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"Evidently, quality of wits is more important than quantity."
This renowned 1976 mini-series (based on the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves) follows the history of the Roman Empire, from the latter reign of Augustus (starting around 24/23 B.C.) to the death of the eponymous character, Claudius, through whose eyes all of the action in the series is seen. The series opens with an elderly Claudius penning his memoirs, which tell of the history of his family.Director Alexander Korda had attempted to film the story in 1937 with Charles Laughton in the role of Claudius, but for various reasons the movie was never completed. When The BBC decided to make their own version they had to negotiate with Korda's production company over screen rights to the story.
The major events which the memoirs (and the TV series) cover are:
The later reign of Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia, Claudius' step-grandfather and grandmother respectively. Augustus wants the children of his ditzy daughter Julia to rule Rome after him, but Evil Matriarch Livia wants Tiberius— her own son from a previous marriage— to become Augustus' heir. Livia's plan to accomplish this is by arranging a marriage between her son and Julia. Unfortunately, a few "impediments" crop up which keep this plan from coming smoothly to fruition. These "impediments" are soon removed by Livia (through the copious use of poison), and Tiberius and Julia are made to marry, but the relationship is a rocky one and it produces no heirs. Julia has children from a marriage previous to her relationship with Tiberius, and it seems as if they will ascend to the throne of Rome after Augustus, but Livia is not one to give up her plans so easily...
Claudius' early life. Which was not easy, what with him being born lame and with a palsy that made him twitch and stutter. The fact that his father was murdered just after he was born, leaving Claudius solely in the care of his unsympathetic mother didn't help things. Claudius was largely considered a fool by the members of his family, but he did manage to make some close friends and supporters— among them Postumus, one of Julia's children (and heir apparent to Augustus.) Unfortunately for Postumus, his position as heir placed him #1 on Livia's "to get rid of" list, so he wasn't going to be sticking around for very long. It was right about this time in Claudius' life that he was to receive from an aged scholar, an important piece of advice: Play the fool and let people think you're an unimportant idiot. Then, they won't try to kill you. (It would turn out to be a very sage piece of advice for a member of the Roman Imperial family living in this period of history.)
The ascension and reign of Tiberius, who, unfortunately, isn't very happy with the job (since he was nearly an old man before he finally got his hands on it, and loathed being in the public eye in any case.) There are plenty of people who aren't too happy with Tiberius, either, among them his mother Livia, whom he hates and chooses to actively ignore. Tiberius prefers to slack off and leave the running of the empire to his right-hand man, Sejanus, but Sejanus has a lustful eye for Tiberius' (married) daughter-in-law, and an equally lustful eye for the throne of Rome as well. As such, he is quick to take up the series' role of "prime schemer" once Livia finally dies of old age. Unfortunately, Sejanus' schemes go awry after Claudius' mother catches wind of them and informs Tiberius about his treachery. This sets up a series of horrible events which will result in Claudius' young nephew Caligula becoming the sole heir to the imperial throne.
The mad and bloody reign of Caligula, which starts out promising enough, with the death of the hated tyrant Tiberius (at Caligula's hands.) Unfortunately, Caligula turns out to be an even WORSE ruler than Tiberius, due in no small part to the fact that Caligula was (probably) a paranoid schizophrenic who believed himself to be a reincarnation of the Roman god, Jove. He then sets about murdering all of his political and familial rivals, but he spares Claudius (whom he thinks an amusing fool, and a reincarnation of the god, Vulcan.) Caligula's outrageous crimes can't remain unpunished forever and the assassination plot which topples him almost consumes Claudius as well— thankfully, the remnants of Caligula's personal guard find Claudius and decide to prop him up as emperor. (After all, without an emperor, they'd all be out of a job.) Claudius, however, is not so hot about the idea...
Claudius' reign and death in AD 54. The last part of the series covers the 15 years of Claudius' reign as emperor, which, sadly, were no less free of death and intrigue than the rest of his life had been. Making things worse was the fact that Claudius married two scheming women (one of whom he had to execute when she "married" someone else and plotted with that person to seize the Imperial throne). Claudius, believing that emperors were a bad idea and that Rome should become a republic, tried to make this come to pass with a Zany Scheme in which his birth son Britannicus would go into hiding for a while. Claudius would then make his adopted son— the slimy Nero— emperor after his death. Nero's rule would be so oppressive that the people of Rome would overthrow him, at which point, Britannicus could come out of hiding and set up a republic. Unfortunately Britannicus hadn't seen the rest of the series up to this point and so he refused to go along with the plan, naively— some might say, suicidally— believing that he could take power in Rome and rule in his own right. (Of course, he was immediately poisoned right after Claudius' death, thus setting Nero up as emperor and... well... the rest was history.)
