We come to a critical turning point in the story of I, Claudius. Now that Augustus has died, the unworthy and unwilling Tiberius is Emperor. The episode has Claudius going to the bathroom before beginning to continue the story. From the setting that Claudius chooses to speak to the audiences one is forced to accept that this chapter of the story about to be told is far less glamorous than the previous ones. Not only that but given that Claudius is surrounded by darkness one is left with a visualization of the darker times that are unfolding for Rome and the series.
Claudius gives a long monologue explaining the opening of the episode. Claudius jumps five years into the reign of Tiberius with Claudius mentioning that power corrupts as it did Tiberius. Tacitus and Suetonius histories main theme was that the Julio-Claudian were the living examples of power corrupting all, which Graves emphasized in his books. But as stated before Tiberius corruption is gradual, and while not a very good person, he is not at altogether evil at this point. Claudius wearily remarks that the only thing keeping Tiberius in check was Claudius’ brother Germanicus. But Germanicus is dead in the opening of the episode and now Rome is supposed to be left to the darkness.
Unfortunately this episode does demonstrate the limitations of the BBC’s budget for adapting I, Claudius. The novel has a detailed description of Germanicus wars in Germany and his character. But the budget of I, Claudius could not afford scenes depicting Germanicus dealing with mutinous legions or exploring Egypt and Greece with his son Caligula. The resulting cuts of Germanicus story make the character seem more of an offscreen presence. It is worth noting also that Germanicus’ heroic presentation by both the historians and Robert Graves is somewhat misleading. Germanicus was an excellent general, but his campaigns were only moderately successful. His lofty reputation was mainly due to the hatred of Tiberius. As Tiberius became more and more loathed Germanicus rose in the eyes of the Romans, until he became a martyr in the eyes of Rome for the dignified era.
As for the actual plot of the episode, it is a thrilling court room drama from the perspective of Germanicus’ murderers Gnaes Calpurnius Piso and his wife Plansina. Having a courtroom drama is seemingly out of place in a drama series focusing on the machinations of a wicked family. First time viewers may even downright object to the relatively slow pace of the episode. But the narrative told is fascinating as audiences are observers to the wicked trying to survive.
I, Claudius is perhaps one of the most nuanced and intelligent meditations on the nature of evil. Essentially everyone in the series is corrupt and cruel. It is less a question of whether one is bad or good, but how monstrous the characters actions are and what are the primary motivations. There is a calm cruelty in Patrick Stewart’s Sejanus, who as of right now is the muscle of Tiberius. He handles the uglier side of Tiberius duties with such sociopathic efficiency that it teeters between genuine evil and the subject’s defense of “just following orders”. Then there is of course Livia, who is so unabashedly evil that she is shown to border camp in one fantastic scene with her and a notorious poisoner. Lastly there is Plansina and Piso, two characters who are not conscious of their wickedness, yet they will never shirk from any cruel act when it is necessary.
Piso speaks with a pompous and grand manner that one instantly understands the man is neither brilliant nor entirely stupid. Piso comes across immediately as guilty but the real question both to the audience and history is whether or not the two committed the act under the orders of Tiberius. One of the most hotly contested aspects of the Julio-Claudian dynasty is whether or not Tiberius ordered the death of Germanicus. For all of the “scandalous” presentation that Robert Graves gives to the figures of history he seldom makes an accusation without a primary source backing. Graves does not dare to suggest that Tiberius actually killed Germanicus, and it is simply left to readers to infer that he is indeed innocent. The adaptation of I, Claudius chooses to provide a crucial scene that does reassure audiences that Piso and Plansina did have Germanicus’ poisoned, and it was by their own machinations. Plansina, is even more deluded in her “innocence”. She quickly is enraged when reminded that it was her idea to poison Germanicus. Plansina’s evil is rare, she is a woman who believes herself to be good despite all evidence to the contrary. Plansina’s docile appearance belies a self-interested murderer. She is quick to kill her husband when her own life is threatened. Both Plansina and Piso are played excellently as they are pure evil. But neither character views themselves as such and their deluded insistence of innocence seductively implies tragedy despite their awful deeds.
Piso relies on showing letters he received by Tiberius to make the Senate infer that any deed he did was under the support of Tiberius. But this defense does not prove fruitful in the end, and so Piso is forced to drive a wedge between Livia and Tiberius with an unsealed letter. We see the end of Livia’s control of not only Tiberius but Rome itself. Tiberius over the age of 50 finally gets his vengeance on his mother. The scene was Baker’s personal favorite in the series as he was able to play the rage of Tiberius with a mixture of anger and mockery. It’s thrilling to see Livia utterly defeated by someone, and while she is able to salvage her reputation, she can never again be in power once more. But for all the wickedness of Livia there is a palpable sense that she had an efficiency in running the Empire. Losing Livia provides an uncomfortable freedom for the festering wickedness that is surrounding the Imperial Family.
Which of course is where the most alarming new character comes in, little Gaius Caligula. Caligula is the youngest son of Germanicus and in appearance and words, simply an insolent child. But he’s a young monster already. His grandmother Antonia catches him in bed naked with his sister Drusilla (they are both under ten). Furthermore Germanicus’ poisoner Martina informs viewers Caligula aided in killing his father by supplying the witchcraft. This information actually disturbs Livia enough to declare that Caligula is a monster, which does demonstrate that even Livia has certain standards that Caligula has already broken. It’s important to note that many have argued that nothing was wrong with Caligula until he became sick six months into his reign. But the fragments of Tacitus description of Caligula, and Tiberius own words on his nephew suggest that Caligula was always bad and only got worse. Graves is of the latter’s mentality and is able to be able to create a vivid and despicable creature in Caligula even before his mad reign.
As the title suggests there is an emptiness in the resolution. One of Philip Sidney’s key arguments for art in his Defense of Poesy was that history does not teach morality as art can. Even though Piso is dead, there is not a great sense that righteousness has prevailed. In fact Agrippina has a fair concern regarding her sons’ fate. The lack of justice is evident with Caligula burning down Claudius home. The old age of nobility in Rome is gone, and the new age will never have the same sense of moral order as once was.