I, CLAUDIUS

British Historical Serial

I, Claudius, a 13-episode serial produced by BBC/London Film Productions and first aired on BBC-2 in 1976, made its American debut on the Public Broadcasting Service in November 1977 as an installment of Masterpiece Theatre, sponsored by Mobil Corporation. The production was based on two novels by poet and essayist Robert Graves, I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born B.C. X, Murdered and Diefied A.D. LIV (1934), and Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina (1935). Adapted for television by Jack Pulman, I, Claudius chronicles the slide of Roman civilization in the first century A.D. into unrelenting depravity during the reigns of the four Emperors who succeeded Julius Caesar--Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. Its themes of decadence, which included brutal assassinations, sadistic gladitorial contests, incest, forced prostitution, adultery, nymphomania, and homosexuality, and its scenes of nudity and orgiastic violence, including a gruesome abortion, while toned down somewhat from the BBC original, nevertheless pushed the limits of moral acceptability on American television at the time.

Anchored firmly in the genre of fictional history, I, Claudius portrayed real historical figures and events, but, according to Woodward, "with the license of the novelist to imagine and invent." While Graves drew extensively from Claudius's biographer Suetonius, among others, for the historical material in the novels, he framed the story by using Claudius himself as the autobiographical narrator of his 13-year reign as Emperor and the reigns of his three predecessors. At the outset of the drama, Claudius is seen as a lonely old man perusing various incriminating documents from which he is constructing his "history." His project was prophesied by the Cumaen sibyl many years earlier when Claudius visited her and was told to write the work, seal and bury it where no one will find it. Then, according to the sibyl, "1900 years from now and not before, Claudius shall speak." The remainder of the serial is backstory, recounting the unbridled ambition, domestic intrigue, bloodlust and sexual dysfunction of Rome's ruling elite.

Claudius is among the most fascinating dramatis personae of Roman history. A weak and sickly youth, repressed by a stern tutor as a child, physically deformed and suffering from a severe stammer, he was an outsider in the royal family, considered an idiot and, as Kiefer puts it, "utterly unsuited for all the duties expected of him as a young prince." As an adult, he was never taken seriously as a future ruler of Rome. Ironically, however, Claudius was ostensibly the most intelligent of the lot. A shy man of considerable culture inclined toward a life of quiet scholarship, he knew Greek well, and wrote several works on history (now lost), including two on the Etruscans and the Carthaginians. In the Imperial Rome of his day, however, obsessed with the exercise of power through treachery and brute force, such preoccupations of the mind were considered little more than idle pastimes.

While Claudius was wise in matters of history, he was apparently far less so in matters requiring discernment of human character. His repression as a child led to his weak reliance on other people as an adult, especially the ruthless women in the Imperial family. Nevertheless, Claudius was not the "complete idiot." He was consul under Caligula; and when chosen by the soldiers to be Emperor, following Caligula's murder, he demonstrated many excellent administrative qualities. He annexed Mauretania, and in A.D. 43 he landed in Britain, which he made a Roman province. During his reign the kingdoms of Judea and Thrace were reabsorbed into the empire.

The character of Claudius (played with great intelligence and wit by Derek Jacobi) is clearly the linchpin that provides dramaturgical continuity throughout the serial, as both historical actor and observer/commentator. If one were to assume for a moment that I, Claudius is history (which it is not), a professional historian would question Claudius's motivation for presenting his "history" as he has done here. Self-interest might be a driving force for portraying himself in the best possible light given the less-than-sanguine historical epoch in which he assumed a major role.

In fact, I, Claudius does precisely that. Claudius is the much misunderstood and frequently mocked "good guy"--the "holy fool"--amidst a rogue's gallery of psychopaths, most notably Livia (played to fiendish perfection by Sian Phillips), the scheming wife of Augustus, and Claudius's grandmother, who methodically poisons all possible candidates who might assume the emperor's throne over her weak son Tiberius upon Augustus's death; and the ghoulish and crazed Caligula (played by John Hurt, whose memorably hyperbolic performance might be classified as a caricature if the subject were anyone but Caligula). Set against the likes of such characters, Claudius comes off looking like a Saint. But was he in reality?