This British series is probably one of the best dramas ever produced for television, starring loads of famous actors (among them Patrick Stewart— Jean-Luc Picard himself— as the shifty Roman general Sejanus). John Hurt puts in a good turn as the giggly-insane Caligula, BRIAN BLESSED plays a rather tragically naive (but still hammy) Emperor Augustus, but it is Sian Phillips who steals the show as the scheming Livia, a character who is as deft at cutting people down with her dry wit as she is at poisoning them. George Baker's in it too. And let's not forget Derek Jacobi's breakout performance as the poignant Claudius, a man who— even after he gets the reins of power firmly in his hands— finds he can do very little to stop the whirlwind of death and corruption which threatens to destroy those he loves. Par for the course of a BBC series, it's done entirely without music except for its opening and ending score, relying on the actors' performances to convey mood.It is occasionally pronounced ironically by British viewers as written— "I, Clavdivs". (the eponymous American production company Belisarivs suffers from a similar conceit of grandeur).HBO and BBC have announced a new miniseries adaptation.
Actually Pretty Funny: Caligula's habit of giving his Praetorian guards Embarrassing Passwords for the night, such as "Give Us A Kiss" or "Tickle Me Titus." Granted, the Praetorian guards aren't that amused, but Claudius and at least one of Caligula's German guards seem to be.
John Rhys-Davies' character, Macro, plays a key role in the downfall of Sejanus and accession of Caligula, and then disappears without explanation. In the book, Caligula soon got suspicious of him (probably correctly, for once), tricked him into giving up the command of the Praetorian Guard by promising to make him the governor of Egypt instead, and then had him arrested and forced both him and his wife to commit suicide.
We don't hear about the fate of Claudius' son from his first marriage, or what happened to Helen after her mother, Livilla, attempted to poison her. However, in the book the series is based on their fates are elaborated on: Claudius' son gets betrothed to a daughter of Sejanus, and a few days later Livia, angered that she wasn't consulted about the matter, has him murdered. As for Helen, after deaths of Sejanus and Livilla Tiberius shows his contempt for her by forcing her to marry a very vulgar fellow named Blandus. She nonetheless survives reigns of both Tiberius and Caligula; at the beginning of the reign of Claudius she conspires against him with Scribonianus and Vinicianus, and gets executed after Scribonianus's rebellion against Claudius fails.
Alas, Poor Villain: Livia and Sejanus, in spite of their crimes, become figures of sympathy in their final moments. Livia, who's destroyed countless lives to ascend to godhood, is reduced to a pitiable old woman on her death bed whom the main character (whose father, brother and friend she's either killed or admitted to having planned to kill) can't help feeling sorry for. Sejanus has slandered and murdered decent people in his quest for power, but after seeing what happened to his kids, you can't help feeling bad for him when Macro says of his children, "They've gone on ahead of you, my friend. Like a good many others," before ordering the guards to kill him.
All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Averted with Herod but the innkeeper, whom Claudius and Herod pay to try and hide Martina the Poisoner, speaks with a heavy Yiddish accent.note Though this is arguably Translation Convention—translating the innkeeper's period-Jewish accent (Latin as spoken by a native Aramaic speaker) into a modern equivalent, just as the low-class Roman soldiers are depicted as cockneys. The aristocratic Herod, who grew up in Rome, speaks Latin and Greek like a native.
Arranged Marriage: More the rule than the exception, as the children are married off young for political reasons (in particular, marrying Livia's descendants to Augustus's). Most of these end badly, but then, there aren't many happy marriages in this story. (Augustus/Livia was a love-match, and it doesn't end well.)
Awesome Moment of Crowning: Subverted with the least awesome crowning in history, as the Praetorian Guard, rampaging through the palace after the murder of Caligula, finds Claudius literally hiding behind a curtain. They immediately proclaim him emperor, his protests of "I don't want to be an emperor! I w-w-want a rep-p-public!" notwithstanding. Apparently this was basically how it went down in Real Life.
Balancing Death's Books: Invoked by Caligula. During an illness that would end up with Caligula believing he was transformed into a god, a sycophantic senator announced to all who would listen that he begged to the gods to take his life if it would spare Caligula's. Caligula got better, and then told the senator he wouldn't allow him to commit perjury by refusing to keep his vow.
Based on a True Story: Yes and no. Most everything in the series, including the really outrageous stuff like Livia poisoning half her family or Messalina having a sexathon, comes from ancient primary sources. However, modern scholars consider much of that to be ancient rumormongering and/or propaganda.
Berserk Button: Mention Agrippina's name around Tiberius and he'll want to murder everything in sight. (Sejanus was able to press this button whenever he wanted to get rid of a political enemy who might have had even the loosest connection to her.)
Black and Gray Morality: Most of the better characters of the series, Claudius included, are still morally iffy people. Germanicus may be the only "white" character in the show, and look where that got him.
Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards: One of the difficulties faced in assassinating Caligula is the large contingent of German guards he has around him. He apparently didn't trust his native-born Praetorian Guard and military officers very much (with good reason, as it turned out).
