I picked up a used copy of I, Claudius years, maybe a decade, ago when I saw that it was on both the Modern Library 100 greatest novels of the 20th Century and Time Magazine’s top 100 lists. I have since decided that I don’t have to complete those lists (I still may, but I’m not obsessed with finishing them now). It has been on the shelf since then, and is a prime example of why I needed to do my 2020 project of focusing on reading books I owned at the beginning of the year.
The book I thought about most while reading I, Claudius was CS Lewis’s best novel, Till We Have Faces. This is unfair. While both are set in western antiquity and, to different extents, use ancient paganism to talk about Christendom (admittedly I, Claudius does this only obliquely, but it is there), they are very different. Till We Have Faces is set in the fictional city-state of Glome, which is not greek but interacts with the Greeks and retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters. I, Claudius retells the period of Roman history from the aftermath of Julius Ceasar’s death to Claudius’s reluctant (in this telling) assumption of the throne in the first person voice of Claudius himself. Till We Have Faces is by far the better book, and the differences outweigh the similarities enough that it’s an unfair comparison, but the tone of I, Claudius brought the Lewis to mind.
My enjoyment of the book was certainly hobbled to some extent by being relatively ignorant of the period of Roman history covered. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book; I did. But I think a prior knowledge of the history it recounts would likely have really improved the reading experience. That said, the story is compelling, and Claudius’s voice is charming. He does seem to both want to pearl clutch and cluck the tongue at certain aspects of the decadence on display and participate in it at the same time. Some of that is an intentional complication of the character and some of it is a funny commentary on the time in which it was written. Overall, though, I, Claudius is a very enjoyable historical novel that I would recommend, especially to those who are interested in the time period.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 64/75