I, Claudius and Claudius the God were written as if they were the secret autobiography of Claudius, the fourth emperor of Rome (r. 41-54 A.D.). The historical Claudius was kept out of public life by his family, the Julio-Claudians, until his sudden elevation at the age of 49. This was due to several disabilities - including a stammer, a limp, and various nervous tics - which made him appear mentally deficient to his relatives. This is how he was defined by scholars for most of history, and Graves uses these peculiarities to develop a sympathetic character whose survival in a murderous dynasty depends upon the incorrect assumption that he is a harmless idiot.
Robert Graves claimed that after he read Suetonius, Claudius came to him in a dream one night and demanded that his real story be told. The life of Claudius provided Graves with a way to write about the first four emperors from an intimate point of view. In addition, the real Claudius was a trained historian and is known to have written an autobiography (now lost) in eight books that covered the same time period. I, Claudius is a first-person narrative of Roman history from the reigns of Augustus to Caligula; Claudius the God is written as a later addition documenting Claudius's own reign.
Graves provides a framework for the story by having Claudius describe his visit to Cumae, where he receives a prophecy in verse from the Sybil, and an additional prophecy contained in a book of "Sybilline Curiosities". The latter concerns the fates of the "hairy ones" (i.e. The Caesars - from the Latin word "caesar", meaning "a fine head of hair") who are to rule Rome. The penultimate verse concerns his own reign, and Claudius assumes that he can tell the identity of the last emperor described. From the outset, then, Graves establishes a fatalistic tone that plays out at the end of Claudius the God, as Nero prepares to succeed Claudius.
At Cumae, the Sibyl tells Claudius that he will "speak clear" nineteen hundred years hence, which he takes to mean that he should write his secret memoirs and leave them to be found by posterity. He therefore chooses to write in Greek, since he believes that it will remain "the chief literary language of the world." This allows Graves to explore the etymology of Latin words (like the origins of the names "Livia" and "Caesar") that would otherwise be obvious to native Latin speakers, whom Claudius believes will not exist in the future.
Themes treated by the novel include the conflict between liberty (as demonstrated by the Roman Republic, and the dedication to its ideals shown by Augustus and young Claudius), and the stability of Empire and centralized rule (as represented by Empress Livia, Herod Agrippa, and the older Claudius). The Republic provided freedom but was inherently unstable and threw the doors open to perennial civil wars, the last of which was ended by Augustus after twenty years of fighting. While Augustus harbours Republican sentiments, his wife Livia manages to convince him that to lay down his Imperial powers would mean the destruction of the peaceful society they have made. Likewise, when the similarly minded Claudius becomes emperor, he is convinced by Empress Messalina and Herod to preserve his powers, for much the same reason. However, Graves acknowledges that there must be a delicate balance between Republican liberty and Imperial stability; whereas too much of the former led to civil war, too much of the latter led to the corruption of Tiberius, Caligula, Messalina, Sejanus, Herod Agrippa, Nero, Agrippinilla, and countless others – as well as, to a lesser extent, Livia and Claudius himself.
Near the end of Claudius the God, Graves introduces another concept: that when a formerly free nation has lived under a dictatorship for too long, it is incapable of returning to free rule. This is highlighted by Claudius's failed attempts to revive the Republic; by the attempts of various characters to 'restore' the Republic but with themselves as the true rulers; and by Claudius noting that 'by dulling the blade of tyranny, I reconciled Rome to the monarchy' – i.e., in his attempts to rule autocratically but along more Republican lines, he has only made the Roman people more complacent about living under a dictatorship.
The female characters are quite powerful, as in Graves's other works. Livia, Drusilla, Messalina, and Agrippinilla clearly function as the powers behind their husbands, lovers, fathers, brothers, and/or sons. The clearest example is provided by Augustus and Livia: whereas he would have inadvertently caused civil war, she manages, through constant and adroit manipulation, to preserve the peace, prevent a return to the Republic, and keep her own relatives in power. Roman women played little overt role in public life, so the often unpleasant but always significant events supposedly instigated behind the scenes by women allows Graves to develop vital, powerful female characters.
Another common theme throughout the novels is the immediacy and validity of the Roman religion. All prophecies made in the narrative come to pass, from the succession of the Caesars, to the "discovery" of the secret autobiography, to the date of Claudius's death. Religious omens and prophecies function as the major means of foreshadowing in the narrative.
The novels are written as if Claudius were telling his own story and that of his family, with the inclusion of some of the historical Claudius's own words and thoughts contributing to the plausibility of the narrative. The emphasis on the details of history is especially evident in Claudius the God, wherein the major part of the book covers the works of Claudius's reign before delving into his personal life. The historical Claudius's extant speech to the senate on voting and juries, his translated letters to the residents of Trent and the Alexandrians, and the text of the Lyon Tablet are all included. In addition, Graves worked in arguments said to have been made by the historical Claudius in favour of his policies, such as the reasoning for the Claudian letters, as outlined by Tacitus.