The part about Varus is probably Truth in Television: according to his biographer Suetoniusnote notorious for repeating any good story he heard, however improbable; however, he had access to Augustus's private papers and that particular biography is generally seen as pretty reliable by modern historians, Augustus had quite the Heroic BSOD upon hearing that Varus had lost three entire legions, some 15,000 men, and for months afterward would bang his head against the wall and yell "Varus! Give me back my legions!"
Bring me a VINE BRANCH!! This Queen needs flogging before she goes!!
Asinius Gallus had one of the most memorable moments of scenery-chewing in the history of television theatre. His final words, before he passes out from his torture, glisten with such venomous and toe-curling contempt that it is hard not to wince:
You are a lesson in history to me, Sejanus. Of how a small mind without scruple, married to limitless ambition, can destroy a nation full of clever men. YOU ARE A REMINDER THAT, ABOVE ALL, MANKIND NEEDS A SENSE OF SMMMELLLLLL.
In a later interview, the actor (Charles Kay) said that this was intentional. He wished to portray Gallus as being utterly overwhelmed by his loathing of Sejanus, whom he saw as the destroyer of all that he believed to be good and noble. Set against that, the mere fact that he would be tortured for as long as it took for him to sign a false confession was small beans.
Augustus is a boisterous friendly chap who wants the best for Rome but is somewhat naive and prone to explosions of anger when he is wronged.
Tiberius is a puppet of his mother Livia. He initially wants to be emperor, but by the time he gets his wish and Livia dies, he no longer cares about power and retires to a life of sexual excess and perversion.
Deadpan Snarker: Almost everyone gets at least one or two lines of delicious dialogue. (Livia tends to get the most and the best ones.)
Augustus: Ah, not slept [with Augustus' libertine daughter]... You mean it happened standing up perhaps, or in the street or on a bench? Not slept?
Tiberius: Has it ever occurred to you, mother, that it's you they hate and not me? Livia: There is nothing in this world that occurs to you that does not occur to me first. That is the affliction I live with.
Mnester: My name is Mnester. I'm an actor; most people have heard of me. Scylla: My name's Scylla, and I'm a whore. Everyone's heard of me.
Augustus. Say what you will about BRIAN BLESSED but the way he conveys Augustus's death just by letting his face go still was a fine piece of acting. He had to lie there eyes open, unmoving, and with the camera centered on his face for several minutes while Livia delivered her soliloquy. Not only that, but due to a recording problem he had to do it twice. It's easy to forget, because of his propensity to be typecast as BRIAN BLESSED, that he is actually a very skilled actor.
Lollia. After confessing to her husband and dinner guests the debauchery in which she engaged with Tiberius to save her daughter from having to suffer the same indignity, she takes out a dagger and stabs herself, eyes wide open even after she dies.
Doesn't Trust Those Guys: Herod's insistent advice to Claudius; Trust no one. His list of people not to trust foreshadows Claudius' various betrayals by the likes of Messalina, Pallas, and Herod himself after he becomes Emperor.
Herod: Well, just one more piece, then I'm done. Trust no one, my friend, no one. Not your most grateful freedman. Not your most intimate friend. Not your dearest child. Not the wife of your bosom. Trust no one. Claudius: No one? Not even you?
Dramatic Irony: Caligula saying "Why am I so unlucky today?" on January 24, 41 AD, as he plays dice at the games with Claudius.
Driven to Suicide: Antonia, Claudius's mother, who has grown weary of the corruption and violence engulfing Rome. However, unlike most examples of this trope, she's very matter-of-fact about it.
Livia bumped off at least half a dozen of her own family members— and those who remained alive were usually made quite miserable by her.
Agrippinilla poisons Claudius, and the Sibyl tells Claudius as he is dying that she and Nero between them will also kill off his children by Messalina, Britannicus and Octavia, and his freedmen, Pallas (who was in on his murder) and Narcissus.
The Exile: At different times, Tiberius, Agrippa, Postumus, and Julia.
Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: "Hail Who?" features an inversion when the Praetorian Guard, concerned that Caligula's assassination will put them out of work, find Claudius hiding behind a curtain. Gratus suggests they make him Emperor, and his sergeant begins to explain why Claudius would be unsuitable... and realises the reasons he is giving make him perfect for the job, at least as far as they're concerned.
Gratus:(suddenly smirks and points at Claudius with his sword) Why can't we have him for an Emperor? Sergeant: What? Old Claudius? Don't be stupid, lad, he's a simpleton, he's... (he grins as he realises a simpleton would be easy for the Praetorian Guard to push around) Oh, I dunno! Gratus: It's better than nothing!
Face Death with Dignity: When the Praetorian Guard show up with a signed execution warrant for Messalina, her mother, Domitia, who has long since realised that her daughter's scheming would end this way, urges her to take the dignified way out by killing herself with an offered dagger. Unfortunately, Messalina cannot bring herself to carry out the act, and she is decapitated by the guards.
Finish Him!: Livilla says exactly this at the gladiator games in "What Shall We Do About Claudius?"
