Sunday, 8 November 2009

I, Claudius: Zeus, by Jove!

This is the first of two episodes covering the reign of Caligula, and opens with an exhortation from Old!Claudius to believe everything, even if it seems incredible - which is ironic, as this episode strays the furthest from actual recorded history (reliable or otherwise).

We have to despatch with old Tiberius first though, which turns out to be more difficult than Caligula thought. Claudius skips through the last five years of Tiberius' reign, and we see Gimli leaning over Tiberius on a bed in Capri and telling Caligula that Tiberius is dead. Caligula goes outside and announces the sad event, along with a story about how Tiberius left him the Empire (which has actually been left to him jointly with Gemellus, his young cousin) when a slave who obviously has a death wish himself runs in to tell them all that he's alive after all, and wants his supper and his ring back. Gimli quickly returns to the room and smothers the old man to death (just when we thought a character from this show might actually die of natural causes!). So passes the last original (as in, one who has been in the series from the first episode) character to have been played by the same actor throughout the series. The senators who are present hail Caligula and his reign as the start of a new Golden Age, assuming that a son of Germanicus will be as popular, deserving and all round fab as they all thought Germanicus was.

(I like the Capri set, by the way. It's just the same as all the other courtyard sets, but with a painted blue horizon in the background. It's rather nice).

Back home in Rome, Herod Agrippa has returned, following the death of Tiberius, much to Antonia's delight. Gemellus, Caligula's co-ruler, is a sulky and rude child, who is grumpy because the Senate have said he cannot rule until he is older. Gemellus is Livilla's son, which leads to an awkward moment in which Antonia calmly reminds everyone that she killed the woman herself. Herod and Claudius hastily change the subject.

Caligula is making himself popular with the Senators by instituting holidays, reminding them all how much they liked his father, and so on. His sister Drusilla, a character we haven't yet met but who has been mentioned several times, stands next to him throughout, and when he has to reture due to a headache, she takes him away to her room. On the way out, Caligula anounces that Claudius, who has never yet held political office, will share the consulship with him, cheerfully telling him that Claudius can do all the work while he does all the thinking. He also pauses to complain about Gemellus' persistant cough and whinge about Claudius having more hair than him, and invites Claudius to live in the palace with him.

(Caligula is wearing an interesting tunic throughout this scene, with a massive red circle on the front of it with a laurel wreath around the inside of the circle. It's nice to see a bit of colour, but it looks a bit odd).

Caligula is once again distracted, despite his worsening headache, by wondering how much money Tiberius left - not much, as it turns out, but a lot of debts. To make him feel better, his sister Drusilla snogs him in front of everybody, then he tells Claudius how often he thought about murdering Tiberius, then he forgets what Lentulus has just told him. By this point the assembled senators are starting to wonder if they were right to be so pleased about his accession to the throne, but they remain cautiously optimistic. (I've talked before about Caligula's mental health and the possibility that he was quite healthy when he ascended to the throne, but we'll stick with I, Claudius' interpretation for now, which is that he was always cuckoo). The galloping headaches are clearly part of his illness here - I'm not sure what illness exactly they're going for with this interpretation but you can't help but feel sorry for poor Caligula as he collapses in pain.

This is the start of his near-fatal bout of illness, after which there was definitely something wrong with him. Eveyrone stands around looking worried and one senator tells Gimli to tell Caligula that he has offered the gods his life in place of Caligula's (this will turn out to be a bad idea). Claudius is eating with Herod when Drusilla bursts in telling him he must go to Caligula, who's asking for him, straight away, and say what he wants, as he just tried to kill her, claiming she didn't love him.

Drusilla's characterisation in this episode is really interesting. On one level, she seems to particiapte in incestuous activities with Caligula with contenment and evne some enthusiasm, and the various references to her in previous episodes suggest she may be fairly willing. On the other hand, when she begs Claudius to humour him, and to say whatever he wants him to say (but without, unfortunately, knowing what that is) she seems to be acting more as Claudius does, as a survivor, who only does these things in order to keep her head. Throughout the episode she walks this fine line between a victim and a perpetrator, and you're never quite sure which she really is. I tend to see her as a victim, who has been coerced into behaving the way she does by her mad and powerful brother, but it's not a balck and white portrayal.

