A fictionalized autobiography, I, CLAUDIUS relates the improbable survival and even more improbable ascension of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, the least likely candidate to become the fourth emperor of Rome. A fictionalized autobiography, I, CLAUDIUS relates the improbable survival and even more improbable ascension of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, the least likely candidate to become the fourth emperor of Rome.
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Claudius begins his story with a prophecy he once received from the oracle at Cumae. It is this prophecy which compelled him to set out to write this memoir in the first place. It not only presaged his rise to power, but also foretold the impending downfall of his family, the reigning Julio-Claudian dynasty. At the time, neither makes any sense to Claudius. To Claudius, and the rest of the known world, his family appears untouchable. Since carving out the empire from the decaying husk of the Republic, they have fanatically clung to power, dispatching rivals with brutal precision. And Claudius is, and always has been, its least respected member. His lifelong limp and debilitating stutter have created the impression that he is both physically and mentally defective. He is mocked and teased, or just plain ignored, by family members young and old. "Tolerated" would be the best poor Claudius could hope for.
But it is this very appearance of unworthiness that proves to be Claudius's greatest asset. It allows him to hide in plain sight. While his family murders and betrays one another with shocking regularity, Claudius simply continues on. He is simply not worth murdering. But while he is no great warrior, he does possess an extraordinary intellect, though it's an intellect he keeps safely submerged.
While Claudius's memoir is ostensibly about himself, it's this epically dysfunctional family of his which receives most of his scholarly attentions. Beginning with his grandmother Livia, Claudius paints a picture of an extended family possessing both great virtue and vile depravity, nobility and naked lust for power (or as Claudius puts it "good apples" and "crab apples"). Unfortunately, time and again it's the crab apples, threatened by the inherent superiority of the good, who strike first and without warning, and thus -- to Rome's enduring loss -- it's the crab apples who find themselves pulling the strings of power.
His grandmother Livia, the matriarch of the clan, is easily the first and best of the worst. Her ruthless climb to power began before there even was an empire. When Claudius's grandfather refused to indulge her anti-Republican talk, Livia decides to throw in with Octavian, adopted son of Julius Caesar and soon-to-be first emperor of Rome. She gets pregnant and, by pretending it's Octavian's child, she simultaneously manipulates both her husband into divorcing her and Octavian into marrying her. The baby is Claudius's father, Nero Drusus. Livia isn't done with her former husband, though. When she discovers he is teaching Nero Drusus and her other son, Tiberius (another future emperor), about his Republican beliefs, she murders him by poisoning his dinner.
Octavian, with Livia's not so subtle guidance, soon solidifies his position in the new Roman order. He pacifies the provinces, brings the armies under his control, and breaks the resistance of the Senate. Now known as Augustus, he is more god than emperor, his authority unquestioned and unchallenged. Now Livia turns her manipulations toward his selection of an heir.
Augustus's first choice is Marcellus, husband to Julia, his beloved daughter from a previous relationship, and son of his beloved sister, Octavia. Julia and Octavia are noble and virtuous and well-loved. Naturally, this means Livia despises them both. Marcellus soon dies under "mysterious" circumstances, and Livia tries to pressure Augustus into having Julia marry Livia's son, Tiberius, knowing this will put him into a favored position in the family. But Augustus has plans instead for Julia to marry Agrippa, one of Augustus's oldest friends and a brilliant Roman general. Of course, Agrippa dies -- again, under "mysterious" circumstances (this is a running theme for people who run afoul of Livia). With Agrippa dead, Augustus has no choice but to marry Julia to Tiberius.
Meanwhile, Claudius's father, Nero Drusus, is distinguishing himself as a rising general, extremely popular with noble and commoner alike. But he also harbors some reservations about the government of Augustus (and by extension his mother, Livia). In a letter to Tiberius, he outlines these opinions. Livia intercepts the letter and, yup, Nero Drusus soon dies under mysterious circumstances.
Claudius barely remembers his father, but he has no doubt that his grandmother murdered him. The last of his father's children, Claudius is afflicted with numerous illnesses, which lead to long bouts in bed, as well as the limp he would carry into adulthood. Even his mother, Antonia, treats him with the same contempt and neglect he receives from the rest of his family. His childhood is miserable and lonely, and he finds solace only in reading. He has a glimpse of happiness, however, when he becomes engaged to the granddaughter of one of Augustus's generals. She is able to see past his frailties, and Claudius feels relaxed and happy in her presence. Livia, though, wanted him to marry someone else. So she has the young woman murdered. His next engagement (selected by Livia as half punishment and half joke) is to a physically towering, ugly, and unintelligent woman. The marriage does not go well.
Livia succeeds in having Tiberius named as Augustus's heir, though no one except Livia is too pleased with it, least of all Augustus. Tiberius is cold, distant, and odd, unloved by the people and distrusted by the armies. When Livia suspects that the now-aging Augustus will choose a new heir, she has him poisoned.
Tiberius succeeds him as emperor, though true power only comes after Livia enacts a flurry of backroom threats and deals with various Roman powerbrokers. Quickly, however, Tiberius proves to be as poor a choice for emperor as Augustus suspected. His cold demeanor lead to a prickly and sour relationship with both nobles and commoners, a state of affairs exacerbated by Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guards, who constantly plays up Tiberius's fears of an uprising against him. Increasingly paranoid, Tiberius orders numerous purges of the nobility.
Throughout all this chaos, Claudius retreats to the countryside to work on his histories and to live with a kind and gentle prostitute, who is his only real friend during this period of his life. It is also during this time that Caligula becomes close to his great uncle, Tiberius, as their shared interest in the newest sexual depravities bonds them ever closer and Caligula finds himself declared Tiberius's heir. Caligula, though, is unhappy waiting for the elderly Tiberius to die and simply has his great uncle murdered.
Thus begins the reign of Caligula, an even worse era for the Roman people. Even more paranoid and insane than Tiberius, and with an even stronger appetite for depravities and perversions, Caligula executes people at random and drains the state's treasury with an endless parade of expensive public spectacles. When the money runs out, he begins executing wealthy men and seizing their assets. Claudius only survives by playing up being a mindless fool, and by sharing every last bit of his own wealth with his insane nephew.
At last, the Roman people have had enough. Caligula and his immediate relatives are murdered by soldiers during the Palatine Festival. Claudius, fearing for his own life, attempts to flee. The Praetorians catch him, but rather than murder him, as he suspects, they declare him emperor. Claudius realizes that the prophecy has finally come true. He is now the emperor, but he is also the last surviving member of the Julio-Claudian family.
Best part of story, including ending:
I love early Roman history and I love general political intrigue. What's not to love here?
Best scene in story:
The scene where Claudius gets drunk and confronts the aging Livia, who, impressed by this side of Claudius, tells him everything he wants to know is both sickening (Livia is truly as awful as Claudius suspected) and enthralling (this is the Claudius we, the reader, have grown to love).
Opinion about the main character:
While the historical reign of the real Claudius turned out to be fairly bloody, it was still nothing compared to his predecessors. And that's the most appealing thing about this fictional Claudius as well; in such a horrifying family, he is someone we don't immediately recoil from. It's all relative.