Robert Graves presents I, Claudius as a personal autobiography written by Claudius himself. In addition to provide insight into Claudius’ character, the text allows the readers to view an inside perspective of the intrigues and plots that characterized the Roman Empire. Although the entertainment purposes of Graves’ novel as a fictitious work cannot be overstated, it is still questionable whether or not the text can also be viewed as historically accurate.
While writing the novel, Graves relied heavily on the histories of Tacitus and Suetonius. He also used historical documents overseen by the real Claudius and translations of some of Claudius’ letters in order to shape the historical context of the time period even more clearly. All in all, it is clear that Graves intended for I, Claudius to be an accurate portrayal of Claudius’ life, rather than merely a fictional account. Graves even claimed to have had a vision in which the real Claudius appeared in his dreams and begged Graves to tell the true story of his life. With that in mind, it seems likely that Graves had every intention of constructing a historically viable text.
As a result, many elements of the text are indeed historically accurate. In particular, Graves is always careful to use accurate facts when describing the Julio-Claudian family tree, the order of ascension to the position of emperor, and general dates and deaths. There are a few exceptions to Graves’ careful incorporation of fact; for example, although Graves describes Claudius as suffering from infantile paralysis, historical documents assert that Claudius actually suffered from cerebral palsy. Yet, in general, Graves can largely be relied upon for accuracy when it comes to the general details of the time period.
Graves’ writing only becomes historically inaccurate when it comes to the presentation of certain characters and their personal motivations. Depending on whether or not it supports his characterization of a certain historical figure, Graves is extremely selective about which historical information he chooses to highlight in the text and which facts he chooses to omit. For example, in the first part of the book, Graves presents Livia as the primary villain of the work. In order to achieve her political ambitions, Livia manipulates Augustus and is blamed for the deaths of numerous individuals, including Marcellus, Agrippa, Gaius, Lucius, Drusus, Medullina Camilla, Drusillus, Claudius’ grandfather, Augustus, and more. According to the majority of historical sources, Livia may not actually have been responsible for many of these deaths. In fact, the historical work of Tacitus is the only source to suggest that Livia might have been responsible for many of these murders. Because this source corresponds to Graves’ preferred characterization of the historical Livia, he chooses to overlook any questions of historical accuracy in her portrayal.
Similarly, Graves’ portrayal of Augustus relies on an idealized version of the character in which Augustus is a sort of benevolent buffoon, completely controlled by Livia. In actuality, some historical sources suggest that Augustus may have played a more substantial role in the deaths of those who might pose a political danger to his position. Some historical documents even argue that Augustus was equally cruel and vindictive toward potential enemies as Caligula and Tiberius. Yet, this more factual portrayal of Augustus does not correspond to the view that Graves prefers to present. In order for Livia to maintain her position as the primary villain in the first part of the novel, Augustus’ character must assume a more passive position in the grand scheme of Livia’s ambitions. As such, Graves chooses to omit factual information about Augustus’ involvement in these murders and blame everything on Livia.
In the sequel to I, Claudius, Graves’ selective use of historical fact in the construction of the characters in his novel also affects his presentation of Claudius. Throughout the novel, Claudius is shown in a sympathetic light: rational, ethical, and benevolent. Graves’ Claudius is tormented by his family and only survives to become emperor because everyone believes that he is too dimwitted to be a political threat. While some aspects of this may have been true in the historical context, many historical accounts claim that Claudius was not actually as submissive in his relationship with his family members.
Throughout I, Claudius, Graves struggles with the dichotomy between fact and fiction. Although he intends to make the novel as historically accurate as possible, he also cannot help but highlight certain historical facts over others in order to shape his characters in a particular way. Because the narrative is fictitious, Graves certainly has the prerogative to display Livia, Augustus, and Claudius in the manner that best suits his overall intentions for the work. However, because the text is also meant to be based on historical fact, Graves is caught between a rock and a hard place: expected to maintain fictional creativity in character presentation while simultaneously upholding the concept of historical truth. This contradiction is impossible to resolve, but Graves does his utmost to marry both fact and fiction in his text. Still, the overall point of I, Claudius is not to serve as a dry historical source but rather to provide a vivid glimpse into Claudius’ everyday life. As such, Graves’ unique combination of historical faction and fictional exaggeration ultimately serves its higher purpose: to peak the reader’s interest in an ancient world and transform Claudius and his family members into living people.