I, Claudius: An Epic of Disaster

Written by Vince Freeman

Claudius, fourth emperor of the Roman Empire and considered a fool by nearly everyone, was the ultimate underdog. Near the end of his life he wrote an extensive history of his family and their reign over the known world, unfortunately, it was lost to time and never found. Robert Graves, a British poet and author, gave us the next best thing when he wrote the novels, I, CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD. These two volumes depict sixty years of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In 1976, Bill Pullman and Herbert Wise made a eleven hour, thirteen part series of the two books for the BBC simply called, I, CLAUDIUS. Without trying to oversell it, this production is quite possibly the best thing ever done and easily the best study of human nature ever filmed. Presented as a stage play with minimal sets, impeccable acting and very creative cinematography, the series shows, what Claudius called, the truth about his family. The story blends intrigue and history seamlessly, though liberties are taken with some historical facts for artistic license. Many of the plot points come from gossip and innuendo which are not part of any official records. However, these unofficial references are found in so many sources of the period that they cannot be discounted by historians.

The story begins in the eighth year of Augustus’ forty-year reign during a celebration of the Battle of Actium, in which Augustus defeated Mark Antony and became sole ruler of the Roman Empire. In the first scene, the audience is dropped into the opulent world of the Imperial Family and introduced to some of the characters who drive much of the story: Augustus, who consolidated power and became the first Roman emperor (although he never actually called himself emperor); Livia, Augustus’ third wife and arguably the greatest villain ever invented or memorialized; Tiberius, Livia’s eldest son and the eventual second emperor of Rome. Also introduced is Marcellus, the son of Marc Antony and Octavia, Augustus’ sister. Though not very important to the overall story, Marcellus is very important to Livia because Augustus has chosen to groom him as successor to the throne over his long-time friend, Agrippa. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was general of Augustus’ army in the war against Marc Antony. For all his guile and cunning, Augustus was never a military man, his ruthless aggression was used in the world of politics. Despite his love and regard for Agrippa, Augustus knew that Agrippa was too old to succeed him as emperor.

Augustus is a conciliator and never likes to have the people around him fighting. He tries to quell tempers and ill feelings of those he loves, mainly between Agrippa and Marcellus. Agrippa is a noble Roman and expects to be treated as the great general who defeated Marc Antony and helped bring Augustus to power. Marcellus acts like a pompous and entitled brat who thinks he knows everything which is somewhat justified considering he is Augustus’ heir. Tiberius is a respected and decorated general despite the fact that he is henpecked by his overbearing mother. Livia’s keen wit and untempered lust for power would make her a formidable opponent for any person or kingdom. Added to the fact that she is the wife of the emperor makes her above reproach and completely immune to any retaliation or attack.

Livia, as described by her grandson, Claudius, “her mind always turning, always scheming,” sees everything that happens around her. She watches Julia, Marcellus’ wife and Augustus’ only child (from a previous marriage) and sees how Julia watches Tiberius interact with his wife, Vipsania. Even though Julia and Tiberius are both married to different people, Livia contemplates how the two can marry each other, which would bring Tiberius closer to becoming Augustus’ heir and successor, despite the fact that Augustus does not care much for Tiberius. There are many more characters to be introduced throughout the series but in a matter of minutes the main characters of the first part of the story, as well as the world in which they live, have been established. Very few filmmakers and/or writers can set up the world and the characters involved so quickly and so well. Billy Wilder is the only one who readily comes to mind.

Marcellus falls ill while his wife and mother are away from Rome. Livia instantly seizes the opportunity to take care of Marcellus herself. She prepares all of his meals until Octavia and Julia can return home which, unfortunately, is just in time to see Marcellus die. As he is dying, Livia talks to Tiberius about his succeeding Augustus on the throne. Tiberius, like everyone else, knows that Augustus prefers both Marcellus and Marcus Agrippa over him. When Marcellus dies, Julia screams in horror off screen which startles Tiberius, prompting him to ask, “What was that?” Livia responds, as only she can, by saying, “It sounds as if there is now only Agrippa.” Her irreverent outlook and approach about her deadly scheming is menacing yet endearing. Livia goes to Marcellus’ room where his mother, Octavia and Livia’s own physician are looking over Marcellus’ corpse. The physician claims, “It must have been something he ate but I couldn’t swear to it.” In response, Livia says to herself, “No, but I could.” Few villains in print or on film are this fiendish or this likable. Likable because of her brazen and cavalier attitude with which she plays with the lives of the people around her.

