Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1890
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.
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 be in danger. Coincidentally, Augustus falls sick, and though he eats only from the common table and of the figs he himself has picked, out of fear of being poisoned by Livia, he dies.
Prior to his death, Augustus expresses to Claudius his deep apologies for how he has been treated throughout his life, and says that he has taken care of a certain “document” and that Claudius will one day be compensated. Claudius assumes Augustus is referring to his will, and surmises that the emperor has come to learn of Livia’s conspiracies. But Augustus did not safeguard his changes well enough, and the previous version of the will, which names Tiberius as successor, is read to the Senate. Livia finally gets her wish, and when Postumus is reported killed by a captain of the guard, her final problem, it seems, is solved.
Soon rumors that Postumus is still alive begin circulating through Rome. The rumor proves true, but Tiberius is able to catch him and have him tortured and killed.
Roman troops in the Rhine mutiny upon Augustus’s death, angry over the few shares they are given. Germanicus, remaining faithful to Tiberius, borrows money from Claudius and pays the men under the pretence that the money has come directly from Tiberius. In Rome, Sejanus, Tiberius’s Commander of the Guards, begins poisoning the emperor’s mind against Germanicus with several lies. Sejanus had also forms a group of professional informers whose job it is to infiltrate the populous for the purpose of weeding out Tiberius’s potential opponents. When Germanicus is sent with his family, including his son Caligula, to the East, Sejanus revives Tiberius’s fears by reporting a statement that Germanicus allegedly says in front of one of Sejanus’s secret agents. Livia and Tiberius then send a man named Gnaeus Piso to work with Germanicus. Piso also reports back statements construed to make Germanicus appear unfaithful to the emperor. Soon Germanicus finds that his orders to his regiments or cities are not being followed; they are all being overridden by contradictory ones from Piso.
Germanicus soon falls ill and starts smelling “death” in his house. A superstitious man, he sleeps with a talisman, or good luck charm, under his pillow. A slave soon reports finding the body of a dead baby beneath the house, and soon similar discoveries are made throughout the house. After several strange and near-hallucinatory experiences, Germanicus becomes certain that Piso is trying to murder him through black magic. Germanicus dies, and for years the murder remains a mystery. Aggripina returns with her children to Rome, where the public grieves for the popular Germanicus for days.
Sejanus continues to consolidate his power and even tries to become related to the imperial family by marrying his four-year-old daughter to Claudius’s son Drusillus. But a few days later Drusillus is found dead with a pear stuck in his throat. Soon Sejanus, Livia and Livilla, Castor’s wife, conspire against Castor, who has just been named Protector of the People by Tiberius, a sign that Tiberius is aware of Sejanus’s ambitions and intends to check them. The conspiracy works, and Castor quickly falls out of favor with Tiberius. Soon thereafter he falls ill with symptoms of consumption and dies.
Treason trials soon proliferate throughout Rome, and Sejanus once again plots to gain entrance into the imperial family by arranging Claudius’s divorce and marrying his adopted sister Aelia to Claudius.
Tiberius, getting old and weak, retires to Capri, thus leaving control of Rome in the hands of Sejanus. He remains there eleven more years until his death, practicing acts too obscene for Claudius to recount.
Livia calls on Claudius and confesses all of her murders, including those of Claudius’s father and son, as well as Agrippa, Lucius, Marcellus and Gaius. She also tells him of the prophecies that Germanicus’s son, Caligula, will be emperor, and that Claudius will avenge Caligula’s death. Livia also makes Claudius promise to deify her when he becomes emperor. In 29 A.D., Livia finally dies.
Under Sejanus’s rule, Rome suffers from endless capricious arrests and executions. Claudius’s mother happens to find drafts of letters between Livilla and Sejanus, implying a conspiracy to kill Tiberius. She sends Tiberius the letters, and Tiberius has Sejanus arrested for treason. After Sejanus’s gruesome execution, a whole crop of equally grim executions follow.
In his final years, Tiberius indicates Caligula as his successor. After Tiberius’s death, the Senate confirms Caligula’s accession, and in the first days of his rule, Caligula generously pays off Tiberius’s debts, observes the terms of Tiberius’s and Livia’s will, doubles the pay to the army, and sends millions of gold pieces from the treasury into general circulation. General amnesty is declared, and when Caligula falls ill with what is called a “brain fever,” the popular consternation is so great that thousands of people stand in vigil day and night outside of the palace.
When Caligula “recovers,” however, one of his first acts is to call Claudius into his room where he reveals to his uncle his “metamorphosis” into a divine being and also reveals, with pride, how as a young boy he had murdered his father Germanicus by frightening him to death and stealing his talisman.
Quickly thereafter, Caligula indiscriminately begins killing friends and family members, marries other men’s wives at a whim, and puts men to death for such crimes as selling hot water. When the treasury is nearly depleted, Caligula empties the prisons by executing the prisoners and feeding their bodies to wild beasts in the amphitheaters. Claudius’s own mother, rather than living under the reign of this madness, kills herself.
Caligula’s “divinity” continues; he argues daily with Neptune and with the river gods. No one feels safe around Caligula, and when Claudius is summoned to the palace one night, he assumes his end is at hand. But instead he is awarded with a play in which Caligula plays the “rosy-fingered Goddess,” after which Claudius is given the beautiful young Messalina in marriage.
Caligula grows madder by the day, until finally Cassius, one of his soldiers, kills him during a festival. In the melee that follows, soldiers tear through the palace, intent on plunder, and notice two feet sticking out from behind a curtain. Claudius has tried to hide out of fear for his life, but one of the soldiers recognizes him, and the group proclaims him emperor. After a brief protest, he gives in and is soon being carried around the court, fulfilling the sibyl’s prophecy and the omen of the wolf cub.
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