The series that has been so far filled with poisoning, drowning and an orgy does not let up in the scandalous story of the first Imperial Family of Rome. So many tidbits in the story seem hard to believe, and some historians have dubbed I, Claudius as scandalously unlikely as Suetonius “gossip” in The Twelve Caesars. But Robert Graves was thorough in his research, including countless sources beyond the main sources of Tacitus and Suetonius as he defensively stated in the introduction to Claudius the God. While no dramatic work can ever be “true history,” it is not as wholly inaccurate as works like Gladiator[i]. Graves took a plethora and sometimes minimal amount of information to paint people of history as three-dimensional human beings. Graves also had to infer several times on the key motivations and reasons for banishments, and in this particular episode, he is able to make the sparse knowledge we have about the real life person into a vibrant and sympathetic character.
It’s worth mentioning that Jack Pulman’s brilliant adaption of the work is sometimes loose with chronology of events. In reality, Gaius and Lucius were both alive when Julia was banished, and it was Lucius, not Gaius, who died first. In the book Postumus was banished prior to the massacre at Teutorburg Forest. But these choices are all perfect for the dramatic weight of the episode.
The episode begins with Derek Jacobi at last playing Claudius in the main narrative. He is seated far away from the main dinner where boring poetry is being read. The image is an excellent visual that reflects the main conceit of the series itself. Claudius is a removed observer that is mostly forgotten by his own family because of his impediments. Claudius is the only one paying any attention to both the poet and the scheming by his family. Augustus is asleep, representing his own ignorance to the treachery being committed by Livia. Livia is very attentive of the events happening within the circle, but Claudius is even more aware of what is happening in his family.
Augustus gets an unwelcome wake-up call with a soldier informing him that three Roman legions have been massacred by a united Germanic force. The defeat is the greatest blow against both Augustus, and indeed the Roman Empire as history shows. Augustus does not take the defeat and war very well. This defeat is portrayed as Augustus downfall as he becomes cantankerous and enraged at any slight. Brian Blessed’s performance is spectacular, as he captures the pompousness of Augustus and his unbridled rage. He screams, “QUINTILIUS VARUS! WHERE ARE MY EAGLES!” with such gusto that even Livia can’t really do anything to placate Augustus at this point. The war becomes his main obsession as he cannot take this abject humiliation. But as the episode demonstrates, this rage blinds him from seeing the treachery and danger in his own home.
Claudius is able to demonstrate his true character in an excellent scene that is very fun for historical scholars. Claudius is in a library and meets the great historians Asinius Pollio and Livy. Claudius displays an astute mind that admits that neither historian trumps the other as one is very dry in his fact while the other is an enjoyable read but not very reliable for facts. Essentially, the scene is both a theoretical commentary on writing history, but it also a parallel to the appraisals of Tacitus and Suetonius. Suetonius is much more of an enjoyable read, but his credibility as a historian is not as reliable. Whereas Tacitus is very straight-forward and detailed in his account of the events but is very dry. Graves and Pulman in adapting, merge the two main inspirations to create something that is close to the truth while at the same time enjoyable as drama. The scene demonstrates Claudius intelligence beneath his impediments as well as the first suggestion that Claudius must play the fool to survive. Whereas in the earlier episodes Claudius is shown in the framing device to have been the survivor of the family, viewers now see that Claudius had to survive the machinations of Livia by playing the idiot. Claudius realizes that its best to humor his family’s disdain as Livia is clearly manipulating the fate of the Imperial family.
The main plot of the episode involves Livia planning to ruin Postumus Agrippa, the sole grandson of Augustus. What little is known of Postumus is that he was a rakish boor who was banished by his own grandfather. Nothing in the characterization of Postumus shown in I, Claudius contradicts this account, but still is able to find Postumus as a sympathetic character. Postumus inherits his mother’s promiscuity, but much as Julia is not portrayed as evil for such behavior it is seen as problematic. Postumus is cynical, and flawed as a human. He is more politically astute to the potential rivalry between himself and Tiberius despite Augustus’ assurances. The portrayal is not extremely flattering in this TV adaptation. The books provided some more incidents in Claudius youth that demonstrated Postumus defending his friend. But from what is seen in the series, we have a character who is friendly and trying to be a better person, and is not morose and cold like Tiberius.
But because Augustus openly expresses his preference of Postumus over Tiberius, Livia must again plot of eliminating Postumus. Her tool is Livilla, Claudius sister, as portrayed by Patricia Quinn of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame. Livilla is Postumus’ mistress and also as wicked as Livia. But Livilla uses her sexuality to help her scheming which makes her more of a traditional femme fatale. Livia’s swift conversion of Livilla into her ally is fantastic as it is a quick demonstration of kinship in ambition. But in comparison, Livilla’s vision is very small, she simply wants to be attached to the person who is most likely able to yield the most power. In contrast Livia is always encouraging those she associates with to think grander and to always think of the long-term goals rather than the immediate risks.
The finale to the episode much like the previous, touches on the main theme of the episode. This chapter of the overarching narrative is a focus on blindness. Those that can see what is truly happening are deemed mad or are dismissed as stupid. Augustus still blinded by his passions cannot stop and think rationally about the events that have transpired. Only the flawed and cynical Postumus can see the sins, but his declaration is met with utter disbelief. Claudius quickly losing his friends can only be a dumb voyeur and a laughingstock for his family. The final image of him being married to a woman significantly taller than him has an affect akin to Don Quixote, audiences can laugh at the sight, but identify and sympathize with the tragic suffering of Claudius. Claudius is the fool of a family, and as audiences see a fool will ultimately survive the “clever” members of the family, but Claudius survival is shown to be as miserable as it was suggested in the previous episode.
[i] In reality, Marcus Aurelius was very willing to have his son Commodus become his heir. Commodus also had a long reign as Emperor and was popular for many years.