Sunday, 31 May 2009

I, Claudius: A Touch of Murder


'A Touch of Murder' is the extended first episode of the 1970s BBC serialisation of Robert Graves' novel, I, Claudius, affectionately known as I, Clavdivs (shown in America as part of Masterpiece Theatre). I read the book some time ago - it'll be one to re-read when the PhD is finished. The BBC series is largely responsible for me doing Ancient History. When I was in school, I thought the Romans were very boring (chiefly because all we ever did was label the parts of a centurion's uniform or the rooms in a villa - I preferred the Tudors, especially Henry VIII, who seemed much more exciting). It was a repeat of I, Claudius on UK Gold that proved me wrong and first sparked a genuine interest in the ancient world.

This is mostly because I, Claudius was inspired partly by Suetonius, the great gossip of the Roman world, spiced up a bit more by Robert Graves in the interests of making money, and even further embellished, sex and violence wise, by the adaptors, in the interests of making compelling television. Like the more recent BBC/HBO series Rome, I, Claudius shoves in as much sex and violence into its story as it possibly can, and, for its time, was quite shocking. Of course, it had help, since the family story of the Julio-Claudian Caesars was pretty full of sex and violence to begin with.

'A Touch of Murder' opens with the aged Claudius sitting down to write his memoirs - 'I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-That-And-The-Other...' He is a frail old man, half-seriously, half-comically looking for spies under the table and in the lavatory.

Claudius relates a visit to the Sibyl at Cumae he made some years before. The actual circumstances surrounding the Sibyl are very murky, so the TV people have a great opportunity to embellish. Look! A skull! See how creepy ancient Roman religion was! The Sibyl delivers the poem written by Graves that he wrote as a lost Sibylline prophecy (see Doctor Who post below). Ancient oracles were more likely to utter gibberish that was 'interpreted' by priests, but this way, we get a nice spooky delivery by the actress, who is concealed behind a gold mask.

Claudius explains, almost directly to camera, that he intends for his story to be read in 1900 years, as the Sibyl prophesied, not by his contemporaries.

Now the real story begins, some years before Claudius' birth. Claudius says he will narrate the rivalry between Agrippa and Marcellus and then - naked women! We shift out of the framing device and into the story and are immediately confronted with some naked dancing slaves. Augustus (BRIAN BLESSED!) says he has got a prose poet to tell them the story of his and Agrippa's victory in the sea battle of Actium and Marcellus objects, saying it is a very dull story. Luckily, the writers agree and while Aristarchus the Greek recites his story, Claudius introduces the viewer to the family Caesar.

In the DVD extras, some of the actors, notably Sian Phillips, who played Livia, noted that they couldn't really get into their characters until the director suggested that they should play it as if they were in a mafia movie. This works very well, especially since one can occasionally see the roots of mafia culture in Roman culture.

Claudius tells us that if Augustus ruled the world, Livia ruled Augustus. This pretty much defines their characters for the whole series. Sian Phillips' Livia is fantastic - totally evil, scheming and absolutely in control. I have had some difficulty in the past trying to convince students, especially those who have seen the series, that the real Livia may not have been anything like that - the picture drawn here is so compelling. One thing we do know - whether she was a mass murderess or not, Livia was a unique and uniquely powerful woman.

Having noted that Tiberius is happily married, but that Marcellus' wife, Augustus' daughter Julia, fancies him, we carry on with the story about Agrippa and Marcellus. Which is a bit more dull, actually, though it does give Augustus his first opportunities to use the phrase 'as quick as boiled asparagus', which, according to Suetonius, was one of his favourite sayings. Livia, as a dutiful woman, stays silent while Augustus and Agrippa argue, but chews Augustus out thoroughly for letting Agrippa go as soon as they are alone.

