12 Things You Might Not Know About I, Claudius

In a city rife with backstabbers, an overlooked member of Rome’s ruling family plays dumb to stay alive and unwittingly becomes the most powerful man on earth. Robert Graves’ brilliant novel has been enthralling readers since 1934. Presented as a long-lost memoir supposedly written by a real-life emperor, I, Claudius straddles the fine line between history and fiction. 

1. Graves Wrote I, Claudius Purely Out of Financial Need

Though they're his best-known works by far, Graves didn’t take much pride in I, Claudius or its sequel Claudius the God (1935). “Neither of them is of any real worth,” he once opined. At the time, however, Graves desperately needed some quick cash, since an ill-advised business venture had plunged the author into a £4000 debt. Working fast, he powered through both books in eight months—and the post-publication rewards were immediate. "Claudius has been very helpful in the money way,” Graves confessed, “I am now able to support my children."

2. Several Ancient Sources Were Consulted

As a Classical scholar, Graves knew his way around Roman texts. I, Claudius leans most heavily on two key volumes: Annals by Tacitus (written in 109 CE) and Suetonius’ The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 CE). Both chronicle the empire’s early decades with incredible detail. In fact, they’re so comprehensive that some critics accused Graves of having merely "run them together and expanded the result with [his] own 'vigorous fancy.'" As a rebuttal, he listed nearly two dozen additional sources in the preface to Claudius the God. These include writings by Julius Caesar, the great philosopher Seneca, and good old Claudius himself.

3. Livia Might Not Have Been the Villain She’s Made Out to Be

Augustus’ wife comes across as a Machiavellian puppet-master, orchestrating the deaths of just about everyone who gets in her way. This is more or less consistent with how Roman historians tended to paint the infamous woman. But was Livia really a serial murderess? As biographer Anthony Barret points out, there’s no documented proof that she ever offed anyone for political gain. Then again, any good conspirator knows to cover her tracks. Maybe Livia deserves the vile reputation she’s been dealt. Maybe she doesn’t. Regardless, the case is open.

4. … And the Real Caligula was Probably a Bit Saner Than his Literary Counterpart

Most of the truly decadent stories about Caligula’s behavior first show up in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which was written 80 years after he was slain by his own guards. Therein, the short-lived emperor gets accused of everything from declaring war on Neptune the sea god to having sex with his sisters in front of guests. Book Caligula follows suit, even though Suetonius’ outrageous tales were most likely nothing but hearsay. 

5. Graves Chose Claudius as a Protagonist Because He Was "A Historian"

As he once told T. E. Lawrence (a.k.a.: "Lawrence of Arabia"), "I identify myself with [Claudius] as much as any historical character I know." Graves felt that because Claudius—like himself—was a detail-oriented academic, he’d be an ideal narrator, even if his leadership skills were imperfect at times. "The best he could do," stated Graves, "was to be a historian and keep a historian’s faith. The more he tried, as Emperor, to interfere with the process of disintegration, the madder things got."

6. Moreover, He Believed that Posterity Had Undervalued Claudius

For the most part, Rome’s great writers dismissed Claudius as an incompetent ruler. Graves couldn’t have disagreed more. "I had noted in my diary," he revealed during an interview, "a year or two before, that the Roman historians—Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dion Cassius, but especially Tacitus—had obviously got Claudius wrong, and that one day I’d have to write a book about it."

7. Graves Took a Few Linguistic Liberties

At one point, Claudius reports on a gladiator fight that involves two Germans going at it with pointed stick weapons he calls "assegai." According to a colleague of Graves’, these should’ve been referred to as "javelins," since assegai is an African term. However, Graves ignored this advice because in addition to being a "savage sounding" word, the British-Zulu wars had given it "renewed vigor" in the minds of English-speaking readers. 

8. Claudius Really Did Exaggerate his Limp and Stammer to Survive  

Being ambitious is a sure way to get killed in I, Claudius. Given these dire circumstances, our protagonist learns to never underestimate the value of being underestimated. Physically, the historical Claudius looked like a pushover. We know from several firsthand accounts that he stammered, drooled, twitched, and limped (some doctors now blame his symptoms on cerebral palsy). He later admitted—as Graves’ fictionalized version does—to deliberately playing up these defects, which convinced many that he was a harmless oaf. 

9. Alec Guinness Would’ve Starred in An Unmade Movie Adaptation

In 1956, Graves was asked to turn his novel into a screenplay and started doing so. For the lead role, producer Vincent Korda chose Guinness, who quickly accepted. Early on, the star argued that their movie shouldn’t become a Ben Hur-style sword & sandal epic. Instead, he envisioned I, Claudius as a "domestic palace drama." Graves quite liked this attitude, but, unfortunately, the whole project fell through.  

10. The Book Was Once Considered "Cursed"

For the better part of 40 years, I, Claudius seemed un-filmable. The first attempt at throwing it onto the silver screen came in 1937, but an automobile accident involving one of the lead actresses abruptly halted that production. Afterward, bad luck always seemed to befall anyone who took a crack at adapting the novel. Until the BBC struck gold with its 13-part I, Claudius miniseries in 1976, a curse was said to hang over the source material—much like the one that still allegedly plagues A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. 

11. Graves Gets a Cryptic Nod in the BBC TV Drama

During the show’s final episode, elderly Claudius (played by Derek Jacobi) starts hallucinating. "The man who dwells by the pool shall open graves," he mutters—an obvious homage to screenwriter Jack Pulman and, of course, Robert Graves.

