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Series / I, Claudius

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"As for being half-witted, well, what can I say, except that I have survived to middle age with half my wits while thousands have died with all of theirs intact! 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, the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

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. (We don't really need to reach for schizophrenia, though; growing up in the Imperial family under Tiberius and Livia, in a position of unquestioned status and constant threat, was not exactly a school for sanity. He also only became really out of control after barely surviving an extreme and nearly lethal bout of fever — probably malarial encephalitis — so the combination of a deeply twisted upbringing and likely brain damage seems as plausible.) 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 13 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 once again, 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, with an All-Star Cast of British television actors, and including appearances by some who would go on to be famous, among them Patrick Stewart in an early major TV role as the shifty Roman general Sejanus, and John Hurt in his Star-Making Rolenote  as the giggly, insane Caligula. BRIAN BLESSED plays a rather tragically naive (but still hammy) Emperor Augustus, but it is Siân 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 plays a complex and bitter Tiberius. 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).note 

HBO and The BBC announced a new miniseries adaptation in 2011 but it has yet to be produced.

This show provides examples of:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Tiberius desperately wants approval and love, but his subjects do not like him at all. As a result, he virtually abandons ruling Rome and leaves Sejanus to do all the work. Sejanus is also disliked for being an upjumped tyrant. Tiberius deliberately chooses Caligula to succeed him because he believes he will be remembered more fondly by contrast. This more or less fails in the short term. Caligula is hated by his peers, but the commoners don't seem to know or care about his personal excesses.
  • Abusive Parents:
    • Antonia never shows Claudius any affection, and openly refers to him as an embarrassment.
    • Livia apparently intended to poison her son Drusus, but he succumbed to his injuries first.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Caligula's habit of giving his Praetorian guards Embarrassing Passwords for the night, such as "Give Us A Kiss" or "Touch Me Titus." Granted, the Praetorian guards aren't that amused, but Claudius and at least one of Caligula's German guards seem to be.
  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication:
    • John Rhys-Davies' character, Macro, plays a key role in the downfall of Sejanus and accession of Caligula, and then disappears without explanation, although it's implied that he died since Caligula mentioned that he considered giving Cassius his command. 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.
  • Adaptational Early Appearance: In the novels, Herod Agrippa is briefly mentioned but doesn't appear in person until the sequel, at which point Claudius talks about him being a childhood friend and playing an important role in previous events. The novel lampshades the use of Remember the New Guy? In the TV series, a Pragmatic Adaptation is done wherein Herod is "written into" scenes from Claudius' earlier life, rather than appearing out of nowhere like in the novels.
  • Adapted Out: The series omits Claudius' daughter Claudia Antonia and her husband Gnaeus Pompey.
  • Ailment-Induced Cruelty: Exaggerated by Caligula. He was already an unpleasant person prior to becoming Emperor, but shortly after taking the throne, he came down with a very serious illness, possibly malarial meningitis. He recovered, but had descended into madness, suffering delusions of godhood and keeping everyone around him in fear for their lives due to his insane behavior and capriciously murderous whims. He caused so much chaos that he was only Emperor for 4 years before being assassinated by his own bodyguards.
  • 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.
    • Caligula, despite all his horrible deeds, have a surprising amount of sympathetic moments. His madness is clearly a source of suffering and torment for him, and in a coversation with Claudius, even seems aware of his insanity, and him marrying the much older and lower born Caesonia because she actually loves him, which is much needed after his horrible murder of his sister Drusilla, who he seems to have truly loved, and whose name is his last words
  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: There are two Jewish characters in the series. While Herod looks like a Middle-Eastern Jew and speaks about the same as any Roman, the innkeeper Gershom speaks with a heavy Yiddish accent through the Translation Convention to convey that he's Jewish.
  • Anachronism Stew: During a riot in Rome, Livia warns the mob agitating for the restoration of the Republic, "Do you want Gauls and Huns knocking at your doors?" Realistically, no one in first century Rome would have even heard of the Huns, whose first contact with the Romans wasn't until the late fourth century.
  • Ancient Rome: First century of The Roman Empire.
  • And Another Thing...: Livia's "Don't touch the figs."
  • And This Is for...: Caligula forces the senators to prostitute their wives. When a senator finally gets close enough to assassinate the emperor he says, "This is for my wife, butcher!"
  • Anyone Can Die: Literally anyone. Just count the named characters who have a natural death. And (most of it) is Truth in Television.
