Published in 1934, poet Robert Graves's _I, Claudius_ tells the story of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, known in Roman history as Claudius--an historian, a crippled stutterer, and widely regarded as an idiot. Claudius is isolated from the treachery of the Roman court during the years immediately after the death of Christ, protected by the fact that no one takes him seriously enough to want to assassinate him. Ultimately, however, Claudius ascends to the throne of the Roman Empire in 41 A.D. and rules brilliantly until he is assassinated in 54 A.D.
Through the first person narrative of Claudius, Graves tells the story from the beginning of the Christian era until Claudius's death fifty years later, recording the horrors visited on the Roman people by his family's rulers. Claudius's grandmother Livia, widow of Caesar Augustus--and one of the most treacherous women in history--manipulates the imperial succession through poisonings, assassinations, marriages, and secret alliances. The reign of her son Tiberius is bloody, murderous, and corrupt. His brother, the good soldier Drusus, is kept in foreign lands until he can be assassinated. Tiberius's succession by Caligula, his grandson and the protégé of Livia, takes Rome into even more terrifying debauchery. Claudius's ultimate succession to the throne upon the death of Caligula, his insane nephew, is regarded as a joke by the court--the installation of an idiot who will not challenge the imperialists. Ironically, Claudius is discovered to be a republican.
This first person account, with virtually no scenes of direct action, defies the first rule of novel-writing: to recreate, not "tell about" actions. Here every aspect of Roman history is filtered through the mind of Claudius, who "tells about" all the action as he knows it. Claudius, however, is so perceptive and so full of fascinating information about the characters and their motivations, that the reader creates his/her own action scenes from the information revealed by Claudius. Through Claudius, whom the reader comes to admire, the reader is able to evaluate what is happening in ways that direct-action scenes, with all their superficial excitement, do not allow.
Characters are complex, fully developed humans, instead of cardboard, costumed "ancients," and their machinations, though extremely bloody, show the conflicts that occur when absolute rule and republican sentiments contend for dominance, a conflict in which Graves says he saw parallels to World War I and its aftermath. Giving a new view of Claudius from what had traditionally been accepted, Graves's portrayal is historically accurate (based on then-new information) and psychologically perceptive, a brilliant novel which sets the standard for historical fiction. Mary Whipple