Beth Morris as Drusilla, with Claudius

Claudius appraoches Caligula with due nervousness, and Caligula informs him that he has not been ill, he has been undergoing a metamorphosis. When Claudius asks what metamorphosis excatly, Caligula holds a sword to his throat and asks him if it isn't obvious, at which point Claudius stutters out 'you've become a god!' (hilariously followed by a quiet 'oh my god', delievered as the modern exclamation rather than a Roman prayer). I alwasy wonder at this point whether Caligula really thought this before, or whether Claudius gave him the idea, but I think we're supposed to assume he had thought of it already for himself. Caligula explains all his qualifications for godhood, including killing Germanicus and Tiberius and sleeping with all three of his sisters (Martina's idea, apparently). Caligula feels he is Zeus, specifically (and differentiates between the Greek Zeus and the Roman Jove/Jupiter, calling Jove a pale copy of Zeus, which is accurate, but really they're the same god under two different names). Claudius, at some prompting, reminds him of various stories of the gods, including one about Zeus ripping a foetus from his lover's womb and swallowing it whole to stop it from being more powerful than him, after which Athena sprang from his head (he may regret this later). Caligula tells him to go in peace - he was thinking about killing him, but he's changed his mind.

Claudius returns to the other room, matter-of-factly informing Herod and Drusilla that Caligula has become a god, that Drusilla is a god too, but 'we're not' (it's very funny). Claudius thinks this will result in the restoration of the Republic when everyone sees that Caligula is mad, but he is to be disappointed.

Gimli informs a gaggle of senators (hmm, what is the proper plural of senators I wonder? A parliament? A murder?...) of the Emperor's transformation. Since he's a big man with a big sword, they are forced to take this seriously, and Lentulus tries to defend it, since men can be made gods after death, so why not before? Caligula and Drusilla enter, with the trumpet blast that we haven't heard in ages, since Tiberius was away. His first act is to inform the sycophantic Lentulus that he must go and kill himself, having promised the gods his life for the Emperor's.

Antonia is less than impressed with this turn of events. She wants to know why no one was man enough to kill Caligula then and there, and Claudius points out that there are guards everywhere, thanks to Sejanus' old policies (these guards, employed to protect the Emperor, have a vested interest in making sure there is an Emperor to protect). Claudius adds that he's never killed anyone before and it does seem unlikely that he would win a straight fight, and Herod says everyone thinks the madness will soon pass, with Caligula either recovering or dying. Claudius feels sorry for Drusilla, who is now her brother's wife, insisting that she plays up to him because she's terrified. Antonia insists she would kill herself before doing such a thing, and Claudius tells her how Lentulus was forced to suicide, much against his own will. Claudius also reminds us that, despite the dubious nightly activities and total draining of the privy purse, because these are his late brother Germanicus' children (whom Antonia still refers to as the last of the Romans).

Caligula and Drusilla wander around a temple to Jove rejoicing at their wonderful godhead, and they both seem to be high on a bit more than life, Caligula having a long conversation with the cult statue and introducing himself and Drusilla as Zeus and Hera. During this conversation, Drusilla reveals that she is pregnant, emphasising the power of the child who will rule the universe a bit too much...

Giant head of Zeus, third century, from Tunis

Caligula had ordered Claudius to get statues of his brothers made, but only one is ready, so Claudius rather amusingly tells the sculptor that he knows where he can stick it. Caligula is not best pleased - he is in a very bad mood because he is still annoyed by Gemellus' cough, and when he finds out about the statues he is about to cut Claudius' throat, when Gimli appears with Gemellus' bloody head, deatched from his body. Caligula informs Claudius that he has cured Gemellus' cough and Claudius runs from the room in tears, as Caligula dismisses him as consul. Caligula also has an exciting plan to have all the heads of all the statues of the gods in Rome replaced with his own, and is obssessing over the worry that Drusilla's child will be more powerful than him, while Drusilla is out cold and wearing about as much as the 'oracle' in 300.

(The head of Gemellus is really gross - it's very well made, preusmably from a head case, and absolutely covered in blood, with eyes rolled up. Caligula asks Gimli to take it away, as it's horrible, and he's quite right).

Following the death of Gemellus, Antonia says they should count themselves lucky Caligula didn't celebrate the funeral with Games, but actually it is thoguht that Roman gladiatorial contests were originally part of early roman or Etruscan funeral rites, which is why they were often held in memory of the deceased. Antonia asks Herod to leave as she wishes to talk to Claudius alone, and tells him 'Goodbye' with that finality people on television have when they're about to die. Antonia tells Claudius she is going to kill herself, as with her grandson Gemellus gone she has no wish to go on living in the world. Harsh and heartless to the last, she assumes he won't miss her because she's always been so cruel to him, because he was such a disappointment, despite his weeping and beggin her not to go through with it. She explains that her good children and grandchildren have all been murdered, leaving degenerates and Claudius, and acknowledges that her own murder of Livilla was the worst. She reminds him to cut off her hand for separate burial, tells him not to mess up the funeral, kisses him once and leaves while poor Claudius breaks down in tears.

When Claudius reaches the place she chose to do the deed a few hours later, Antonia's slave tells him that she died peacefully, apart from crying out to his father Drusus to forgive her, possibly for keeping him waiting. In one final, cruel insult, Antonia asked the slave to cut off her hand for separate burial because she didn't trust Claudius to remember to do it. The slave reminds us that Antonia was the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, characters long gone, and with her death the last original character of all (she was played by a younger actress in the first episode), with the exception of Claudius himself, has gone too.

