The Book: I, Claudius by Robert Graves
The Challenge: HIstorical Fiction
Historical fiction is a tricky genre, in my opinion. Usually, either the writer bogs the reader down with far too many straight facts (thus telling, rather than showing, what happened) which makes the book more history than fiction, or the writer goes too far in the other direction, thus making the book more fiction than history. The former is often too dry to be considered "fiction", while the latter is usually too fanciful to be historically valid.
I, Claudius is one of those rare historical fictions that manages to find just the right balance between history and fiction. It's a Goldilocks of its genre, in a way. It tells the story of the life of Claudius (in true Roman fashion, he had multiple--this time five--names, but for simplicity's sake, I'll refer to him as "Claudius"), who was the fourth Roman Emperor and who lived from 10 B.C. to 54 A.D.. It's told in the first person, as the whole concept of the novel is that Robert Graves "translated" a number of scrolls which turned out to be the autobiography of the Emperor.
It was interesting to read this after our Bard-a-Thon readings of Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, as I, Claudius is essentially a "what happened next". It covers everything from Claudius' birth in 10 B.C. to his ascension to Emperor in 41 A.D, and much of the early parts of the novel deal with the aftermath of Antony's death and Octavian's rise to power under the name Augustus (for example, Claudius' family sided with the assassins of Julius Caesar, and thus when Augustus returns from the Battle of Actium, they were under suspicion of treason). There is a sequel, which details his reign and has an "addendum" narrated by Nero which covers his death. On a humorous note, I wasn't aware of the existence of it, and was very much confused when I neared the end of this book. But back to the story. It covers all of the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula, as well as the lives of the important people of the time. Graves manages to bring every single member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty to life. Game of Thrones may have the Lannisters and Starks, but they have nothing in comparison to the lives of that family, who managed to turn a republic into one of the most famous and longest lasting empires in the world. It would take far too long to detail all of the characters, but one in particular stands out: Livia, Claudius' grandmother and the second wife of Augustus. Graves manages to emphasize her utterly ruthless nature while still making her completely human and sympathetic. Despite the fact that she generally murders everyone who stands in her way, she winds up being fairly endearing by the end.
The book is narrated as if Claudius was himself dictating the story, and its conversational tone works magnificently to draw the reader into a time period that is simultaneously completely foreign and yet incredibly familiar. It covers wars (both civil and foreign), political intrigue, court intrigue, famines, poisonings, madness, family squabbles, morality, etc., all in an easy to read, personable, and oftentimes humorous manner. By the end, it felt almost like reading a story written by an old friend who has been gone for a while and is filling you in on his life and the lives of his insane family.
One thing of note that I thought was a great touch were the prophecies of the Sibyl, the prophetess of Ancient Rome. Since he is writing nearly 2000 years after the events depicted in the book, Graves was able to create "prophecies" in an early scene which Claudius overhears and writes down. These not only give a hint of the plot that is about to unfold, but also give the reader a quick insight into the mindset of a Roman at the time.
I can't wait to track down the sequel, and I recommend this book to anyone and everyone. Fans of historical fiction will find one of the best in the genre (in my opinion), people interested in the history of the early Roman Emperors will find a fictionalized insider's look into what they might have been like, and those who want to know what happened after Anthony and Cleopatra will get a wonderfully written account.