The novel opens with the adult Claudius introducing himself to the readers. He outlines the time period from the book, describing it as a factual account of his life from his earliest memories in A.D. 41 to his entanglement in the “golden predicament” at age fifty-one. As a historian, Claudius intends for his account to transcend the political intrigues of his day and allow future generations to understand the truth of what actually happened to the Julio-Claudian line. If there is any doubt as to his suitability for the task, Claudius assures the reader that he is an experienced historian who is writing the memoirs in a strictly confidential manner. Claudius also explains his decision to write this text as a fulfillment of a prophecy given to him by the Sibyl at Cumae. The Sibyl informed him that he would eventually become Emperor of Rome and, more importantly, promised him that he would “speak clear” in nineteen hundred years. Claudius takes the latter part of the prophecy as a sign that he is meant to write an autobiography; only through his writing will he finally be free of the stammer that plagues him in his life.
In Chapter 2, Claudius begins to describe his family tree, explaining that the Claudian line has always produced two kinds of fruit: good apples and crab apples. One of the worst crab apple of the Claudians is Claudius’ grandmother, Livia, a woman whose intrigues and plots will dominate the first half of Claudius’ autobiography. At first, Livia is married to Claudius’ grandfather, a man who Claudius describes as one of the best of the Claudians. Extremely manipulative and ambitious, Livia attempts to convince Claudius’ grandfather to seize power and become king, but he refuses to listen to her anti-republican sentiments. Unable to manipulate her legal husband, Livia decides to take matters into her own hands and find a husband who she would be able to control. Livia selects the up-and-coming Augustus as the ideal man for her plots and, by claiming she is pregnant by him, forces Claudius’ grandfather to divorce her.
Livia is actually pregnant by Claudius’ grandfather, but she lies in order to force his hand and allow her to marry Augustus. When the child, Claudius’s father, is born, he is sent to the household of his natural father to be raised with his brother, Tiberius. After Livia discovers that her former husband is teaching the boys about his republican beliefs, Claudius’ grandfather dies suddenly while dining with friends. This is only the first of many murders that Claudius will eventually tie to Livia.
Livia is able to rule Augustus just as she had wanted, using subtle suggestions and her iron-clad will to shape him into a king. Through her guidance, Augustus begins as Consul of Rome, then gains power of the provinces and the armies, then gains control of the Senators and Knights and the Public Treasury, and finally assumes the role of High Pontiff, which allows him complete control of the entire religious system. Before long, Augustus is king in everything but name, and even has religious shrines built in his honor.
Livia’s ability to manipulate her new husband is exacerbated by his apparent inability to consummate their marriage; Livia is able to use his guilt to her own advantage and perpetually remind him of his failure as a husband by sending him beautiful slave girls to take her place in his bedroom.
Once Augustus has achieved almost supreme power, Livia begins to manipulate his search for an heir to follow in his footsteps and continue the Claudian line. Augustus’ favored heir is Marcellus, the husband of his daughter Julia and the son of Octavia, Livia’s arch-rival. Livia’s jealousy of both Julia and Octavia make her determined to make Augustus favor Agrippa, Augustus’ oldest friend and an experienced soldier. Livia pits Marcellus and Agrippa against each other and, by secretly poisoning Augustus to make him ill enough to fear death, pressures him into naming Agrippa as his primary heir. Agrippa is unwilling to be placed in the middle of conflict over Augustus’ position, and he leaves for a self-imposed exile in Syria.
Although he has not been named heir, Marcellus continues to excel in the political spectrum and his mother continues to irritate Livia. Shortly after his election to a City magistracy, Marcellus mysteriously falls ill and dies, a death which Claudius will again tie directly to Livia. With Marcellus’ death, Livia intends for Julia to marry her son Tiberius, thus add additional weight to his claim to the throne. Unfortunately, Augustus decides to promise Julia to Agrippa instead, using his daughter as a tempting bribe in order to make Agrippa return from Syria. Livia is extremely displeased with Augustus’ decision but is unable to do anything because Agrippa is so crucial to the political framework of Rome. When his presence is no longer necessary in Rome, Livia arranges for Agrippa’s death and marries the now twice-widowed Julia to Tiberius, a man who Claudius admits was also one of the worst of the Claudians.
In the meantime, Claudius’ father (notably described as one of the best of the Claudians) has become a successful soldier and military strategist and has married Antonia, Claudius’ mother. Although Claudius’ grandfather died early in his life, Claudius’ father still believes in his teachings about republicanism and disagrees with the way that the government is being run by Augustus and Livia. While stationed at a camp in Germany, Claudius’ father writes a letter to Tiberius in which he outlines all of the flaws behind the current system of government and voices his negative opinions about Livia. The letter is intercepted by Livia who, completely outraged by the insulting letter, sends her personal physician to the camp to “treat” her son. Tiberius follows soon afterward but only arrives in time to see his brother die.
Livia is clearly the driving force behind Augustus’ political successes. Although Augustus seems to be well-meaning and a political giant, it is only Livia’s shrewd decisions and ambitious strategizing that allows him to ascend to such a high position. As Claudius asserts, Augustus’ work filled fourteen hours each day, but Livia’s work filled twenty-four hours each day.
These early chapters also foreshadow the extent to which Livia is willing to kill in order to ensure the succession of her family line. On her deathbed, Livia will eventually confess to Claudius all of murders that she arranged and performed herself, and the deaths of Claudius’ grandfather, Marcellus, and Agrippa only number as a few in a long list.
Although Livia is certainly not a likable character, Claudius clearly admires her strength and ingenuity. The majority of the other women in the text are remarkably passive. For example, Julia may be Augustus’ daughter, but she still has no control over her life and is forced to marry three different men because of political suitability. Similarly, Octavia is the wife of Mark Antony and widely lauded for her beauty, sincerity, and modesty. Yet, she still has no power and is ultimately oppressed by Livia, a woman who lacks any benevolent qualities.
Despite her evil nature, Livia must be respected for her strength of character and sheer audacity during a time period when women were given little respect or power as a gender. Eventually her plotting gets the best of her, but Claudius still presents Livia as the ultimate creator of the Claudian line.
These early chapters also set up the conflict between empire and republic that permeates much of the later text. Robert Graves’ clearly presents Claudius as a heart-felt republican; it is no coincidence that all of the “good apples” in the Claudian family tree are those who desire a return to the republic. Yet, these republican sentiments are not welcomed by Livia, and she tries her utmost to ensure that republicans never have any real power in the government. One question is whether or not a republican government would actually be possible. So far in the novel, Augustus’ reign is one of relative stability, even if all of the power is vested in a single individual. Perhaps Livia’s plotting against republicanism is more than personal vengeance but actually an attempt to bring order to Rome.