After Marcellus’ death, Augustus has no one to turn to but Agrippa, so he marries his daughter (now widowed by the untimely death of Marcellus) to Agrippa, making Agrippa his son-in-law and part of the imperial family. Livia is frustrated beyond measure when Augustus tells her of the impending marriage but, of course, she does not tell Augustus why she is so upset. Agrippa’s marriage to Julia lasts nine years until he is poisoned by Livia. In that time, Agrippa and Julia have three sons, all of whom come before Tiberius in consideration for replacing Augustus as emperor. So ends Part One.

At his mother’s behest, Tiberius divorces his wife, Vipsania, the only woman he ever loved, and marries Julia. An arrangement which Julia finds favorable but one which Tiberius despises. Tiberius also loses Drusus, his younger brother and father of Claudius, who dies during a campaign in Germania. Tiberius referred to Drusus as his “lifeline to the light.” After Drusus’ death, Tiberius begins to escape his sorrow with the dark and depraved behavior which would define much of his reign as emperor. Claudius, while the main character, mostly serves as an observer of the people around him, something he alludes to near the end of his life when he refers to himself as “the man who dwells by the pool.” This refers to the courtyard of the imperial palace where Claudius, as a child, witnesses much of the treachery his family imposes on each other.

He is introduced as a child in Part Three along with his brother, Germanicus, his sister, Livilla (a nickname meaning “Little Livia”) and his cousin, Postumus Agrippa (youngest son of Augustus’ great friend and his daughter Julia). In the first scene with Claudius, he is prophesied to be the savior of Rome which is not taken seriously by Livilla, who proclaims, “Claudius, as protector of Rome? I hope I shall be dead by then.” Livilla gets her wish in a most vile way. This is the first of many allusions of things to come. Claudius’s friend, Herod Agrippa (grandson of King Herod and named after Augustus’ friend, Marcus Agrippa) is also introduced in this episode. Despite being a lowly provincial, Claudius’s mother likes Herod Agrippa much more than she likes her own son. Claudius’s family resented him because he had a severe limp and stammer which was quite unbecoming for a member of the imperial family. He was also thought to be a fool because virtually everything said to him had to be repeated, which was actually a consequence of his poor hearing. The family’s disdain for Claudius is represented by Livia’s proclamation about her own grandson, “That child should have been exposed at birth.”

Back in the world of adults, Livia continues to scheme against Augustus as well as anyone else who stands between her son and the throne, including Augustus’ own offspring. After the deaths of her first two husbands and the cold treatment by Tiberius, Julia decides she does not want to “live like a Vestal” and takes part in the decadence for which Ancient Rome is renowned. Livia uses Julia’s indiscretions to have her banished by her own father. This scheme requires Livia manipulating Julia’s oldest living son (whom Livia later has killed by his best friend) into thinking he can help his mother by informing Augustus of her illicit behavior. Augustus is so humiliated by the news about his daughter that he banishes her. After seeing his two older brothers killed and his mother banished, Postumus fears for his life. Livia leaves Postumus alone because he is not old enough to be considered as a viable replacement for Augustus yet. After losing two of his grandsons, Augustus accepts that he has no choice but to have Tiberius help with governing the empire.

When Claudius and his friends grow into adulthood, his brother Germanicus and cousin Postumus (a well known gadabout) become threats to Tiberius’ claim to the throne. Livia forces her granddaughter, Livilla, to say that Postumus (Livilla’s longtime lover) tried to rape her one night while her husband, Castor (Tiberius’ son) was out gambling. Postumus tells Augustus that Livia is behind this charade as well as the banishment of his mother, the the untimely deaths of his two older brothers, his father Marcus Agrippa, Livia’s son Drusus and Julia’s first husband Marcellus. Postumus was actually wrong about Drusus but his conclusion is understandable given the extreme situation in which he finds himself. Augustus finds the premise ridiculous, as any emperor and loving husband would, and condemns Postumus to be banished just like his mother. Before being sent away, Postumus is able to tell Claudius the truth about what happened, which Claudius relays to his brother Germanicus because he knows that no one will ever believe anything “that fool Claudius” says. Augustus believes Germanicus, who has earned the emperor’s respect due to his great conquests for the empire, unlike Postumus, who only concerns himself with having a good time and not his duty as a member of the imperial family. This, despite the fact that he is the son of Augustus’ great friend, Marcus Agrippa.

