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Historical Discrepancies In I, Claudius

HistoryHistorical Discrepancies In I, Claudius

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen of the bust of Emperor Claudius at Naples National Archeological Museum, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Did this really happen? Is this the whole truth or a fraction thereof? These are questions that every critical reader of the historical fiction genre should ask themselves. I, Claudius, written by the English writer Robert Graves in 1934, is a work of historical fiction that pretends to be the autobiography of Claudius, who was the fourth Roman emperor. In I, Claudius, the narrator tells countless stories, many of which are extrapolated or even invented facts. This means that the answer to the two questions previously posed is no. But a simple no should not serve to discredit this work. A third question must be asked: does this particular historical discrepancy or blatant invention add or detract from the value of the book? Though there exist several historical inconsistencies in I, Claudius, the majority of the book is found to be surprisingly accurate. The discrepancies that are present certainly add to the value of the book due to the fact that they are either reasonable and illustrative extrapolations or serve some important literary purpose.

One method of determining the historical accuracy of a text is to take a moment of dialogue, a small detail, or a minor character and then run an internet search to determine whether the author invented these happenings or whether they were recorded in the annals of history. If this method is practiced on I, Claudius, numerous small contrivances reveal themselves. One of these small inventions is the significance of the Leek Green and Scarlet chariot racing factions. I, Claudius discusses four chariot teams: Leek Green, Sea Blue, Scarlet, and White (Graves 323). However, in the Scarlet Banner, a book by historian Felix Dahn, the author writes, “Five of the Blues rolled slowly in from the right gate, five of the Greens from the left; the chariots themselves, the reins and trappings of the horses, and the tunics of the charioteers were respectively leek-green and light-blue,” (Dahn). Leek Green and Light Blue seem to have existed, and while Scarlet is not mentioned in the context of chariot racing, it is referenced elsewhere in the Scarlet Banner. However, there is no apparent evidence for the hidden meanings that Graves invents in the book. Graves writes, “Tiberius believed Sejanus’s story that there was a secret party, called the Leek Green party, now being formed by Agrippina… He had also been told by Sejanus that Scarlet was the secret symbol,” (Graves 323), that was used to represent Emperor Tiberius. It is important to note that Agrippina was an enemy of Tiberius. When Leek Green won, the crowds would cheer, but when Scarlet won, the crowd would boo and hiss, striking fear in Tiberius’ heart. This whole story is largely unsubstantiated. However, it is likely that a farce invented by Sejanus in order to subjugate Tiberius would not have made it to recorded history. Therefore, though this storyline seems to have been invented, it still adds to the value of the book because it is plausible, there is no evidence to the contrary, and it helps illustrate a point. 

Then, there are the blatant falsehoods. In I, Claudius, Agrippa Postumus (Postumus) is portrayed as a compassionate person, one of the few who befriended the sickly young Claudius and showed him love and devotion. When recounting the stories of his childhood, Claudius, or rather Graves, refers to him as “My dear friend Postumus… the truest friend, except Germanicus, that I have ever had,” (Graves 74). When Postumus says goodbye to Claudius, Claudius writes that, “tears were in his [Postumus’] eyes. He embraced me tenderly,” (Graves 172). This Postumus is very different from the Postumus of the history books, who was referred to by early sources, “as a vulgar young man, brutal and brutish, and of depraved character,” (Galinsky). When looking at ancient sources there is always room for error or political bias, but multiple historians agree that Postumus was a bad person. This discrepancy would make I, Claudius have less value as a historical textbook. But, it is not a textbook; it is a work of historical fiction. It would be a pretty depressing autobiography if the main character had no friends at all. But more importantly, this is not a material invention of fact, and its truth or untruth would have no significant bearing on the readers’ comprehension of Roman history. Plenty of people in the book are brutish already—there is no need for more. And there is always the possibility that Postumus was slandered posthumously by those who wished to justify his exile.