  • Arc Villain: The series can be divided up into small arcs each helmed by a major villain.
    • Livia is the first of them as her schemes to make Tiberius emperor drive the plot and lead her to kill so many of his rivals and potential rivals.
    • While Tiberius isn't necessarily the best person, the one running the show as the main antagonist during his reign is Sejanus. Sejanus's ambitions and manipulation of Tiberius form the backbone of the dictatorship.
    • Following Sejanus is Caligula's reign of terror. His cruelty and debauchery make him one of the most monstrous in the series.
    • The final arc villain is Messalina. Though Claudius is running the show, his wife's manipulations cause a more covert state of paranoia amongst the people as she can use her political power to send people away or have them executed.
  • 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.)
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The source novel is heavily based on the works of Gaius Suetonius, a historian whose books Robert Graves personally translated into English. Suetonius was more or less the second century equivalent of a gossip columnist whose primary interest was in selling lots of books, leading to his "histories" being among the most sensational and lewd accounts of the Julio-Claudians. Needless to say, pretty much everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but especially Livia's portrayal as a conniving serial poisoner.
    • And then there's the stuff that was just made up for dramatic purposes.
  • 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.
  • Back for the Finale: Augustus, Livia, Antonia, Tiberius, and Caligula appear in the final episode in Claudius' hallucination, all of whom had died in earlier episodes.
  • Bait-and-Switch: In the final episode, Nero and Agrippina burn the book that Claudius has been writing over the course of the series. It is then revealed that Claudius had already anticipated this, and made a second copy and buried it.
  • 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: The series dramatizes several decades in the early Roman Empire, though the validity of many plot details are based on sketchy history at best.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For:
    • Livia spends years scheming and poisoning her relatives to ensure that Tiberius succeeds Augustus as Emperor. However, when Tiberius finally does become Emperor he is bitter and depraved, and despises Livia so much that he virtually disowns her.
    • Agrippinilla similarly schemes to put her son Nero on the throne, yet he turns out to be as bad as Caligula, if not worse, and Sybil informs Claudius that eventually he'll kill his mother and bring down the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
  • 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.)
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Julio-Claudian dynasty. King Herod himself lampshades this and derides the entire family as a gang of lunatics.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Messalina.
  • 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.
  • Black Widow: Livia and Livilla both poison their husbands.
  • Bodyguard Betrayal: Caligula is done in by his Praetorian Guard.
  • Book Ends: The last episode has a scene almost identical to the symposium which opens the first, with Claudius in Augustus's couch and Britannicus in Marcellus's place, complete with flower crown. Counts as foreshadowing given Britannicus's fate.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Caligula and Drusilla. "And you know how I love my sisters..."
  • 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 Caligula: John Hurt as the Caligula. And he is magnificent.
  • Caligula's Horse: The original.
  • Carrying the Antidote: A good reason for this trope. Two notorious poisoners meet.
    Martina: I never bothered much with antidotes.
    Livia: Well you never know, one day some fool of a slave will get the bowls mixed up.
  • Cassandra Truth: Postumus figures out Livia's whole plan, but by then he's been framed for rape and Augustus declares it to only be an attempt at an insanity plea.
  • Chewing the Scenery:
    • Augustus, unsurprisingly:
      Quinctilius Varus, WHERE ARE MY EAGLES!?note 
    • Also Tiberius:
      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.note 
  • The Chains of Commanding: By the time Tiberius becomes Emperor, he's too old to care.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: Macro for Sejanus when the bomb drops in "Reign of Terror".
  • Classical Anti-Hero: Claudius.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Claudius, although it's mostly an act.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: A common Roman way of dealing with one's political enemies, if one just doesn't have them poisoned or stabbed outright.
  • Corrupt Politician: They are everywhere. In something of a subversion, the emperors are the least corrupt.
    • 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.
    • Caligula is The Caligula. Not corrupt, rather an Ax-Crazy Narcissist with a Hair-Trigger Temper and delusions of godhood.
    • And then there's poor old Claudius the crippled half-wit. A Reluctant Ruler and puppet of the political forces around him. Or is he?
  • Cradle To Grave Character: The series depicts Claudius' entire life from birth to death.
  • Crazy Sane: When Caligula asks Claudius, quite seriously, if Claudius has considered that Caligula might be insane, Claudius replies, "I think you set the standard of sanity for the whole world." Given everything he's seen, he's only half-joking.
