I, Claudius

I, Claudius Themes

Republic vs. Empire

Throughout I, Claudius, the political structure of Rome is centered on the conflict between republic and empire. A republic would place the power of the government in the hands of the people, via the senate, while an empire would have all governmental power vested in a single ruler.

The conflict between republic and empire is expresses more blatantly through the personal conflicts between individual characters and their beliefs. After the death of Julius Caesar, Rome had the opportunity to become a republic, and Claudius’ grandfather was one of the main proponents for the cause. However, Livia preferred to see Rome as an empire; it was this belief that prompted her to divorce Claudius’ grandfather and married Augustus instead. Through her manipulation of Augustus, Livia was able to shape Rome into an empire and assure its continuation after Augustus’ death. Many of the murders that Livia commits can be recognized as an effort to maintain an empire instead of a republic: Marcellus, Agrippa, and Drusus all die because they threaten the cause of the empire.

At the beginning of the novel, Claudius is a strong advocate of a republic, mirroring the political sentiments of his father and grandfather. However, by the end of the novel, he realizes that Livia’s preoccupation with empire is well-founded. The empire of Rome, though problematic, provides stability and prosperity to all Roman territory. A republic, on the other hand, would create a state of civil war and chaos. When he is crowned emperor by the mob of soldiers at the end of the novel, Claudius cannot help but plead for Rome to become a republic. Yet, his pleas are half-hearted, and he soon accepts his position: he realizes that his republican sentiments are idealistic, and an empire is the only form of government that can succeed.

Female vs. Male Power

During this period of history, women had very little political or social power. Their status was determined by wealth and marriage and, as I, Claudius demonstrates, women could be divorced and cast out by their families at a whim. Men, on the other hand, were able to achieve the highest level of power and social status, becoming war heroes in military campaigns, marrying into wealthy families, and even having the potential to become senators or emperor.

In the novel, Graves presents a slightly different version of this power dynamic. Instead of remaining passive to male power, some key female characters actually seem to exercise as much, or even more power than the men. Livia is the primary example of this: as a woman, she is limited by all of the social constructs of the time. Yet, through her cleverness and manipulations, she is able to control the most powerful man in Rome and almost single-handedly maintain Rome’s prosperity during Augustus’ reign. Although Livia receives little official credit for the extent of her involvement in the government, she still exercises a phenomenal amount of power and eventually becomes a goddess. Calpurnia, Claudius’ female companion, does not have as much power as Livia, but she also exercises a great deal of power over Claudius’ decisions and behavior. Through her advice and financial guidance, Calpurnia is able to help Claudius survive through the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula, a feat which would be beyond the power of a passive stereotypical female character.

Graves’ interpretation of the underlying power dynamic in Rome suggests that history simply did not recognize the subtle female power that permeated the government. Granted, Livia and Calpurnia are only a few of the female characters in the novel. The majority, such as Julia, Julilla, and Octavia, correspond to the passive stereotype and are unable to achieve any power or escape male oppression. It seems that the difference comes down to intelligence: both Livia and Calpurnia are clever enough to learn how to gain power in an underlying way.


Fate is one of the most important themes in I, Claudius because of the role it plays in the narrative structure of the text. From the beginning, the novel is set up as a description of the events that lead up to the inevitable prophecy given to Claudius by the Sibyl at Cumae. The Sibylline prophecy informs Claudius two pre-ordained facts: first, that Claudius will become emperor, and second, that Claudius will write an account of his life that will be read by future generations in nineteen hundred years. Because Claudius informs the reader of this prophecy within the first few pages, the course of the novel is immediately determined; the only suspense lies in the discovery of which particular events will aid Claudius in fulfilling his destiny. Moreover, the very existence of the novel is fate because, as the Sibyl declares, Claudius’ decision to write a secret autobiography is already pre-determined.

In addition to creating a general structure for the outline of the novel, the concept of fate also play a significant role in determining the behavior of the characters. All of the characters place a great deal of weight on omens, prophecies, and other signs of their fate. Livia confesses her crimes to Claudius because of a prophecy that tells her that Claudius will be emperor; Caligula allows Claudius to live because a prophecy tells him that Claudius will avenge his assassination; Tiberius even keeps Thrasyllus at his beck and call so that he can receive prophecies at any given time. The concept of fate permeates Roman culture and, as such, it shapes the decisions that each of the characters make in the novel.