While reviewers generally accepted the presentation as accurate, the actual biography seems quite different. Suetonius's treatment of Claudius which, while questioned by some modern scholars as likely exaggerated in some details, is nevertheless accepted in large measure as an accurate reflection of the man. According to Suetonius, Claudius "overstepped the legal penalty for serious frauds by sentencing such criminals to fight with wild beasts." He "directed that examination by torture and executions for high treason should take place in full before his eyes . . . . At every gladiatorial game given by himself or another, he ordered even those fighters who had fallen by accident . . . to have their throats cut so that he could watch their faces as they died." This sadistic streak in Claudius, which Suetonius also notes in other passages, is absent from the BBC serial, and for good reason, for it would make the character far less sympathetic and thereby subvert the melodramatic "good vs. evil" contrast established throughout.

In another area, that of sexuality, the historical record again comes into conflict with the fictional treatment. According to Suetonius, Claudius's "passion for women was immoderate." In the television version, Claudius is clearly portrayed more as a hapless victim of duplicitous women (and a staunch protector of virtuous women) than as a lecher.

The historical record does, however, include the positive side of Claudius's character so much in evidence in the BBC presentation. He often appears as "a gentle and amiable man," as when he published a decree that sick and abandoned slaves should have their freedom and that the killing of such a slave should count as murder.

Claudius was a man grounded in his cultural milieu. His sadism, while tempered by erudition and amiability, should nonetheless be acknowledged. At the same time, his behavior can properly be contextualized by noting that that not only in Imperial Rome, but also in the Republic preceding it (which Claudius held in high regard), criminals, when condemned to death, were routinely taken to the amphitheater to be torn to pieces by wild beasts as a public show.

The historical character Claudius is a complex man full of contradictions, and, one could reasonably argue, dramatically more resonant than the sanitized Emperor offered viewers of I, Claudius. The BBC production is, nevertheless, excellent entertainment featuring superb ensemble acting and expert direction by Herbert Wise. Its treatment of deviant behavior is sensitive, seeking to avoid the titillation evidenced in so much of today's violent Hollywood fare. Its scenes of debauchery and carnage seem safely distanced (by two-thousand years) from our present milieu, and may even allow us to feel good that the contemporary world seems less debased by comparison, if we bracket out such collective barbarity as Nazi and Khmer Rouge genocide. But the nagging issue of historical veracity remains.

The problem is that I, Claudius is symptomatic of a general tendency to fictionalize history in popular media, from which the broad public, as Woodward rightly points out, "mainly receives whatever conceptions, impressions, fantasies, and delusions it may entertain about the past." As a consequence, not only may the general populace internalize a distorted picture of historical persons and events, but also be deprived of the invaluable opportunity to better understand its collective past and apply that knowledge critically and constructively to the present. People today, in the thrall of the media popularizers of history, are less likely than their forebears to read the work of professional historians, whose scholarly ethics require them to "disappoint" those among the laity or designing politicians who would "improve, sanitize, gentrify, idealize, or sanctify the past; or, on the other hand . . . discredit, denigrate, or even blot out portions of it." Thus is left open the door to the demagoguery of self-interested revisionist history.

Predictably, discussion of I, Claudius in the popular press prior to its American television debut focused not on such questions of historical veracity, but rather on how American audiences might react to its presentation of sex and violence. As Brown noted, the serial "is a chancy venture for American public television and one that got on the national service . . .on sheer merit." Mobil Corporation, the Masterpiece Theatre sponsor, was informed by WGBH-TV, the Boston public station who puts together the Masterpiece Theatre package, that some scenes might cause audience discomfort. Mobil responded that it had no reservations about the program and felt I, Claudius to be television of "extraordinary quality." Nonetheless, WGBH did make selective edits for the American version without prompting by Mobil. These included shortening a scene featuring bare-breasted dancers, and eliminating what might be considered a blasphemous comment by a Roman soldier on the Virgin Birth, some gory footage of an infant being stabbed to death, and bedroom shots featuring naked bodies making love. WGBH defended these and other excisions by arguing that viewers in some parts of the United States would be disturbed by their inclusion.

