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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' granduncle/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 his 2nd cousin 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.

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Poison Is Queen

After reading of late Emperor Augustus's last wil, Claudius comes to Livia to give her his condolences. Livia in return gives Claudius nothing but contempt and in the end she laughs into his face. Cut decades later to Claudius still being haunted by Livia.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

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Main / TalkingToTheDead

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