I, Claudius was one of the books I picked up from the pavement book sellers outside the bookfair. Recently I had read a mention about this book in some lit blog, and also a hard bound edition at Rs. 40 was a steal.
It is a gripping book. Written in first person narrative, covering the history of Caesars from Augustus to Claudius it is a great story even if you don't know anything about Roman history. I knew a little about Julius Caesar, Pompeii, Augustus, Caligula but nothing much. The story starts after Augustus has beaten Mark Antony and proceeds at a lively pace. The palace intrigues, political machinations, marriages used to consolidate power, poisoning of opponents all make for a heady mix. The character of Livia, the scheming wife of Augustus and grandmother of the narrator Claudius is simply awesome.
Where Robert Graves succeeds is fleshing out the characters in detail. Even when you feel the horror of Caligula's antics you are reminded that he was a spoilt child from birth and the public adulation had driven him mad. There is a sequence where Caligula tells Claudius that he isn't able to sleep for more than three hours a night and Claudius replies that's because Caligula is a god in human form and is yet to conquer the human need for sleep (by this time Caligula has declared that he is no mere mortal and is waging wars with Neptune, the Sea God). Caligula stops him in mid sentence and asks "Do you think I am mad?". Interesting piece that was, showing Caligula as bordering on insanity, yet still shrewd.
The book gives many details on how the Roman society worked, the fashions of that age, how the subsidiary kingdoms were treated and spends quite some pages on Germans. Whether this was due to the fact that the book was written between the first and second world wars (in 1930) I am not sure.
The prophecies of Oracle given at the starting of the story, they were far better cross word puzzles than those dished out by Dan Brown.