Fact vs. Truth

Robert Graves presents I, Claudius as an accurate autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus. By using the character of Claudius as both the narrator and the protagonist, Graves is able to sustain the concept of an autobiography while simultaneously providing personal insight into individuals involved in the Julio-Claudian line. This structure allows Graves to explore history on a much more personal level, but it also makes the reader wonder whether or not Claudius is actually trustworthy.

Claudius claims that he is telling the true story of what happened in his life, and, as an historian, he is devoted to describing actual facts in an unbiased manner. However, Claudius also admits that he is aware of the fact that his autobiography will be read by future generations. With that in mind, it seems likely that Claudius would choose to present particular versions of the characters in his life, depending on how he would want them to be viewed in the future. Moreover, while he is glad to provide negative information about Tiberius, Livia, and Caligula, Claudius never incorporates any information that might reflect on him negatively.

Although Claudius argues that he is an unbiased historian and observer, it is impossible to tell if his account is factual or simply his own version of the “truth.” This question of Claudius’ true nature pervades the entirety of the book and adds additional depth to the intrigues and betrayals that he describes.

Religion and Government

Religion is a very important part of the lives of Claudius and his family members. Not only do religious portents and omens determine the actions that individuals take, the Roman government and power of authority is intrinsically connected to religion and the Roman gods. Once Augustus achieves the position of an emperor, he still does not have total power in Rome because he is not a god. When Augustus is proclaimed to be a deity in certain territories, however, he becomes much more powerful overall in the political arena. After his death, his ascension to the status of a full deity serves to validate all of his political decisions during his reign.

Caligula strives to achieve a similar height of power as Augustus by proclaiming himself to be a god during his reign. Caligula commits incest with his sisters because it follows the example of the god Jove and his sister Juno, and he even declares war against Neptune in an effort to prove his deified power against the other gods. However, Caligula’s efforts to combine religion and government are prompted by insanity, rather than political ambition. As a result, he is not deified by the Roman public but is actually assassinated.

In a society that highlights religion to such a degree, the only way to achieve political power is to combine the world of religion with the world of government. Augustus is the only individual who successfully creates a combination of the two, but all of the members of the Julio-Claudian line recognize the importance of this link.

Claudius as Historian

A crucial part of Claudius’ character throughout the novel is his love of history. Athenodorus first introduces him to history and the concept of writing about it, and one of the most significant events in Claudius’ life is when he meets the historians Pollio and Livy in the library. Claudius refers to himself as an historian in the novel and refers to a considerable number of historical texts that he produces over the course of his life.

Claudius’ role as an historian clearly relates to his position as the narrator and protagonist of the novel. Because he is experienced at writing about history, Claudius’ account of his life and the lives of his relatives is much more reliable as an historical source than it would be if Claudius were taking up the pen for the first time. In addition to providing a general structure for the narrative, Claudius’ historical tendencies also determine a great deal of his behavior in the text. For example, when Livia asks Claudius to make her into a goddess, Claudius only agrees on the condition that she will tell him the truth of all of the murders that she has committed. Yet, Claudius does not want to hear Livia’s confession so that he can avenge the deaths of his loved ones. Instead, he simply wants the truth from a historical perspective; as an historian, he desires to know the facts but remains detached from them on an emotional level.

In general, Claudius’ love of history adds to his passive nature. Instead of taking action in his life, he simply steps back and observes the events that unfold around him with a highly-tuned historical eye. In the end, Claudius is able to write an “historical” account of the Julio-Claudian line, but his love of history ensures that he does not take any active part in his own life.

Moral Hypocrisy

Many of the characters in I, Claudius demonstrate an extreme hypocrisy when it comes to morality. In most cases, an individual character will ignore their personal immorality but will gladly censure and punish others for their behavior. This questionable morality pervades the text and often serves as an excuse for one individual to remove another individual who might pose a political threat. Livia, in particular, is one of the characters in the novel who constantly demonstrates this hypocrisy. Although she murders dozens of people over the course of the novel, she has no empathy for anyone else and quickly punishes or kills individuals who are guilty of minor infractions. Livia ensures that both Julia and Julilla are banished to tiny islands in the Mediterranean Sea on the charge of adulterous promiscuity, but she chooses to ignore the sexual deviance of Tiberius and Caligula.

Claudius is one of the few characters in the novel who does not adhere to this moral hypocrisy. Germanicus, Postumus, and Drusus also remain firm in their morals, but they are ultimately murdered because they attempt to find justice and redemption. In Roman society, morality is selective and depends almost entirely on personal ambition and drive. Claudius is the only moral individual in his family who remains alive and, even then, it is only because he caters to the immorality of those in power.