I, Claudius is a miniseries, but, much like with some of the earlier shows, I could not care less about technicalities. A pox on all pedants (including, usually, me). It’s 12 episodes long, and all of them are amazing, but this one goes beyond.
I, Claudius is an adaptation of Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. It is a fictionalized account of the early Roman empire, going from Augustus to, you guessed it, Claudius, and supposedly told by Claudius himself (he narrates it from the end of his reign). Claudius did, in fact, write an 8 volume autobiography of his family, but, since it didn’t survive, we only know the gist of it, and that the historian Suetonius thought it was “tasteless.” Given the nature of some of his predecessors, as shown within this show with a decent amount of accuracy, it would be impossible to write a “tasteful” history of the Julio-Claudians (the family of Augustus).
The show is narrated by Claudius (Derek Jacobi) at the end of his life, with the entire series happening in flashback. Here’s the story so far, for those of you who don’t know slightly fictionalized histories of the early Roman Empire (warning, this show is dense as hell, this’ll take a few minutes. If you want to skip, go down a bit): Augustus (Brian Blessed) was the first emperor of Rome. Much of the first part of the story concerns the events that surround him seeking an heir. Augustus’s wife, Livia (Siân Phillips), wants her son, Tiberius (George Baker), to be the next emperor, and she will do almost anything to get it.
Livia is the best character on the show, and among the best characters of all time. She is the epitome of someone working behind the scenes. She murders anyone that gets in her way, usually with her own batch of poison, always keeping herself removed from actually having to do anything direct. She poisons Marcellus (Christopher Guard), the first heir of Augustus. She implicitly has Marcus Agrippa (John Paul), the second heir, murdered so that his wife, Julia (Frances White), Augustus’s daughter, will be free to marry Tiberius.
She coerces Augustus into forcing Tiberius to leave his wife Vipsania Aggrippina (Sheila Rushkin), whom Tiberius loves, and marrying Julia, who he does not (he hates her to the point that he beats her and is banished from Rome). When Livia’s other son, Drusus (Ian Ogilvy), begins to encourage Augustus to return Rome to a Republic, Livia sends her own personal physician to oversee him after he has a small injury. Unsurprisingly, he dies shortly after. When Augustus announces his intention to perhaps give power to his grandsons, they die in “accidents” over the next few years. Livia uses agents to reveal that Julia has been engaging in “deviant behavior” which contrasts with Augustus’s strong moral code, resulting in her banishment, and the end of Tiberius’s. Tiberius is then named co-heir with Postumus Agrippa (John Castle).
Now, Claudius, son of Drusus, actually enters the story. Claudius has both a limp and a pronounced stutter, and, despite the fact that he reads constantly, is thought to be a fool because of those disabilities. In fact, the historian Pollio (Donald Eccles), tells him he needs to exaggerate those faults, because otherwise he’ll be thought of as a threat, and probably killed by Livia. When Augustus determines that Postumus alone should succeed him, Livia frames Postumus for rape and has him banished. Postumus, having seen the depths of Livia’s drive to make Tiberius emperor, tells Claudius all that has happened because of her, and reiterates “Play the fool, Claudius.” When Augustus is told of Postumus’s innocence, Livia poisons Augustus. When he fails to die and takes the precaution of only eating food he picks himself, Livia paints his fig vines with poison. In case anyone doubts the succession, she has Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) kill Postumus. Tiberius is finally Emperor.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Tiberius is a terrible, terrible person (who knew having a mother that kills people all the time might affect your development?). The only thing that stops total tyranny is Germanicus (David Robb), Claudius’s older brother, who, naturally, dies. It turns out, however, that this one wasn’t Livia. Germanicus was actually killed by his son, Caligula (John Hurt), but Livia manages to convince Plancina (Irene Hamilton), the wife of Piso (Stratford Johns), the governor of Syria, to murder her husband and place the blame on him to spare Caligula.
OKAY THAT’S THE BACKGROUND TO GET TO THIS EPISODE.