However, Graves was selective in his use of the ancient sources (primarily Tacitus and Suetonius), not always following their assessments. For example, the worst allegations against Tiberius and Caligula are repeated as fact, while similar allegations against Augustus focus on Livia's influence. Livia is made to confess to murders (of Marcellus, Agrippa, Augustus, Gaius, and Lucius) that she is alleged to have performed in only a single ancient source (Tacitus). Augustus, meanwhile, is depicted as a kindly man, even something of an amiable buffoon and dupe, who is sadly misled by his megalomaniacal wife.
A common charge of the ancient historians against Claudius is that he was easily ruled by his wives and freedmen. Graves rejected this assertion when it came to Claudius's major works and good deeds – as do modern historians. However, he does accept this explanation as an excuse for the less acceptable or understandable actions of the historical Claudius. Most of the capricious executions and blunders that marred his reign are blamed on the scheming of Messalina, Agrippinilla, Narcissus, and Pallas. Graves pushes this interpretation to the point where nearly all those tried or executed seem to be innocent of any crime or undeserving of a harsh sentence. This is clearly at odds with the record. The historical Claudius was the subject of more assassination attempts than any previous emperor, perhaps because Caligula's death revealed that an emperor could indeed be killed and replaced. Undoubtedly, some of those condemned for treason were guilty.
The adoption of his stepson Nero is a case in which Graves absolves Claudius of various accusations. Graves has Claudius give in to every one of his wife Agrippinilla's demands, in a supposed bid to show Rome the face of real tyranny. The obvious problems of adopting an heir to supersede his own son Britannicus are not explored, until a strange plot is revealed at the end. In reality, the motivation for the adoption of an older teenager was most likely political. It was probably done in order to preserve Claudius's rule by demonstrating that a mature heir was available (so no usurper could grab power). This tactic was effective in that the number of assassination attempts on Claudius dropped off precipitously afterwards. Nero was a minor at the time, popular with the public, and unconnected with any scandal or plot - there was no indication of his future behavior as Emperor. As Britannicus approached manhood in 54, the historical Claudius did make preparations to name him the heir apparent (or co-heir), right on schedule.
The last major case of Graves's tendency to follow sources selectively occurs when Claudius's accession is instigated by Herod Agrippa. This is based on an account by Josephus, in which the role of Agrippa is played up in order to demonstrate how Jews had helped Rome. This account fits with Graves's portrayal of Claudius as a republican, as it explains how Claudius could have come unwillingly to power. However, this interpretation is inaccurate in the view of both modern historians and the rest of the ancient sources (including another account by Josephus). Nearly everyone in Rome sensed the plot against Caligula, and the historical Claudius was no exception, though he did not have a direct hand in it. After Caligula's murder, Claudius was faced with a choice between becoming Emperor or being killed. He naturally chose the former. There is no indication of republican hesitancy on his part in the record, aside from Josephus's claim.
Modern historians suggest that if Claudius is to be credited with all the accomplishments of his reign, he should also be held responsible for the mistakes as well, whether these were the result of justified cautiousness, mistaken reasoning, failure to foresee future effects, paranoia, or even too much faith in his advisers.
Graves ignored or accepted historical fact as it fitted the chosen narrative. There is no historical evidence of the withdrawn, fatalistic Claudius at the end of Claudius the God – a Claudius completely ruled by Agrippinilla in all matters. The historical Claudius continued to be politically active after the fall of Messalina and is known to have fought with Agrippinilla over the succession until his murder. Graves seems to have based his view on Victorian scholarship that painted the second half of Claudius's reign as a wash. An inactive period would more readily fit in with Graves's idea about the effects of tyranny. Another example of difference from the historical record is the prophecy of Claudius's death. The problem in any fictional autobiography is that a person cannot foresee his own murder, or he would act to prevent it. However, the prophecy allowed Graves to give the reader a real conclusion to the story that would otherwise have been impossible.
A few minor discrepancies are due to research performed after the books were first published. The current consensus is that Claudius suffered from cerebral palsy, not infantile paralysis as noted in the novels. Graves himself confirmed this in a later interview (he referred to it as "Little's disease"). Another concerns the age of Messalina at the time of their marriage. At the time I, Claudius was written, Messalina was considered to be a child-bride of 14 years of age. It is now known that Messalina's younger half-brother Faustus Sulla was at least 17 when this occurred. Messalina was therefore in her early to mid-twenties, and probably already once-divorced.
Literary Significance and Criticism
The Claudius novels, as they are called collectively, became massively popular when first published in 1934 and gained literary recognition with the award of the 1934 James Tait Black Prize for fiction. They are probably Graves's best known work aside from his myth essay The White Goddess and his own autobiography Goodbye to All That. Despite their critical and monetary success, Graves later professed a dislike for the books and their popularity. He claimed that they were written only from financial need on a strict deadline. Nonetheless, they are today regarded as pioneering masterpieces in the realm of historical fiction.