The blind receive their sight; the lame walk

I, Claudius

The archetypal fool could, were he morally capable of it, get away with murder. Nobody would suspect the court jester. Yet his morals are often more finely tuned---if more flexible in his personal behaviour---than those of the murderers that surround him. So it is with Claudius, the lame, stammering child of the Julio-Claudian family, derided throughout his youth but destined to be emperor. A fictional autobiography has the potential to be a playground for its authors wildest flights of fancy. Who knows what the narrator really thought, or really did outside of what historical accounts are availble? It's all too easy to spin the most fantastic tale that history will allow (typically detecting the events of homicide(s)), such as Ackroyd did with Hawksmoor and Tully with The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë. Graves, on the other hand, accomplishes the far more difficult task of presenting the story with its boring warts and all: of making the dull grind almost as exciting as the juicy exploits of the Roman royal family.

That Graves often disagrees with the opinions of his sources is a tremendous asset to the novel. Historically he relies heavily (as does the rest of the world) on Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio. These, the only histories extant, are in no way contemporaneous with the events but rather toe the Flavian line with carefully crafted rhetoric. The quandary of the Flavians was to deify Augustus---and hence establish the source of imperial power---while claiming that with each successive generation his progeny had become more decadent and corrupt; compared, at any rate, to the Flavians.

Only when Graves escapes this clearly biased narrative does the story deepen, thicken, flower: pick your metaphor, but Graves' independence of thought is what makes I, Claudius so enjoyable. Livia's evil is sheer joy for the reader, and the complex character of Tiberius---presented simultaneously as pedestrian leader, Livia's moll, bad-tempered penny-pincher and generally well-meaning buffoon, the ill effects of whose reign did not stretch beyond the few hundred senators into the general populace like his beneficience did---is constructed with such clarity and easy resolution of its internal paradoxes. Even Caligula, pace Lives of the Cæsars starts promisingly, and his degeneration is as believable as it is spectacular.

As asides, it's interesting to consider the moral agency of the main players, and the rle and responsibilities of the historian in the light of I, Claudius. The former is evident in the suspiciously repeated pattern of the female characters in the novel---Livia, Urgulanilla, Julia, Agrippina---carrying out a long-running Manichean battle, their weapons and shields consisting of the males, who mete out punishments and provide alibis: even the emperors. The latter seems to mirror an internal wrangle of Graves', revealed both in Claudius' opinions of Livy and Pollio, and in Claudius' own desire to be like the less journalistic Pollio: a careful recorder of the facts. It reveals much, about Graves' opinions of Livy and his followers, and perhaps even about his own doubts over the dramatisation he has attempted in this novel.

But he needn't worry: the revelation of Claudius' inner self is the book's coup de théatre and a service to history, history as a desire to construct a meaningful narrative and understand that narrative. Perhaps it's overly complimentary, but scarcely so for an autobiography. More importantly this book reaches beyond the typical explanation for Claudius' fate and its circumstantial simplicity. It reveals to us the hidden seed of Claudius' suitability as an emperor. For 1900 years everyone saw him as being in the right place at the right time. Graves suggests to us that he might also have been the right man for the job.