  • Creepy Child: Caligula is portrayed this way. He becomes partially responsibly for the murder of his father when he was just hitting puberty.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Claudius is hiding behind one when he is crowned emperor.
  • Dated History: In the decades since the series, more people have wised up to the fact that none of the contemporary historians who chronicled this period had any notion of objectivity, nor did they have much respect for women, so you really have to read between the lines for a truthful picture of any given person's character.
  • Decadent Court: So much of this, but it's summed up by the fact that the Julio-Claudian dynasty basically violently wipes itself out (and even though historians don't think Livia masterminded the deaths of many of Augustus' relatives, in a case of Truth in Television all that was left of the family after Nero's downfall were the children of one granddaughter of Tiberius, who had been executed herself).
  • 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.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Little Gemellus meets an unfortunate end.
  • Defiant to the End: Agrippina the Elder and Asinius Gallus.
  • Defiled Forever: Lollia commits suicide in front of her husband and friends after being defiled by the emperor Tiberius.
  • Delayed Narrator Introduction: It's around three episodes before the narrator is even born, although it's explicitly a story told by Claudius from the beginning.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Antonia is a cruel and distant mother to Claudius due to his failing to meet Roman standards of perfection.
    • Roman belief in prophecies and horoscopes are central to the plot. Roman characters base important decisions on what they say.
    • For patricians, banishment is one step down from execution, but they're sent to small Mediterranean islands that would be considered resort destinations in modern times.
    • Augustus chastises a group of bachelor men who are resisting marriage and orders them to find wives. He also warns them not to get engaged to children to delay the ceremony.
    • Roman patricians marry and divorce each other for political gain quite lightly. This was even more scandalous in the 1930s when the original book was written, when divorce held a lot more stigma in western society. Even in the 1970s, it wasn't quite as prevalent as it is today.
    • Taking lovers outside of marriage isn't considered notable. Even Claudius is revealed to have kept his relationship with his mistress Calpurnia after marrying the beautiful Messalina.
  • Den of Iniquity: Tiberius' mansion, where he indulges in every perversion imaginable.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Claudius.
    "Spies! Spies everywhere, spying on me!"
  • Did You Actually Believe...?: Caligula to Livia on her deathbed, when he mocks her for thinking she would ever be made a goddess.
  • Dies Wide Open:
    • 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.
  • Dirty Old Man: Tiberius has a sex palace and does all sorts of unspeakable things to young women and children in private.
  • 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.
  • Dying Dream: The final episode ends this way.
  • Eats Babies: Caligula doesn't even have the decency to wait until they're born! Thankfully the audience is spared the details, but that blood-curdling scream from offscreen is chilling enough... The scene was originally much more graphic. A shot of Caligula cutting the fetus from Drusilla's womb and swallowing it was recut before transmission, and then deleted completely. It is now lost.
  • The Emperor: Four of them.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: In "Hail Who?", 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!
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • As horrible as Livia was, even she was disgusted to learn that Caligula had murdered his own father. And she felt genuinely bad about murdering Augustus.
    • The look on Sejanus' face when Caligula brings his great-uncle Tiberius a scroll of perverted drawings as a gift speaks volumes about his private opinion of his Emperor and Caligula.
    • Even arch-pervert Tiberius himself is taken aback when Caligula casually mentions that Macro has happily let Caligula have sex with his wife for the sake of becoming a member of the imperial family's friend. Of course, this is exactly what inspires Tiberius to adopt Caligula as his heir in order to make Rome suffer.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Marcus Vinicius is on board with the assassination of Caligula. However, he is against killing the rest of the Imperial Family, and demands that only Caligula should die. Cassius appears to agree, but as soon as Marcus leaves, he admits to his fellow assassin, Sabinus, that he still intends to eliminate the entire Imperial Family.
  • Evil Laugh:
    • Livia gets an epic one at the end of "Poison is Queen". Starts here.
    • Tiberius gets one in "Waiting in the Wings", after finding out Lucius is dead. The courier who delivered the news is quite shocked.
  • Evil Matriarch:
    • 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.
  • Evil Nephew:
    • Caligula inspired this trope.
    • His sister Agrippinilla is an evil niece.
    • Agrippinilla's son Nero is Claudius' evil great-nephew (and eventual successor).
  • The Exile: At different times, Tiberius, Agrippa, Postumus, and Julia.
  • 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?".
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • 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.