Drusilla is wandering around the palace, extremely drunk, high or both (she's been taking a 'potion' apparently), calling for 'Zeus', having missed her grandmother's funeral. This is enough to finally make Claudius angry, but she just answers that he plays the clown while she plays the goddess, then snogs him and tells him that Caligula is afraid that the baby will be more powerful than him. Claudius leaves in disgust.

Drusilla finds Caligula waiting for her, dressed as Zeus, complete with beard, having made the bed into Olympus (that is, he's put feathers all over it). He tells her this chariot will take her to heaven, but she's too high to be concerned by this. Caligula shackles her to the ceiling (or the bed post, it's not clear), strips her naked and cute her open, taking the foetus (or what he think is the foetus - Roman gynaecology being what it was, goodness knows what he might get hold of) and swallowing it. This is all tastefully shot form behind and the camera zooms away as he moves the knife across her, but we hear her screams. Claudius knocks on the door and Caligula appears with his mouth covered in blood, telling Claudius 'don't go in there'. Claudius, really foolish this time, does anyway and turns away in horror.

All of this last bit has virtually no basis in history, not even in Suetonius. Caligula did call himself a god and order the heads on the statues replaced, and there was gossip about his relationship with his sisters. However, the cause of Drusilla's death is unknown. As far as I remember (it's been a while since I read it) this bit isn't in the book of I, Claudius either - the book suggests that Caligula probably killed Drusilla but doesn't provide more detail than that. This section seems to have been added for two reasons - to explain Drusilla's death in more detail, and to do something really horrific and shockking, to show Caligula as utterly mad and much worse than even Tiberius was (since the suicide of Lollia had gone pretty far in depicting Tiberius as a monster too). It does seem a bit much (and is another moment where I have to mute the DVD, as the screams might disturb my housemates!) but it certainly gets its message across.

Herod, Antonia and Claudius, totally ruining the point I'm about to make about the costumes by all wearing white

The rest of the episode is much the same - basically accurate, as I, Claudius usually is, but really going all out with Caligula's madness, focussing especially on his claims to godhead. We'll see some more madness in the next episode, but it will be a bit less focussed on this one area, though Caligula maintains his godhead until his death. With the deaths of Tiberius and Antonia, the brighter lit, more fully populated court of Augustus is further and further away, and the series continues to get literally darker as the subject matter was - even the costumes are starting to use darker colours. Next time, more darkness, and what we've all been waiting for - a proper Roman orgy!


  1. It's been ages since I've read the books, but I seem to recall Graves playing up both the idea of successive generations of the gods becoming more powerful and a prophecy of a new god who would conquer the world (obviously implying Jesus and the eventual rise of Christianity, but something that Herod also gets wrapped up in). I suspect a lot of the interplay between Caligula and Drusilla, culminating in her on-screen death, is meant to encapsualte all of that as a replacement to Claudius' maunderings in the book. (Speaking of maunderings, that was all much more coherent in my head before I tried to put it into words.)

    Caligula's relationship to Jupiter is interesting. Suetonius relates that Caligula "moved in" with Jupiter by connecting his house with the temple. (Can't recall if they work that into the show or not.) For decades, this was considered exaggeration or an outright lie by Suetonius, but excavations a year or two ago showed that he had actually done just that. After his illness, Caligula appears to have been as bonkers as Suetonius makes him out to be. (Still want the missing sections of Tacitus to compare, though.)

  2. There is a reference to moving into the temple, but then Drusilla says she plans to give birth there, and I can't remember if it's mentioned again after her death - will have to keep an eye out in the next episode.

  3. Suet. says Caligula built a 'bridge over' the temple of Divine Augustus - which has not been securely located - to join the Palatine and Capitoline. I’m interested to know which excavations you think "showed that he had actually done just that". Unless you mean the joining of the domus with the aedes Castoris? That is more grounded in reality, although even there the excavations show that it was an exaggeration (a ramp behind the temple, rather than a “vestibule” made by changing the temple itself [as in Cass. Dio]).

  4. This is the only one (barring the final episode, obviously) that doesn't end with "End of Part". That's because, as originally broadcast on BBC2 in 1976, we actually got to see through the door for a second or so, and it was so horrible that the BBC immediately excised it after transmission, burnt the negatives, buried them seven miles underground and salted the earth. Or something. Point is, that shot only went out once in history and isn't believed to exist anymore.

  5. Wow1 I think I'm OK with that. I used to watch the whole scene even as it is now with my eyes covered...

    (Mind you, that was before I saw Spartacus Blood and Sand. I'm more immune to this stuff now!)


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