12. In 2005, Time Magazine Ranked I, Claudius Among the "100 Best English Language Novels Published Since 1923"

"Claudius bears enduring witness to a moment when the virtues of the Roman republic, which has already been disposed of by the time he begins his tale, are being lost to the bloodlust and hubris of the Roman empire," waxed critic Richard Lacayo.  

10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”


Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.


In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.


In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span;

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
6 X-Rated Library Collections
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the 19th century, some librarians became preoccupied with the morality (or lack thereof) of some of their titles. As a result, a number of libraries created special collections for "obscene" works, to ensure that only readers with a valid academic purpose might access them. Below are six examples, adapted from Claire Cock-Starkey’s new book A Library Miscellany.


At the British Library (or British Museum Library, as it was called then), it was John Winter Jones, Keeper of Printed Books from 1856, who was responsible for the creation of the “Private Case.” Titles that were deemed subversive, heretical, libelous, obscene, or that contained state secrets were kept out of the general catalog, stored in separate shelving, and marked with the shelfmark category “PC” (for private case). By far the majority of books in the private case were pornographic or erotic texts; it's rumored that by the mid-1960s the case contained over 5000 such texts, including George Witt’s collection of books on phallicism and Charles Reginald Dawes’s collection of French erotica from 1880–1930.

What was unusual about the Private Case was that it was so secretive: None of the books were recorded in any catalog, as if the collection didn’t exist. But starting in 1983, all books once in the Private Case have been listed in the catalog, and many have been returned to the main collection—although librarians may still check that a reader has academic reasons for consulting some of the more scandalous titles.


General stacks of the Bibliotheque nationale de France

L’Enfer, which translates as “the hell,” was created in 1830 to house the French national library’s large collection of erotica and other books that were considered “contrary to good morals.” Many of the works were obtained by the library through confiscation, but fortunately the librarians had the foresight to preserve these scandalous texts. The collection—which still exists—has been largely kept private and was only fully cataloged in 1913, when about 855 titles were recorded.

Modern pornographic magazines and erotic fiction do not get cast into L’Enfer: It is only for rare works or works of cultural significance, such as a handwritten copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1787) and The Story of O by Pauline Réage (1954). In 2007, the library put on a public exhibition of some of the more fascinating (and titillating) texts in L’Enfer, finally granting the public a glimpse of this hidden collection.


The New York Public Library Main Reading Room
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the New York Public Library, some obscene works were once hand-marked with "***", which indicated that readers who wanted to consult those volumes had to be supervised. (Librarians regularly collected erotica, including from nearby Times Square, as part of their "mandate to collect life as it was lived," according to The New York Times.This system began in the mid-20th century and caused certain titles to be locked in caged shelves; it also meant that the items could only be consulted in a small restricted part of the reading rooms after special permission was granted.


Radcliffe Camera building, part of the Bodleian Library
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The restricted collection at the Bodleian Library was created by E. W. B. Nicholson, who was head librarian from 1886–1913. No one is quite sure why it was named after the Greek letter phi, but some have suggested it was because it sounds like “fie!” which you might exclaim when asked to retrieve a book from this collection. Or, perhaps it stems from the first letter “phi” of the Greek “phaula” or “phaulos,” meaning worthless, wicked, or base. The collection included pornography alongside works of sexual pathology, and students needed to ask a tutor to confirm their academic need for a book before the librarians would let them consult any texts with a phi shelfmark. Today, many of the books have been reclassified into the general collection, but the phi shelfmark still persists.


 Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

The Widener Library still holds its restricted collection behind a locked copper door in the basement of the library—not because they still want to hide it, but simply because (it's said) no one has the time to redistribute the collection back into main circulation. The collection was thought to have been set up in the 1950s, after a sociology professor complained that many texts he needed for his class were missing or defaced (the Playboy centerfold was apparently always going astray), and thus the restricted collection was created to protect and preserve rather than to censor. The collection was only added to for a 30-year period and is now closed; however, its classification reveals something of the social attitudes of the times towards titles such as The Passions and Lechery of Catherine the Great (1971) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The X part of the shelfmark does not stand for X-rated but indicates that the books are unusual; the R part stands for “restricted.”


Trinity College Library, Cambridge University
Central Press/Getty Images

As library collections are frequently made up of a series of smaller collections donated to the institution, they may often acquire titles that the library may otherwise have not chosen to collect—such as some of the more risqué works. Cambridge University Library felt it had a duty to students to protect them from some of the more offensive books in their collection, and for this reason the Arc (short for arcana—meaning secrets or mysteries) classification was created. As with other restricted collections, Cambridge’s Arc provides a fascinating insight into changing moral attitudes. Some of the highlights included what is considered by some historians as the first gay novel, L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the Schoolboy), published in 1652; a 1922 copy of Ulysses by James Joyce (notable because at that time the book was being burned by UK Customs Officers); and a misprinted copy of the Cambridge Bible.


The Sistine Hall, once part of the Vatican Library
Michal Osmenda, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

There has always been a rumor that the Vatican Library holds the largest collection of pornographic material in the world, in a collection supposedly known as the “Inferno,” but in fact this honor goes to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. It is thought that the Vatican Library’s collection was created from the thousands of erotic works that have been confiscated by the Vatican over the years. However, no evidence for the collection has been found, and the (admittedly incredibly secretive) Vatican librarians deny its very existence.

This article is an expanded version of an entry in Claire Cock-Starkey’s A Library Miscellany, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.


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