In Ancient Rome… under the reign of Claudius, shortly after the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula, and just before Nero. Herod Agrippa, a contemporary of Claudius, who grew up in the Roman court around the same time, was to become a king of the Jews.
Claudius was the fourth Emperor of the Roman Empire, from AD 41 to 54. A grandson of Mark Antony and a great-nephew of Augustus, he was a member of the Julio-Claudian family, Rome’s first imperial ruling family. Claudius’ family kept him out of public life until his sudden coronation at the age of fifty because of his persistent stammer, limp, and other nervous tics, which caused others to perceive him as mentally deficient and not a threat to his ambitious relatives. Even as his symptoms began to wane in his teenage years, he ran into trouble as a budding historian; his work on a history of the Roman Civil Wars was either too truthful or too critical of the reigning emperor Augustus, and his mother… and grandmother Livia quickly put a stop to it.
Claudius was portrayed this way by scholars for most of history, and Graves uses [in his novel ‘I, Claudius’] these peculiarities to develop a sympathetic character whose survival in a murderous dynasty depends upon his family’s incorrect assumption that he is a harmless idiot. Graves’ interpretation of the story owes much to the histories of Tacitus, Plutarch, and (especially) Suetonius’ ‘Lives of the Twelve Caesars’.
Graves translated Suetonius before writing the novels and claimed that after reading Suetonius, Claudius came to him in a dream one night and demanded that his real story be told.
Graves provides a theme for the story by having the fictional Claudius describe a visit to ‘Cumae’, where he receives a prophecy in verse from the Sybil and an additional prophecy contained in a book of “Sibylline Curiosities”. The latter concerns the fates of the “hairy ones” (i.e. the Caesars – from the Latin word “caesar”, meaning “a fine head of hair”) who are to rule Rome. The penultimate verse concerns his reign and Claudius assumes that he can tell the identity of the last emperor described in the prophecy. Graves establishes a fatalistic tone that plays out at the end of Claudius the God when Claudius correctly predicts his assassination and succession by Nero.
Writing in the first-person (from an unspecified time period, presumably late in his own reign as emperor), Claudius establishes himself as the author of this history of his family and insists on writing the truth, which includes harsh criticisms of the deified Augustus and especially of Livia.
Augustus’ third wife Livia (who is also Claudius’ paternal grandmother), a calculating murderess who seeks to make her son Tiberius (Claudius’ uncle) succeed Augustus as the next emperor.
As these intrigues occur, the sickly Claudius is born and is immediately shunned and mocked by his family. Only his brother Germanicus and his cousin Posthumous treat him with any kindness. He is eventually given a great tutor, the reputable historian Athenodorus who fosters a love of history and republican government in the young Claudius. During these early years, Claudius is advised by his idol Asinius Polio to play the fool to survive.
… the sickly Claudius is born and is immediately shunned and mocked by his family.
Upon Augustus’ death, Tiberius is declared emperor, though his mother Livia retains her power and influence as empress. The Roman legions campaigning in Germany refuse to accept the unpopular Tiberius and begin to mutiny, instead declaring Germanicus emperor. Shocked and confused, Germanicus refuses, declaring his loyalty to Tiberius.
… Germanicus ends the mutiny and leads several successful campaigns in Germany.
Germanicus soon becomes plagued by witchcraft before dying of poison. It is later revealed that Germanicus’ son Caligula was the instigator of the witchcraft.
As Tiberius becomes more hated by the public, he increasingly relies on his Praetorian Captain Sejanus to administer his edicts and punishments, who is able to manipulate Tiberius into suspecting that Germanicus’ wife Agrippina and his own son Castor are plotting to usurp the monarchy. Sejanus meanwhile secretly plots… to usurp the monarchy for himself by poisoning Castor and systematically eliminating any ally of Agrippina and her sons. Agrippina only survives due to the protection of Livia, who holds vital information regarding Augustus’ true opinion of Tiberius.
Livia then hosts a surprising dinner, to which Claudius and Caligula are invited. She predicts that Caligula (and not his older brothers) will become emperor and that Claudius will succeed him. She privately admits to Claudius to having ordered the poisonings and assassinations of many people, and then begs Claudius to swear to deify her as a goddess, believing it will grant her a blissful afterlife, to which he agrees. Claudius is later invited to Livia’s deathbed and reveals that Caligula betrayed his promise. Claudius swears that Livia will become the Queen of Heaven, which moves Livia to declare he is no fool before she dies.
Tiberius, now free of Livia, loses all compunction and executes hundreds of influential citizens on false charges of treason. He banishes Agrippina and her son Nero, while Agrippina’s son Drusus is imprisoned and starved to death in Rome. Tiberius retreats from public life to the island of Capri and Sejanus is given full command of the city in his absence, becoming de facto ruler of Rome.
Sejanus is executed along with his children; Claudius survives despite being married to Sejanus’ sister, whom he quickly divorces. Livilla is locked in a room by her mother Antonia and starved to death, and Antonia punishes herself for having raised Livilla by listening to her daughter die.
On his deathbed, the old and feeble Tiberius is smothered to death by Macro. Caligula is declared emperor and at first appears to be enlightened and kind. To his surprise, Claudius is recalled to Rome from his peaceful life in Capua writing history and living with his prostitute companion Calpurnia. Claudius quickly becomes the butt of many taunts and practical jokes by the Imperial Court. After recovering from a severe illness, Caligula descends into madness, his behavior becoming ever more egomaniacal and irrational. He declares himself a god in human disguise, stages arguments and battles with other gods, bankrupts the country, and kills thousands.
Caligula is killed by his Praetorian guard.
Horrified, Claudius hides behind a curtain and is discovered by a disgruntled Praetorian Guard. Realizing they need a new emperor, the Guards suddenly and bemusedly declare Claudius emperor. Claudius pleads that he does not want to be emperor and only wants to see the Republic restored, but the Guards ignore him. He sadly accepts for the sake of his wife and unborn child, and for the access the emperorship will give him to valuable historical documents, on a whim deciding that as emperor he will finally be able to demand that people read his books.
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