Finally, there is the matter of Livia. In I, Claudius, she is painted as an evil murderer who will stop at nothing to consolidate her power. She murders or sanctions the murder of almost every good character in the book, including Augustus and his grandsons. During one conversation, Livia tells Claudius that “she had poisoned Augustus by smearing poison on the figs while they were still on the tree” (Graves 361). Outside of I, Claudius, the first-century historian Tacitus also referenced Livia, calling her treacherous. However, there is little real evidence for Livia’s evil acts. This has led the website “Bad Ancient” to say that most claims regarding Livia’s absolute meanness are false (Greenfield et al.). This may seem like a large disparity between I, Claudius and reality, but since the book is not a history textbook, it actually adds to the literary value. Without an evil Livia, there would be no antagonist.

So, do these historical discrepancies in I, Claudius really detract from the value of the book? No. Robert Graves never intended nor presented this book as a factual work. It was always a work of historical fiction. And he did a good job of sticking to the real history whenever possible; he only invented stories when it would increase the value of the book. The concepts of historical fact and historical fiction have been mentioned several times. However, no information from two thousand years ago can be definitively cited as fact. Today, the media biases of CNN and Fox News are well known. The historians of the first century were similarly biased. They wrote what suited them and their rulers. For example, the historian Suetonius, a major source for some of the stories in the book, lived during the Flavian dynasty and would therefore want to paint the Julio-Claudians in the worst possible light in order to make the Flavians look good in comparison (“Was the Roman Emperor Caligula Insane?”). This leads to the realization that ancient historical fact does not exist. The only truth is that there exist contradictions. Maybe I, Claudius is right and the ancient sources have it all wrong. There is simply no way to know.

Works Cited

Momigliano, Arnaldo Dante. “Claudius.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Claudius-Roman-emperor. 

Graves, Robert. I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born B.C. 10, Murdered and Diefied A.D. 54. Vintage Books, 1934. 

Bezant, James. “An Emperor, a Fisherman and a Crab.” Ancient History, 1 Jan. 1970, https://ancienthistory-rome.blogspot.com/2015/07/an-emperor-fisherman-and-crab.html.

Cawley, Valentine. “Superhuman: Eleazar, Giant of the Jews.” The Boy Who Knew Too Much: A Child Prodigy, 25 Jan. 2008, https://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2008/01/superhuman-eleazar-giant-of-jews.html.

Galinsky, Karl, editor. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Dahn, Felix. Scarlet Banner. John Wilson and Son, 2010.

Dray, Stephanie. “Livia Drusilla: Evil Empress or Maligned Mother of the Empire?” Stephanie Dray, https://www.stephaniedray.com/livia-drusilla-evil-empress-or-maligned-mother-of-the-empire/.

“Gaius Cestius Gallus – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/gaius-cestius-gallus/g121zcg7w?hl=en.

Greenfield, Peta, and Fiona Radford. “Was Livia the Ultimate Evil Stepmother?” Bad Ancient, 29 Mar. 2021, https://www.badancient.com/claims/livia/.

Malik, Shushma, and Caillan Davenport. “Mythbusting Ancient Rome – Caligula’s Horse.” The Conversation, 8 Mar. 2022, https://theconversation.com/mythbusting-ancient-rome-caligulas-horse-75837.

Patowary, Kaushik. “Scalae Gemoniae: The Stairs of Death.” Amusing Planet, Blogger, 7 July 2020, https://www.amusingplanet.com/2020/03/scalae-gemoniae-stairs-of-death.html.

“Was the Roman Emperor Caligula Insane?” Knoji, 11 Dec. 2017, https://knoji.com/article/was-the-emperor-caligula-insane/.

Wasson, Donald L. “Claudius.” World History Encyclopedia, World History Encyclopedia, 20 Mar. 2022, https://www.worldhistory.org/claudius/. 

Church, Alfred J. “Tiberius at Capri.” Heritage History | Pictures from Roman Life and Story by Alfred J. Church, https://www.heritage-history.com/index.php?c=read&author=church&book=roman&story=capri.

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