Livia gives an early hint of how public opinion will eventually turn against Sejanus:
Sejanus: (About Germanicus) Well if he's profoundly loved, he's also profoundly dead. Everybody's loved when they're dead. Livia: I wouldn't count on that if I were you.
Also, after hearing a prophecy that Claudius will become protector of Rome, young Livilla hopes aloud that she'll be dead by the time it happens. Her mother, in response, angrily sends her to bed without supper. This not only foreshadows the fact that Livilla will die before Claudius becomes emperor, but also her method of execution— Her mother locks her up in her room and forcibly starves her to death.
Foregone Conclusion: We are told at the start that Claudius is going to become Emperor. Nonetheless, the description of 60 years of Roman politics and intrigue leading up to this event manages to remain amazing and entertaining.
Friendly Address Privileges: Castor, the nickname by which Drusus Julius Caesar is commonly known, invokes this with Sejanus in "Some Justice".
Sejanus Ah, Castor, how nice to see you. Castor I'm Castor to my friends, Sejanus.
Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: In the first episode, Livia slaps Julia to snap her out of her breakdown after the death of Julia's husband Marcellus.
Gilligan Cut: At the beginning of "Hail Who?", Caligula has asked Claudius to take the money at the door of the brothel he has set up in the Imperial palace; Claudius categorically states that he wants nothing to do with the enterprise. Cut to the next scene, in which Claudius is taking money from a customer at the brothel.
"And his sister Drusilla's become a goddess. Any questions?"
Played with by Livia: In her mind, she needs to be declared a goddess, since all the horrible things she's done have guaranteed her to an eternity of punishment in the Afterlife. Unless she's promoted to goddess, of course. You almost pity her when Caligula sneeringly denies her dying wish. On her deathbed, no less. Sian Phillips is a really, really good actress.
The Good Chancellor: Claudius' freemen, especially Narcissus. They might or might not count as evil (they were ruthlessly protective of their man, after all), but they were loyal to Claudius.
Good Republic, Evil Empire: Played less straight than the viewer might might at first expect. While our hero Claudius is a devout believer in the Republic and Deadly Decadent Court is in full swing the actual senators we meet are in many cases corrupt, weak or even outright murderous (Cladius himself even delivers an epic speech trashing them when he becomes Emperor.)
Gratuitous German: Caligula's German bodyguards speak (modern) German, and apparently their Latin isn't up to much.
(as the Praetorian Guard are proclaiming Claudius Emperor, the German bodyguards, who believe Claudius was one of Caligula's assassins, enter the throne room) German:(pointing at Claudius)Das ist eine! Durch komm!note "That's one! Come through!"(pushes through the Praetorian guards) Gratus: Just a minute, Herrmann! (grins and points at Claudius) That's our new Emperor. (no reaction from the German)Kaiser.(no reaction) EMPEROR. German:(amused disbelief)Ja?? Gratus:(sarcastically)Ja.
Weirdly enough, Augustus and Livia until just before the end. Even though Livia was constantly plotting things behind his back and ultimately killed him, they lived together for fifty years in a time and place where divorce was extremely common and genuinely cared for each other.
Tiberius and Vipsania, before politics forced them to divorce.
Marcellus and Julia, before he died.
Drusus and Antonia were like this before he died.
Germanicus and Agrippina were very much in love... before he died. Seeing a pattern here?
Have You Told Anyone Else?: Played with. Pallas asks this of Justus after Justus informs him of Messalina's adulteries. It turns out that, unlike the way this trope usually plays out, Justus has told someone else, and that is what dooms him. He told his commanding officer, who happens to be one of Messalina's intimates. Messalina has him executed.
While Claudius wasn't quite the idiotic Jerk Ass that contemporary historians portrayed him as, he probably wasn't quite as cuddly as Derek Jacobi's portrayal either. Of course, the books' (and show's) conceit is that it's Claudius's secret memoir. Not surprising he comes off well. Read between the lines, and basically his story is: He let his wives and freedmen manipulate him, he judicially murdered lots of people (including some close relatives) on the flimsiest of evidence, he handed Rome over to a psychotic—but he meant well!
Also Augustus. He's a borderline Bumbling Dad, which is very much at odds with his generally agreed status as a cold Magnificent Bastard. There's a bit of justification in that the series is showing him in private life, and after he's solidifeid his grasp on power, but it's noticeable that he's completely taken advantage of by Livia, not in Unholy Matrimony with her, which would be much more in line with his reputation.
Historical Villain Upgrade: Somewhat justified, as the author was using contemporary accounts that were all slanted to gain favor with various Emperors.
Caligula is the most obvious example of this. The historical Caligula comes across as a neurotic, insecure and cruel young man who was a product of both his difficult background and mental illness, probably brought on by the considerable pressures of office. The Caligula portrayed in I, Claudius, however, is basically just evil from the word go. Some of the worst things he does in the TV series, such as the horrible murder of his sister and making his horse a senator, are straight-up fiction.
