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Series: The Caesars
A British mini-series shot entirely on studio sets, with a cast largely comprising well-known stage actors, focusing on the political intrigue surrounding the reigns of the Julio-Claudian Roman Emperors... sound familiar?

Granada Television's take on the early years of The Roman Empire comprised six episodes written by Philip Mackie (who went on to write The Cleopatras for The BBC in 1983) and directed by Derek Bennett, first airing in autumn of 1968. Rather than encompassing the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty, the series focuses primarily on the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula, beginning with the last days of Augustus in 14 AD and concluding with the declaration of Claudius as Emperor in 41 AD. Each of the six episodes is named for one of its primary characters: "Augustus", "Germanicus", "Tiberius", "Sejanus", "Caligula", and "Claudius", with the title characters played respectively by Roland Culver, Eric Flynn, André Morell, Barrie Ingham, Ralph Bates, and Freddie Jones.

The series has been largely overshadowed by I, Claudius since the latter series aired in 1976, but it was a hit with critics and audiences during its original airing, with Freddie Jones' performance as Claudius being singled out for particular praise and being awarded the Monte Carlo Golden Nymph award in 1969. Among the differences in characterisation are a more sympathetic portrayal of Tiberius, Caligula's descent into madness beginning after his fever rather than at birth, and Messalina taking an almost instant dislike to Claudius rather than pretending to adore him while bedding countless other men behind his back.

The series was released on DVD (Region 2 only) in 2006.

This series provides examples of:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Tiberius ultimately resigns himself to this after Piso's trial (see Morton's Fork); Caligula is determined to fight it with fear.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Caligula is portrayed as this, flirting openly with members of the Praetorian Guard and even planting a kiss on Drusilla's husband Lepidus in "Caligula".
  • Ancient Rome: The early years of The Roman Empire.
  • Arranged Marriage: As happened in reality, most of the marriages in the series were arranged; one of Augustus' last requests is for Drusus to marry Livilla, while Caligula orders Claudius to marry Messalina to set an example for the Roman people. Although both marriages ended badly, we only see the outcome of the first. Tiberius also mentions his disastrous arranged marriage to Augustus' daughter Julia when confronting Livia in "Tiberius".
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Subverted; following the murders of Caligula and Caesonia, Claudius hears the Praetorian Guard approaching and scurries across the room to hide behind a curtain. The guards pull him out of hiding and declare, "Hail Caesar!" The final scene of the series has Claudius, still reeling a bit, receiving his first audience as Emperor.
  • Balancing Death's Books: When Caligula was ill with the fever that led him to believe he was a god, several Senators vowed that they would give their own lives if the gods would spare Caligula. When Caligula recovered, he decreed that the Senators in question would make good on their vows.
  • Based on a True Story: Although, for the most part, the series avoids the more salacious rumours spread by contemporary historians, the primary sources are still such classical accounts as those by Tacitus and Suetonius. Some details remain exaggerated (for example, most modern historians believe that if Caligula committed incest with any of his sisters, it was likely limited to Drusilla).
  • Big Screwed-Up Family: The Julio-Claudian dynasty, a family tree full of backstabbing, extortion, incest, and murder.
  • Black Widow: Livia has become this by the events of "Tiberius".
  • Bodyguard Betrayal: In "Claudius", Callistus and Vitellius persuade Cassius Chaerea to lead the Praetorian Guard in assassinating Caligula.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Caligula and his sisters, at least until he accidentally kills Drusilla by strangling her and banishes Julia Livilla and Agrippinilla for allegedly conspiring against him.
  • The Caligula: The Trope Namer, in a genuinely unsettling performance by Ralph Bates. He flies into a violent or even murderous rage at the least provocation, raises funds by forcing the wealthy to leave their entire estates to him in their wills and then having them assassinated, executes or exiles countless people (including several members of his own family) for treason on flimsy or outright false evidence, and then there's the whole god complex.
