In a city rife with backstabbers, an overlooked member of Rome’s ruling family plays dumb to stay alive and unwittingly becomes the most powerful man on earth. Robert Graves’ brilliant novel has been enthralling readers since 1934. Presented as a long-lost memoir supposedly written by a real-life emperor, I, Claudius straddles the fine line between history and fiction.
1. Graves Wrote I, Claudius Purely Out of Financial Need
Though they're his best-known works by far, Graves didn’t take much pride in I, Claudius or its sequel Claudius the God (1935). “Neither of them is of any real worth,” he once opined. At the time, however, Graves desperately needed some quick cash, since an ill-advised business venture had plunged the author into a £4000 debt. Working fast, he powered through both books in eight months—and the post-publication rewards were immediate. "Claudius has been very helpful in the money way,” Graves confessed, “I am now able to support my children."
2. Several Ancient Sources Were Consulted
As a Classical scholar, Graves knew his way around Roman texts. I, Claudius leans most heavily on two key volumes: Annals by Tacitus (written in 109 CE) and Suetonius’ The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 CE). Both chronicle the empire’s early decades with incredible detail. In fact, they’re so comprehensive that some critics accused Graves of having merely "run them together and expanded the result with [his] own 'vigorous fancy.'" As a rebuttal, he listed nearly two dozen additional sources in the preface to Claudius the God. These include writings by Julius Caesar, the great philosopher Seneca, and good old Claudius himself.
3. Livia Might Not Have Been the Villain She’s Made Out to Be
Augustus’ wife comes across as a Machiavellian puppet-master, orchestrating the deaths of just about everyone who gets in her way. This is more or less consistent with how Roman historians tended to paint the infamous woman. But was Livia really a serial murderess? As biographer Anthony Barret points out, there’s no documented proof that she ever offed anyone for political gain. Then again, any good conspirator knows to cover her tracks. Maybe Livia deserves the vile reputation she’s been dealt. Maybe she doesn’t. Regardless, the case is open.
4. … And the Real Caligula was Probably a Bit Saner Than his Literary Counterpart
Most of the truly decadent stories about Caligula’s behavior first show up in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which was written 80 years after he was slain by his own guards. Therein, the short-lived emperor gets accused of everything from declaring war on Neptune the sea god to having sex with his sisters in front of guests. Book Caligula follows suit, even though Suetonius’ outrageous tales were most likely nothing but hearsay.
5. Graves Chose Claudius as a Protagonist Because He Was "A Historian"
As he once told T. E. Lawrence (a.k.a.: "Lawrence of Arabia"), "I identify myself with [Claudius] as much as any historical character I know." Graves felt that because Claudius—like himself—was a detail-oriented academic, he’d be an ideal narrator, even if his leadership skills were imperfect at times. "The best he could do," stated Graves, "was to be a historian and keep a historian’s faith. The more he tried, as Emperor, to interfere with the process of disintegration, the madder things got."
6. Moreover, He Believed that Posterity Had Undervalued Claudius
For the most part, Rome’s great writers dismissed Claudius as an incompetent ruler. Graves couldn’t have disagreed more. "I had noted in my diary," he revealed during an interview, "a year or two before, that the Roman historians—Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dion Cassius, but especially Tacitus—had obviously got Claudius wrong, and that one day I’d have to write a book about it."
7. Graves Took a Few Linguistic Liberties
At one point, Claudius reports on a gladiator fight that involves two Germans going at it with pointed stick weapons he calls "assegai." According to a colleague of Graves’, these should’ve been referred to as "javelins," since assegai is an African term. However, Graves ignored this advice because in addition to being a "savage sounding" word, the British-Zulu wars had given it "renewed vigor" in the minds of English-speaking readers.
8. Claudius Really Did Exaggerate his Limp and Stammer to Survive
Being ambitious is a sure way to get killed in I, Claudius. Given these dire circumstances, our protagonist learns to never underestimate the value of being underestimated. Physically, the historical Claudius looked like a pushover. We know from several firsthand accounts that he stammered, drooled, twitched, and limped (some doctors now blame his symptoms on cerebral palsy). He later admitted—as Graves’ fictionalized version does—to deliberately playing up these defects, which convinced many that he was a harmless oaf.
9. Alec Guinness Would’ve Starred in An Unmade Movie Adaptation
In 1956, Graves was asked to turn his novel into a screenplay and started doing so. For the lead role, producer Vincent Korda chose Guinness, who quickly accepted. Early on, the star argued that their movie shouldn’t become a Ben Hur-style sword & sandal epic. Instead, he envisioned I, Claudius as a "domestic palace drama." Graves quite liked this attitude, but, unfortunately, the whole project fell through.
10. The Book Was Once Considered "Cursed"
For the better part of 40 years, I, Claudius seemed un-filmable. The first attempt at throwing it onto the silver screen came in 1937, but an automobile accident involving one of the lead actresses abruptly halted that production. Afterward, bad luck always seemed to befall anyone who took a crack at adapting the novel. Until the BBC struck gold with its 13-part I, Claudius miniseries in 1976, a curse was said to hang over the source material—much like the one that still allegedly plagues A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
11. Graves Gets a Cryptic Nod in the BBC TV Drama
During the show’s final episode, elderly Claudius (played by Derek Jacobi) starts hallucinating. "The man who dwells by the pool shall open graves," he mutters—an obvious homage to screenwriter Jack Pulman and, of course, Robert Graves.
12. In 2005, Time Magazine Ranked I, Claudius Among the "100 Best English Language Novels Published Since 1923"
"Claudius bears enduring witness to a moment when the virtues of the Roman republic, which has already been disposed of by the time he begins his tale, are being lost to the bloodlust and hubris of the Roman empire," waxed critic Richard Lacayo.