Saturday, 15 August 2009

I, Claudius: Some Justice

How do you follow a powerful, dramatic episode containing an event as cataclysmic as the death of Augustus? Well, if you're I, Claudius, you use the bulk of the next episode for a courtroom drama that subtly displays the shifting power structure in the wake of Augustus' death.

The episode is quickly set up in an interesting opening featuring Old!Claudius settling down on the loo for a Number 2. He explains that Tiberius had got so fed up of waiting for Augustus to die that he didn’t want the Empire by the time he got it, and that Tiberius was ‘strange’ and ‘filthy’, and only Germanicus could keep him in check – so, of course, Germanicus immediately (well, five years into Tiberius’ reign) ups and dies. The cause of his death will be the main subject of the rest of the episode.

As we flashback to Germanicus’ dead body, we are introduced to two vital characters – the grown up Agrippina (the Elder), Germanicus’ widow, and their son, the young Gaius, nicknamed Caligula (‘Little Boot’) while living with the army. Fiona Walker overacts a bit as Agrippina, but she has the steely gaze down pat, while Robert Morgan is excellent as the creepy, too quiet young Caligula. Oh, and Herod is back – yay!

Sejanus is now running the Empire, while Tiberius complains about being unloved and Livia feels frustrated that Tiberius, surprisingly, is proving less pliable than Augustus was.

Agrippina is convinced that Germanicus was murderd by Piso, the governor of Syria, on the orders of Tiberius (because the army wanted Germanicus to be emperor). Antonia, ever moral and who used to be close to Tiberius, refuses to believe it, but Tiberius’ own son ‘Castor’ (Drusus the Younger) is more than willing to do so. Agrippina also thinks that the murder weapon was a combination of poison and witchcraft, which only Herod refuses to believe. Germanicus had dismissed Piso, and Agrippina suspects his wife, Plancina, of killing him by these methods. Agrippina explains the various incidents which led her to suspect witchcraft, including gruesome discoveries of the bodies of a cat and baby (the dead baby, by the way, is hilariously obviously a plastic toy of the sort I used to play with in nursery school). Another involved the number 17, which Germanicus was afraid of and which Agrippina thought that only she knew. These things were found in rooms the slaves could not get to and where the windows were too small for a man to climb through.

As Agrippina explains to a sceptical Herod how a tiny figurine disappeared from underneath Germanicus’ pillow and asks him how it could possibly have disappeared, the camera pans round to reveal Caligula standing behind her in the background, listening. This is a rather neat piece of visual foreshadowing, and is even a bit creepy (certainly creepier than the plastic baby was).

Caligula has had a nightmare and wants to sleep in his sister’s room. This is less subtle foreshadowing. A few scenes later we see Antonia incandescent with fury because she has actually caught the two of them naked in bed together, and Claudius rescues Caligula from being locked in the cellar, for which his mother helpfully yells that he should have died, rather than Germanicus.

Our gang’s case rests on a witness called Martina, a well known poisoner who knew Plancina in Antioch. Our gang, by the way, consists of Agrippina, Castor, Antonia, Herod, an unnamed man we don’t know and Claudius, who seems to get on quite well and be considered reasonably intelligent by these members of his family, even if Herod does patronise him and call him ‘Claw-Claw’. They agree to ask for a trial under Tiberius in the Senate, so that he can’t fix it quietly.

Cesare Maccari, "Quo usque tandem (1882-1888, Sala Maccari in the Italian Senate, Rome). Cicero give his first speech against Catiline, who sits alone. From www.wilamette.edu.

Piso is a blustering man who puts all his faith in Tiberius (who is scowling even more than usual), while Plancina is calmer and less cocksure (so you can tell who has more chance of escaping alive). The audience discover that Tiberius has, in fact, encouraged Piso to off Germanicus by letter, and although the letters cannot be read because they bear the imperial seal, every senator will know what they mean and vote in his favour. This tactic, when he uses it, does not impress Tiberius in the least, as he comes under pressure to allow the letters to be read.

Piso also seems to remember killing Germanicus as Plancina’s idea, which puts her in an especially bad mood. She becomes nervous that he will sacrifice her to protect himself. Evil!Captain Picard (Sejanus) put guards around their house and grins at them evilly as he tells them so and demands the return of the letters.

(One of the great things about I, Claudius, by the way, is the attention to detail – Piso throws his toga to the floor carelessly for a slave to pick up and Plancina, like Livia, remains relatively quiet while Piso talks with other men, though she can yell with the best of them when they are alone).

Sejanus tells Tiberius he has to sacrifice Piso and Plancina or the mob will riot, as Germanicus’ supporters are too popular.

Martina disappears and our lot assume that Sejanus has got to her. However, the audience are allowed to discover that Sejanus has now idea where she is either and is also looking for her, as he wants a conviction.