    • Claudius and Caligula discuss the story of Zeus removing his unborn child from Metis' body and swallowing it, because it was prophesied that his child would grow up to become more powerful than him. Later, Caligula, believing himself to be Zeus, re-enacts the scene with his pregnant sister-wife Drusilla, with predictable results.
  • 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.
  • From My Own Personal Garden: Augustus treats his stomach ailments with figs he grew himself. This backfires.
  • Generational Saga: The series tells the story of four generations of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from 24 BCE to 54 CE.
  • 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.
  • The Ghost: Caligula's youngest sister, Julia Livilla, called Lesbia in the book, is mentioned a few time in conjunction with her sisters, (Drusilla and Agrippinilla, who do make appearances), as being involved with degenerate behavior (including incest with Caligula), but never actually appears, except possibly as a background character in the brothel scene. Her husband, however, Marcus Vinicius, does appear several times, and is mentioned as being married to Caligula's sister, though the series never actually mentions the woman's name. The one time Lesbia is mentioned apart from her sisters is when Marcus asks Caligula to spare him for his sister's sake, to which Caligula flies into an ever greater rage and calls her a whore.
  • 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.
  • A God Am I:
    • Caligula believes that he's the mortal manifestation of Jove, though he prefers the Greek version Zeus a bit more. He also comes to believe that he's the Jewish messiah.
    • "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. Siân Phillips is a really, really good actress. Fortunately for her, Claudius pities her enough to grant her wish once he becomes emperor.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: While no one tops Livia, every empress aside from Caligula's wife Caesonia.
  • Good Bad Girl: Julia.
  • 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 a Decadent Court is in full swing the actual senators we meet are in many cases corrupt, weak or even outright murderous (Claudius himself even delivers an epic speech trashing them when he becomes Emperor.)
  • Grapes of Luxury: More than once.
  • 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  (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.
  • Happily Married:
    • 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.
  • The Hedonist: Julia.
  • Henpecked Husband: Augustus may be the most powerful man in Rome, but he's barely able to control what goes on within his own household and is constantly badgered and exploited by his wife Livia.
  • Heroic BSoD: Augustus has a huge breakdown when he finds out how many men have slept with his daughter. He has another when he learns that three legions under the command of Varus have been massacred in Germany.
  • High-Class Cannibal: Caligula might be despised by everyone, but he is still the third emperor of Rome. He impregnates his sister, Drusilla, and eats the fetus. However, in opposition to Kill the Poor, Caligula does this because he fears the child will be more powerful than him (with the implication that he may believe he's absorbing the fetus's power by consuming it).
  • Historical Domain Character: Almost all of them.
  • Historical Downgrade: The real Augustus was a brilliant statesman and military leader. He's considered by many to be Rome's greatest emperor and is certainly one of the most successful monarchs of all time. In the series, however, he's presented as a gullible, overly emotional Bumbling Dad who is merely a puppet dancing on the strings of his wife. She even claims that she had to make all of his decisions for him.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • While Claudius wasn't quite the idiotic Jerkass 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. The series highlights Claudius' intellectual pursuits and achievements—he was a legitimate historian and got into hot water with his family for an early work on the civil war that made Augustus emperor (Claudius had been more honest than flattering). 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! Frighteningly, the real Claudius had a habit of getting blackout drunk and ordering the deaths of friends who'd done something to get on his nerves. Then he'd sober up, forget he'd done it, and ask to see them.
    • None of the ancient historians had anything good to say about the real Postumus, who was described as brutish, violent and lacking any redeeming features. He ended up being banished from Rome by Augustus for reasons now unknown; whatever it was, Augustus stationed an entire guard on the island with him just to make sure he never escaped, and, nearing the end of his life, ordered him executed. Yet here he is portrayed as an amiable young man and friend of Claudius, and the unfortunate victim of Livia's machinations to ensure Tiberius would succeed Augustus.
  • Historical In-Joke:
    • Don't worry about that Jewish messiah, that's going nowhere.
    • Nero looks at a burning page and remarks, "What a pretty thing a fire is," referring to the burning of Rome that occurred in his reign (and during which he supposedly fiddled).
  • 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.
    • Similarly, the real Tiberius was probably not a serial-rapist pedophile who used his position to prey on senators' wives, just an elderly alcoholic and traumatized war vet who tired of Roman politics and retired to Capri to remove himself from them as much as possible.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Calpurnia, one of the few people Claudius truly trusts.