Next we find out that Augustus and Tiberius don't get on, but Livia has thrown all her energy into the advancement of Tiberius because when he was born, some omens involving chickens suggested to her that he was destined for greatness. She extols the virtue of patience and explains that she only married Augustus because she could see he was going to become dictator and knew this was how she would advance Tiberius. The impression given is that she really believes the chicken-related stuff - all the omens and prophecies that appear in I, Claudius come true and Livia is certainly motivated by them later. This makes the story more exciting and allows the reader, if they know the history, the pleasant sense of smugness that comes from understanding an omen that is a mystery to the characters. I doubt that the real Livia was so strongly motivated by fortune-telling - real omens and prophecies tend to have a much lower rate of accuracy.

Livia and Julia discuss happy marriages. This is a conversation with an impending sense of doom hanging over it if ever there was one.

I love Livia's response to Augustus' excitement over the rhinocerous in the amphitheatre, which has a horn on its nose - 'So has Scipio's wife', says Livia, 'we could have used her'. We only ever see the entrance and imperial box in the amphitheatre - the BBC budget didn't allow any more, so the rest is represented by canned sounds of crowds cheering. Maybe this is why Rome chose to focus on a period before permanent built amphitheatres became common...

Augustus goes off to tour the Eastern provinces, which seals Marcellus' fate. Livia does him in with poison, hoping to secure a marriage between Julia and Tiberius. Its implied that this is the first of her murders - she takes advantage of the absence of Augustus, Julia and Octavia (Marcellus' mother) and of Marcellus having caught a stomach chill already to poison him. Her later murders will be more carefully planned. The writing and direction is very careful to make absolutely sure that we know that she dunnit - after Marcellus dies, Musa says it was probably food poisoning but he couldn't swear to it, and Livia quietly murmers to camera 'but I could'. Julia gives out an impressive scream of anguish when Marcellus dies (Tiberius has just told Livia that Marcellus and Agrippa both stand before him, and Livia responds clamly to the scream with 'It seems that there is now only Agrippa'). It some very passionate acting, but does usually require me to turn the sound down on the TV for fear of disturbing the neighbours.

Much to Livia's annoyance, Augustus promises Julia to Agrippa to get him back so he can quell some riots, and its 7 years before he can be spared. After that, Old!Claudius informs us, Livia poisoned him, forced Tiberius to divorce his wife and finally got Tiberius married to Julia. Unfortunately, she isn't any closer to getting him made Augustus' heir, as Julia and Agrippa have three surviving sons, Augustus' grandsons.

Old!Claudius now changes track to describe his father, who is beloved of everyone except his own mother, Livia. Back in the flashback, Tiberius starts telling his brother about how he has 'dark thoughts', and has lost 2 of the only 3 people he cares about (including his wife, who he was forced to divorce), and if he were to lose the third - Drusus - he would end up in darkness - all foreshadowing his later descent into sexual deviancy (covered in some detail in later episodes, of course).

Claudius' parents, Drusus and Antonia, are happily married - and therefore, naturally, doomed - but Julia and Tiberius are not, as Julia tells Antonia while both a getting a massage (more dodgey sex is implied). Julia says she only bothers to cover her nakedness when she's with Antonia - a neat way of introducing Antonia's character (modest, highly moralistic, chaste) and explaining why both women have covered their breasts and bodies, which Roman women probably wouldn't have - this being the 1970s, the BBC would not allow full female nudity on a primetime show (Rome would put this right). Julia has cottoned on to Livia's schemes, but Antonia, innocent that she is, is horrified and refuses to believe it.

We see Augustus and Livia say goodbye to Drusus and discover that Drusus is a republican, which is why Livia doesn't like him, though Augustus doesn't seem so worried about it. Livia is getting a bit of grey in her hair now, to show the passing of time - Livia's hair is a prime indicator of time in the first half of the show.

While Augustus is yelling at Tiberius for secretly visiting his ex-wife (Tiberius had an exciting plan about how they should commit suicide together and let people find them with their blood mingling, but Vipsania wasn't up for it) a letter arrives from Drusus with some highly treasonable republican thoughts in it. Tiberius convinces Augustus that the problem is a head wound, and Livia sends Musa to him (whom Tiberius mistrusts). When he gets there, Drusus has been wounded again, this time much more seriously. His horse has crushed his leg and he later develops gangrene, though all we see on camera is a lot of fake blood all over one leg when the accident first happens. A soldier shakes his head grimly at Antonia to indicate that he's not going to survive.

