What's New
 Colet and
  What Music?
Banned Books
About Me
 Hosted By:
Ex Libris
Green Man
Video Vista
Designed for
 1024 X 768
 and Internet

I, Claudius

These reviews originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Green Man Review

Books reviewed in this article:
Robert Graves, I, Claudius
Robert Graves, Claudius the God

Films reviewed in this article:
I, Claudius (miniseries)
The Epic That Never Was (DVD Extra)

Robert Graves, I, Claudius
Robert Graves, Claudius the God

Historical fiction has never been one of my favorite genres. Surprisingly, however, within its walls reside two of my favorite books. I, Claudius and Claudius the God--Robert Graves' "autobiographical" novels of the Roman emperor Claudius--represent, to me, the apex of fiction writing.

Together, they cover the entire life (and death) of the Roman Emperor "Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, this, that, and the other" (as he introduces himself to us in the first sentence). Claudius tells us the story of his family history, focussing on his grandmother Livia, who killed most of her own family in pursuit of vicarious power. Since women were not allowed positions of power, Livia chose the man most amenable (or stupid) and "cleared the path" to his empire. Claudius was only spared because he was considered too foolish to be any trouble. You see, he had a club foot, a head that twitched uncontrollably, and an intense stammer that made his speech nearly incomprehensible -- except to those few patient enough to listen, who did not include his mother Antonia.

I, Claudius covers the years from before his birth to his accidental--in fact, humorously mean-spirited--crowning as emperor. This is ironic in another way, as Claudius was one of the most vocal proponents of the Republic and wished heartily that Rome would be ruled by the people instead of a monarch.

As this is the more plot-driven of the two books, the miniseries I, Claudius takes most of its material (about ten of the 13 episodes) from its pages. This does not mean that Claudius the God--which concerns itself with the years of Claudius' rule--is a lesser work, merely more detailed and introspective, and therefore less attractive to a television audience.

Surprisingly, although it covers less time, Claudius the God is the longer of the two novels. As far as "interesting bits" go, the miniseries does hit the high points (mostly Messalina and Claudius' death), but the meat of the book is a "behind the scenes" look at what it actually takes to rule a nation. The details are fascinating, as are the letters written to and from Claudius' childhood hero, Herod Agrippa, the Jewish king. Particularly interesting, from a cultural point of view, is the letter describing this man called Jesus (or Joshua), who is causing so much trouble in Herod's land. Graves lays out the facts in such a way as to distance us from that which is part of the cultural lexicon, making it a cunningly humorous piece.

Touches like this are what make the novels so much fun to read. Graves has obviously done his research, but instead of giving us a dry history, he has presented it as Claudius writing his autobiography, telling it in his own words. This gives us a purely subjective viewpoint on the proceedings, which makes the learning of world history a pleasant experience. Of course, Graves' sources are not all perfect. One of his main sources, Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars is well-known for containing as much gossip as fact. But as long as you read them with a sly eye, I, Claudius and Claudius the God contain enough entertainment to satisfy the most jaded literary connoisseur.

I, Claudius (miniseries)
The Epic That Never Was (DVD Extra)

Based on two novels by Robert Graves, I, Claudius was a groundbreaking miniseries, and is still today considered by some to be the totem by which all other miniseries are measured. It stars Derek Jacobi as the titular emperor and autobiographer. As narrator, Claudius tells us his family history from his grandmother Livia's marriage to the Emperor Augustus Caesar to the end of Claudius' own life, at the hand of others.

At thirteen episodes, it is certainly a commitment, but certainly no greater one than watching the latest season of The Sopranos, whose classical tragedy format is obviously inspired in part by I, Claudius. (You'll note that the manipulative matriarch of both is named Livia.)

But you'll never notice the length because the story is so well told that it is as gripping as a soap opera. Claudius was long considered an idiot because he was born with a limp and a pronounced stammer (which Jacobi illustrates wholly sympathetically). However, in this environment of treachery, these infirmities saved his life (he was considered too lame and lame-brained to be any trouble) and were eventually the reason for his being crowned emperor. He tells us the story of his family, following the Roman Imperial line from Augustus (with vague mentions of Julius Caesar as historical figure) through Tiberius (who his mother, Livia, ruled through) to Caligula and finally himself, with mention of Nero as a future emperor.

The majority of the miniseries consists of the first book, with the second vastly condensed to its high points, but this makes for a more dramatic story because, frankly, Livia is the more interesting person, her evil covering her vulnerability. In bookending this story with well known figures, it places itself in a temporal context that is familiar. This is also one instance where the adaptation of a story is equal to the grandeur of the literary work. (Adapter Jack Pulman plays with the time order of the novels a bit, however, but does so only to put events in their true chronological order.)

Although Claudius tells the story, its focus is on Livia, who was pure treachery in human form. Whatever she wanted, she got, and she didn't care if she had to kill for it. She even killed one son so the other could reign. In a time when only men could rule, she coveted power, and made sure that the only men who became emperor were the ones she could control from behind the scenes. This was done by eliminating all who were in the line of inheritance between the present emperor and her current choice. We only know what happened because, on her deathbed, she confessed all to Claudius, who she had finally discovered was not so dumb after all.

The acting in I, Claudius is of the highest quality, with perfectly targeted performances all around. Brian Blessed is a loving father-figure/ruler as Augustus. John Hurt is enjoyably insane and surprisingly restrained as Caligula. George Baker is perfect as Tiberius, the malleable son of Livia who would become the next emperor. But the whole thing would fail miserably if not for the central performances of Jacobi as Claudius and Sian Phillips as Livia, one of the great female characters.

Fans of Graves' novels will not be disappointed and fans of historical fiction will find much to love here. I, Claudius is a fascinating portrait of the Roman Empire told from the inside.


Included on the DVD set as an extra is the complete film of The Epic That Never Was. In 1937, producer Alexander Korda attempted to bring the grandeur of Robert Graves' novels to the silver screen. He hired Charles Laughton to play Claudius and Merle Oberon to play his wife, Messalina. Josef von Sternberg was directing.

What could go wrong? Enough, certainly, for this film to never be completed. The story is pretty simple. Laughton was reportedly having difficulty grasping his character and got no assistance from von Sternberg, who was supposed to have been a bit of a taskmaster. Thus, when Merle Oberon was injured in an automobile accident, von Sternberg took advantage of the situation to cancel filming.

Dirk Bogarde leads us through the history behind this unfortunate happenstance, illustrating his words with surviving clips of the unfinished film. Given the evidence of Laughton's performance as shown in this footage (and despite Laughton's contrary opinion), we have missed out on what most probably would have been a classic.

The Epic That Never Was is fine in its own right. Interviews with surviving cast and crew members--Oberon, von Sternberg, Flora Robson (Livia), Emlyn Williams (Caligula)--and Bogarde's narration shed immense light on the behind-the-screen activities that led to this sad disaster, leaving the viewer with as close to the full picture as possible.

© 2002 by Craig Clarke and The Green Man Review