  • Hope Spot: In "Poison is Queen," Augustus finally begins to realize Livia's conspiracy and reconciles with Posthumus so they can prevent Tiberius from becoming the new emperor. Unfortunately, Livia poisons Augustus and then has Sejanus assassinate Posthumus, allowing Tiberius to ascend to the throne.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Caligula —"People really are despicable."
  • I, Noun: I, Claudius. The original book popularized this naming convention in the 20th century.
  • 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.
  • Incest Subtext: Tiberius and Drusus in the bath together, naked.
  • Inherent in the System: This is the real reason why Rome never becomes a republic again, and why nobody really wants it to either: the system is built around the exercising of power and status to get anything done and it practically encourages everyone in authority to be self-serving if they don't want to be replaced by their own underlings.
  • 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...
  • I Take Offense to That Last One:
    Tiberius: Let me go, you fat, drunken cow!
    Julia: FAT?!
  • 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.
  • It Will Never Catch On: At one point, Claudius is told about the Jews' belief in a Messiah to come, and that there have been plenty of men who claimed to be him. The most recent of the bunch was one Joshua bar Joseph who was executed fifteen years ago. There are still people who say he was the real thing, but it's one of many small heretical cults and of no importance.
  • I Was Quite a Looker:
    • We see Augustus's wife Livia as a middle-aged woman, then an elderly widow, then an unbelievably old crone. But as she comments to her granddaughter late in life, she was quite a dish in her youth:
    Livilla: The most beautiful in the world, they say.
    Livia: There was one other. But she was in Egypt. And besides, she didn't last as long as I have.
    • To Caligula, Livia is a case of Silver Vixen. But it's presented as perversion on his part (one of his many, many perversions) as she is his great-grandmother.
  • 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.'
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Messalina is executed halfway through a plea not to be beheaded.
    (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.
  • King on His Deathbed: Notably Augustus and Tiberius.
  • Lady Macbeth: Livia spurs the ambitions of her son Tiberius to be emperor, which he's not opposed to at first—but all the sacrifices Livia arranges to clear his path (his happy marriage, the lives of several family members, independence in the prime years of his life) means that by the time he does get on the throne, he no longer has any interest in it.
  • Large Ham: BRIAN BLESSED as Augustus and John Hurt as Caligula are the two major offenders, although Brian is fairly low-key by Brian standards.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Of all people, Caligula delivers it to Livia.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The jaunty-yet-sinister main theme ends with an unsettling metallic shriek at the end of the closing credits.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: Frequently. In Ancient Rome, taking one's own life was seen as an honorable response for people guilty of treason. (If you were lucky enough to get a trial, and one that wasn't a Kangaroo Court, you could tough it out—but a guilty verdict would bring ruin on the whole family, while delivering the coup de grace to yourself would not.) Several characters are faced with the choice to take their own lives honorably or be executed.
  • 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.
    • Livia arranges for the adolescent Postumus and Livilla to be married to different people, knowing that they have a crush on each other and will be drawn to commit adultery several years down the line, which she will in turn be able to use as blackmail material.
  • 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 an adult - then they kill him too.
  • Mandatory Motherhood: Messalina really has no interest in having Claudius's children, but it's what Roman wives do.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Livia claims that all of Augustus's instincts for politics were wrong, and she had to guide him into making every good decision he ever made.
  • Manipulative Bastard:
    • 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).
    • Viewers are supposed to at least recognize that Thrasyllus' prophecies were pretty much right at least that a man would be killed and become a god that would completely replace all the gods of Rome. Caligula was just wrong in assuming he would be that god.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • "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.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Caligula, of all people, seems to go through this after killing Drusilla. When he exits the room, he looks shocked beyond belief, and quietly warns Claudius to not go in there...
    • Towards the end of her life, Livia fears that her numerous evil deeds will result in her spending an eternity in Hell, hence she asks Claudius to make her a god.
  • 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.
  • Nothing Left to Do but Die: After Caligula comes to power and proclaims himself and his sister to be gods (and married), Antonia makes up her mind to commit suicide as she has nothing but contempt for the state Rome has sunk to.
  • 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 Disability: Claudius exaggerated his stutter, limp and general clumsiness. This barely kept him alive when he had to work for The Caligula.
  • 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.
  • Off with His Head!:
    • Messalina is executed this way, after refusing to kill herself.
    • Caligula's cure for Gemellus' cough.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Extra points to Sejanus' look when Tiberius denounces him in the Senate; he assumes that Macro has delivered a proclamation naming him to a position of even more responsibility, and his proud expression gradually gives way to absolute terror as Tiberius' message shifts to observing how terrible it is to have deep trust betrayed.
