Wednesday, 14 October 2009

I, Claudius: Reign of Terror

With the world of I, Claudius completely changed from the early episodes, this one starts with Old!Claudius reminding the audience that Livia is dead, Sejanus and Livilla are lovers and have made themselves available but need permission to marry and Tiberius has given up on the running the Empire and turned it over to Sejanus, aka Evil!Picard. It is he who is the focus of this episode, which charts the apex of his rise and his fall.

Out first scene in the past shows Sejanus' ex-wife begging Antonia for help in getting her children back from Sejanus (under Roman law, children 'belonged' to the father, not the mother). The thing that always strikes me first about this scene is that even Claudius is now grey-haired - so a lot of time has passed. Sejanus' ex says if Antonia doesn't help her, she will tell Tiberius that Livilla murdered Castor with Sejanus' help and Antonia's family name will be ruined (Livilla, in case anyone has lost track, is Claudius' sister and Antonia's daughter; Castor was Tiberius' son). Apicata, the ex, claims that she has slaves who will talk freely or under torture - presumably she means informally, since evidence from slaves was only acceptable in court if it had been obtained under torture. We have already seen that Antonia despises Livilla, but she refuses to believe that her daughter is a murderer and kicks the other woman out. Before she goes, Apicata calls Antonia 'Mark Antony's daughter', reminding us just how old Antonia is and how different Rome was when she was a child. Well, much the same actually, but with different people.

Claudius lets slip that Livilla was responsible for Postumus' banishment, which it turns out Antonia had not been aware of, and Antonia is not impressed that he knew something she didn't. Then we switch to a conversation between Livilla and her daughter, who is upset that her fiancee has been arrested, but neither Livilla nor Antonia, who comes to visit her, are remotely sympathetic. Antonia does not approve of Livilla's plan to marry Sejanus (and Livilla mentions that Castor's death was five years ago). Although Claudius, the youngest of Antonia's children, is completely grey, Livilla's hair is still dark brown - she must be using hair dye.


Tiberius also refuses to allow the marriage, and informs Evil!Picard that he cannot raise a man not in the Senate socially by letting him marry into the Imperial family. Evil!Picard insists he has no wish to rise above his present rank. Yeah, right. Tiberius suggests that Evil!Picard marry Livilla's daughter, so he can marry into the Imperial family without becoming quite so closely related to Tiberius himself. Evil!Picard is a bit taken aback by this, but leaves to consider it. Tiberius asks the now very aged Thrasyllus if he has done the right thing, but poor old Thrasyllus has reached the point where all he can manage is 'wise, Excellency!'

Tiberius has Agrippina brought to him for one last exercise in melodramatics before she is sent away. Agrippina insists that Tiberius will have to accept one of her sons as heir, since Livilla's son is too young, and nags him about Sejanus' excessive power. Tiberius just leer at her, insists she wants to be queen, and informs her that she is going to the same island that Julia spent many years of exile on. Agrippina doesn't fancy a sex visit from Tiberius, so he has her flogged before she leaves.

We see Evil!Picard come home and interact cutely with his overly cute children. You can tell that bad things are coming. Livilla turns up and the children are sent away so they can disucss their marriage plans. To say that Livilla is not impressed with Tiberius' alternative would be something of an understatement. She appears to feel murder is now the appropriate solution to every problem. Evil!Picard tries to convince her that this could work out well for them, but she doesn't look convinced.

The Senate (or rather, the small section of it that the BBC can afford) have been asked to agree to the arrest of Agrippina's second son, which they do, but not without some trouble. We see the young man, who thought he was in with Sejanus (though I don't think the TV series made that clear - it was in the book) thrown into a jail cell by... Gimli! (or Professor Arturo. Or Sallah. Or Leonardo da Vinci. Take your pick of John Rhys Davies' roles!). Gimli tells his companion not to open the door unless he's making to much noise, and in answer to the question 'how do we feed him?' answers 'you don't'.

Caligula, in his litter, bumps into Claudius in the street, and seems rather fond of the old man. Claudius is expecting Caligula to be horrified at his brother's arrest and insists that Caligula himself is in grave danger, but Caligula, though he says it's a shame, is not bothered and says he doubts he is in danger himself, as Tiberius has invited him to Capri to indulge in dubious sexual practices. Caligula refuses to stick up for his brothers, though he promises to stick up for his mother if possible. He points out to Claudius that Claudius himself does not like his own sister, Livilla, whereas Caligula loves his sisters - to which Claudius replies, in a low and knowing tone 'Yes, I know'. As Claudius leaves and Caligula's litter moves on, there's a wonderful moment where he throws half a cupful of probably quite expensive wine away with a look of boredom and apathy, and chucks the silver cup itself at a slave over his shoulder.