In all likelihood, the real Livia was not a scheming mastermind and never poisoned anyone.
I Did What I Had to Do: Livia ruthlessly manipulates and kills family members and anyone else close to them to ensure her son becomes emperor and Rome does not return to being a Republic, convinced this is the only way for the city to remain great.
Ignored Epiphany: When Sejanus tries to convince his lover Livilla that him marrying her daughter will be the politically best decision and will enable them to stay together, Livilla yells at him and seems to finally recognise him for the nasty person he is. She promptly ignores this in favour of attempting to poison her daughter so that she can keep Sejanus for herself.
I Made Copies: Nero and Agrippinilla burn Claudius's book. He already had it copied and buried.
I'm a Humanitarian: Caligula + Drusilla + amateur Caesarian section + fetus = Squick to the power of infinity. The scene was originally even more horrific, but after the premiere screening the BBC insisted on cuts. The original uncut version no longer exists. It still has the power to fracture the Fourth Wall - the whole series is uploaded to YouTube with Russian fan subtitles. The subtitles are of professional quality, never turning to Fun with Subtitles. However, the aforementioned incident with Caligula happens right before the end of the episode. As the credits start to roll, the words "Horrific, wasn't it?" appear on the screen.
Impairment Shot: The last thing that poor Castor sees as he's dying is his wife Livilla and Sejanus, who conspired to poison him, embracing.
Insane Equals Violent: Manages to subvert this despite featuring the actual Caligula. His violent / psychopathic tendencies are explicitly shown NOT to follow from his psychotic delusions: he's a killer from childhood, but doesn't go mad until after he becomes Emperor years later. Livia and other murderous characters are described as "mad" by other characters, but are not shown as irrational - even Nero, explicitly called "as mad as... Caligula", is clearly nothing of the kind.
I See Dead People: In "Old King Log", Claudius sees his dead family members (including his predecessors as Emperor), looking as they did in their youth, walk up to him and address him one by one, a sign that his own death is near. The scene cuts back to the Senate to show that Claudius alone can see these visions.
Augustus: Well done, Claudius! Emperor after all! Who would have thought it, eh? (smiles, and walks off) Livia: You're a fool, boy. You always were. People say it's not your fault, but if it's not your fault, whose fault is it, eh? (tuts, and walks off) Antonia: And your nose is still running, Claudius. It's still running. (Caligula walks up behind her and taps her on the shoulder) Excuse me. (she leaves) Caligula: Uncle- Tiberius:(motioning Caligula away) Just a minute. Just wait your turn. (he waves a hand in front of Claudius' face as Caligula rolls his eyes) (scene cuts to the Senate to reveal two senators standing where Tiberius and Caligula are in Claudius' vision) Senator:(waves his hand in front of Claudius' face) Shall a doctor be brought? (scene cuts back to Claudius' vision of Tiberius and Caligula) Tiberius: Wasn't worth it, was it? I could have told you that. Caligula: Uncle Claudius, I wasn't that Messiah after all. Would you believe it? You could have knocked me over with a feather when they told me...
It Amused Me: Caligula has some shades of this - he does things like set up the young, beautiful Messalina with unattractive Claudius because he thinks it's funny.
Jerkass Has a Point: Livia does a lot of horrible things, but she points out that if she hadn't interfered, the empire could very well have been plunged into civil war again.
Just the First Citizen: According to the "memoir", Claudius followed Augustus' example to an extent, only taking on further titles as they were earned (i.e. not calling himself imperator until he commanded troops. Even Caligula started like this, before the whole A God Am I thing).
Though technically, until he won a battle, he would have been titled dux, not imperator. A dux was a leader who had not yet won a battle; as soon as they won a battle, they became an imperator. Seeing as this is based of Roman texts, his being called imperator is actually a rather important point; it shows that not only is he a leader, he is actually somewhat successful.
The Roman Historian Cassius Dio claims Caligula was hailed Imperator many times 'though he had won no battle and slain no enemy.'
(as one guard grabs her hair and another swings his sword back)Not my head! Not my-(thunk)
Kissing Cousins: Julia and Marcellus, Castor and Livilla, Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. One of Claudius' men even lampshades how common it is, saying a hundred years ago it was illegal in Rome, now it is done all the time.
Linear Edit: The series was entirely shot on videotape, using multiple cameras, one scene at a time. This resulted in a very theatrical look to the performances, which suited the story very well.
Lonely at the Top: Claudius learns this the hard way after being forced to execute Messalina. When Claudius sees all the important people in his life, Tiberius's ghost flat out tells him "Wasn't worth it was it?", showing that Tiberius also felt that way.
Long Game: Claudius writes and buries his memoirs for the specific purpose of having them discovered "nineteen hundred years or near" later, as the Sybil said they would be.
