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I, Claudius

Updated on May 15, 2013
Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Margaret Tyzack as his mother, Antonia
Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Margaret Tyzack as his mother, Antonia

Political intrigue,assassination, espionage, ruthless ambition, love, war, murder, sex, religion, incest, rape, madness...the thirteen episode 1976 BBC miniseries , I Claudius, based on the epic books by Robert Graves, has it all. This is the soap opera to end all soap operas. It has been repeatedly shown all around the world and is generally regarded as a masterpiece of British television drama, but for those who missed it, it's available in a DVD boxed set (and has been since 2002).

Does it still hold up after 34 years? Uh-huh and then some. You'd have to be an omoeba not to get sucked into this rip-snorting tale of treachery, passion and power in Ancient Rome. Sure beats The Young and the Beautiful. My only regret is that I didn't own a 50 inch plasma TV to watch it on.

Robert Graves claimed Claudius came to him in a dream one night and demanded that his story be told and while I have not read the books, the television series at least, does certainly seem an inspired piece of historical drama. Screenwriter Jack Pullman managed to succesfully adapt the books for the miniseries and I can only imagine how daunting a task it must have been.

I Claudius is theatrical, having been shot almost wholly in one gigantic studio, but not too stagey. This is largely due to the spacious studio and the fact that director Herbert Wise employs long, continuous shots rather than frequent cuts, Many of the camera angles are innovative and interesting--spanning a sideways ironic glance or a view from above. The studio atmosphere works well in this case, as it creates an impression of being amid the action and not watching from afar. Besides, the dramatic intrigues are so seductive, the dialogue so incisively witty and the treachery so fixating, viewers don't get much time to contemplate anything else.

The sets are lavish, the music affecting--played on period instruments and the costumes intriguingly authentic. In short, the viewer is easily transported to another time and place and it's fascinating to feel you are getting a birds-eye view of such a colourful, remarkable god, cutthroat time in history.

~By the way, don't touch the figs~


Some Prominent Romans

Evil matriarch and compulsive schemer...Livia
Evil matriarch and compulsive schemer...Livia
Augustus...first Emperor and husband of Livia
Augustus...first Emperor and husband of Livia
I'm a Roman Emperor and I'm okay...Caligula, third Emperor.
I'm a Roman Emperor and I'm okay...Caligula, third Emperor.
Off with the faeries...Nero
Off with the faeries...Nero

Who was Claudius?

In addition to being the fourth Emperor of Rome, the real Claudius (10BC to AD54) was also a trained historian who wrote a lost autobiography in eight parts, covering the period of the first four Emperors of Rome. Claudius was afflicted with several disabilities, including a limp, an awkward stutter and a variety of nervous tics and twitches -all of which gave his illustrious family the the impression that he was a half-wit and as a result, he was kept away from the public gaze until his sudden coronation at the age of forty-nine.

Graves used the idea of the lost autobiography as a device to tell the story of the four Emperors through Claudius's eyes and ears and the character is portrayed sympathetically as an intelligent, observant and compassionate scholar, wisely keeping his nose down and letting others think him a fool at a time when the faintest whiff of ambitious chutzpah could earn you a vial of poison.

Drawing from ancient sources such as Tacitus, Plutarch,Velleius Paterculus and Suetonius, Graves dug deep to extract the juiciest and most engrossing real events and titbits for his fictional autobiography. By the time he wrote I Claudius in 1934, he had completed a translation of Suetonius's work Life of the Twelve Caesars, so he already had an intimate acquaintance with the period.

Senator: You are not fit to be Emperor.

Claudius: I agree. But nor was my nephew.

Senator: Then 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.

Rome 40B.C. Exponentially insane, Caligula appoints his beloved horse Incitatus to the elevated position of consul and priest.(yes, it really happened)
Rome 40B.C. Exponentially insane, Caligula appoints his beloved horse Incitatus to the elevated position of consul and priest.(yes, it really happened)

Tha Cast of I, Claudius

The cast of I Claudius is strong. Derek Jacobi does a very fine job as the stammering Claudius. It can't have been an easy role -not only did the actor have to assume the challenging idiosyncracies of the character but he was also required to age from the ages of eighteen to sixty-four.

The entire cast is sterling -a combination of Shakespearean actors and television veterans. Brian Blessed, former star of the British cop show Z cars excels as the larger-than-life Augustus, as does George Baker as his step-son Tiberius (he later went on to become Inspector Wexford). Sian Phillips is superb as Livia and so is John Paul as razor-sharp political manipulator Marcus Agrippa and Sheila White as Messalina..'the most famous harlot in history'.

Certainly one of the great, memorable performances is from John Hurt as the terrifyingly insane Caligula. If Derek Jacobi had a difficult role then Hurt's was more so. As one cast member put it, Hurt had to go 'closer to the edge' than the rest.Caligula was on the extreme end of crazy but Hurt carries off the role with tremendous aplomb.

One notorious scene in particular created controversy when it was aired in 1976. In one of many acts of madness Caligula marries his sister, rips their unborn foetus from her womb and devours it. Shocking, yet this was real happened. Mercifully we don't see it and in fact there are few graphically violent scenes in I, Claudius as most of the blood and gore takes place off screen and is left to the viewers imagination....all deftly handled by the director. Even so, one brief shot of Drusilla, Caligula's sister, hanging dead after the bloody act, was unceremomiously cut just before airing, much to the director's chagrin.

~I'm getting a little tired of being taught the arts of war by kids that have only just learned how to piss in a pot.~

Marcus Agrippa

Robert Graves
Robert Graves

Robert Graves

~Prose books are the show dogs I breed and sell to support my cat.~

Robert Graves

Robert Graves was a novelist, poet and translater and produced over 140 works during his lifetime. Born in 1895, into a typical upper-middle class Victorian family, Graves died in 1985 at the age of ninety. After an early education at Charterhouse, and intending to study the classics at St.Johns College in Oxford, he got waylaid by WWI, suffered shellshock and depression which he in part directed into poetry and was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1961.

I, Claudius apparently came about because Graves, living in Spain and finding himself in financial difficulty, wanted to write an historical epic for money. The two Claudius books and a third, Claudius the God were wildy successful and indeed Graves has been hugely influential in the genre ever since. Graves however, always considered himself first and foremost a poet.

Hijinks in Rome...Sex, Corruption and a Death Warrant

Claudius,Fourth Emperor of Rome
Claudius,Fourth Emperor of Rome

"Not my head..."

~Uncle Claudius, I wasn't the Messiah after all, would you believe that? Could have knocked me over with a feather when they told me that~



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