Claudius gets home and is perturbed to discover that his wife, Sejanus' sister, has stopped by (and his slave is very cheeky to him, demonstrating his total lack of control of his own household). She's actually come to see Livilla, but thought she'd stop by, and tells Claudius he's lucky to be under her brother's protection via her. Antonia comes in to exchange barbed comments while both possesively claim a hand from Claudius. This is particularly amusing considering they both hate him, but they both want to claim this rare male relative of the Emperor for themselves. It is rather sad though, when Claudius tries to comfort his mother and she shakes his hand away as soon as the wife leaves.

Livilla's daughter is ill, which Claudius thinks might be a 'women's complaint' - that's put her in bed for a week (though I have to say, that is actually possible). Livilla sends a letter to Sejanus via his sister, since he is avoiding her while trying to marry her daugher, which Livilla insists will not happen.

The next scene sees Claudius telling off his 'publishers' (who are making copies of his history of Carthage) for decorating it with elephants. The 'publisher' is extremely unimpressed, but agrees to re-do the whole lot without elephants, while Claudius takes one copy of the elephant-infected version (and the 'publisher' implies that the text wihtout elephants is rather dull). Claudius leaves with a friend, arguing about Livy, but the friend is quickly arrested by Gimli and beaten up for a confession by Evil!Picard, though he insists he is entirely innocent (at this point I sort of expected Evil!Picard to show him four oil lamps and try to make him say there were five).

Claudius arrives home in great distress at the arrest of his friend, but Antonia is preoccupied. In rescuing some papyrus that had only been used on one side from being thrown out by a slave of Livilla's, she has stumbled upon drafts of the letter Livilla wrote to Sejanus - in which Livilla conveniently spells out all the crimes they have committed together and urges him to assassinate Tiberius so the two of them can take over. Antonia, horrified, realises that Livilla is also poisoning her own daughter to prevent the proposed marriage, and tells Claudius to go to Tiberius and offer him a copy of the elephant-infected manuscript (pointing out that Tiberius would only actually read it if there were naked women all over it) and smuggle the letter drafts in with the history.

Caligula discovers Claudius hovering around in Capri; Tiberius has just finished reading the scroll. Luckily for Antonia, Tiberius is impressed at her loyalty and nobility, and he debates with Caligula and Claudius what to do next, since all the guards are loyal to Sejnaus, not Tiberius himself. Claudius asks if there is anyone he can trust, and when the answer is no, Caligula suggests finding an ambitious man instead, who will be willing to get rid of Sejanus for his ow benefit. Caligula suggests Gimli (actually a guard named Macro), who he doesn't know personally, but he has slept with his wife several times - apparently, for Caligula, this consititutes a valid social acquaintance, though more importantly, Gimli knew about it and allowed it, because of his great ambition (and even Tiberius is a bit shocked that he thinks this is how people should behave!).

Tiberius is so impressed with Caligula's plan that he immeidately announces (only to Claudius, but he's very excited about it) that he will make Caligula his successor. He then gives a very Gravesian speech. Graves' theory - well, not an actual historical theory, but the idea upon which many of the political machinations in the later episodes of I, Claudius are based - is that the bad emperors wanted to leave a worse emperor to follow them, so they would be rememebered more kindly by history (and Claudius, who was quite good, wanted to leave such a bad successor that the monarchy would collapse - but that will come up a few episodes from now). The idea has its roots in Tacitus' suggestion that this was Augustus' reason for selecting Tiberius as his sucessor (despite the fact he didn't ahve much choice by the end). So Tiberius declares that he will nurse Caligula like a viper in his bosum, and that Rome deserves him (and Tiberius at this point seems to have a pretty good idea what Caligula is like).

Meantime, there's still Sejanus to get rid of - and all his friends. Tiberius gleefully tells Caligula that they will purge the city, while Claudius turns away sadly and fearfully.

Gimli approaches Evil!Picard on the steps of the Senate and tells him he brings a message from the Emperor. Gimli claims that he thinks the message will effectively make Evil!Picard Tiberius' successor and encourages him to enter the Senate to have it read. We see the cuter-than-cute children again, and then a soldier being given orders by Gimli - it's all a bit foreboding.

Tiberius' message is read to the Senate while Evil!Picard watches, and we see a close-up of his face as he realises what the letter really says. Senators start leaving in droves, and one pauses on the steps to tell a passer-by that Sejanus has fallen. Those that remain rather enthusiastically agree to Evil!Picard's arrest and then there's a hilariously fantastic shot of Gimli grinning and beckoning Evil!Picard over with a finger. Evil!Picard thinks he will be all right, surrounded by loyal guards, but he has another think coming.

The soldier from before doesn't want to kill the children because they're underage and the girl is a virgin, so Gimli tells him to make sure she's not a virgin before he kills her (and we later find out from Claudius' wife that they made boy put on his toga - the sign of manhood). Gimli comes to Sejanus' jail cell to have him finished off, in a scene that is shot with shaky, hand-held cameras, mainly from Sejanus' point of view, making it distinctly unnerving and shifting audience sympathy a little, despite the fact the man has murdered half of Rome. Evil!Picard dies rasping in his cell.