    • At the celebration of Messalina's bigamous marriage to Silius, Mnester is busy joking about seeing a cloud in the shape of Claudius rising over Ostia, until it farts and blows itself out to sea - but his demeanour changes from playful to alarmed in a heartbeat as he announces that he can see a troop of guards marching up the hill toward the villa. Silius bids him welcome them and give them wine, but Mnester says their swords are drawn. A Mass "Oh, Crap!" follows soon after when one of the guests runs in, screaming that Claudius has returned to Rome and the guards have come to arrest them all.
    • Messalina's reaction to being told she can't see Claudius. Her slow, eye-bulging, 360 look at the soldiers surrounding her is rather expressive. She gets a second one shortly afterward when Praetorian guardsman Geta shows up with a warrant for her execution with Claudius' signature on it.
  • Old Man Marrying a Child: Later in the series, a fifty-plus Claudius marries Messalina, a young teenager. Significant age gaps between bride and groom weren't uncommon in Ancient Rome, but that particular discrepancy was a little much even by their standards. Of course, neither Claudius nor Messalina have much say in the matter; the whole thing is arranged by Caligula for his own perverse reasons.
  • One-Steve Limit: Many of the historical figures featured in the show shared names that were common in the Julio-Claudian dynasty due to Roman naming customs. The show gives each character a single unique name even when the historical figure would be commonly known as something else. For example, Agrippa Postumus is referred to simply as Postumus to avoid confusing him with his namesake father. Roman nobility often named successive generations after one another to demonstrate the continuity of their power and prestige. Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero's names were all legally "Tiberius Claudius Nero"; Claudius was named for his great-uncle and Nero took his stepfather's name after his childhood adoption. Although his real name has been lost to history, Germanicus was probably also named Tiberius Claudius Nero, after his uncle. There are also multiple Gaiuses who are referred to not by that name, but the one they are remembered by historically (such as Augustus and Caligula). It was also common for Romans to change their names as a sign of respect for their new family if they were adopted (e.g. Tiberius' son, who went from Nero claudius Drusus to Drusus Julius Caesar after his father was adopted into the Julian family).
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • Augustus was born Gaius Octavius. "Augustus" was the title that he himself established for his position.
    • Caligula, whose actual name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Caligula means "little [soldier's] boot" and he was given the nickname as a child by his father's soldiers. (Reportedly, he grew to dislike the nickname intensely.)
    • Tiberius' son Drusus is mainly referred to as Castor to avoid confusion with his uncle, also named Drusus (see One-Steve Limit above).
  • On Second Thought: The Praetorians are upset because Caligula's death means they're out of a job. Then one of them suggests making Claudius emperor. Their sergeant scoffs because Claudius is a well-known simpleton, then he changes his mind because hey, it's better than nothing!
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping / What the Hell Is That Accent?: Martina the poisoner has a rather odd accent. One assumes it's supposed to be Greek, but occasionally it seems to slip into Welsh.
  • Opinion Flip-Flop: Most everyone behaves like this with Caligula, desperately trying to humor him so he doesn't kill them next.
  • Parental Favoritism: All over the place.
    • 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. It's revealed (through prophecy) that he eventually had her murdered.
  • Parental Neglect: Livilla really should never have had children, as she seems to have ignored them both.
  • Parental Substitute:
    • Julia was the closest thing Claudius had to a mother. His own mother ignored him at best, while Julia was patient and loving.
    • Antonia became something of a mother to Herod over the years. Indeed, she liked him better than two of her own three children.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Drusus and Antonia. Germanicus and Agrippina.
  • The Performer King: Caligula wakes up the title character and several others extremely early in the morning and leaves them waiting for hours, assuming the emperor has decided to have them killed. Then he comes out and performs a dance, with himself in the role of the goddess of the dawn. John Hurt did his own makeup.
  • The Plan:
    • Livia puts her son Tiberius on the throne using some truly devious political maneuvering, along with generous amounts of poison.
    • Claudius reveals that his final acts were all a plan to topple the Empire and have Britannicus restore the Republic. Britannicus rejects the plan the moment he first hears of it, making all of Claudius's efforts a waste.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!:
    • Claudius and Caesonia manage to talk Caligula out of murdering the Senate by appealing to his ego.
