Historical fiction has never been one of my favorite genres. Surprisingly, however, within its walls reside two of my favorite books. I, Claudius and Claudius the God --Robert Graves' "autobiographical" novels of the Roman emperor Claudius -- represent, to me, the apex of fiction writing.
Together, they cover the entire life (and death) of the Roman Emperor "Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, this, that, and the other" (as he introduces himself to us in the first sentence). Claudius tells us the story of his family history, focussing on his grandmother Livia, who killed most of her own family in pursuit of vicarious power. Since women were not allowed positions of power, Livia chose the man most amenable (or stupid) and "cleared the path" to his empire. Claudius was only spared because he was considered too foolish to be any trouble. You see, he had a club foot, a head that twitched uncontrollably, and an intense stammer that made his speech nearly incomprehensible -- except to those few patient enough to listen, who did not include his mother Antonia.
I, Claudius covers the years from before his birth to his accidental -- in fact humorously mean-spirited -- crowning as emperor. This is ironic in another way, as Claudius was one of the most vocal proponents of the Republic and wished heartily that Rome would be ruled by the people instead of a monarch.
As this is the more plot-driven of the two books, the miniseries I, Claudius takes most of its material (about ten of the 13 episodes) from its pages. This does not mean that Claudius the God -- which concerns itself with the years of Claudius' rule -- is a lesser work, merely more detailed and introspective, and therefore less attractive to a television audience.
Surprisingly, although it covers less time, Claudius the God is the longer of the two novels. As far as "interesting bits" go, the miniseries does hit the high points (mostly Messalina and Claudius' death), but the meat of the book is a "behind the scenes" look at what it actually takes to rule a nation. The details are fascinating, as are the letters written to and from Claudius' childhood hero, Herod Agrippa, the Jewish king. Particularly interesting, from a cultural point of view, is the letter describing this man called Jesus (or Joshua), who is causing so much trouble in Herod's land. Graves lays out the facts in such a way as to distance us from that which is part of the cultural lexicon, making it a cunningly humorous piece.
Touches like this are what make the novels so much fun to read. Graves has obviously done his research, but instead of giving us a dry history, he has presented it as Claudius writing his autobiography, telling it in his own words. This gives us a purely subjective viewpoint on the proceedings, which makes the learning of world history a pleasant experience. Of course, Graves' sources are not all perfect. One of his main sources, Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars is well-known for containing as much gossip as fact. But as long as you read them with a sly eye, I, Claudius and Claudius the God contain enough entertainment to satisfy the most jaded literary connoisseur.