmcr 8 years ago from Cheshire UK

      An excellent lens about a great book - in fact one of my all time favourite books! We have the whole mini-series on video from many years ago and I still enjoy watching it!

      Well done!

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 8 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      I remember my father talking about this series, and I think he read the books. He just loved history, fictional or real.

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      anonymous 9 years ago

      Time to read I, Cladius. Thanks for the wonderful lens. 5*

    • LouiseKirkpatrick profile image

      LouiseKirkpatrick 9 years ago from Berkshire, United Kingdom

      I remember watching the BBC series "I Claudius" on TV and enjoying it so much that years later, I rented the whole series on video and watched every episode back to back - it took up pretty much an entire weekend, but the story and the acting is truly superb :)