    • After Messalina's lies and manipulations turn Silanius into a failed assassin, she begs Claudius to spare his life. It's unclear if it's just an act to continue her innocent charade or if she's just that obsessed with the man.
  • 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.
    • During Claudius's final address to the senate, he starts hallucinating all the people from his past, who speak to him directly into the camera.
  • Praetorian Guard: The original one plays a major role, putting Claudius on the imperial throne.
  • Properly Paranoid:
    • Claudius is convinced his (last) wife Agrippinilla is trying to poison him. Oh, wait. She is.
    • Caligula surrounds himself with German bodyguards as he fears assassination. With good reason, as it turns out.
  • 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.
  • Public Bathhouse Scene: Tiberius and Drusus have a conversation in one.
  • Puppet King:
    • On hearing that Caligula thinks he's a god, the senators gladly play along thinking a looney emperor will be off in Cloudcuckooland allowing them to run the empire. When Caligula starts executing senators on a whim, they realise they Did Not Think This Through.
    • When Caligula is assassinated the Praetorians realise they'll be out of a job, so they proclaim Claudius to the position because even a half-witted emperor is better than none from their point-of-view.
  • The Purge: During the reign of Tiberius, 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.
    (Tiberius, who has just been given proof of Sejanus's betrayal, clutches Caligula by the shoulder, half-giggling with excitement)
    Tiberius: You and I will draw up a list during dinner. A long list. The city will be purged! As surely as if she had gorged herself on figs for a year! I will open Rome's bowels! The streets will run like a sewer!
  • Pyrrhic Victory: A few-
    • Livia schemes for years and kills over half-a-dozen people to put Tiberius on the throne, but he never wanted it in the first place and quickly goes into self-imposed exile on Capri just so he doesn't have to handle any responsibility. Despite being Empress, Livia finds herself at the mercy of her deranged great-grandson Caligula, who tells her that all of her plotting was for nothing.
    • Claudius embarks on an anti-PR campaign, marrying Agrippina the Younger to ruin the reputation of the monarchy and install Nero as his heir, successfully setting up the circumstances for Britannicus to restore the Republic. At the last minute, Britannicus balks at the idea, meaning Claudius' plans were all for nought.
    • Agrippina the Younger succeeds in killing Claudius and installing her son Nero as emperor, but as the Sibyl tells a dying Claudius, Nero will murder Agrippina and eventually committ suicide, ending the family line.
    • 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, and, in most cases, resulted in their own deaths.
  • The Queen's Latin: As Romans, everyone is supposed to be speaking Latin, but given that it's a BBC production, it's no surprise that everyone has a British accent. Different British accents are used to convey character and class. Patricians speak classic RP English. Working-class tradesmen and soldiers tend to speak with Cockney accents. A Jewish innkeeper speaks with a Yiddish accent. A Celtic king speaks with a Northern English accent.
  • Really Gets Around:
    • Messalina takes this to absurd levels. She triumphs over a whore named Scylla in a mano-a-mano day-long sexual contest.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • 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 
  • 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.
  • Reluctant Ruler: Claudius. Tiberius was fairly reluctant about the role his mother planned for him, too. The power went to his head pretty quickly, though.
  • Replacement Scrappy: An in-universe example: Tiberius and Claudius name someone worse than themselves so that they wouldn't be remembered so harshly; Augustus and Caligula weren’t really in a position to choose before they died.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder:
    Senator: You are not fit to be Emperor!
    Claudius: I agree. But nor was my nephew.
    Senator: So what difference is there between you?
    Claudius: He would not have agreed. And by now your head would be on that floor for saying so.
  • Royally Screwed Up: To say the least.
  • Sarcastic Confession: "Oh, I care very much whether he lives or dies." Livia, of course.
  • Scream Discretion Shot: Done several times. (The first two cut for American audiences.)
    • 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.
    • When the conspirators burst in on Caesonia and she realises they mean to kill her and her daughter, she's dragged off-screen and we hear her wailing as she's stabbed to death, while another soldier stabs the baby in the crib — thankfully also out of shot.
  • Self-Deprecation: There is a lengthy conversation in the first episode about why invading Britain would be trivially easy but not worth it because there's nothing to find there, all spoken in the Queen's English, naturally.
  • 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.
  • Smug Snake: Sejanus.
  • 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.
  • So Proud of You: During Claudius' final hallucination, whilst his mother is dismissive of him, Augustus gives him a sincere "Bravo."