Martina, it turns out (who is played by Nursie from Blackadder by the way) has been snatched by Livia, who is feeding her dinner and discussing poison. Martina is eating the dinner because she is under the false impression that Livia doesn’t get a chance to practice the delicate art of poisoning. (Poisoning, by the way, was considered a woman’s murder method, for obvious reasons – it can be administered in food, which a matron might be overseeing the cooking of, and it doesn’t require muscle power. This is why there are so many women accused of poisoning people, including Livia, Plancina and Agrippina the Younger. Anywhere you read about a Roman man accused of poisoning, the writer is suggesting that there was something effeminate about him).

Martina explains everything to Livia before the dinner starts its work. She got hold of the poison and Plancina planned the murder, but it was actually carried out by Caligula, who hated his father for being too strict. He was responsible for all the supposed witchcraft (knowing things about Germanicus Plancina could not know, getting through small windows and so on). Martina had explained to him how to help the poison by frightening Germanicus to death with apparent witchcraft.

Historically, we don’t know much about Caligula before he became emperor, and we know that for the first few months of his reign all seemed well. He fell gravely ill after these first few months and after that, it was all downhill from there. It is possible, therefore, that he was perfectly fine before the illness but suffered some kind of mental breakdown at that point. (I believe that there are similar theories about Henry VIII, who only started chopping off his wives’ heads after a bad fall from his horse, but I don’t know quite so much about that). On the other hand, it is equally possible that, as I, Claudius suggests, Caligula was always a little disturbed, and the illness just made a problem that was already there worse. In this version, Caligula already thinks he is god, before he’s even reached puberty.

Back in the Senate, Plancina asks (from the steps where she is sitting, as she is not allowed in the Senate) to be tried separately from Piso, since she can see which way the wind is blowing. Plancina tries to convince Piso to kill himself to protect their sons’ inheritance, and goes to Livia to beg for help. Piso insists that he will read another incriminating letter from Livia, which does not have the imperial seal if she does not help him.

This leads to a huge row between Tiberius and Livia, since he won’t let her use the seal and refuses to help her. Livia tells Plancina she will be spared if Piso commits suicide (though Tiberius has promised no such thing) and Plancina convinces Piso to do so, promising (untruthfully) to die with him. When it comes to it, he can’t quite do it, and Plancina ends up shoving the sword into him herself.

Plancina helps Piso exit this world

Our gang’s sombre discussion of the outcome – Piso is dead but Plancina is free – is interrupted by Caligula burning the house down, seemingly for the fun of it, with which the episode ends.

How much you like this episode really depends on how you feel about courtroom drama. As courtroom dramas go, this is well done. Of course, if we're going to see a courtroom drama set in ancient Rome, it would be more fun to see one of Cicero's cases, but since Cicero died some years before the start point of I, Claudius that is hardly possible here (and I wouldn't envy any actor having to portray Cicero in action in court). Ciceronian courtroom drama is available, in the novels of Steven Saylor; this episode of I, Claudius is probably as good as non-Ciceronian Roman courtroom drama can get. It is perhaps a slightly odd choice for a follow-up to the death of Augustus, as it has a slow, steady pace and most of the action happens off screen or in flashback, but that does provide some breathing space before the next episode, which raises the dramatic stakes even higher.

4 comments:

  1. It's a pity they skipped over the early years of Tiberius' reign. They could have had some good scenes of him sneering at the senate for their crawling and flattery. But I believe the oderint dum metuant line was Caligula's, not Tiberius'.

    Young Caligula is certainly difficult to assess historically, but I don't think there's anything to suggest that he was so disturbed this young. There is some suggestion that he "helped" Tiberius die in Suetonius, but he appears to have been very popular prior to his illness. Tacitus says Macro ordered the murder, but his description of Caligula's reign is lost. (That lost section covering all of Caligula and the first six years of Claudius is probably second on my list of lost texts I'd like to see found -- after Sulla's autobiography.)

    It's odd watching something like this and seeing so many actors who have played iconic roles of one sort or another. Sometimes it's hard to appreciate their work here. If you keep waiting for Sejanus to slap his chest and start talking to people who aren't there or something to burst out of adult Caligula's chest, it's hard to really immerse yourself in the narrative. Most appropriate to this episode, of course, would be for Claudius to some rare plant on Germanicus' body and use it to uncover the real killer (while helping the young lovers get together, of course.)

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  2. Yes, you're right, it was Caligula. Which makes me wonder why the conversation about being loved vs being feared is put in the reign of Tiberius - possibly just so that Livia can baost about Augustus' ability to acheive both.

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  3. I didn't know Cesare Maccari's painting was now in the Senate. A nice touch!

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  4. You forgot the legendary George Pravda as Gershon! For about two minutes.

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