The novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves, published in 1934 and 1935 follow the history of the Roman Empire, from the latter reign of Augustus (starting around 24/23 B.C.) to the death of the eponymous character, Claudius, through whose eyes all of the action is seen.In 1976, the books were adapted into a BBC TV series, I, Claudius, with Derek Jacobi in the title role.
These books provide examples of:
Abusive Parents: Claudius' mother, Antonia was disgusted by him because of his disabilities, and always considered him to be an idiot.
Alternative Character Interpretation: Defied in-universe by Claudius himself. As he states at the beginning of Claudius the God, he is worried that he might be "branded by posterity as a clever opportunist who pretended to be a fool, lying low and biding his time until he got wind of a Palace intrigue against his Emperor, and then came boldly forward as a candidate for the succession"; among other reasons, he wrote the history of his life to assure the readers that this was not the case.
Based on a True Story: Yes and no. Most everything in the books, including the really outrageous stuff like Livia poisoning half her family or Messalina having a sexathon, comes from ancient primary sources. However, modern scholars consider much of that to be ancient rumormongering and/or propaganda.
Bilingual Backfire: The young Claudius overhears Augustus and Athenodorus talking about him in Greek. When Athenodorus jokingly asks his opinion, Claudius replies in Greek: "My mother Antonia does not pamper me, but she has let me learn Greek from someone who learned it directly from Apollo."
The Caligula: Features The original Caligula himself in all his violent and depraved "glory," and this is the work that most likely crystallized both his public image and the current pattern of the trope in the minds of modern-day audiences. Notably, while he's certainly cruel, the real feature that stands out about him is that he's capricious about his cruelty; he's just as likely to spare your life but publicly humiliate you as he is to have you simply tortured or executed out of hand if you run afoul of him.
Conspiracy Kitchen Sink: A hodgepodge of pretty much every half-baked conspiracy theory about the time of the Julio-Claudian Emperors, both then and since.
Deliberate Values Dissonance: Claudius has slaves, enjoys gladiator fights and approves of Germanicus slaughtering civilians during the war in Germania. Also, as an emperor, he has a lot of people executed.
Direct Line to the Author: Robert Graves' premise was that he had really discovered the memoirs of the historical Emperor Claudius, "nineteen hundred years or near" later i.e. in the present.
Dirty Old Man: Tiberius. His perversions are not detailed in the book; if Graves had repeated what Suetonius said about him, it probably would've been banned.
Doesn't Trust Those Guys: Herod Agrippa repeatedly advises Claudius to never trust anybody, and he's absolutely right. Claudius once writes him a letter saying that he has taken Herod's advice and trusts no one — with the exception of several people whose names he lists, Herod among them. All of them, Herod included, prove to be untrustworthy.
Downer Ending: Claudius at the end knows that Agrippina will soon kill him, and he'll be succeeded by Nero, who will be a horrible ruler. He allowed all of this to happen because he believed that after Nero's tyranny, people will abolish monarchy and restore the republic. People familiar with Roman history know how that turned out, but Graves also tells the reader in an afterword; after Nero's death, a civil war broke out, eventually Vespasian became the emperor and the republic was never restored.
Enfant Terrible: Caligula's daughter, Julia Drusilla, is a savage little monster who kicks and tears at people with her nails and wishes she could kill her mother. She's also barely two years old.
Evil Matriarch: Livia murders no less than 6 family members (including her husband, Emperor Augustus) in her scheme to set up her son as the next Emperor of Rome.
Foregone Conclusion: We are told at the start that Claudius is going to become Emperor. Nonetheless, the description of 60 years of Roman politics and intrigue leading up to this event manages to remain amazing and entertaining.
Gods Need Prayer Badly: A belief held in-universe by Romans, including Claudius himself, who discusses it in Claudius the God. He explicitly states that if a god ceases to be worshipped he is nothing; he also states that, conversely, being worshipped is what makes one a god. This means that, according to Claudius, if a mortal can make others worship him or her and is worshipped genuinely, then he or she is a god and must be accepted as such.
While Caligula was worshipped and believed in as a god he was indeed a supernatural being. Cassius Chaerea found it almost impossible to kill him, because there was a certain divine awe about him, the result of the worship offered him from simple hearts, and the conspirators felt it themselves and hung back. Perhaps he would never have succeeded if Caligula had not cursed himself with a divine premonition of assassination.
Heroic BSOD: After Augustus finds out about Julia's debauchery, he locks himself in his bedroom and remains there for four days without eating, drinking or talking to anyone.
Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Calpurnia, who was Claudius' partner for a while, and his friend for the rest of her life. Claudius expressed this in the epitaph he wrote for her:
"A harlot's love; a harlot's lie" -
Cast that ancient proverb by.
Calpurnia's heart was cleaner far,
Roman matrons, than yours are.
Hypocrite: The attentive reader will note that Claudius ends up making many of the same mistakes as Emperor he criticized others for making, including holding on to absolute power despite professing to want to restore the old Roman Republic. Of course, since he's the viewpoint character, he has perfectly good and justifiable reasons. At the end of Claudius the God, Claudius also realizes this.
Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Tiberius' friend, Cocceius Nerva is described by Claudius as an example: he "never made an enemy and never lost a friend" and he was "sweet-tempered, generous, courageous, utterly truthful and was never known to stoop to the least fraud, even if good promised to come from so doing". Nerva, however, does not protest Tiberius' depravity, because he's just too innocent and absent-minded to notice it.
Insult to Rocks: Claudius' mother, Antonia, manages to make this one do double duty, by finding something a moment later that she thinks is a sufficiently insulting comparison.
Antonia : That man [a senator] ought to be put out of the way! He's as stupid as a donkey—what am I saying? Donkeys are sensible beings by comparison—he's as stupid as... as... Heavens, he's as stupid as my son Claudius!
It Will Never Catch On: Claudius makes a few mentions of this weird new cult called "the Christians", and is happy to say that he probably won't be troubled by them again.
Klingon Promotion: The early Roman Empire is depicted this way, albeit with the murders carried out by proxy rather than in person. Livia, after killing everyone higher up the line of succession, poisons Augustus so Tiberius can succeed him; Caligula succeeds by having Tiberius smothered; and at the end Agrippina poisons Claudius to clear the way for Nero. The only Emperor who doesn't succeed this way is Claudius himself, who had nothing to do with Caligula's murder. (Historically, it's doubtful if Augustus and Tiberius were murdered, though Claudius probably was.)
Lady Macbeth: Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus and the Manipulative Bitch who essentially becomes the Woman Behind The Man by killing all the people that he won't to ensure that her descendants inherit the empire. Clearly one of the bad Claudians.
Long Game: Claudius writes and buries his memoirs for the specific purpose of having them discovered "nineteen hundred years or near" later, as the Sybil said they would be.
Loophole Abuse: When Sejanus and his supporters are being eliminated, guards are sent to kill his young children as well. They're understandably reluctant to do so, and one of them even protests that the daughter is underage and a virgin; executing a virgin is unprecedented and could bring bad luck on the city. Macro's solution? Rape her, then kill her. Her brother is also underage, but they dress him up in his coming of age robes so he's legally a man - then they kill him too. As is the case with most of the stuff in these books, sadly Truth in Television.
Morality Chain: Vipsania and Drusus to Tiberius early on in the story; Claudius notes that initially their influence checked the worse elements of his nature, but as he was forced to divorce Vipsania and Drusus was sent on a military campaign to a different part of the empire, their influence on Tiberius was removed and he gradually went altogether to the bad (especially after the two died). Later, and to a lesser degree, Cocceius Nerva to Tiberius. Caesonia tries to be this to Caligula, advising him to rule mildly and earn people's love. Unfortunately, this only makes Caligula announce that he will grant everyone amnesty and rule with love for a thousand of years, but only after purging Senate.
Morality Pet: Tiberius is portrayed as a pedophile who murders most of his relatives and a good chunk of the senate but for some reason he insists on having an innocent and virtuous senator Cocceius Nerva live with him in his Evil Playboy Mansion on Capri. It helps that Nerva seems to be the only real friend Tiberius had since the death of his brother Drusus and that he is possibly the only person in the empire who believes Tiberius to be just and moral, as Tiberius can't bring himself to disillusion him. When the senator decides to commit suicide Tiberius is distraught, and actually goes so far as to tear up some death warrants in the hope that this will convince the senator to live on.
OOC Is Serious Business: When Claudius' former lover and logtime friend, Calpurnia dies, he writes an epigraph for her. This is the only poem he ever wrote in his life, apart from school assigments. He explains that he wanted to do something exceptional to show the depth of his grief.
Pollio: Do you want to live a long and busy life, with honor at the end of it? Claudius: Yes. Pollio: Then exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I see, you would know that this was your only hope of eventual glory.
Offing the Offspring: Livia poisoned her husband, grandson, and everyone else who got in her way. She also arranged the death of her son Drusus, who was politically opposed to her.
Only Known by Their Nickname: Many of the characters are only known by their nicknames (for example, "Caligula" and "Castor"). Roman naming customs were very unimaginative, so several people might have identical or almost-identical names; nicknames made it much easier than trying to figure out which of the eight or nine "Drusus"es someone might be talking about. The narrator will usually mention the real name before telling you that that guy will just be known as "Castor" from then on.
Pass Fail: In Claudius the God, a lawyer who has pled cases in front of Claudius and his predecessors for decades is unmasked as a slave by one of Claudius's friends, who pulls aside the lawyer's toga to expose his brand.
Please Shoot the Messenger: Caligula, in a non-fatal version, punishes someone who's annoyed him by sending him with a letter to the King of Morocco. The letter says, "Kindly send bearer back to Rome."
Prophecy Twist: Claudius reveals early on that he had learned of a prophesy that describes his predecessors and himself, and speaks of his successor as horrible, and the last. Claudius interprets this to mean that his successor will be Rome's last Emperor, and that after him, the Republic will be restored, which is why he allows the horrible Nero to be his successor. However, the prophesy actually means (as the audience knows but Claudius doesn't) that Nero will be the last Julio-Claudian Emperor (but will of course have numerous successors).
