Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A God In Colchester.

I've now finished watching I, Claudius. Similar to my post below, this is for some (updated) thoughts and reflections - nothing too meaty.

Well, oh well. The second half of the series becomes increasingly dark (and given the amount of poisonings in the first half that's no mean feat!). Augustus is now a memory (although a deified one!) and the reigns of Tiberius and his Grand-Nephew (the Julio-Claudian stemma is pretty much needed to make head nor tails of the series entirely!) Caligula have turned out to be rotten ones. Roman women of good birth are conniving and sleeping (literally) their way through the entire city.

In short, Rome is a festering pit of decadence.

Then along comes the bumbling Claudius (or the cleverly bumbling in order to be ignored Claudius), and manages to make the Empire friendly towards a benevolent Princeps and decides he must allow Nero to take over the reins and soil the idea of an Emperor once and for all, which would consequently bring back the glorious Republic.

Nero firmly in power, the series ends. Jacobi is amazing in the final episodes, and as the scheming Claudius (a neat juxtaposition of his position in relation to his family - he's the opposite of a schemer and they're scheming all the damn time for most of the series) is ushered into the afterlife, I got a real sense of closure. This is after all Claudius' story - and with him it ends.

I was thinking about the sources for the series (and the novels), which seem primarily to be Tacitus and Suetonius, which I think is abundantly clear in the series. Echoes of Tacitus come through in the let's say "colourful" representation of aristocratic women, especially in the case of Livia. Tacitus is a writer who profoundly misses the Republic and is distrustful of the Principate - especially under despotic rulers. His nervousness about the nature of an Emperor dominated government, and the role of women are manifest in the series no end.

When you take this relatively negative view of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and then let the famous gossip Suetonius loose on the material, it quickly becomes the stuff of sordid soap opera. Compellingly sordid though it is. In many ways I consider the series as a Tacitean account "sexed up" (sexified?) by Suetonius (Graves and the screenwriters are also involved in the sexing up of the show).

Graves, of course, subverts both of these accounts in the case of Claudius because he allows Claudius to be narrating a (fictional) history that he is writing about his family, which in turn allows Claudius to depicted in contrast to how he usually is. Graves adds motive and explanation for why Claudius acted as he did, and I especially enjoy that aspect of the show. Claudius is no idiot - he sees what is going on around him and from his entire family is the only one to survive. Better to be alive with only half your wits than dead with all of them, as he says himself.

The show is just really bloody brilliant. The acting throughout verges on mind blowing (that scene with Brian Blessed comes to mind) and the unique direction, dialogue and score are all way, way above the standard of most TV shows (then or since). At the end of it all, after being a secret passenger to the Julio-Claudian soap opera, one is left with the real feeling that they know or understand these people that before Graves' novel were (perhaps) two dimensional historical figures. Therein is the rub - that's why the series is a triumph - we are Claudius' closet confidants, and through him everything is brought to life.

Like I said, it's just really bloody brilliant.

Oh and to blogdrop (is it even called that?) Juliette at Pop Classics has posts about each I, Claudius episode which go into much greater depth than I do. They're pretty great and available here: Pop Classics. (I don't think the entire series is there though).


  1. Thanks for the plug! (blushes). The whole series will be there eventually. I'm working through it slowly, so I should finish just in time to start the BBC/HBO Rome if Father Christmas brings it for me!

  2. Rome is also ridiculously good, and some of the acting is pretty special.

    The depiction of some of the characters always irked me (Cato!) but apart from that it's awesome.