Loophole Abuse: When Sejanus and his supporters are being eliminated, guards are sent to kill his children. They're understandably iffy about doing so, and one of them even protests that the daughter is a virgin; executing a virgin is unprecedented and could bring bad luck on the city. Macro's solution? Ensure that she is no longer a virgin, then kill her. Her brother is also underage, but they dress him up in his coming of age robes so he's legally a man - then they kill him too.
Mandatory Motherhood: Messalina really has no interest in having Claudius's children, but it's what Roman wives do.
Sejanus does a pretty good job manipulating himself and his family into positions of power, even convincing Claudius to marry his sister. Eventually, he tries to manipulate himself into the position of Tiberius' de facto successor by poisoning Castor with the help of Livilla, whom Sejanus plans to marry, so that when Tiberius dies and his heir apparent, Castor and Livilla's son Gemellus, is named Emperor, Sejanus will rule as regent. However, he does a poor job of covering his tracks, which is how Antonia is able to expose his crimes to Tiberius, resulting in his denunciation, arrest, and execution.
Messalina has Claudius wrapped around her little finger, and uses his adoration of her to pursue a long string of sexual conquests while he suspects nothing. However, her ambition outpaces her ability when she marries Silius with plans to rule Rome with him; Claudius' freedmen Pallas and Narcissus are able to countermanipulate Claudius into ordering first her arrest, then her execution. When Messalina discovers she cannot manipulate her way out of these predicaments, she suffers a Villainous Breakdown.
Livia, more than anyone else. She manipulates Augustus into making Tiberius his successor by systematically eliminating the competition, either by poisoning them herself or by having them murdered by hired hands. She also brings Julia's many adulteries to Augustus' attention, resulting in her exile, and is the mastermind behind Postumus being falsely accused of raping Livilla, resulting in his exile. In contrast to the other manipulative bastards of the series, she is not undone by overambition partly because she is very good at covering her tracks and partly because her ultimate ambition is not to rule Rome herself, but to preserve Rome's greatness by preventing the return to the constant internal strife of the Republic that she believes would result if anyone but Tiberius succeeded Augustus.
Master Poisoner: Livia, Agrippina, Martina (who met her match with Livia) and Livilla, who willingly fed poison to both a husband and a daughter.
Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Did all the signs and prophecies mentioned in the series really come true, or were they just coincidences? Did Claudius really see the Sibyl on his deathbed or was it just a Dying Dream? Did Herod die a horrible death because he tried to set himself up as a god and the real God struck him down, or was that just a coincidence? The narrative seems to imply that supernatural forces might have been at work within the story, (and many of the characters were dead certain of it, at least.)
Modesty Bedsheet: Averted in that nudity on the part of the female actors was allowed— a shocking thing to see on network TV at this point in time, at least in America.
"Some Justice" opens with Claudius relaxing at a party with his friends—until Lollia, the hostess, relates how Tiberius defiled her, then kills herself in front of her guests.
The farcical acclamation of Claudius as Emperor by the Praetorian Guard takes place right after the conspirators murder Caligula's innocent wife and infant daughter.
Claudius gets called out his bed in the middle of the night along with two other Roman officials and they all wait in a dark room for a surely hideous fate at the hands of Caligula. Cue Caligula jumping out of the shadows in drag to perform a song and dance number for them.
My Beloved Smother: Livia to Tiberius. When he can finally shove her out of power, he does so happily.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Claudius does it to himself when he realizes his benevolent, peaceful reign as emperor has gotten people thinking that maybe having emperors wouldn't be so bad. He promptly sets to work finding the worst successor he can to return them to wanting the Republic.
Nobody Poops: Averted - Claudius jerks out of a dream that he fell into whilst pooping.
Not So Above It All: A darker version of this trope: Claudius thinks he can remain separate from the murderous schemes absorbing his family. Unfortunately, when Claudius himself comes to power, he finds he must get his own hands dirty in order to survive.
Obfuscating Stupidity: Claudius found playing the fool to be a necessary survival tactic in a family where anyone with even an ounce of ambition would wind up brutally slaughtered. He was good enough at this that arch-schemer Livia only picked up on this being obfuscation quite late in life.
Tiberius: (to Livia) That grandson of yours could wreck the empire just by strolling through it.
Offing the Offspring: Livia's exploits in this trope are well-known, but her granddaughter Livilla also tried killing her daughter Helen (when she perceived the child as a threat to her marriage plans.) Once the plot to kill Helen and overthrow the emperor was discovered, Livilla was then forcibly starved to death by her mother, Antonia.
Including both biological and adopted children, Augustus's favorite was pretty much whoever wasn't Tiberius. In succession, this was Julia, Gaius, Lucius, and Postumus.
Germanicus is Antonia's favorite. She is disgusted with Claudius for his handicaps and with Livilla for... well, being Livilla, it seems.
Agrippina was invested in the welfare of all her children, but Caligula was clearly her pet amongst her sons.
Parental Incest: In a scene deleted from the American version of the series, Agrippinilla - another of Caligula's sisters - uses sex to keep her son Nero in line. It doesn't work, and in Real Life and he eventually has her murdered.
