Thursday, 21 January 2010

I, Claudius: A God in Colchester

First, Chris has posted an excellent review of a new film, Agora, which I haven't seen, over at Here, There and Everywhere. It's about the murder of a female, pagan philosopher in Late Antiquity and well worth a look.

The title of this episode reflects Augustus' wry, sad acknowledgement that he is a god in Palmyra from much earlier in the series, as he demanded to know from Livia, in utter frustration, how he's supposed to cure gout. The main content of this episode, however, is very different - we're deep into the classic Roman orgy of melodrama here, almost enough to rival the Caligula episodes - and it is most certainly not suitable for children.

We open with Messalina naked in bed with one of her many lovers, who is an actor. They discuss her boredom and many lovers, and she makes it clear that if he really pisses her off, the consequences will be dire. There's some full frontal boob on display again, very un-BBC. Mnestor, the actor, dares Messalina to hold a competition with a well known Sicilian prostitute to see which of them can have sex with the most men in one night.

Claudius himself is away conquering Britain, but writes to tell Pallas and Narcissus that he is returning soon. They debate if and how to tell him exactly what his wife is up to when he returns.

Messalina and Mnestor hold their competition with Cilla the prostitute, who demands some payment on the grounds that her job is Messalina's hobby, and she doesn't expect to be paid for her hobby, which is gardening (this always amuses me somehow). Although Caligula's orgy was more in the tradition of popular culture's idea of a Roman party, this scene, while quieter and less manic, is also a bit seedier and somehow seems almost equally depraved, though it is thankfully lacking in rape, unlike Caligula's.

Messalina's competition. In the early stages.

Pallas refuses to help a guard who has foolishly let one of Messalina's friends know that he plans to tell on her to the Emperor, and who is pretty well doomed. Then we return to the competition, where Cilla has given up on the grounds that Messalina is 'inhuman' and must be built like concrete.

Claudius returns victorious from Britain, but Old!, or rather EvenOlder!Claudius writes that the victory was soured by what had happened with Herod Agrippa. Herod, Claudius' oldest friend and the one who warned him not to trust anybody, is plotting a rebellion against Rome. Apparently Herod has fallen victim to delusions of Messiah-hood, something which seems to have been a common ailment at the time (Caligula suffered it too). Claudius discusses what Thrasyllus told him about the Messiah - and in the world of I, Claudius, everything Thrasyllus says comes to pass, and apparently that means the Messiah died in the same year as Livia (that would be AD 29, which more or less fits a Christian chronology, since the exact date of Jesus' birth is uncertain).

Messalina appears and very hypocritically insists that Calpurnia, Claudius' courtesan of many years, must not take her plae in his bed at the palace. She also asks him to tell Mnestor to do anything she asks, which Claudius does, which leads to Mnestor introducing her to her next lover. Messalina tells the new boy that Claudius is even more corrupt than Tiberius and snares him.

One of Claudius' minions has done some homework on the Messiah and gives us the basic details - must be born in Bethlehem etc - and that the last candidate died about 15 years ago - Joshua bar Joseph from Galilee (Jesus). The minion says there was some scandal concerning his birth; a Greek was supposed to have seduced his mother. Herod has recently executed one his followers, James, and is after another, Simon (Peter). Claudius' minions can't understand his fascination with 'strange religions', but Claudius explains that Herod was also born in Bethlehem and now really believes that he is the Messiah himself.

Messalina's mother is getting worried by Messalina's habit of giving her new lover presents from the palace and openly having an affair with him, while he is divorcing his wife to be with her. Messalina's mother quite rightly thinks that all of this will not end well.

Claudius is informed of the death of Herod Agrippa, something his minion is inappropriately cheerful about. Poor Claudius is destroyed - his last friend from his youth is gone - indeed, the last character whose involvement in his life goes back as far as the reign of Tiberius. Claudius now feels truly alone. Herod was prancing about proclaiming his godhead and forgetting that his religion is monotheistic, when he was struck down with pain and died a little later of worms. He reads a last letter from Herod, who asks for forgiveness. Claudius wonders who the Messiah actually is. Although Claudius' interest in Herod certainly make sense, he is rather a lot more interested in the Messiah than a Roman Emperor was really likely to be, I think - a clever way of incorporating elements of Christian history into the series, which ends before the first great persecution of Christians under Nero.

Claudius is left with only Messalina, who has now got use of his seal, and remarks that it was at this point that he began his history. But now he begins to explain how he eventually discovered Messalina.

Messalina is getting a bit bored with Gaius, her new lover, and he wants her to divorce Claudius and marry him, before Claudius finds out about them anyway. They plan not only to marry, but to stage a coup d'etat while Claudius is in Ostia examining the new harbour works. We see them get married, bigamously, since Messalina has not properly divorced Claudius - he would have to know about it for it to count (she sent a freedman to his house to divorce him, but he really is supposed to receive the message before you marry someone else). Narcissus is utterly horrified and he and Pallas know that they are going to be in serious trouble when Messalina and Gaius take over, but still neither of them want to tell him, since he won't believe a word said against her. They realise that she must never be allowed to see him again, so she can't work her wiles on him, and that poor Calpurnia should be stuck with the job of telling him.

Calpurnia gives Claudius the bad news

Calpurnia calls Claudius to her house to see her, warning him of great danger, and slowly spits it all out, convinced that he will order her execution, or at least torture, for doing so. Claudius still hasn't learned to stop putting things in threes - this time he's trusted three women, his mother, Messalina and Calpurnia herself. At least his late mother and Calpurnia remain trustworthy. Pallas and Narcissus come in and tell him the rest, including the competition with the prostitute, and the fact that he is now divorced.

The wedding feast has become a proper orgy - no rape, just a lot of willing and very drunk people jumping around on top of each other. A completely hysterical woman interrupts by running and screaming that the guards are coming to arrest everybody, and all descends into chaos.

Messalina demands to see 'her husband' but Narcissus and Pallas prevent her from seeing him. There's a lot more screaming and young Britannicus and Octavia have to watch and listen while Narcissus doubts their legitimacy. This is another episode not to watch late at night in a house with thin walls.

Most of the guard were loyal, so Claudius is safe, but he is getting very drunk and feeling sorry for Messalina and how unhappy she must have been. Pallas and Narcissus shove the orders for her execution, and some of the others', while he's drunk and not paying attention. They go to Messalina and offer to let her take her own life first, which would save them having to explain about the warrent to Claudius in the morning, but Messalina can't do it. Having already sent her children to try to get Claudius to forgive her and yelled at her mother for not helping, the guard is forced to chop her head off while she screams.

Claudius, having sobered up, wants to see his wife and has to be told that he ordered her execution the night before. A temple that was to be dedicated to Augustus in Colchester is to be dedicated to Claudius instead. Claudius feels even more helpless than Augustus did when the temple in Palmyra was built. He weeps to himself, his face contorted in an agonised silent scream.

There are a lot of episodes of I, Claudius that deal with very unpleasant subjects, especially those featuring Caligula, but somehow this one is especially nasty - with the death of Herod occuring in the middle, everything really does seem to be going to Hades in a handbasket. Messalina seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, Claudius is a broken man and we've seen more or less the last of EvenOlder!Claudius, for the next episode will have a distinctly post-mortem aspect to it. Claudius is behaving less and less like the clever, quiet survivalist of the earlier episodes and more and more like the drunkard and pawn of his wives and freedmen portrayed by Tacitus and Suetonius. This fits the sources rather nicely, but is a bit depressing. The narrative is taking us on the slow slide to inevitable awfulness that is Nero, whom we haven't yet seen, but who is the future, and who will be introduced in the next and last episode...

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