I was somewhat fortunate with regard to my English literature curriculum fifty years ago in that two of the three Shakespeare plays assigned to my class were actually very enjoyable for a teenage boy. Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are both fine works, full of intrigue, treachery and death and a far more entertaining way to learn Roman history than in my mostly tedious history classes. Especially when you have the chance, as I did, to watch these plays being interpreted and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the author’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon.
(The third play was 'A Winter's Tale' and though I found it a real chore, it nevertheless has an interesting connection to Mantua that I wrote about here.) By the time I left high school my knowledge of Roman history had ended where Shakespeare concluded Antony and Cleopatra, with their deaths following Octavius’ victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.
Octavius would subsequently become the first Roman Emperor, known thereafter as Augustus, and he figures prominently in 'I, Claudius'.
In 1976 the BBC turned Robert Graves’ historical novel into a television series with much of the emerging talent of British theater at that time taking part, including Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Siân Philipps as Livia, a hirsute Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, Brian Blessed as Augustus and John Hurt as Caligula as well as many others who would be recognizable to people from that era or even people today given that many of these actors went on to have successful film careers.
‘I, Claudius’ begins where Antony and Cleopatra ends and even though the BBC series was a small budget production, filmed almost entirely in a very cramped looking studio, it was a great success, earning several BAFTA awards and attracting an average audience of 2.5 million people, myself included, over the course of the 12 one-hour episodes. Back in the 1970s the BBC could be relied upon to diligently fulfill its mandate as a provider of high quality entertainment rather than as a purveyor of garbage reality shows and a participant in the culture wars as it seems to be today. I don’t know how well the series has stood the test of time but I doubt whether today’s spoon-fed audiences would have the patience for it.
I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t until almost 20 years later that I got round to actually buying and reading the book, prompted perhaps by the Folio Society printing a new edition in 1994, nicely bound and illustrated with a very helpful genealogy chart on the inside cover showing the Julio-Claudian family tree. You will need to refer to this as you read the book because these noble Romans married very young and then re-married in the wake of their poisonings, suicides and the like so it can be a bit of a struggle to remember who is related to whom. And compounding the problem is the proliferation of certain names that are very similar like Drusus, Drusilla (Elder and Younger) and Drusillus or Agrippa, Agrippina and Agrippinilla. There are even two Neros, one of which of course became the last Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
This book belongs to the historical fiction genre in much the same way as War & Peace or Michael Shaara’s excellent ‘Killer Angels’, the 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the decisive civil war Battle of Gettysburg. Historical fiction is where a fictional but often very plausible story and dialogue are overlaid onto a genuine historical background. Good authors of historical fiction show exemplary fidelity to the recorded history without inventing characters or events that didn’t actually exist or take place.
Robert Graves came up with his own interpretation of the character and motivations of Claudius, Livia and others but he was no historical revisionist and relied to a great extent on the two principal authorities on the Julio-Claudians. These were Tacitus and Suetonius, both of whom were Roman historians though not quite contemporaries of Claudius. However Suetonius in particular was not just a simple chronicler of facts but wrote to entertain his readers as much as to inform them, so it is debatable how factually correct even his writing was.
As well as fitting comfortably into the category of historical fiction 'I, Claudius' is also an example of the autobiographical novel, written as it is in the first person, hence the form of the title he gave the book. This is a literary technique that serves to make everything more believable and was used to good effect by Charles Dickens in both 'Great Expectations' and 'David Copperfield'. However an author writing in this way always has to be careful not to introduce facts that would have been unknown to the narrator at various points in the story unless he qualifies them (as Graves often does in this book) by describing how these facts subsequently became known to the narrator.
As an Oxford graduate Graves was a good classical scholar in the amateur sense and was keen not to make any obvious errors so as well as reading Tacitus, Suetonius and others he asked his good friend T. E. Lawrence to check his manuscript. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was himself also an amateur classical scholar and found little with which to quibble.
Graves wrote the book in 1934 in his house on the island of Mallorca primarily for financial reasons because at that time his free spending and slightly unstable companion, Laura Riding, had embarked on grandiose plans for the development of their property. In order to make money he needed to make the book interesting and enjoyable to a wider audience than that which thought of him primarily as a poet or even those who had bought his First World War memoir ‘Goodbye to all That”.
And so this is where the description ‘novel’ in ‘historical novel’ becomes apt because he took the liberty of creating some quite spicy characters in the book, chief amongst them being Livia who he portrays as a scheming monster whose malevolent influence pervades the entire book. 'I, Claudius' was a popular and critical success for Graves, earning several important literary awards, and it represented something of a turning point in his life. It repaired his finances and at the same time ruined his relationship with Laura Riding due to her intense jealousy at his success, signaling the beginning of the end of his infatuation with her.
Robert Graves followed this book with a sequel a year later, ‘Claudius the God’, which covers the period when Claudius was Emperor. Graves lived long enough to be invited to personally attend the filming of the aforementioned BBC series and only a month before his death in December 1985 he was the last survivor of the 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poets Corner.
Playing the lead part of Claudius was a defining breakthrough role for the young Derek Jacobi in 1976 and today the actor wears an ancient Roman coin around his neck with the face of Claudius on it as a form of homage. The coin was a gift from the professor of Roman Antiquity who was employed as an expert consultant for the BBC series. Years later Jacobi also popped up in the blockbuster film 'Gladiator' playing the part of the Roman senator Gracchus, something of a comedown perhaps for someone so famous for his portrayal of a Roman Emperor.