Top 100 Novel Review: I, Claudius – Robert Graves (1934)

Duller Than A Text Book

Graves’ novel is worse than a milk-toast, disinterested-historian narrative.


My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

This book was supposed to be made for me.

One Summer, I read 30 books with many of them being about Greek and Roman history. I never made it past Augustus, so how excited was I to learn that there was a novel about the Roman Emperors from the perspective of Claudius. Not only that, it was historical fiction and should have all those cool thing you can do within the genre: dialogue, themes, story arcs!

Graves pulls off an impossible: I’ve read dull, straight historical accounts that had more pop than this book.

Robert Graves: 1895-1985


Cladius, being the fourth Emperor of Rome, has some things he would like you to know about the Royal Family: they suck.

A bust of Cladius.


Traditional history relies heavily on first person accounts, triangulating different sources, and always checking for bias. The purpose of history is to inform us and make claims about the human condition. To do this, scholars don’t want to stray too far from a defensible thesis — they would never conjure up straight fiction and insert it into a text. The negatives of this approach is that much of the human element is lost. We never truly get to feel like we know these figures from history.

Historical fiction should remedy this. With taking a little bit of liberty, while still having the story deeply-rooted in factual occurrences, authors can make history an alive and breathing creature. The subject matter of  “I, Claudius” is mostly fiction, but somehow the delivery is no different than reading a textbook.

The biggest benefit of historical fiction is dialogue. While we might have some letters, we don’t get true conversations in a typical back-and-forth manner. There is very little dialogue in this book, as most of it is just reflective within Claudius’s head. This could work out, as this is also something we are missing out with traditional history, but not with the way it is done in the book.

Grave’s did nothing to make Claudius’ delivery more exciting than reading a telephone book. While droning about the intrigue of the Roman, upper-crust society, Claudius does very little to bring any unique spin on the information. Without any particular punch from our narrator, the story lacks any arc or umbrella for why he was necessary in the first place.

There are quite a few names in this book, and adding to the confusion is the incestuous relationships, multiple marriages, remarriages, repeated names, and variance in importance. It is not unusual to introduce a minor character to then kill them off quickly and then repeat. This roll-call of ancient players does little to draw us in, and since Claudius isn’t adding anything outside of a wikipedia page listing of the Roman family, I can’t quite come to terms of why this books is considered so dazzlingly.

Somehow this was turned into a successful BBC miniseries.


What a wasted opportunity. Adding riveting dialogue, some personal flair, and fleshing out characters with personal liberties would have made going through the Roman history a smash hit. Instead, you  get the worst of both worlds: poorly written fake material with a dull delivery of real facts.

Other People’s Take:

  • Mystery In History – Review in Verse:
    • “From crippled simpleton,
      To Emperor of the realm,
      Does this tale extend.
      And when all is said and done,
      It is he who is at the helm
      That really counts in the end.”
  • The Pearls are Cooling: “I have a hard time pinpointing what exactly I like about this novel. A large part of me until now has simply screamed ‘Everything!’ which is very convenient but not very helpful when it comes to writing a review.”


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