You know you’ve done something outstanding when the critics pan you for two weeks then blatantly reverse themselves as they finally get with the program. Such was the case for the BBC’s 1976 “I Claudius” series which made up for its modest budget (scenes in the Coliseum were limited to views of the emperor’s box and the sound of crowds cheering, for example) with stellar performances, perfect direction, accurate costumes, true to life Roman cultural representations, novel cinematography and outstanding script writing.
In 1934 author, scholar, historian Robert Graves found himself searching for funds to pay off the mortgage on his home in Majorca. He needed a successful book, fast. He turned to classical historians Suetonius, Plutarch and Gaius Cornelius Tacitus for his research, and then wrote the novels, I, CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD, chronicling the history of the first Roman dynasty, especially the first four of the five Julio-Claudian emperors as seen from the perspective of the fourth, who was known as Claudius the Stammerer. He claimed, perhaps jokingly, to have communed with Claudius.
These two books were, in 1976, turned into the brilliant 13 part BBC series “I Claudius,” written by Jack Pulman, directed by Herbert Wise, starring Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Siân Phillips as Livia, Brian Blessed as Augustus, George Baker as Tiberius and John Hurt as Caligula. It also introduced Patrick Stewart and John Rhys-Davies to American audiences the following year. The director, Wise, broke with all prevailing traditions and clichés concerning historical drams in his unapologetic depiction of the evils and excesses of his characters. And by lacing his production with Pulman’s darkest of black humor he made it riveting.
The long overdue transition from printed page to flickering celluloid had been hampered by copyright issues lingering from the1937 overblown epic interpretation directed by Joseph von Sternberg staring Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon. The film was aborted after a serious automobile accident involving Oberon. This began what was called “the curse of Claudius.” There were three deaths among the crew shortly after the TV series was concluded, as well as other bizarre coincidences, the most spectacular of which might have been a power failure during the death of Augustus at the moment he died.
The American showing which followed the British, combined the first two episodes into an unwieldy whole, and edited (naked bodies, Caligula with blood on his mouth from disemboweling his sister/wife and devouring his first child…) the work to make it acceptable according to the US modesty standards of the time. This set of five CD’s restores all deleted scenes, offers both versions of the first two episodes, and includes over three hours of bonus material including a special on the failed 1937 film and numerous interviews with the cast and director.
For those who missed or slept through their ancient history courses, the Roman Republic grew from a single city state into an empire encompassing the Mediterranean Sea over a 500 year period. Upon the assassination of Julius Caesar on the event of his becoming dictator for life, a long and bloody civil war ensued resulting in Julius’ “adopted” son, Octavius, becoming the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. Augustus married Livia Drusilla, whose deadly machinations to insure her son by a previous marriage, Tiberius, become heir to the throne make up the first five episodes. Tiberius was ill suited to be emperor, spent his early reign eliminating enemies both real and imagined, then retired to Capri to live a life of debauchery leaving the running of the empire to the head of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, who almost overthrew Tiberius. Sick in mind and heart, Tiberius named Caligula his heir, presumably to improve his own legacy when compared to that of his successor. After four years of psychotic madness, Caligula was assassinated. The Praetorian Guard, not wishing to find themselves reassigned the frontiers of the empire upon the restoration of the Republic, made the last surviving adult member of the family, Claudius, emperor. Claudius’ reign was a dichotomy. His military successes, his well conceived building projects, and his stabilization of the economy are clouded by the excesses of his third and fourth wives, one of whom he executed for treason only to be assassinated by the next in order to pave the way for her odious son, Nero, to succeed him. (Nero’s fall and resulting suicide, not included in the history lesson, led to yet another civil war which was ended with the rise of the Flavian dynasty.)
Claudius is portrayed as the ultimate survivor. Clumsy, lame, hard of hearing, stammering and with an annoying head tic, he is assumed to be an idiot by his family. For years he is their court jester. An avid student and historian himself, he knows how to flatter, how to forgive. Passed over as harmless during the various family purges, he becomes the last man standing. His friends, who know him to be both thoughtful and intelligent, encourage him to play the fool by exaggerating his afflictions as the perfect survival mechanism. Even Augustus and Livia come to appreciate his genius near the end of their lives.
How much of the story is fact and how much is fiction is open to question. Historians of the time were much less kind to some of those killed along the way than were Graves and Pulman. There is even speculation that Claudius was involved in the assassination of his mad nephew, Caligula. What is not open to question is how much larger than life these people were, and the extent to which they played their hands in this winner take all family drama. The series “I, Claudius,” set the standard for nearly all US Television mini-series which followed, and it remains, thirty-five years later, head and shoulders the best of the lot.
© Paul L. Bates