Good reviews of Robert Graves' books have been turning up everywhere in the blogs that I read, and his classic novel I, Claudius was included on Modern Library's list of the top 100 books in English, so I added it to my own list. I was expecting it to be a bit of a bore, but it turned out to be engrossing.
Claudius was the grandson of Livia, the wife of Caesar Augustus. He was partially deaf, stuttered, and walked with a limp, which led his family to believe he was half-witted. Thus, he was either ignored or jeered at by many of those who knew him, which probably prevented him from being executed or murdered. "No one murders the butt," he's told. Claudius became emperor of Rome in A.D. 41, following the assassination of his nephew, Caligula. Most other members of the family were already dead.
I Claudius is his fictionalized autobiography, and it is a fascinating look at Roman history, starting with the time of Caesar Augustus, who was Claudius' step-grandfather on his father's side, and his great-uncle on his mother's side. The Romans were so casual about divorcing and remarrying and adopting each other's children, that I found it very difficult to keep track of the family tree.
Robert Graves is a really good writer and his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, is also in my list. I enjoyed the perspective from inside Claudius' head, who is intelligent and quirky. I have to say, this is probably one of the bloodiest books I have ever read. If they gave out awards for the book with the most murders and executions, I. Claudius would win for sure. It starts small, with just the poisonous Livia murdering anyone who gets in her way, but by the time Caligula becomes emperor, whenever a new character is introduced, I found myself wondering how long before this one was murdered or executed, which was the inevitable outcome for all. I, Claudius really highlights how brutal and savage the Romans really were, underneath their veneer of civilization.