Tiberius goes to see Drusus and, this being TV, arrives *just* before he dies. Antonia, carrying baby Claudius, is less lucky, and gets back to the bedside just too late. Musa is no use whatsoever, which is unsurprising since he presumably does not usually treat battle wounds.

The unfortunate Drusus (Ian Ogilvy) breathes his last

Old!Claudius is convinced that his father shouldn't have died and that somebody blundered. At this point, he is interrupted by his dinner, at which his taster complains about the cooking while Claudius points to suspicious-looking bits he wants the taster to try. The taster seems quite calm, though he would be less calm if he knew Claudius' eventual fate. Claudius mentions that his wife wants to poison him, but does not yet refer to her by name. For some reason, no one in Rome seems to have heard of slow-acting poisons...

Back to a year after Drusus' death, we see the family at dinner again. Julia is asleep, Tiberius looks furious, Antonia looks miserable, Augustus is drunk and Livia is, as usual, scheming (you can tell from the look in her eyes). From the first family dinner, where, despite Agrippa and Marcellus' argument, everyone is reasonably lively and happy, the family dinners basically get worse and worse over the course of the series, and include fewer and fewer people, until eventually Claudius is alone with his freedmen, one of whom is trying to kill him. Antonia is greiving excessively - indeed, we won't see her really smile or look happy again, even though she is one of the longest lived characters in the series. Tiberius is desperate to leave, but Livia insists he must stay.

Tiberius and Julia have a massive row in which he slaps her, but this gets him what he wants - Augustus kicks him out. Julia wants a divorce, but Augustus refuses, blaming her for getting herself widowed twice and insisting she can't have any more marriages. Julia wants to know how she should live, neither married nor divorced, and Augustus says she'll live as befits a Roman matron. This will not end well.

The episode ends with Livia, sitting with her arms around Julia's sons Gaius and Lucius. Augustus smiles and enjoys this picture of the Roman family, oblivious to the way Livia's fingers are digging viciously into the boys' shoulders...

I was very lucky to have I, Claudius as my introduction to the world of ancient Rome. Naturally, the series is not a documentary and there are elements in it that are exaggerated, made up entirely or misconstrued. But, overall, it is far closer to real Roman history than the average TV drama, and none of the major characters are invented, though some of their characters are closer to history than others. It can be disappointing to look at the real evidence and discover that some of the most exciting bits have little or no historical basis, but this is kept to a minimum and there are some wonderful references for Classicists (like the conversation with Livy and Pollio in a later episode). There's lots to make fun of - the overly theatrical acting, the sexual deviance that is sometimes exaggerated beyond plausibility, the truly staggering number of murders - but also lots to enjoy and it proves beyond all possible doubt that the Romans are most certainly not boring.

The fabulous BRIAN BLESSED! as Augustus

2 comments:

  1. Brian Blessed... excuse BRIAN BLESSED looks so wrong without a beard. Anyway, this truly is a wonderful series and the acting is unbeatable.

    Suetonius gets a bit of a bad rap, especially as a gossip. His rather odd approach of lumping everything on a topic together, rather than approaching things chronologically can make him look like the worst tabloid thanks to the huge heap of naughty bits all at once. You get this business of "As an adolescent he diddled slaves, as a young man he had it off with everybody's wives, several years later, he did a few kinky things and then as an old man he retired to his villa and sank into unspeakable lusts." Spread out over a whole lifetime, it wouldn't stand out so much. We should also remeber that at least for the lives of Caesar and Augustus, Suetonius had access to the imperial records.

    In your very first post, you mentioned that somebody ought to do the whole Trojan Cycle as a comic book. It is being done. Check out age-of-bronze.com. The author/artist tries very hard to stick to Bronze Age themes, clothing, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's true, Suetonius isn't all muck ang gossip, especially on Julius and Augustus. And Tacitus has some things to answer for as far as I, Claudius goes as well!

    Will check out Age of Bronze, thanks!

    ReplyDelete

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