Study Guide

I, Claudius

by Robert Graves

I, Claudius Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Claudius, the emperor of Rome, is held in little esteem because he is lame and he stammers. He is, moreover, a scholar in a nation that worships soldiering. He compiles state histories, but he realizes that they are dull, sententious drivel. At last, he decides to tell the true story of his own life. As the source of his inspiration, he cites the Cumaean Sibyl whom he visited in her inner cavern. She said that eventually he would speak clearly.

From the beginning, the Claudian family feels ashamed of young Claudius, who seems unlikely to carry on the family tradition of power. He develops, for that reason, into a scholarly person interested in the lives of others. His teachers tell him stories about famous people, and as he matures he picks up stray scraps of knowledge about them from various sources.

He is greatly interested in his grandmother, the Empress Livia. Bored with her husband, she secured a divorce, arranged her own marriage with the Emperor Augustus, and poisoned thereafter anyone who interfered with her plans. Power was her sole delight. Another of the infamous people about him is Tiberius, for years the official successor of Augustus. Son of Livia by an early marriage, he married the wanton Julia, daughter of Livia and Augustus. Tiberius offended Augustus and was banished. Livia then insisted that Julia be banished as well. Tired of his banishment, Tiberius promised that if Livia would secure his return he would agree with her every wish thereafter. About that time, the two sons of Julia and Tiberius died mysteriously.

Between Claudius’s ninth and sixteenth years, he occupies himself with the affairs of his older relatives. He is married early to a girl named Urgulanilla, who detests him as much as he detests her. Claudius’s first love had been mysteriously poisoned, and Claudius suspects Livia, who later forced him to marry Urgulanilla. Claudius’s scholarship and stability eventually bring him into the good graces of Augustus and Livia. They make him a priest of Mars and show, by public displays of interest in him, that he is an accepted member of the imperial family.

A grain shortage causes rioting accompanied by arson. Augustus distributes grain according to the usual custom, banishes people who do not hold property in Rome, and rations what food is available. Livia stages a sword fight in the arena to restore the goodwill of the populace. Because Claudius faints publicly when witnessing the brutal sports, Livia decides that never again will he show his face in public. Soon afterward, the last of Augustus’s sons is banished for life. Tiberius is proclaimed the adopted son and successor of Augustus.

Tiberius and young Germanicus, brother of Claudius, campaign against the barbarians, but Tiberius is unpopular in spite of his victories with the army. Augustus suffers stomach disorders and dies. Claudius knows that about a...

(The entire section is 1185 words.)

I, Claudius Extended Summary

Chapters 1–6
The Robert Graves novel I, Claudius begins with a depiction of the title character as a child. Claudius suffers from many ailments that cause him to stutter and give him a permanent limp. Although reviled by most of his relatives, he is prophesized by a sibyl to one day rule Rome, and as a young child a tiny wolf cub, which eagles had been fighting over, falls into his arms, a sign that he will become the protector of Rome.

Considered by most to be an idiot, Claudius is given the love of history through his tutor Athenodorus, and he eventually grows to write several historical studies, of which I, Claudius is one. Claudius’s grandmother Livia is the most important figure in these early chapters. “Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus,” Claudius writes, and he describes how his grandmother turns Augustus into an instrument for her ambition to take control of Rome through her son Tiberius. For starters, Livia uses her position to create discord between Marcellus, Augustus’s son-in-law and leading candidate to succeed Augustus, and Agrippa, Augustus’s oldest friend and most successful general. The end result of Livia’s complex ruse is that Marcellus eventually dies of mysterious ailments (this is the first of many hints that implicitly tie Livia to the rash of food poisonings that infect Rome for generations) and Agrippa is left free to marry Augustus’s daughter Julia. Nine years later, in 12 B.C., after Agrippa dies while alone in the country, Julia is free to marry Tiberius, a man Claudius describes as “morose, reserved, and cruel.”

Claudius’s father Drusus, on the other hand, is a virtuous man. A successful general widely known for his Republican values, he suffers a riding accident on the Rhine. Tiberius rushes to his side, but it is too late. Drusus is dying of gangrene, and his final words, whispered to Tiberius and in reference to Livia, are, “Rome has a severe mother.”

With Drusus dead, Livia’s plan to rule Rome through Tiberius moves forward. But now Gaius and Lucius, the sons of Julia and direct descendants to Augustus, are in her way. Gaius has become the favorite to follow Augustus as emperor. Livia, in another cunning set of moves, succeeds in getting Tiberius relocated outside of Rome, leaving his wife Julia behind. All along Livia had been feeding Julia an elixir she claims will make her irresistible to Tiberius, but it is actually an aphrodisiac that only increases Julia’s sexual appetite. With Tiberius away, Julia goes wild, and her nightly orgies become legendary. When Augustus learns of Julia’s activities, he banishes her for life. Meanwhile Gaius, who is sent away to Asia Minor, is given the wrong treatment for a battle wound and is forced for health reasons to retire, and Lucius, in transit to Spain, dies mysteriously. Thus, with no one else remaining to take over as emperor, Augustus has to accept Tiberius back to Rome and adopt him and Postumus jointly as his sons and primary candidates to succeed him.

Chapters 7–14
After his first love is poisoned, and after Livia’s plans to have Claudius married to a girl named Aemilia are thwarted when Aemilia’s parents are accused of a conspiracy against August, Claudius is forced to marry the six-foot-two inch Urgulanilla. A week after his marriage, Claudius comes across Pollio and Livy, two of Rome’s most famous historians. In the course of discussions, Pollio tells Claudius how Claudius’s father and grandfather were poisoned. Henceforth Claudius would be on the look-out for further clues to support Pollio’s contention.

Meanwhile, Livia and Augustus’s views of Postumus begin to change for the worse, and Livia conspires with Livilla, Castor’s wife, against Postumus by inviting him to her room and seducing him. As soon as he embraces her, she cries out and Livia immediately breaks through the door and has Postumus arrested. Postumus is banished for life and disinherited, but not before he can tell Claudius the entire story of Livia’s conspiracy against him. With Postumus gone, the lone heir to Augustus is now Tiberius.

Soon after returning to Rome to help the aging Augustus, Germanicus learns from Castor of Livia’s plot to banish Postumus, and in turn he tells Augustus. On the pretence of taking another trip to one of the colonies, Augustus visits Postumus on his island to help him escape. Livia catches wind of Augustus’s plan, and assuming he would bring Postumus back to Rome and restore him to favor, she has to act quickly. She knows that with Postumus restored, her own life will...

(The entire section is 1890 words.)