Parental Neglect: Livilla really should never have had children, as she seems to have ignored them both.
The Plan: Livia puts her son Tiberius on the throne using some truly devious political maneuvering, along with generous amounts of poison.
Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Too many times to count. Notably, Claudius and Caesonia manage to talk Caligula out of murdering the Senate by appealing to his ego.
P.O.V. Cam: Several instances, usually for a character's final moments.
After Sejanus is arrested, Macro entering his cell and ordering his execution is seen from Sejanus' POV.
When Cassius prepares to finish off Caligula, shouting, "This from our wives, Jove!", he is seen from Caligula's POV.
For Messalina's execution, the camera cuts to her POV as soon as her head is severed, the room spinning past her eyes.
Praetorian Guard: The original one plays a major role, putting Claudius on the imperial throne.
Properly Paranoid: Claudius is convinced his (last) wife is trying to poison him. Oh, wait. She is.
Prophecies Are Always Right: Three prophecies are mentioned during the series: that Rome would be placed in Claudius' hands in the hour of need, that Claudius' memoirs would be discovered after nineteen hundred years, and that the Messiah would be born on Livia's birthday. The first two come true, and it's heavily implied that so did the third.
The Purge: Sejanus embarks upon a carefully planned campaign to imprison and destroy Agrippina, her children and supporters in order to pave his way to the Imperial throne. Once his plan is discovered by the Emperor, Sejanus himself becomes the victim of a purge, which consumes his family and supporters.
Pyrrhic Villainy: By the time Claudius becomes emperor, there are practically no villains of the piece left. All their plots and schemes have achieved nothing in the end.
The Queen's Latin: As mentioned previously, upper class Romans speak modern BBC English.
The page quote is from a speech Claudius delivers to the senate when they refuse to recognize him as emperor, and he agrees with them, but he can't help pointing out that the senate spinelessly handed over power in the past and it wouldn't be unlikely for them to do it again, even though he's fully in support of them restoring the Roman republic.
Narcissus delivers one to Messalina when her many adulteries and bigamous marriage to Silius are exposed to Claudius.
(Messalina enters the Imperial palace with her mother, Domitia, and her children Britannicus and Octavia) Messalina: Where is he? Where is my husband!? Narcissus:(blocking her path to Claudius' study) He... doesn't wish to see you. Messalina:(looks momentarily unnerved, but suppresses it) Out of my way, you Greek! You dare stand between me and my husband? Narcissus:(disgusted)Which husband, you whore!? Which one!? Messalina: Out of my way! (begins grappling with Narcissus, trying to force him aside) Get out of my way! Let me go! LET ME GO! Pallas:(to the Praetorian guards) Get her out of here, get her out of here! Messalina:(screams as she is restrained by the guards) LET ME SEE HIM! CLAUDIUS!! Domitia: How dare you stop her! She is the Emperor's wife and the mother of his children! Narcissus:(pushes Domitia aside) But is he the father? (to Messalina) Who knows whose litter they are! Messalina: Liar... LIAR!! Narcissus:(shows her a scroll) Here's a list of your adulteries, d'you want to read it!? Hundreds! (Pallas pulls him away; as they pass Domitia, Narcissus turns to her angrily) And you call her a mother!? (Pallas pulls him away again) Take her home, let her wait there. (Messalina is led off screaming)
Reassigned to Antarctica: This happens a lot. Some do it voluntarily to get away from Rome and certain family members, though others have no choice. After her scandal, Julia is sent to the remote Italian island of Pandateria, and is not heard from again.note She was still alive when Augustus died, and reputedly was left to starve to death by Tiberius.
Red Right Hand: Inverted, since the limping, twitching, stammering Claudius is portrayed as one of the few decent people in the entire family, and most of his able-bodied relatives are unstable, scheming, murdering bastards.
First with Caligula's attempted abortion on his sister's baby where we only see a bit of blood around Caligula's face when he leaves the room and Claudius' reaction to what he sees.
When Macro orders the rape of Sejanus' daughter, which we never see but only hear her scream.
Seppuku: What Roman Generals (like Quinctilius Varus of the "WHERE ARE MY EAGLES!" fame) were expected to do after losing battles. Another form of ritual suicide (by opening a vein) was also available to people facing political disgrace, or to people who had simply grown tired of life. In general, an honorable death-by-suicide could save everyone a lot of trouble—for example, a condemned traitor would usually forfeit his property, leaving his family destitute. (Of course, when doing this, it's always handy to have one's treacherous wife standing by to gut-stab you should you chicken out at the last minute...) When Claudius's freedman trick him into signing Messalina's death-warrant, they make sure to offer Messalina a dagger—to take the honourable way out—in the hopes that they won't have to show the warrant to Claudius.