Rain Dance: In Claudius the God, a Roman commander whose troops are lost in the desert follows his native guide's advice to invoke the local rain god. It works.
Really Gets Around: Julia and Messalina, the latter taking it to absurd levels. Narcissus compiles a list of people she slept with while married to Claudius. The first draft contains 54 names, but it's later extended to 155.
Remember the New Guy: Herod Agrippa gets a brief mention at the very end of I, Claudius, where he saves the audience of the Palatine Hill theatre from Caligula's German guards after the latter's death, and becomes one of the main characters in Claudius the God, where it is revealed that he was in fact present during many of the events of I, Claudius but was not mentioned there. Claudius lampshades this in the introduction to Claudius the God, and handwaves this by stating that Herod ultimately wasn't that important character in the story until the death of Caligula.
Parodied in I, Claudius, where Claudius meets historians Livy and Pollio. Pollio criticizes Livy for writing that generals gave rousing speeches before battles, and tells that Julius Caesar before the decisive battle with Pompey (where Pollio was present) didn't do anything of the sort; instead, he did funny skits involving a radish.
In Claudius the God, Claudius gives a similar speech before an important battle in Britain (without a radish though).
Seppuku: What Roman Generals (like Quinctilius Varus of the "WHERE ARE MY EAGLES!" fame) were expected to do after losing battles. Another form of ritual suicide (by opening a vein) was also available to people facing political disgrace, or to people who had simply grown tired of life. In general, an honorable death-by-suicide could save everyone a lot of trouble—for example, a condemned traitor would usually forfeit his property, leaving his family destitute. (Of course, when doing this, it's always handy to have one's treacherous wife standing by to gut-stab you should you chicken out at the last minute...)
Face Death with Dignity: When Claudius's freedman trick him into signing Messalina's death-warrant, they make sure to offer Messalina a dagger—to take the honourable way out—in the hopes that they won't have to show the warrant to Claudius. Similarly, when Augustus banishes his daughter Julia for adultery, Julia accepts exile but her maid Phoebe hangs herself in disgrace; Augustus bitterly comments, "I wish to God I had been Phoebe's father."
Shaming the Mob: Germanicus uses this to put down the mutiny of his troops on the Rhine.
Sexless Marriage: Claudius and Agrippinilla. Since he only married her for political reasons and actually loathes her, he tells her right away that there won't be any intimacy between them. Agrippinilla doesn't mind.
Shoo Out the Clowns: Implied to happen at the very end of Claudius the God. The clowns in question are minor characters Augurinus and Baba, two guys who made a living giving theatricals in the back streets of the Rome where they parodied Claudius and his wives. Claudius forbids Agrippinilla from having them killed, stating that so long as he lives their lives are to be spared; Agrippinilla agrees to let them live only exactly so long, to the very hour. Seneca's "The Pumpkinication of Claudius" mentions Claudius and some Augurinus and Baba dying "in the same year quite close to each other"; and their deaths are implied to be first sign of Agrippinilla's and Nero's tyranny being completely unrestrained after the death of Claudius.
Shown Their Work: Graves translated many classical works into English, including one of the major sources for the life of Claudius. Much of the novel's material can be traced to Roman authors such as Suetonius and Tacitus, and the prose style deliberately invokes the style of something that has been translated faithfully from Latin.
Spare To The Throne: Claudius is very far down the Imperial line of succession. No one expects him to really amount to anything.
Stutter Stop: The young Claudius occasionally breaks through his stutter at emotionally intense moments. Later, after training himself out of his stutter (but still keeping it in public as part of his Obfuscating Disability) he is able to invoke the trope at will.
Suicide Is Painless: Cocceius Nerva decides that he had lived enough, so he simply stops eating and eventually dies.
Tangled Family Tree: An example of Truth in Television; the convoluted relationships (both through blood and through marriage — not to mention adoption) between all the Julio-Claudians extremely complex. Claudius devotes the better part of a chapter to helping the reader untangle his relations.
Livia justifies all her murders and deceit with claiming that they were necessary for the good of the state.
Claudius at the end organizes Nero to be his successor, fully knowing that he'll be the worst ruler imaginable. He does that because he believes that after this, people will finally realize that monarchy is wrong and restore the republic. He writes in his meditations:
By dulling the blade of tyranny I fell into great error. By whetting the same blade I might redeem that error. Violent disorders call for violent remedies.
Villains Out Shopping: I, Claudius has a scene where Tiberius takes a break from depravities and ordering executions to compose a verse-dialogue between the hare and the pheasant, in which they argue which one of them makes for a better meal. Unfortunately, he is then surprised by a fisherman who decided to visit him on Capri and present him a large barbel he had caught. Tiberius has the poor man brutally maimed and then killed.
Vitriolic Best Buds: The historians Livy and Pollio. For example, when they first meet the young Claudius in a library, Livy asks what is he reading. Pollio comments that it's probably some romantic rubbish, since today's youth reads nothing but trash. Livy makes a bet with him that it isn't. When Claudius reveals that he's reading a historical work by Pollio, Livy insists that Pollio won the bet: today's youth reads nothing but trash.