Robert Graves has created one of my all time favourite books with his masterful work of historical fiction I, Claudius. Characters who are as real as they are unbelievable. The scenery and meals are only hinted at, but because the story itself is so beyond the pale you barely notice the paucity of description. You don’t need to know anything about Roman history to understand the events because Graves, as Claudius, explains it all. Be prepared to keep track of an impressive array of names though. Lots of similar names. I picture the ancient Roman equivalent of a christening ceremony being one where the parents and the five most venerable relatives of the newborn draw a slip of parchment each from the city “naming hat” and all those names are bestowed upon this unsuspecting infant. Everyone in the city uses the same names, and adding is strictly forbidden. I’m sure one of the later emperors made it a treasonable offence.
Speaking of offences, if you have trouble with violence be aware I, Claudius is rife with it. Thankfully not the gleeful gore other authors revel in, but Graves does go through the play-by-play of many, many murders; victims of any and all ages. The frequency increases as the book goes on, for reasons that are pretty obvious. There are moments of wit and tenderness too, along with suspense and intrigue. And Claudius is eminently fair to everyone. He is as careful to note the virtues of the evil as he is the faults of the good. It’s nearly impossible not to view this account as his autobiography, brilliantly translated from Greek(9) into our own tongues for our edification. I keep picking it up to double check tidbits for this review and only surfacing a chapter or two later, even though I’ve already finished it. This is an utterly fascinating book.