Next comes a truly chilling scene. At first, we just see Livilla screaming 'let me out!', which is reminiscent for Julia begging Augustus to let her in much earlier. But Livilla is in for a much nastier fate. Antonia is sitting outside the door (which has been thoroughly barred) listening to Livilla's screams. Claudius begs her to let Livilla out and asks what she's doing. Antonia tell him, in perfectly even tones, that she has locked Livilla up and will not open the door until her daughter has died of starvation. This is her punishment. Sitting outside the door and listening to her screams is Antonia's punishment for bearing and raising her. Claudius is completely powerless (and, if this really happened - which seems a teeny tad unlikely - totally emasculated. A Roman man was head of his household and had power of life and death over everyone in it. Since Drusus and Germanicus are dead, Claudius is the paterfamilias and he should be the one to say whether Livilla should be killed for her crimes or not. But Claudius here, although he begs his mother to let Livilla go, walks away defeated, despite the fact that logically, it would take a long time to starve someone to death and I would have thought that he ought to be able to get the slaves to forcibly move Antonia before then).

Patricia Quinn as Livilla

Claudius' wife appears in a complete panic, crying that half of Rome is being killed, including the cuter-than-cute children. She tells Claudius that Sejanus' ex-wife has killed herself and begs him to protect her, but Claudius literally shakes her off as she physically throws herself at him and leaves her lying on the floor, screaming. The camera moves to the steps of the Senate, which are covered in bloody bodies, some separated from their heads. A guard drags the bodies away and we see that one of them is Evil!Picard, brought there to demonstrate his death to the world.

We melt from Picard's dead, staring eyes to Old!Claudius, reflecting that he had a narrow escape, considering he was Sejanus' brother-in-law, but was saved by his connection with his mother. His wife, although they divorced, also got away with her life - and her entire dowry, rather than the half Claudius was obliged to return. Although she may have thought it foolish, that gesture represented Claudius' desire to be utterly disconnected from Sejanus.

This episode moves at a great, cracking pace and offers an exciting, albeit slightly gory and creepy, conclusion to Sejanus' story. Barely a second of screentime is wasted - the opening scene with Apicata, the elephant-scroll scene and the torture scene perhaps go on a bit too long, but they all have a clear purpose.

The house of the Caesars just gets crazier and crazier. Even Antonia, the one sane member of the family, who always prided herself on her strict morals, finally reveals herself to be as totally barking as the rest of her family. In a way, she's the creepiest of the lot, as her madness is so tightly controlled and backed up by her terrifying conviction that she is absolutely in the right and morally superior to everyone else.

Margaret Tyzack as Antonia

Purges of fallen power-mongers and their allies happened with relative regularity throughout Roman history - Cicero, for example, was killed in a purge under the orders of Octavian, who would later call himself Augustus, but I, Claudius makes this one look particularly bad with its treatment of Sejanus' children. It's also the first we've seen on the series, so for the audience, this is their first sight of a full on political purge (and although i'ts not quite the last, it's the one that is shown in the most detail).

If you haven't seen the series, you may be thinking things can't get much worse at this point, but you'd be wrong. Next episode, Caligula becomes Emperor.

If you can't get enough of I, Claudius, or if these posts are a bit too long and you want a shorter version, Derek has posted some thoughts on it here and here.

(By the way, I'm also organising an entirely unrelated conference, and our CFP was posted on rogueclassicism here - very exciting!)


  1. I once showed a shot of Stewart as Sejanus in the course of a lecture on Classics in SF, and tried to pass it off as an unseen holodeck episode. No-one got the joke.

  2. Lol! I bet they thought you were serious...

  3. :-) Blogdropping is all the rage these days!

    Nice post.

  4. You know, this series really has some serious SFF chops: BLESSED, Stewart, Hurt, Davies. I'm sure there must be others. Even Derek Jacobi feels like he has SFF ties, although he doesn't really.

    Your synopsis here is also very much a reminder that the Julio-Claudians were much more Antonii than anything else. And they went a long way toward proving the Roman belief that the Antonii were bad to the last man. Those that weren't just proved the adage that the Claudii were like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When they were good, they were very good and when they were bad, look out.

  5. Livilla was associated with the fallen Sejanus, and Claudius himself was married to Sejanus's sister. So, Drusus's branch of the gens Claudia was on thin ice--especially after the death of Germanicus. In Dio Cassius, Antonia emerges as the figure who awakened Tiberius to the danger of Sejanus; given that Livilla was rewarded with damnatio memoriae by the Senate and was assumed to have poisoned "Castor," Claudius really would have been powerless to save her if he wanted to save himself.

    PS That Antonia starved her own daughter in this way comes from an ancient source--again, Dio Cassius.

  6. No words for how much I love this mini-series. Saw it when I was about 16, and never had to study for that portion of my western civ class in collage and aced the exam! Now, MY daughter is 16, and we are watching it together. Thank you for this wonderful synopsis!

  7. If you want your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (even if they're dating somebody else now) you need to watch this video
    right away...

    (VIDEO) Want your ex CRAWLING back to you...?


Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...