I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles), who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot’, or ‘That Claudius’ , or ‘Claudius the Stammerer’, or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’, or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’, am now about to write this strange history of my life…

So begins this much celebrated work of historical fiction – or perhaps I should say: so begins the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, fourth Emperor of the Romans.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

One slightly surprising aspect of this ‘autobiography’ is that whilst we know from the book’s title page that Tiberius was one of the early Roman Emperors, the narrative only records his succession to that lofty position in its very last pages (the sequel, Claudius the God, I understand, covers his time as Emperor). At any rate, the 396 pages that make up this tome largely cover the lives and deaths of the first three Roman Emperors, namely: Augustus, whose long reign came to an end with his eventual assassination in 14  AD; followed by Tiberius, who reigned until his death in 37 AD; followed by Caligula’s short reign until his assassination in 41 AD.

There are quite a few characters in the narrative and the relationships between them is highly complex and rather confusing, not least because they all married and inter-married so many times. This Wikipedia family tree diagram gives you an idea of just how messy it all was.

Anyway, so much for the cold, bare historical facts What this engaging and lively narrative makes abundantly clear is that everything – and I do mean everything – was really about one momentous power struggle. And boy were there some colossal egos around!

There seem to have been more poisonings amongst the higher echelons of Roman society than you might expect to find at farm barn after the pest control squad have been sent in. These are predominantly, but by no means exclusively, carried out by the notorious Livia, third wife and chief adviser to Emperor Augustus and mother of Emperor Tiberius. She is the very archetype of a scheming, cunning, controlling and heartless egomaniac. Unfortunately for him, she is also the paternal grandmother of Claudius, which means that his life is never really safe.

Anyway, as I was saying, this saga is one of power. There are many who lack power and lust after it; and those who have it tend to become increasingly paranoid about having it usurped from them. As a result, when they are not busy poisoning their potential enemies, this clan spend most of their time banishing them to remote islands, if they are lucky, or executing them at the end of sham trials if they were not so lucky. All in all, it would have been quite fitting had Robert Graces inserted the maxim: ‘Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’ as an epigram to this novel.

What I should add at this point, in case I have made the novel sound overly depressing or macabre, is that it is also a hugely enjoyable, fun – and even funny – romp of a tale. There are some great moments in it, such as when the mad Caligula declares war on Neptune, literally getting his soldiers to hack at the waves with their swords and shoot arrows into the sea.

Claudius is also a great character and brilliant narrator; slightly pathetic in his own way, but also a keen observer of life and a good judge of character. He gives us an insight into the other emperors and also into the wider Roman society with all of its fine art and its savagery; its high ideals and its systemic corruption; its power and its weakness.

I’ve not read much in the way of historical fiction previously, but this was a real joy, and I would highly recommend it.