Augustus begins to keep Livia out of the loop regarding his decisions, including visiting Postumus and changing his will by naming Postumus his sole heir, leaving Tiberius out in the cold. Livia, however, is too clever for Augustus and knows that he is up to something. At first, Livia suspects that Livilla told Augustus about her scheme to exile Postumus but her granddaughter convinces her that she is innocent of spilling the beans. Livilla suggests that Claudius must have found out and told Augustus. Livia, being so wise, knows instantly that Claudius is a fool whose “brain is addled, he hears nothing and sees nothing.” A lesson that proves even the most cunning among us can be deceived by our own perception.

After Augustus returns to Rome, he talks with Claudius in a garden of the imperial palace, making sure that Livia is not in earshot. He confides in Claudius that he changed his will in favor of Postumus because of everything Germanicus told him and is working to bring Postumus back to Rome and end his exile in a legal and inconspicuous manner. Augustus is very grateful to Claudius, considering him a friend and “not such a fool” after all. He also reveals, playfully, that he knows Claudius does not like Rome having an emperor and wants the Republic back. This is a very touching scene because even with this new found appreciation, Claudius’s awkwardness still keeps Augustus at a distance. It is also the last time Claudius will ever speak to Augustus, because, unfortunately for Augustus and all of Rome, Augustus is not as clever as Livia, who knows that he met with Postumus secretly. Livia bribes the chief Vestal Virgin into letting her gain access to Augustus’ will, which was kept in the House of the Vestals for safe keeping. She discovers that Augustus changed his will making Postumus his sole heir, once again leaving Tiberius out in the cold. Livia wastes no time changing the will by making Tiberius Augustus’ heir, without Augustus ever knowing.

Augustus and Livia take a trip to one of their vacation homes where Augustus falls ill. He refuses to eat any food that is touched by human hands, including Livia’s, and will only eat figs that he picks from his garden. So, Livia stays up all night smearing poison on every fig that Augustus might pick for himself. This leads to one of the best death scenes ever shot (possibly even better than Samuel L. Jackson’s death in DEEP BLUE SEA). The camera stays close on Augustus’ face as he dies while Livia laments, off camera, about how he never appreciated her and always pushed her into the background (an obvious misrepresentation of the truth). Brian Blessed, the actor who plays Augustus, keeps his eyes open the entire time. Upon Augustus’ death, Livia finally achieves that which she worked so hard to obtain, Tiberius succeeds Augustus as emperor of Rome. One of Tiberius’ (or Livia’s) first acts is to have Postumus killed before he is freed from exile.

The transition of power from Augustus to Tiberius was not without controversy. Many in Rome preferred that Germanicus, Tiberius’ nephew, become the new emperor. However, Germanicus, being a good and noble Roman, made no challenge to Tiberius’ claim to the throne. This did not keep Livia from seeing Germanicus as a threat to her son’s reign, so she had him poisoned while he was in Syria. Later, during an investigation into Germanicus’ murder, Livia learns that her grandson, Caligula (Germanicus’ youngest son) had a hand in his father’s death. She takes no action because she knows, from her astrologer, that Caligula will succeed Tiberius as emperor. The same prophecy also states that Claudius will succeed Caligula, so Livia takes Claudius into her confidence, telling him about all the people she killed and why she killed them. During this conversation, Livia, like Augustus before her, discovers that Claudius is not such a fool after all. She pleads with Claudius to make her a goddess when he becomes emperor, so that she will not suffer eternal damnation for all the horrible things she did in her lifetime. Claudius agrees and assures Livia that he will do all that he can. Soon after, Livia dies, leaving only Claudius to mourn for her.

Normally, when such a strong character like Livia dies, stories become far less interesting. Fortunately, Caligula (played by the inimitable John Hurt) is there to replace her. Caligula is the quintessential spoiled brat who, like Livia, is brazen in his lack of regard for his callous behavior. He shares an unbridled sense of depravity with Tiberius and ingratiates himself to the emperor after Claudius and Antonia (Claudius’s mother) inform Tiberius that his son (Castor) was killed by Castor’s wife, Livilla (Claudius’s sister) and Aelius Sejanus (Tiberius’ right hand man and Livilla’s lover). Tiberius keeps Caligula with him in his villa at Capri, telling Caligula that, “Rome deserves you. I will nurse you like a viper in her bosom” with the expectation to succeed him as emperor. Caligula, impatient for the throne, has Tiberius killed by the captain of the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s personal army).