  • Speech Impediment: Claudius. It improves as he gets older.
  • Spiteful Spit: Agrippina to Tiberius in Episode 8.
  • Springtime for Hitler: When seeking favor from Caligula, do not tell him you've offered your life to the gods in place of his if he gets sick. He may decide to take you at your word when he recovers.
  • Start of Darkness: At the start of the series, Tiberius hates the lack of respect he receives from Augustus, but would rather just be left alone with his loving wife then enter politics. When he's forced to divorce his wife to fulfill his mother's ambitions for him, he's got nothing left in his life and becomes a monster.
  • Stealth Insult: Claudius sometimes engages in these around Caligula, who is generally too vain to notice them.
    • When Caligula asks Claudius if he thinks he is mad, Claudius answers, "Mad? Why, Your Majesty, you set the standard of sanity for the entire world!"
    • When Caligula asks Claudius if he liked his bizarre dance performance, Claudius replies, "It was indescribable!"
  • Stutter Stop: Claudius:
    • "And I said all that w-w-w-without stuttering. Well. Nearly."
    • It happens again when he's invited to dine with Livia.
  • Succession Crisis: Several.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: "Not slept."
  • 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 ) 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.
  • This Bed of Rose's: Claudius often stays with a friendly hooker named Calpurnia.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: "Rome, you are finished! Finished! You are despicable!" When Book!Claudius narrates himself thinking that, it has the pious air of an Unreliable Narrator. TV!Claudius means it sincerely.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Messalina's mother warns Messalina that she is risking her own life. Mom is right.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Apparently Mark Antony became this after his death, as Antonia believes that as his daughter, she is expected to maintain high standards of behavior. Yes, the very same drink-sodden, womanizing, degenerate bankrupt Mark Antony who was such a profitable subject for mockery by Cicero.
  • Translation Convention: Latin is generally rendered as English. Some terms are kept in the original Latin, though sometimes these Latin terms are immediately translated by the speaker. The native language of Germanic people is rendered as modern German.
  • Traumatic C-Section: Caligula cutting out and eating his and Drusilla's incest baby. No, knowing the context won't help.
  • 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 signaling 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...
  • Tricked into Signing: Claudius is tricked by his freedmen into signing Messalina's death warrant. They shove a bunch of mostly innocuous papers at him while he's drunk.
  • 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.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Claudius and Messalina. It ends badly.
  • Undignified Death: After getting caught out in her plan to overthrow Claudius and make herself and her lover the new masters of Rome, Messalina is given one last chance to Face Death with Dignity and take her own life, preserving her dignity. Instead, she breaks down into hysterics and, to put it bluntly, has to be put down by the guards.
  • Unexpected Successor: Claudius after Caligula's death.
  • The Unfavorite:
    • 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.
  • The Vamp: Messalina.
  • Villainous Breakdown:
    • 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.
  • Villainous Incest:
    • 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.
    • Deconstructed with Claudius himself. While he's not evil, he marries his niece Agrippinilla in order to make himself hateful to gods and men and thus force a return to the Republic.
  • Villainous Mother-Son Duo: Livia is a Machiavellian Roman matriarch who marries the Emperor Augustus, whom she intends to kill in order to put her son, Tiberius on the throne. Decades later, Agrippina tries the same gambit with her husband the Emperor Claudius and her son Nero. Sadly, Truth in Television in the latter case.
  • Vorpal Pillow: Macro murders Tiberius with a pillow to save Caligula embarrassment after announcing that he'd already died.
  • 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.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • The last we see of Agrippina is Tiberius exiling her to an island. It's only later that it's mentioned that she died in exile. The same goes for Julia, whose final appearance has her pleading in vain with her father not to be exiled, and lashing out at Livia. note 
    • Germanicus congratulates Claudius on the birth of his son by his first wife Urgulanilla, and the boy is never mentioned again. Historically the boy - Claudius Drusus - died aged four when he choked on a pear.
    • In "Reign of Terror", Livilla poisons her young daughter Helen (who is married to her lover Sejanus) so that she can have Sejanus all to herself. She becomes extremely ill but it is never specifically stated whether or not she died. Helen is based on Julia Livia, who was executed during Claudius' reign on false charges of incest and immorality made by Messalina.
  • 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 Messalina 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.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Several examples.
    • 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.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Claudius's attitude towards the end of his life.
  • You Should Have Died Instead: Claudius' mother Antonia lobs this at him after the death of her more accomplished son, Germanicus.