The novel I, Claudius, written by the British author Robert Graves tells the tale of Tiberius Claudius who was born in the year 10 B.C., only to be murdered then deified 64 years later. Claudius, because of his physical infirmities, was considered an idiot, yet he was one of the great survivors in a particularly turbulent period of the Roman Empire. In fact, Claudius survived the intrigues and poisonings of the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and the insane Caligula to become emperor in 41 A.D.
Robert Graves, whose book was published in 1934, presented the tale as an autobiographical memoir by the Roman Emperor. Claudius was well aware of his own weaknesses and shortcomings; he was physically weak, afflicted with stammering, and inclined to drool. He was, in fact, an embarrassment to his family and was kept well away from the limelight of imperial affairs. Claudius used his weaknesses to his benefit and became a scholar and historian even though he was seen as a bumbling fool. Though he was surrounded by palace intrigues and murders, he was spared the worst cruelties inflicted on the imperial family by its own members. Claudius, it seemed, was impervious to the imperial families’ endless greed and lust for power, and yet he ended up emperor, leader of all he surveyed.
Robert Graves, one of ten children, was born in Wimbledon, south-west London on July 24, 1895. As a child he was greatly influenced by his mother’s puritanical beliefs and his father’s love of Celtic poetry and myth. As a young man he was more interested in sports, boxing and mountain climbing than studying although poetry, he later said, sustained him through his turbulent adolescence. In 1913 he won a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford; a year later he enlisted as a junior officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. During the First World War he fought in the Battle of Loos and was injured in the Somme offensive in 1916. While convalescing he published his first collection of poetry, Over the Brazier. By 1917, though still an active serviceman, Graves had published three volumes. In 1918 he spent a year in the trenches where he was again severely wounded.
In January 1918, at the age of twenty-two, he married eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson; they had four children. He took a position at St. John’s College, Oxford. His early volumes of poetry, like those of his contemporary war poets, deal with natural beauty, bucolic pleasures and the consequences of war. In 1927 Graves and his wife separated permanently. Shortly afterward he departed to the Spanish island of Majorca with Laura Riding, the American poet and theorist. In addition to completing many books of verse while in Majorca, Graves also wrote several volumes of criticism, some in collaboration with Riding. Although he claimed that he wrote novels only to earn money, it was through these that he attained status as a major writer in 1934 with the publication of the historical novel I, Claudius, and its sequel, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina, that the BBC adapted in the 1970s into an internationally popular television series.
At the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Graves and Riding fled Majorca, eventually settling in America. In 1939 Laura Riding left Graves for another writer; one year later Graves began a relationship with Beryl Hodge that lasted until his death. After the Second World War Graves and Hodge returned to Majorca where he continued to write. By the 1950s he had attained an enormous international reputation as a poet, novelist, literary scholar, and translator. From 1961 to 1966 Graves returned to England to serve as professor of poetry at Oxford where he was considered England’s “greatest living poet” and in 1968 he received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
During his lifetime Graves published more than 140 books including fifty-five collections of poetry, fifteen novels, ten translations, and forty works of non-fiction, autobiography, and literary essays. In the 1970s his productivity began to fall off; and the last decade of his life was spent in silence and senility. Robert Graves died in Majorca in 1985 at the age of ninety. In 2012 it was revealed that Graves was considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize but was rejected because even though he had written several historical novels, he was still seen as a poet. Nobel committee member Henry Olsson refused to award any Anglo-Saxon poet the prize before the death of Ezra Pound, believing that other writers did not match his talent – so arbitrary is the selection process of that august body!
Another literary giant, novelist Graham Greene, it is said, was turned down because he had an affair with the wife of a Nobel committee member. His novel England Made Me is set mainly in Stockholm, seat of the Nobel Committee. In the film version the setting became Nazi Germany. As Greene put it, “In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.”