Every few years, I re-watch the 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius. In light of the recent death of John Hurt, who played the emperor Caligula in that production, now seemed an appropriate time to revisit that series.
I, Claudius also stars Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Brian Blessed as Augustus, Siân Phillips as Livia, George Baker as Tiberius and Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, to name just a few of the key players. It aired in 12 parts in Britain, including a 90-minute first episode. On PBS, that first episode was divided in two, so it was broadcast as 13 parts in the U.S. Video and DVD releases prior to the 35th anniversary DVD reflected the 13-part version.
With scripts by Jack Pulman, I, Claudius is based on the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves and concerns the machinations of the members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in the early decades of the Roman Empire.
The series, told in flashback by the elderly Claudius, opens in 24 B.C. seven years after the battle of Actium, in which Augustus defeated Marc Antony.
Over the course of the first four episodes (going by the British episode count), Livia orchestrates the deaths of everyone with a prior claim to the purple before her son, Tiberius. She’s determined that Tiberius will succeed Augustus, regardless of what Tiberius himself wants.
Livia even goes so far as to tricks the chief vestal into letting her see Augustus’ will, which she then alters in favor of Tiberius.
As for Augustus’ intended successor, Postumus (John Castle), Livia has Sejanus kill him. Then she poisons Augustus’ favorite figs on the branches, since he refuses to eat anything he hasn’t picked himself.
Before his death, Augustus comes to recognize that Claudius— considered half-witted because of his stammer, an uncontrollable twitching, a limp and other infirmities— is not such a fool as he appears. It’s an observation shared by the historian Pollio (Donald Eccles), who advises Claudius to exaggerate his stutter and his limp, and to play the fool. Claudius does.
Once Tiberius is emperor, Sejanus maneuvers to make himself indispensable, becoming the true power behind the throne. With Tiberius living on Capri, removed from the heart of the empire, Sejanus is able to keep him isolated, controlling who he sees and what communiqués he reads.
Sejanus wants to be the next emperor. To that end, he attempts to strengthen his ties to Tiberius’ family. He conspires with Claudius’ sister, Livilla (Patricia Quinn) to murder her husband, Castor (Kevin McNally), Tiberius’ son. Some time later, when he seeks permission to marry Livilla, Tiberius refuses, thwarting that family alliance.
On the other hand, Sejanus persuades Claudius to marry into his family.
In a scene that showcases some of the amusing dialogue that peppers the series, Claudius, who has come to visit the ill Castor, is intercepted by Sejanus. He asks if Claudius knows that his wife is pregnant. Claudius says he doesn’t; he and his wife have lived apart for some time.
Sejanus points out that Claudius will have to divorce his wife.
“Well, you can’t be married to a woman who’s going to have someone else’s child. What an eccentric fellow you are.”
He adds that Tiberius would expect him to get divorced.
“Of course,“ Claudius says. “I’ll divorce her.”
“Whom will you marry?”
“Marry? I’m just getting divorced?”
Sejanus then suggests that his sister would make an ideal wife for Claudius. Ever the survivor, Claudius agrees.
But when his mother, Antonia (Margaret Tyzack) learns what Livilla has done, she arranges for Claudius to smuggle proof of Sejanus’ treachery to Tiberius. The emperor discusses how to deal with Sejanus with Claudius and Caligula. The latter offers a solution and Tiberius responds by naming him his heir.
Caligula descends into madness, declaring himself a god, forcing Claudius to tread very carefully when dealing with him. When Caligula summons him in the middle of the night, Claudius can only fear the worst. But it turns out to be a performance by the emperor— in drag— about the dawn. When Caligula asks what Claudius thought of it, Claudius gives the only safe (and politically correct) answer he can:
“It was indescribable.”
After Caligula’s assassination, the praetorian guard find Claudius cowering behind a curtain and proclaim him emperor. It’s the last thing Claudius wants. All his life he’s yearned for a return to the Republic.
Claudius, who views himself as a mere historian, finds himself in a position he never wanted. His lifelong friend Herod Agrippa (James Faulkner) advises him to “trust no one.” It’s advice Claudius will soon have good reason to heed.
I, Claudius was made more than 40 years ago, but it remains timeless. If you haven’t seen it before, you should. If it’s been a while since you last saw it, you should revisit it some time.
Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.