  • Caligula's Horse: The Trope Namer, Incitatus, is mentioned, though not actually seen.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Tiberius never wanted to become Emperor, and resists accepting the title following Augustus' death until it becomes politically necessary.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Claudius, although he admits to his closer confidantes that it is largely an act, especially during the reign of Caligula.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Frequently employed by the powerful to get their enemies to confess to imaginary crimes. Caligula even has Capito and his son Bassus tortured to death as dinner entertainment in "Claudius".
  • Curtain Camouflage: Claudius hides behind one after Caligula's assassination; he is found by the guards and declared Emperor.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Caligula insists that his and Caesonia's daughternote  be named Drusilla, after his dead sister.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: The Julio-Claudian family and their social circle form a tangled web of debauchery and intrigue.
  • Defiant to the End: Agrippina forcibly starves herself to death to ensure that her blood is on Tiberius' hands, while Caligula's last words as he is being stabbed are "Strike again, I'm still alive!"
  • Dirty Old Man: Tiberius admits to shades of this in his later years, although fewer details are given than in I, Claudius.
  • Doesn't Trust Those Guys: Caligula invokes "Trust no one" as a personal philosophy. Of course, his tyranny creates enough enemies even among his inner circle that he can be regarded as Properly Paranoid.
  • Dramatic Irony: Caligula's first scene in the series occurs near the end of "Sejanus", when he is getting drunk with Tiberius and Claudius. Caligula laughs off the planned construction of golden statues proclaiming Sejanus as a god as madness, adding, "With all due respects to my great-grandfather, the divine Augustus, men are not gods." As any student of Roman history knows, and as we see in "Caligula", he changed his mind very quickly on that subject after becoming Emperor.
  • Driven to Suicide: When Caligula is assassinated, Caesonia knows she will soon follow and orders the Praetorian Guard to kill her. When they hesitate, she takes a sword from one of them and stabs herself in the chest.
  • The Emperor: Four of them, although the series mostly concentrates on the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. Claudius remains an important character throughout, but only becomes Emperor in the final few minutes, while Augustus dies near the end of the first episode.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: As happened in real life, one of Caligula's first acts as Emperor is to personally carry his mother Agrippina's remains from Pandataria to Rome to be interred in Augustus' Mausoleum, and he orders that funeral games be held in her honour.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: In "Claudius", Capito tries to save his and Bassus' lives by claiming to be involved in a conspiracy against Caligula along with Mnester, Callistus, Vitellius, and Caesonia. The last name convinces Caligula that Capito is lying and he is tortured to death. However, Callistus and Vitellius ultimately do successfully conspire to have Caligula assassinated by the Praetorian Guard.
  • A God Am I: Caligula declares this following his fever, and the more sycophantic of his followers commission temples in his honour in Rome.
  • Happily Married: Augustus and Livia are said to be this in "Augustus", having been married for fifty years at Augustus' death. Tiberius was also happily married to Marcus Agrippa's daughter Vipsania before being made to divorce her in favour of Augustus' daughter Julia; after Vipsania's (off-screen) death during the events of "Tiberius", he bitterly describes her to Livia as his "only real wife".
  • Historical-Domain Character: Almost every character in the series is mentioned by name in the classical sources.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Though Tiberius is not portrayed as heroic as such, he is treated much more kindly than he is by Tacitus, Suetonius, or Robert Graves. His reluctance to accept the title of Emperor and his sad resignation to the hatred of the Roman people as he eliminates his political opponents are emphasised, while his sexual depravities are only hinted at in a single line in "Sejanus".
  • Insane Equals Violent: Caligula plays this straight following his fever, and is all the more terrifying because there is no way of knowing what might cause his violent outbursts.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Applied by Caligula in some of his accusations of treason. For example, when he recovers from his fever, he declares that since his death would have meant the installation of his cousin and nominal co-heir Gemellus as Emperor, Gemellus must have been rejoicing at the prospect of Caligula's death and made plans accordingly, and should therefore be executed forthwith.
