In last week’s post about Rebecca, I said it was a great novel for those naturally fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous.

Well, Rebecca pales in comparison (at least in this regard) to a work published four years: Robert Graves’s historical novel I, Claudius.

This is definitely not a book you should base on the cover: I opened the book full of hesitation as to whether I’d even get beyond the first chapter. It sounded like a dry, dusty pseudo-history (it’s a novel but is made to seem like an autobiography) of ancient Romans. Why would I want to slog through days, if not weeks, on something as mundane as that, when my to-be-read pile kept getting larger and larger?

To my surprise–and excitement, I, Claudius was nothing like what I had expected. From the get-go, Roman noble Claudius details a sweeping history from the reign of Augustus to his own rule. While it’s a pretty sizable chunk of time, Claudius describes his era as such a turbulent and whirlwind place that it’s easy to get caught up in the intrigues, scandals, and crimes aplenty that Claudius may well have been talking about a single year.

At least according to Claudius’s presentation, Augustus seems a fairly venerable ruler. His successors, Tiberius and then the infamous Caligula, on the other hand, have such a penchant for killing enemies real or, more often, imagined, that I found myself wondering if this novel held some sort of record for body count.

There’s also quite a bit of incest or rumors of incest, and at what point there were so many characters named “Cassius” and “Tiberius” that I had to wonder if all these Roman leaders were related to one another. Above all, Claudius presents his countrymen and countrywomen as power-hungry. Livia steals the show early on from Augustus with her determined plans to ensure her family is always going to be at the height of Roman authority. Not one character in Graves’s book is spared from this consuming ambition and thirst for power . . . .

. . . Except, apparently, for Claudius himself. He presents himself as a clumsy, uncouth historian posing no threats to anyone in authority. Of course, this means he outlasts all those surrounding him in his own bid for the Empire’s throne.

So, with that in mind, I say to you, the potential reader, to above not be afraid entering this work. Don’t fear page after page of walls of text (they’re entertaining pages, so it goes by fast!) Don’t worry about not knowing anything about ancient Rome other than there were gladiators–there are those, too, in this book, though!–and that there was this famous guy named Caesar.

Finally, don’t let your preconceptions of what makes a novel stop you from dusting off this classic. Before I came across I, Claudius, I had mixed feelings toward historical fiction, and I believed that if I wanted to read an autobiography or history, I should read a real one rather than some quasi-chronicle sold as fiction. I’m so glad that I resisted my old notions and let Graves’s brilliant narrative engross me. It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in 2019.

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