So Bad, It's Good: In-universe, it's implied Claudius sees Caligula's performance as the Goddess of the Dawn like this. Caligula's make-up in this scene is truly awful. In an interview, John Hurt explained that he did the make-up himself rather than relying on the make-up department, on the grounds that, since he had no idea how to put it on, he would make a better job of doing it badly than they would.
Take Me Instead: When Caligula falls ill, some of his subjects make grandiose public announcements that if Death spares the Emperor, they'll kill themselves in his place. Later, when Caligula gets better, he forces them all to follow through on it.
Tangled Family Tree: An example of Truth in Television; the convoluted relationships (both through blood and through marriage, not to mention adoption! note Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Tiberius was the adopted son of Augustus. Nero was the adopted son of Claudius. At this point in Roman history, if one senator had two sons and his friend had none, it was expected that one of those sons would get adopted by the childless senator to keep his family name alive. One particularly unscrupulous politician in the days of the Republic had himself adopted by a man younger than he was, just to qualify himself to run for a particular office!) between all the Julio-Claudians were so complex that a copy of the Julio-Claudian family tree was included in the DVD box-set, available to consult when they watched this series.
Terrible Ticking: Caligula goes mad partly due to the sounds of running horses which only he can hear. Caligula himself claims that, as a god, he hears many things that keep him from sleeping, and that's one reason he acts so strangely.
Too Dumb to Live: Messalina's mother warns Messalina that she is risking her own life. Mom is right.
Translation Convention: Aristocratic Romans, and foreign aristocrats who would speak Latin or Greek fluentlynote as aristocratic Romans of this era would be quite likely to speak Greek, not Latin, on social occasions, speak with an upper-class BBC accent (most of the cast, naturally). Lower-class Romans—mainly soldiers and the lower kinds of slaves—speak with lower-class English accents (generally Cockney); foreigners sometimes have corresponding accents (as, for example, a Jewish innkeeper with a very modern Yiddish accent).
Tranquil Fury: Augustus remains rather cool-headed when he reviews the list of men suspected of sleeping with his daughter, and calmly asks the ones brought before him to "answer the question" even though his face and body language are signalling that he'd like nothing better than execute every one of them. His tranquility fades pretty quickly, though, when he realizes just how many men are standing before him... and these are just the ones that were caught...
True Companions: Inverted. Claudius starts at the centre of a network of close friends. As the series progresses, this group dwindles— as characters either die or are exiled— until only Claudius remains.
Claudius is the most prominent example; though his mother Antonia is not especially fond of Livilla either, she has special contempt for Claudius, seeing him as an idiot and a disappointment and frequently saying that he should have died instead of Germanicus.
Claudius' father Drusus was Livia's unfavorite, though calling Tiberius her favorite would be something of an exaggeration.
Claudius treats his son Britannicus this way. It's a trick intended to protect him from Nero.
Unfortunate Name: Postumus, whose name is phonetically identical to "posthumous" aka "after-death". Intentional, historically, the character was born after his father had died and hence was a "posthumous" son. Also fitting, considering his eventual fate.
Livia really doesn't take it well when she realizes Caligula isn't going to make her a goddess.
Sejanus has one when the letter from Tiberius turns into a denunciation and arrest order. We can practically see the colour draining from his face as the letter unfolds.
Messalina suffers a double breakdown after she's arrested - first, when Narcissus tells her that Claudius doesn't wish to see her and orders her taken away, and second, when Geta produces her execution warrant with Claudius' signature.
Caligula, naturally. He takes a sexual interest in all three of his sisters (especially Drusilla) from a very young age, and eventually gets Drusilla pregnant.
In the last episode, Agrippinilla seduces her son Nero to keep him happy when his wife refuses to sleep with him.
Vorpal Pillow: Tiberius's fate. Semi-justified in that Tiberius was an old man and slipping in and out of a coma at the time.
Well-Intentioned Extremist: When Livia's not conspiring to get Tiberius onto the throne, she's this, taking care of Augustus's follies in order to preserve the peace of Rome.
Who's Your Daddy?: In "Old King Log", Claudius tells Britannicus that he suspects that Caligula, not Claudius himself, is his real father, but that he still loves Britannicus as much as he would if he really were his son. The fact that he (unknowingly) had Britannicus' mother executed and generally treats him coldly (to keep Nero from seeing him as a threat) means Britannicus finds Claudius' declaration of love unconvincing at best.
As part of the purge of Sejanus' friends and family after his downfall, Macro oversees the execution of his children, sidestepping possible backlash and/or bad luck by dressing his son in his "manly gown" (toga virilis) to make him a legal adult and violating his daughter so that she does not die a virgin.
Macro later executes Caligula's cousin and nominal co-heir to the Imperial throne, Tiberius' young grandson Gemellus, on Caligula's orders.
After Caligula's assassination, Cassius Chaerea and his co-conspirators kill not only Caligula's widow Caesonia but also his infant daughter Drusilla.
Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Livilla invites Postumus into her bedroom, tears her own clothing, and cries rape. Postumus is exiled.