  • Just the First Citizen: In "Germanicus", Tiberius resists taking on new titles (including that of Emperor) for as long as possible following Augustus' death, partly because he feels he is too old to be Emperor and partly because he sees himself as a temporary ruler rather than the lifelong ruler Augustus ultimately became.
  • King Incognito: In the opening scene of the series, Augustus is sitting on a public staircase, begging from passers-by. It is later explained that this is a tradition he follows for one day each year.
  • King on His Deathbed: Augustus and Tiberius. Caligula is not so fortunate in his death.
  • Lady Macbeth: Agrippina shows shades of this in "Germanicus", trying to persuade her husband to use the rebellious troops' support of him to put himself on the Imperial throne.
  • Loophole Abuse: When Sejanus is arrested and executed, Macro reports to Tiberius that the Senate ordered his children executed as well. His daughter was a virgin, and Tiberius points out that Roman law forbids the killing of a virgin. Macro explains that, before her execution, she was violated by the public executioner to make it legal.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: In "Claudius", Caesonia gives birth to a daughter, Drusilla, just one month after marrying Caligula. She claims that Caligula is the father, but as she had a reputation for promiscuity before marrying Caligula, there is some doubt over the baby's paternity.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Sejanus manipulates himself into the position of Tiberius' enforcer, then uses this to arrange for the elimination of his competition as heir to the throne.
  • Master Poisoner: Livia is accused of this, but in contrast to I, Claudius we never actually see her poison anyone. Likewise subverted with Piso and his wife, who are likely innocent of the charges of poison against them, and quite possibly with Sejanus and Livilla as well—in all cases, we never are actually shown the poisoning, leaving it ambiguous whether the "victim" was murdered or not.
  • Mood-Swinger: In "Caligula", the title character lampshades his use of this, saying that the uncertainty it instills in people who must deal with him is an integral part of his ruling philosophy.
  • Morton's Fork: Two noteworthy examples:
    • In "Tiberius", when Germanicus is poisoned by Piso and Plancina, Tiberius notes that if he does not prosecute Piso for the crime, it will look as though Piso was acting on his orders, whereas if he does prosecute Piso, it will look as though he is trying to hide his involvement in Germanicus' murder by letting Piso take the fall. Either way, he knows the public will believe he ordered Germanicus' murder to remove a major obstacle to his continued reign as Emperor.
    • In "Caligula", carrying on a tradition from the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula decrees that all wealthy Romans should include a bequest to the Emperor in their wills... and that the size of their bequests shall be taken as a sign of their loyalty. Those who bequeathe their entire estates to him will be deemed fully loyal, those who bequeathe only a small part of their estate will be deemed traitors - a crime punishable by death and seizure of their full estates. A Senator who bitterly draws attention to the lose-lose nature of this law is executed on the spot.
  • My Beloved Smother: Livia to Tiberius in "Augustus". By the time of "Tiberius", he regards her as largely irrelevant, and her death between the events of "Tiberius" and "Sejanus" goes unmentioned.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: Caligula happily admits that Caesonia had a reputation for promiscuity when he married her, as evidenced by the fact that their daughter Julia Drusilla was born only a month after their marriage.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Claudius admits that he exaggerates his disabilities so as to be written off as harmless while Caligula is Emperor.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Although he laments not being taken seriously or given responsibility during Tiberius' reign, Claudius resorts to pretending to be incompetent during Caligula's reign as a survival mechanism.
  • Opinion Flipflop: Everyone behaves like this around Caligula as a survival mechanism, although Caligula himself lampshades the fact that he rules in such a way that there is no way to predict whether a given instance of blind agreement will please or anger him, and that he can twist any flattery into an insult and react accordingly.
  • Praetorian Guard: The original one carries out the assassination of Caligula and declares Claudius Emperor at the conclusion of "Claudius".
  • The Purge: Two of them.
    • As Sejanus becomes more and more powerful, he arranges for the elimination of Tiberius' heirs apparent, Germanicus' son Nero and then Tiberius' own son Drusus. At the end of "Sejanus", Tiberius learns that Sejanus poisoned his son and conducts his own purge of Sejanus' family and supporters.