For those of you who have been keeping count, Livia has murdered basically everyone. She’s killed her husband, her son, her grandchildren, his grandchildren, friends, enemies, you name it. All to get her son to be Emperor. The story then jumps ahead to later in Tiberius’s reign. Tiberius pretty much just holds orgies and forces women into prostitution, supported by young Caligula. Sejanus actually runs the empire, and he uses it mostly to seize property and imprison his enemies. Everything sucks, is what I’m getting at. When she confronts him in the street, Livia even says that Drusus (her other son, who she KILLED) should have been emperor instead of Tiberius.
Claudius is called to a dinner with Livia. Livia, now old, reveals that she has been hiding a secret from almost everyone. She has found that there is a Sibylline prophecy which says that both Caligula and Claudius shall become emperors. Livia, finally having accepted that Tiberius is a waste of a man, exacts a promise from Caligula and Claudius to have her become a goddess after her death. Caligula dismissively agrees and leaves. Claudius, however, finally reveals his true self to her, surmising that Caligula will be the next emperor because Tiberius would want someone even worse to follow him, so that he will be remembered well by comparison. As he is talking, Livia notes that Claudius has lost his stutter, and no longer pretends the fool. Because of this, she begs him again to make her a goddess when he’s emperor. Claudius laughs at the thought of being emperor, and agrees, thinking nothing of it.
The scene then jumps to Livia’s deathbed 6 years later. She calls for Caligula and Claudius. Caligula arrives first, and, when Livia asks if he remembers his promise, tells her that he will be the god, and that she will burn in hell, tormenting her as she lies helpless with the knowledge that he will destroy everything in the name of his deification. Claudius arrives soon after Caligula leaves, and Livia asks him if he will uphold his promise. Claudius then sits down and asks about every bad thing that she’s done. All the people she’s killed. She admits to everything, freely, and admits that it was all wrong. She thought she was doing it for all the right reasons, her son, but she now understands that she never should have done any of it. Claudius, seeing not a monster, but a woman who has lived long enough to realize that she has done horrible things that can never be undone, tells her that he will make her the “Queen of Heaven.” She passes peacefully in bed.
Okay, first, almost no performance has ever matched Siân Phillips as Livia. It was a role she was clearly born to play. She is loving to her children, a monster in practice, and, in the last scenes, just a sad old woman looking on a world that she ruined in the name of blind love. Now, she knows that she is facing not just death, but true damnation, and she requests just one thing: deification. This isn’t in the name of preserving her legacy, however. It’s just the only thing that might actually allow her to be forgiven for what she’s done.
In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent famously says “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Appropriately, he was addressing the concept of the dictator at the time, specifically Julius Caesar, the precursor to the Julio-Claudians. This is the opposite of that. This is the villain living long enough to see what happens when she wins. And, make no mistake, this is her having won. She achieved the goal of the massive machinations she’s been working for decades. She made an emperor out of her beloved son. The problem is, she didn’t ever think to help make him a good emperor. Or even a good person. She just gave him power that he didn’t ask for or deserve.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky addresses a similar theme to Livia on her deathbed. Even when you’ve gotten away with a crime, even if you believe that the crime was justified by some “higher order,” in the end, you will never escape your guilty conscience. That’s supposed to be the purpose of societal values, to make sure that, even when you go free, you are still a prisoner in your own mind. You may pretend to not see the walls, but, when you are old, you will look around and see every brick you have laid around your soul, and you will know that your existence has amounted to nothing but pain. If you have any belief in the natural goodness of people, then part of making a better world is to remind people that breaking their own ethics will one day bring them the pain that they have inflicted upon others. This episode is the culmination of that. It ends not with a monstrous empress sitting behind the son that she has brought to power, but with a grandmother telling the only person she has left that her life was a mistake. And perhaps, too, we should learn from Claudius, who sees the agony that she has brought upon herself as being a torment that won’t end, and promises her forgiveness. It’s not that she deserves it, it’s that it’s the right thing to do.
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