I, Claudius, Robert Graves. New York: Vintage International, 1989 (first published 1934).
Summary: A fictional autobiography of Claudius, of how a physical handicap and speech impairment enabled him to escape death by intrigue until he rose to emperor.
Claudius was a survivor. To be Roman emperor, or close to the emperor, was to live with the threat of assassination, whether by the knife, or by poison. You only became emperor by surviving intrigues. Before Claudius, there was Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. None died of old age.
Claudius mother was Antonia, a niece of Caesar Augustus and sister-in-law of Tiberius, who succeeded Caesar. By all rights, he should not have escaped the various purges, especially under insane Caligula, with whom he share the consulship. Robert Graves fictional biography describes how it happened. In his youth, he suffered from infantile paralysis (in Graves rendering, others have questioned this), and only hobbled rather than walked. In addition, he had a considerable stutter. Augustus wife Livia banished him from her table because of his “uncouthness.” Given Livia’s propensity for poisoning, he was lucky.
His infirmities rendered him “harmless” in the eyes of rivals and the powerful. Graves showed how he complemented these infirmities with a retiring and deferential demeanor. Aside from being censored by Livia, he was able to devote himself to his love of history, and the responsibilities that came with his high birth. With Caligula, retiring and deferential became a combination of flattery and fawning–not particularly becoming, but he survived.
Livia, perhaps is the most fascinating character. She is the only one I can think of among the powerful who died a natural death. We speak of Machiavellianism, but before Machiavelli, there was Livia. She was both hard headed and clear thinking about the needs of the empire, and absolutely ruthless in pursuing the interests first of Augustus, and then Tiberius, until she died. She, too, did not see Claudius as a threat, though she blocked several histories written by Claudius that got too close to truths she wanted kept hidden.
Caligula is a study in what happens when a country is ruled by an insane and arbitrary tyrant. The four years of his reign were too long, and mercifully ended by assassins. In the aftermath, Claudius is elevated to emperor, a position he occupied for thirteen years, from 41 to 54 AD, one of the longer reigns of a Roman emperor. The book ends with his accession to power. Like the others, he also was murdered, by poison, probably from his wife, Agrippina, who we meet at the end of this volume.
Graves helps us understand the character of the times that combined efficient administration (partly thanks to Livia–it unraveled following her death), and military conquest, and a never-ending struggle to keep the German tribes subdued. He also tells the story of one who might be the “most unlikely emperor,” who succeeds merely by avoiding death. The book also makes the case that to be born close to power might be the worst possible fate one could suffer. It certainly came with a shortened life expectancy.
Thirty-five-some years ago, PBS based a series on this book, which may still be purchased. As I recall, it was relatively popular at the time. From reading the book, I think I understand. We seem to love stories of powerful people at their worst.