Critical Evaluation

Throughout his long career, Robert Graves considered himself first and foremost a poet. He published more than seventy volumes of poetry. He seems equally likely, however, to be remembered as a historical novelist, particularly as the author of I, Claudius. In a way, Graves resembles Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wanted to be recognized as an author of serious novels but whose memory survives primarily because he created the immortal Sherlock Holmes.

I, Claudius was a financial success when it was published in 1934 and has continued to be popular ever since. It was translated into seventeen languages and brought to the attention of additional millions of people around the world after being made into a television drama by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1976. Graves tells his story in the first person, using the ingenious fiction that the novel is a printed translation of the Emperor Claudius’s “lost autobiography,” which was miraculously rediscovered in 1934 after having been thought to have been destroyed by war, accident, or natural disaster like so many other priceless artifacts of the ancient world.

Claudius has strong republican sympathies that he takes great pains to conceal, since he is well aware that many prominent citizens, including a number of his own friends and relatives, lost their lives for being insufficiently supportive of the imperial system instituted by Augustus and his sinister wife Livia. Claudius’s observations of the degeneration of Rome under three increasingly dangerous despots only confirm his belief that authoritarian rule spreads corruption. The thesis of I, Claudius might be summarized in an often-quoted statement by the British historian Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When, after Caligula’s well-merited assassination, Claudius is forced to become emperor, he does so with the hope of finding a means of restoring a regenerative republican form of government. As a student of history, Claudius is one of the few surviving Romans who really understands what the republic was like before the dynasty of the Caesars.

It should be noted that, although Claudius is intelligent and well educated, Graves characterizes him as a child of his times who believes in the Greek and Roman gods, magic, conjuring, augury, omens, and prophecies. The modern reader can...

(The entire section is 983 words.)