Graves wrote the novel “I, Claudius” in 1934. The book is presented as a secret autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus (or Claudius) who was the Emperor of the Roman Empire from 44 to 51 AD. In order the maintain this concept, Graves writes his narrative in the first-person, complete with stylized expressions and historical vocabulary, as if Claudius were actually writing it. Although the technical focus of the plot is Claudius as the protagonist, Claudius’ constant observations of those around him in his “autobiography” mean that the novel also contains detailed information about almost all of the Caesars of the Julio-Claudian line, as well as their immediate families.
The subject matter of the novel is not particularly surprising considering Graves’ penchant for classical history and mythology. Before he joined the army to fight in World War I, Graves had intended to study Classics at Oxford University, and he has a strong background in the field from his earlier studies. Graves displayed an even more palpable interest in this area of study in later years, when he would translate and edit numerous classical works, including “The Greek Myths,” “The Hebrew Myths,” “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyàm,” and “The Golden Ass.”
Although Graves’ version of Claudius is technically fictitious, he relied greatly on historical facts and accounts when formulating the characters and events of the novel. The historical Claudius was known to suffer from several physical disabilities and, similar to the Claudius in the novel, was largely overlooked by the rest of his family until becoming emperor at the age of 49. The historical Claudius was also known to be an avid historian and even wrote his own autobiography in 8 volumes (which, unfortunately, is now lost). Graves also relied on historians such as Suetonius, Plutarch, and Tacitus for historical inspiration; he even claimed that the historical Claudius came to him in a dream after Graves had read Suetonius.
“I, Claudius” and the sequel, “Claudius the God,” were extremely well-received when they were first published and were awarded the James Tait Black Prize for fiction in 1936. The books have remained popular in today’s literary society, with the majority of contemporary praise for the books reinvigorated by the award-winning BBC mini-series in 1976 that combined both books into thirteen episodes and starred Derek Jacobi as the stammering Claudius. Ironically, Graves was not very pleased with the finished books or the attention that he received for them, and he maintained that he had only written them out of financial need.
The overall framework for the narrative in “I, Claudius” is a prophecy given by the Sybil at Cumae that Claudius relates at the beginning of the novel. According to the prophecy, Claudius is fated to become the penultimate Emperor of the Julio-Claudian line, or the sixth of the “hairy ones” (meaning “Caesar”). The prophecy also directs Claudius to write an autobiography of his life for the benefit of future generations; the Sybil informs that he will finally “speak clear” through his writing after nineteen hundred years have passed. Graves uses this fictitious prophecy to establish the motivation behind the writing of the autobiography and also to create a fatalistic tone that pervades Claudius’ perspective throughout the text.
Although the book is meant to portray Claudius’ own ideas and life experiences, it remains a fictionalized version of history. As such, there are some historical inaccuracies and omissions that serve to present Graves’ preferred version of Claudius’ life. Even Graves’ portrayal of Claudius as a sympathetic and benevolent character could ultimately be inaccurate from a historical standpoint. However, despite any historical inaccuracies, Graves' novel provides a unique perspective of this historical time that makes the past seem to come alive.