    • After becoming Emperor, Caligula convicts vast numbers of influential Romans of treason on forged evidence and/or speculation, including his cousin and co-heir Gemellus, his brother-in-law Lepidus, and his sisters Julia Livilla and Agrippinilla. The alleged traitors are all either executed or exiled.
  • Reluctant Ruler: Tiberius remains this throughout his reign, only accepting the title of Emperor very reluctantly, and mostly leaving the running of the Empire in the hands of Sejanus in his later years.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: At the beginning of "Caligula", Macro smothers Tiberius to help Caligula succeed to the Imperial throne. At the end of the episode, Caligula forces Macro to admit that he was technically still serving Tiberius at the time, and concludes that if Macro would betray the Emperor he served once, there is no reason why he might not do so again, and that he and his wife must therefore do the honourable thing and commit suicide.
  • Royally Screwed Up: The Julio-Claudians, a family rife with backstabbing, adultery, incest, and murder.
  • Seppuku: Many characters are obliged to commit this over the course of the series, mostly off screen - Piso in "Tiberius", Livilla and Sejanus' ex-wife Apicata in "Sejanus", Macro and his wife Ennia in "Caligula", and Caesonia in "Claudius".
  • Shown Their Work: Adapted from such classical sources as Tacitus and Suetonius, in some cases quoting (translations of) the dialogue (for example, Suetonius claims that Augustus said "Have I played my part well in the comedy of life? Then applaud!" on his deathbed, and this scene is recreated in "Augustus"). However, in contrast to I, Claudius, some of the really juicy bits were omitted, perhaps in deference to the censors of 1968.
  • Smug Snake: As opposed to I, Claudius, Germanicus is painted in a less flattering light, as quietly power-hungry, and a great deal less clever than he imagines.
  • Speech Impediment: Claudius, especially when he is drunk (which he often is). Caligula taps his foot impatiently when Claudius stammers in front of him, which only makes things worse.
  • Springtime for Hitler: In "Caligula", the patricians who declare publicly that they will offer their lives if the gods spare Caligula's in an attempt to curry favour with him are forced to carry out their promises when Caligula recovers.
  • Succession Crisis: Tiberius is confronted with one throughout his reign. Initially, he plans to make Germanicus his successor, followed by Germanicus' son Nero. When they are killed, he names his own son Drusus as his successor, to be followed by Drusus' son Gemellus. When Drusus is killed, he names Caligula and Gemellus co-heirs; Caligula accepts, but glosses over the "co-heir" idea and has Gemellus murdered after Tiberius' death.
  • Take Me Instead: Several members of the Senate are revealed to have said this when Caligula falls ill in "Caligula". When he recovers, Caligula forces them to follow through on this.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Claudius and Messalina; each lampshades the other's contribution to this when Caligula orders them to marry.
  • Unexpected Successor: Claudius after Caligula's death.
  • Unfortunate Name: Agrippa Postumus, whose name is phonetically identical to "posthumous" aka "after-death", and who was thus named because he was born after the death of his father, Marcus Agrippa. Fittingly, he is murdered by his guards at the end of "Augustus", ostensibly on Augustus' orders.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Messalina is disgusted at the idea of being forcibly married to Claudius.
  • Uriah Gambit: Tiberius observes that, since the more popular Germanicus was considered his main rival for the Imperial throne after the deaths of Augustus and Postumus, he will be accused of having pulled one of these following Germanicus' death in Syria. (Although he did send Germanicus to Syria to get him far away from Rome, he had no intention of sending him to his death.)
  • Villainous Breakdown: Sejanus suffers one when Tiberius' letter denouncing him and ordering his arrest is read before the Senate.
  • Villainous Incest: Caligula, naturally.
  • Vorpal Pillow: A blanket rather than a pillow, but Macro uses this on Almost Dead Guy Tiberius in "Caligula".

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