In the early half of the Twentieth Century Robert Graves was translating Suetonius masterpiece The Twelve Caesars to English. As he was translating the life of Claudius, he felt that there was far more to the story, and knew one day he would tell it. He was further compelled to do so when the Roman Emperor appeared to Graves in a dream to tell the real story of his life. Graves not wanting to upset this vision, and also strapped for cash began heavily researching several primary sources before writing the historical fiction novel I, Claudius. The book was a smash hit and the following year Graves released the sequel book Claudius the God, which was originally intended to be included in I, Claudius.
The books have been hailed as masterpieces in fiction and for some figures have become the “true” versions of the person. The attention of the books attracted Hollywood with an attempted film adaptation of the two books shot in 1937. However, an accident on stage caused the production to be halted.
Years later, Claudius’ “true story” was given its second chance to be told, and this time it was on the TV screens. Director Herbert Wise teamed-up with writer Jack Pulman to do an unprecedented 13-hour adaptation of the two books. It is surprising how much this series was ahead of its time. While most books were simply adapted into a single film, the breadth and scope of the Claudius duology was given much more breathing area. It’s magnificent to be given such a long and well-directed and performed Roman Epic. The story told in I, Claudius is a timeless story of deception, betrayal, and survival. It’s also surprisingly funny. The TV Series is as influential as the book, with most ancient TV Epics striving to echo the quality of I, Claudius. With a 40-year anniversary approaching, it is worth talking about this TV masterpiece.
The story begins as any epic must, in the middle of things, Claudius is already Emperor as we learn in the frame narrative. He has been foretold by the God Apollo through his oracle, the Sibyl, that he was destined to be given something that everyone desired, except him. Not only that, but he is told that he will speak clear to people in 1900 years. So, Claudius is writing his history for our benefit, and is compelled to tell the truth. Which if truer historians want to have their disclaimer it is that the account is told solely through Claudius’ point of view, and he is naturally biased to certain events. But the narrative framing device is the only part Claudius actually appears in this extended length episode. It is fascinating that the original intent was to have two actors play Claudius, one the old narrating Claudius and the other, the younger and vulnerable Claudius. But Herbert Wise, preferred the idea of a continuity in performance and asked Derek Jacobi to play the titular role. Jacobi’s famous response to hearing of the role was, “I don’t want to be Claudius; I want to play Hamlet!” Jacobi has a role akin to F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus of playing a world-weary old man narrating his story to the audience while simultaneously playing with brilliance a younger and deceptive man. Admittedly though, this is not an episode where Jacobi can greatly shine as an actor, though he does get an enjoyable scene with a slave complaining about worrying that his food is poisoned every day.
But beyond that, the main story focuses on 10 years into the reign of Augustus. If any humble viewer would like an excellent lead-in to this point in history I recommend watching Starz’s excellent Spartacus series which is a good lead-up to HBO’s superb series Rome. Most people, are familiar with the story of Antony and Cleopatra and the rise of Caesar Augustus, but beyond that most people’s familiarity with Roman history falls short. This is part of the great intent that the first episode intends to demonstrate the difference between grand interpretations of history and the actual truth of what transpires.
In the opening scene there is a poem recited that acts both as a reflection of what transpired immediately before the series, in the Battle of Actium, and as a reflection of the typical lofty presentation of history found in Shakespeare and classrooms. But after the great poetry, Augustus lovingly states that the battle did not happen in the beautiful way it was described. In a similar vein we see Augustus’ nephew Marcellus speak in a common tongue[i] about the Battle of Actium, dismissing the battle as relatively unimportant[ii]. The series approach to history and drama is clearer in this scene as we see figures of history not as living statues but as genuine human beings, who speak in a modern manner.
This first episode is essentially two episodes combined (which was why it was divided in two for the PBS release). The first plot deals with the rivalry with the aforementioned Marcellus and the General Marcus Agrippa. What is fun about this section of the episode is how it demonstrates the “mafia” tone of the series. Pulman reportedly suffered as did the actors, with creating the right tone for the series until he thought of the mafia. This mafia tone is most clear in the opening act of the episode with so many magnificent scenes of characters saying one thing while meaning the other. It’s a delight to people switch from hugging and speaking well about a person and then immediately switch to angrily railing against the same person.
Admittedly the first section is simply not as interesting as the second half, but it is a joy to watch the superb Sian Philips smirk and scheme as Livia in these early scenes. Philips performance is the breakout role of the series, as she plays the Empress Livia Drusilla, consort to Augustus and secret co-ruler if not de facto ruler of Rome. In history Livia was always known to be powerful, and was always suspected of having committed wrongdoing. Graves took the rumors as genuine acts and crafted a character that is brilliantly manipulative. In her debut she comes across as above all patient, and will wait years upon years in order for her grand schemes to succeed.
The second-half of the episode focuses on Claudius’ father Drusus, who in history was legendary for conquering Germany. Here Drusus is portrayed excellently by Ian Ogilvy, who is an embarrassment to his mother because he is believes in Republican government. It’s strange to hear genuine arguments for monarchy in the present day, but Livia makes valid points as to why Rome works more efficiently as a monarchy. Certainly Augustus as portrayed by the great Brian Blessed is not conscious in his destruction of liberty, but Drusus is trying to encourage avoiding all the trappings of a hereditary monarchy. Drusus fairly points out that most Roman dictators retired, but the blame is placed on Livia for not allowing Augustus to retire.
Drusus is also important as he is ultimately the final bastion of hope for keeping his brother Tiberius a good person. Tiberius is played by George Baker who is able to show the gradual decline of Tiberius. The actual Tiberius Caesar was seen by his contemporaries as an awful man, but the revered historian Tacitus was nuanced in his hate of Tiberius as he viewed Tiberius as beginning as a good man but becoming worse through the years. This attitude about Tiberius is portrayed in the opening episode of I, Claudius as Tiberius is very happy and has simple desires in the beginning, but is slowly becoming a paradox of self-loathing and fearing-himself. Tiberius uncomfortably says to his always optimistic brother that he has such dark thoughts at times. Tiberius is aware of his demons but is so far separate from them. The main tragedy in this debut episode revolves around this fall from grace for Tiberius. He starts off as mostly likeable and sympathetic. Tiberius is unambitious but his mother drives him to slowly become something he fears and by the end with the death of his brother Tiberius is downright cold and cruel.
The effective ending of the first episode has three people purportedly poisoned by Livia, who in a magnificent final shot encapsulates the main thematic point of the episode. Livia is seen with her arms around the shoulders of Augustus’ grandsons who are supposed to succeed him. But Livia has other designs for them as she digs her nails into the youth’s shoulders. Augustus see’s the image of matronly virtue but audiences recognize that the bloodshed and scheming in this family has only begun.
[i] It’s the Queen’s English, but it’s not the ancient speak full of “thou” or awkward sentence structure.
[ii] Many historians now view the Battle of Actium as a relatively minor battle from a military point of view. The confusion most have is that Cleopatra left the battle as it began and Mark Antony went after his love, abandoning his army.