I, Claudius became one of the more critically acclaimed Masterpiece Theatre offerings and attracted a loyal following, which today can revisit the fictionalized life and times of Emperor Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, a.k.a. Claudius I, on the cable arts network Bravo.

-Hal Himmelstein

 


I, Claudius
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

CAST

Claudius.............................................. Derek Jacobi Augustus........................................... Brian Blessed Livia .....................................................Sian Phillips Tiberius...............................................George Baker Caligua..................................................... John Hurt Sejanus........................................... Patrick Stewart Piso .................................................Stratford Johns Herod ..............................................James Faulkner Germanicus.............................................David Robb Agrippina .............................................Fiona Walker Messalina............................................ Sheila White Drusilla...................................................Beth Morris Antonia...........................................Margaret Tyzack Drusus ....................................................Iain Ogilvy Castor............................................... Kevin McNally Macro ...................................................Rhys Davies Nero.......................................... Christopher Biggins Gratus................................................... Bernard Hill Pallus.............................................. Bernard Hepton Narcissus ..............................................John Carter Marcellus .....................................Christopher Guard Agrippa ....................................................John Paul Julia .................................................Frances White Octavia .............................................Angela Morant Vipsania............................................. Sheila Ruskin Thrasyllus............................................ Kevin Stoney Young Claudius ..................................Ashley Knight Pylades................................................... Guy Siner Livy ......................................................Denis Carey Plautius .............................................Darian Angadi Livilla .................................................Patricia Quinn Lucius.................................... Simon MacCorkindale Postumus.............................................. John Castle Praxis.............................................. Alan Thompson Placina.............................................. Irene Hamilton Domitius.......................................... Esmond Knight Sergeant ....................................Norman Rossington Titus ...........................................Edward Jewesbury Lollia .....................................................Isabel Dean Monatanus ............................................James Bree Pollio ................................................Donald Eccles Junius............................................... Graham Rowe Gershom........................................... George Pravda Vitellius................................................. Roy Purcell Calpurnia........................................... Jo Rowbottom Cestius ..................................................Neal Arden Martina................................................. Patsy Byrne Sabinus.......................................... Bruce Purchase Helen..................................................... Karin Foley Gallus.................................................. Charles Kay Silius Caecina................................... Peter Williams Varro.............................................. Aubury Richards Poppaea...............................................Sally Bazely Caesonia ..............................................Freda Dowie Silanus............................................... Lyndon Brook Asprenas ............................................James Fagan Marcus .............................................Norman Eshley Domitia............................................ Moira Redmond Plautius............................................... Roger Bizley Xenophon ............................................John Bennett Agrippinilla........................................ Barbara Young Caractacus.......................................... Peter Bowles Britannicus......................................... Graham Seed Octavia ............................................Cheryl Johnson

PRODUCER Martin Lisemore

PROGRAMMING HISTORY1 100-minute episode 11 c. 50-minute episodes

BBC
20 September 1976-6 December 1976

FURTHER READING

Brown, Les. "TV's I, Claudius Will Test the Boundaries of Public Broadcasting." New York Times, 6 November 1977.

Graves, Robert. Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina. New York: Vintage Books, 1935.

_______________. I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born B.C. X, Murdered and Diefied A.D. LIV. New York: Vintage Books, 1934.

Kiefer, Otto. Sexual Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Dorset Press, 1993.

O'Connor, John J. "TV: Tour of Rome With I, Claudius." New York Times, 3 November 1977.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Future of the Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

 

See also History and Television