Robert Graves is an incredible writer. One simply has to marvel at his talent in making a large amount of Roman History incredibly accessible and enjoyable to read. Similarly Jack Pulman is equally deserving of praise in being able to craft a brilliant translation of the Claudius duology into 12 incredible drama episodes. Everyone is simply deserving of awe for the accomplishment that transpires in this episode. Somehow, despite open admissions of countless deaths, audiences are able to look at Livia with sympathy and genuine sadness at her passing. Graves crafted a vibrant femme fatale in Livia Drusilla. A woman that was indisputably powerful and respected and doted on by one of the largest Empires of history. The actual Livia was granted the special title of “Augusta” and “Mother of the Country”. She later was granted godhood by her nephew Claudius. She was also a major influence on almost all of the Julio-Claudian dynasty as she was one of the key advisors to Augustus and the primary maternal figure for Tiberius, Claudius, and even for a short-time, Caligula. Graves took the negative rumors of Livia but combined her reputation as grand and incredibly devoted in performing her duty. The end result is that Livia is a type of evil that is too big to genuinely judge. Livia was one of the greatest persons of all-time. One must remember that “great” does not connote good deeds, but simply deeds that shall last the ages.
This episode is the half-way point of the series, and has the most critical death of any character in the story save for Claudius himself. The death of Livia is the end of any restraint on Tiberius as well as the last person who stood between the ambitions of the duplicitous Sejanus. Considering the shocking opening of the episode, any first-time viewers of I, Claudius will be stunned at the thought that Tiberius can genuinely sink any lower. The opening of the episode has a beautiful monologue by Isabel Dean as Lollia. Present-day television shows would have the monologue be only a minute to two minutes at most, and be filled with reaction shots and emotional cues through music. But I, Claudius chooses a style akin to the stage. No music is given to affect audience’s emotions. Instead the power of the words and delivery by Dean are the sole focus of the camera in one single shot. The strong hook of the episode is the main belief that the dignity of Rome has died. Now such bestial acts are being performed by Tiberius and Sejanus forcing one to either will themselves to ignorance or die.
Graves and Pulman in elaborating aspects of Graves’ novels chooses to have the age-old Roman belief that evil behavior is also associated with sexual depravity. None is that more apparent in Tiberius for his vile sexual assaults and his obsession with porn. The young Caligula now played magnificently by the great John Hurt, capitalizes on Tiberius’ weaknesses by bribing his Grand-Uncle with porn as gifts. Despite all of the expressed awfulness of Tiberius, Caligula still comes across as more depraved and wicked in several sly moments and remarks. Tiberius is also obsessed with his paranoia that Agrippina seeks to depose him and as such seeks to torment the woman by punishing her friends. Agrippina does not ignore this and is quick to confront Tiberius and call him a hypocrite. Agrippina the Elder in history was notorious for her harsh confrontational behavior which antagonized Tiberius into paranoia. While Agrippina is shown to be innocent of ambition in I, Claudius she is a woman that refuses to grovel to Tiberius even as the man openly threatens her.
The most shocking and disturbing of sexual deviancy in this episode comes from Sejanus and his affair with Livilla. Sejanus being the brilliant manipulator, is able to quickly convince Livilla to poison her husband Castor (Tiberius’ son). Livilla has no compunction at the thought of poisoning Castor and is even thrilled at sharing a dark sexual fantasy with Sejanus. Years before 50 Shades of Grey, we have Patrick Stewart be a sadistic dom over Pat Quinn, with Stewart speaking in a cold matter-of-fact manner about having his guards rape Livilla while he watches. Their sexual fantasy reveals that the two repress a deep bloodlust and a delight at the notion of power and control. Sejanus love of power reaches a point of sexual delight where he not only has to have his lover all for himself but be able to overpower and abuse her. Livilla is somewhat easily manipulated but at the same time is enchanted to strength and power.
Of course the most fascinating scene of all is Claudius and Caligula being invited to dine with Livia on her birthday. Claudius is naturally terrified and upon arrival drinks about five cups of wine in a row, both as a gesture of trust that Livia will not poison him, but also to muster the courage to face her. Joining Livia in the scene is Caligula who is nicknamed “monster” by Livia. The portrayal of Caligula is of evils-yet-to-come for Rome, who takes Livia’s warnings and insults with a smirk. For all of Sejanus cruelties, he is shown to be a cold Machiavellian schemer while Caligula has hints of the madness that will define his later years as Emperor. Caligula is very sane at this point in the series, but he is also clearly a thoroughly rotten person. He is selfish and vain, with the only person keeping him truly in check is Livia who is capable of blackmailing the scoundrel into behaving somewhat appropriately. But Caligula even perverts this form of control by sexually molesting his great-grandmother. Caligula is compelled to mock anyone who feels that they can control him, and later demonstrates such vain narcissism with his mockery of Livia on her deathbed. Caligula aspires to be worshipped as a god and takes joy in mocking the weak and defenseless. In only a few scenes John Hurt “steals the show” with every scene of the precocious Caligula teeming with wickedness that even Tiberius can never sink to.
In contrast to the horridness of Caligula, Livia has certain standards that she will never cross and also is honest and sincere. When she speaks to Claudius she expresses a genuine desire to be worshipped as a goddess after her death. Livia seeks deification not for pride in her works, but out of a genuine fear of punishment for her wicked deeds in the afterlife. While the Romans did not believe precisely in Heaven and Hell in the way Christians do, there was some punishment reserved for the exceptionally wicked. Yet in Livia’s logic as the gods are never punished for their incalculable crimes, Livia will be granted bliss in the afterlife as a goddess. Livia does not deny that she has committed crimes and is upfront and unnervingly sincere with Claudius. Livia justifies every one of her cruel acts as a necessary evil for the good of the Empire. Livia expresses the belief that Republican government lacks the stability and security of a monarchy and as such did cruel acts necessary for the good of Rome. While for modern western society, monarchy seems inherently wrong, but Livia’s vantage seems genuine. Livia is unashamed of her acts, but is also genuinely vulnerable and frightened of her afterlife that it is discomforting for audiences. Livia is such a strong character that when presented as vulnerable it is a truly sad sight. Even with Livia admitting to killing many, and planning the death of those she did not kill audiences feel a strange but palpable sympathy for Livia. Livia did none of her cruel acts for her own personal benefit and confesses that the acts weighed heavily on her, particularly poisoning Augustus. By the end of the episode Livia is seen as an anti-heroine, whose death is as genuinely moving as the equally complex Lady Macbeth. Claudius and audiences have tears in their eyes as Livia dies. Unlike “Poison is Queen”, the impact of Livia’s death comes from natural consequences and Livia’s dying wish. Her death is the only peaceful death in the series and this even more than Augustus is the turning point of the series. With Livia so dies the last breath of dignity in Rome and now Claudius must survive the wrath of Tiberius, Sejanus and Caligula.