Great TV: I, Claudius

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How easy it is to forget that people have always been the same throughout history. Even thousands of years ago, people loved and hated, desired power, feared death, and went about the daily business of living. In short, they were flesh and blood and mortal and full of fault and doubts and weaknesses, just like us all.

Why is this? Is it because history is relegated to dry text in books or else portrayed in still paintings and statues? Because history becomes myth in our minds? Do cultures and morals shift so heavily from age to age that we cannot recognize them from our privileged position in the present? Or can our minds simply not conceive of a time and place that we personally haven’t inhabited and experienced? Whatever the reasons, it seems historical dramas and period pieces in television and film resurrect the ancient and long-dead and bring it to us in moving pictures and flesh and blood.

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This was the great achievement if I, Claudius, a 13-hour miniseries that first aired for 12 consecutive nights in 1976. Set in the first century of the Roman Empire, it detailed the inner workings and monstrous treachery of the first Roman noble family, starting with the reign of Augustus in 24 BC until Emperor Claudius’s death in 54 AD. Narrated by an elderly Claudius, a clubfoot born with palsy who survives the decades of political intrigue and assassinations that befall his family by playing a fool, only to survive to old age to write the history we’re watching,  I, Claudius brought ancient history to life and reminded its audience that human beings have always been as greedy, manipulative, and cunning as they are today.

Great TV: I, Claudius

In keeping with modern tastes for violence and near-constant murder, the characters of I, Claudius have as high chance of dying as the characters of Game of Thrones do: since it centers on the political dynasty of the Roman Empire, characters are assassinated on a frequent basis–worse, they’re plotted against by their own family. After all, a snake slithers over the tiled portrait of Claudius in the opening credits for a reason.

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Our protagonist Claudius is no hero: instead, he merely hopes to survive. By playing up his palsy and apparent feeble-mindedness, Claudius hides a first-rate intellect from his family and watches from the sidelines as they scheme against each other and fight among themselves in their endless pursuit of gaining power. While some of the family are good-hearted, they are also not the ones that survive for too long; meanwhile, the people in the family who tend to get ahead are the ones least suitable to wield the great power of the Roman Empire–but they, too, are dispensed with quickly. Only Claudius remains safe throughout the generations. That is, until the crown falls upon his head.

The most dangerous viper in the pit, however, is Livia, wife of Augustus and determined to see her own children become Emperor. A true villain, Livia spends her life orchestrating a series of assassinations and betrayals through Augustus’s bloodline that eventually places her son Tiberius as Emperor. However, the weed of crime bears bitter fruit and her son is a tyrant who disowns Livia in her old age.

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After a long, cruel reign Tiberius is finally dispensed with in his old age and Claudius thinks there may actually be peace once more in Rome–only to watch in horror as Caligula ascends to power. Legitimately insane, Caligula offends nearly the entire Empire with his depraved actions, including forcing the Senators’ wives into prostitution and making his horse a senator. Claudius continues to suffer through this, forced to take money at the door of the Senate brothel and to marry the much younger beautiful Messalina by Caligula’s decree. Of course, Caligula is eventually assassinated by the Praetorian guard. This still doesn’t bode well for Claudius, however, as he’s now out-survived his family and is crowned Emperor.

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But Claudius’s suffering doesn’t end there: after Messalina bears him a child, she conspires to kill Claudius so that she may take the reigns of power. However, Claudius survives the assassination attempt and goes on to lead Roman forces to invade Britain. Messalina continues your sexual excesses while he’s away, even challenging a well-known prostitute to see who can bed more men in a session; she easily wins. Claudius comes back a hero for his conquest of Britain, but is saddened to hear yet another close friend has openly rebelled against him. Worse, Messalina also conspires to take over Rome from Claudius, and when their plot is revealed he drunkenly signs her death warrant. Now truly alone, Claudius hears that a temple has been erected in his honor in Gloucester, making him a god.

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In the final chapter of Claudius’s history, he becomes a benevolent ruler but–wanted Rome to return to a Republic–he marries his niece Agrippinilla, which puts her son Nero in line for the throne. Although he tries to convince his own son Britannicus to go into hiding in Britain, the young man thinks he can challenge Nero for the throne; knowing this deadly game but also unable to change his mind, Claudius leaves his son to his fate and knowingly eats a poisoned mushroom to end his own life.

After he’s found dead by Agrippinilla and Nero, they find the scandalous history he had just concluded and burn it; but on another plane, Claudius laughs–he buried a copy of the history to be found at a later date.

The Epic That Never Was

I, Claudius is a powerful piece of television. Rightly hailed upon its first airing, it has retained its reputation in the ensuing decades. Although probably not historically accurate (much of it comes from ancient histories, but they were most likely propaganda pieces rather than accurate histories), this 13-hour miniseries provides an intimate portrait of what life may have been like for the imperial family. More than that, it also puts a face and provides a vision of some of history’s most famous names moving and breathing for us, people who live centuries upon centuries after them, to observe.

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The acting is incredible, with special mention reserved for Derek Jacobi as Claudius. Playing a palsied man who must conceal his sharp intellect from his ravenous family throughout his life, Jacobi narrates the story with a clear voice while when his character is on-screen, he stutters and limps and suffers from tics throughout, playing dumb in front of his family and revealing his intelligence to the few people he actually trusts in the world. But the entire ensemble is stellar: Sian Phillips plays Livia Drusilla with a biting menace, her eyes flinting from player to player as the wheels of her mind grind away at calculating the next move in the bloody game she seeks to win; John Hurt plays Caligula with an appropriate raving intensity; and George Baker’s domineering portrayal of Tiberius brings menace to the character.

Shot entirely on sound stages, the effect of an all-interior world gives the miniseries the feel of a play, but thanks to inventive camera work it never feels stiff. The set design and costumes replicate the time period effectively, while–outside of the opening and closing credits–there is no musical score, with any music heard during the show being diegetic to the scene. Theatrical without being stagey and with naturalistic performances bringing this ancient history to life, I, Claudius remains even over 40 years since its first broadcast a relevant and consuming television series.

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Although literally millennia how now passed since the events depicted in I, Claudius, human nature has remained the same. While people are capable of great humility and kindness, they can also devise great and cruel acts upon each other, even family. When power is at stake–as we can see by the feverish pitches and social upheavals that can come when factions of power battle–there will be blood shed to retain or gain it. I, Claudius may only be fiction, but it’s fiction based in fact and depicting events and people that lived a thousand generations before ours. Past is prologue, and I, Claudius serves as a dire warning of what human nature is capable of when power is at stake.

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