At the beginning of his reign, Caligula endears himself to the citizens of Rome by dismantling many of the authoritarian laws established by his uncle, Tiberius. This honeymoon period is short lived once Caligula’s true nature rears its ugly head. As a child, Caligula believed himself to be a god. Once he becomes emperor, Caligula believes himself to be all gods, including “that all-powerful God whose coming the Jews have prophesied for centuries”. Due to his incompetence, possibly brought on by his excessive narcissism, Caligula is killed after only three-and-a-half years in power by one of his centurions and several senators.

Without an emperor, the Praetorian Guard find themselves irrelevant and, more importantly, unemployed. In order to keep their jobs and subsequent income, they decide to make Claudius their new emperor. This is unwelcome news to the Senators who think they can finally “return to the sanity of a republic.” Fearful of another civil war, however, the Senate accepts Claudius as the new emperor. This is one of the greatest ironies ever bestowed on anyone, because Claudius, who desired the return of the Republic himself, must become emperor to avoid the same fate as Caligula, death for him and his entire family. Despite his lifelong desire to bring back the republic, Claudius proves to be a wise and benevolent ruler but by his own summation he had been “too benevolent.” He “reconciled Rome and the world to monarchy again by dulling the blade of tyranny,” which was the last thing he wanted.

Despite his wisdom and insight, Claudius remains a fool when it comes to the women in his life. He suffered through four disastrous marriages, each one worse than the previous. His third wife, however, Messalina, was the love of his life. The marriage was arranged by Caligula as a joke because she was young and beautiful and Claudius was old and literally a fool. Not long after Claudius becomes emperor, Messalina reveals her true nature, unfortunately, for Claudius, his love for her blinds him to her destructive behavior. One major warning that Claudius ignores occurs after the birth of their second child when Messalina tells him that she no longer wants to sleep in the same bed because of her love for him. She soon moves out of the imperial palace to live away from her husband, again because she loves him so much. Claudius foolishly trusts Messalina and gives her everything she wants, despite how detrimental that turns out to be.

Messalina was renowned for her voracious appetite for power and sex with men other than her husband. To prove her sexual prowess, she competes with a prostitute to see who can sleep with the most men in one night. Of course, being the emperor’s wife, Messalina wins the contest. After this great victory, she falls in love with a nobleman named Gaius Silius and marries him when Claudius (still her husband) is away from Rome. This is meant to be a coup against Claudius and allow her to make her new, or second, husband emperor. Claudius learns of Messalina’s marriage before he returns to Rome. He commands his army to enter the city and kill anyone associated with his wife as well as her other husband, sparing Messalina, of course. He is unable to hate his beloved wife, despite the fact that she wanted him killed. So, his advisors trick Claudius into signing Messalina’s death warrant and have her killed while he sleeps.

Toward the end of his life, Claudius marries his fourth wife, his niece, Agripinilla (one of Caligula’s sisters and mother of Nero). While incestuous, the marriage was not for love or attraction, Claudius uses Agripinilla for her mind as well as her ambition. Throughout their marriage, Agripinilla plots and schemes along with her lover (one of Claudius’s advisors) in order to gain the throne for her son. Claudius plays along with Agripinilla’s schemes, including making Nero his heir, but he is always one step ahead of her. This behavior alienates Claudius’s own son, Brittanicus, and hurts him deeply. Eventually, Claudius finally reveals to Brittanicus that everything he did regarding Nero was intended to bring back the Republic. His reasoning was that once the people of Rome see what a horrible leader Nero is sure to be, they will realize that they have no option but to bring back the Republic. The final piece of this grand scheme is to have Brittanicus lead the campaign to return Rome to its former glory.

Brittanicus tells his father, “No one believes in the republic anymore, no one does except you. You’re old, father and out of touch.” Claudius realizes that he should have known this would be his son’s response and accepts his fate as well as that of Rome. This is a very poignant moment for Claudius but as is his nature, he takes it in stride with nothing more than a nod and an ironic smile of acceptance. Having done all he could for Rome, Claudius reverts back to his historian roots and writes a book about his family. After the book’s completion, Claudius allows himself to be poisoned by Agripinilla. A sad end to a sad, albeit productive, life.

In 1937, a film version of I, CLAUDIUS was attempted starring Charles Laughton as Claudius and Merle Oberon as Messalina. This production was cancelled before its completion, which is just as well because, regardless of how good the film may or may not have been, a two-hour version could not possibly have done justice to such a monumental work. Anyone who appreciates impeccable writing and acting, or who just loves history, needs to watch this series. The characters are remarkably genuine, due in large part to how consistent they are written. While not entirely historically accurate, there is a great deal of knowledge as well as insight imparted to the viewer.

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