Saturday, October 10, 2009

He, Clavdivs.

I spent this morning watching the first four parts (or so) of the great I, Claudius. Robert Graves once said that he disliked how popular the book and TV show had become, and even claimed that he wrote it for money and to a publisher's deadline for a book. Nevertheless, I think it's cracking, and lots of others do too.

I've decided against criticising it's historical veracity - it plays loose with the history, but I believe it's such a great work of fiction (based, of course, on real enough events) that sticking to the history is not the be all and end all. Instead I'm just putting some thoughts and reflections into this post.

The show is narrated by an elderly Claudius who decides to tell the story of his family (and by gum, it's one huge extended and complicated family the man has - as one glance at a full Julio-Claudian family tree will tell you). Thus, the series begins 6 or so years after the Battle of Actium (putting it around 25 or 24 B.C.E) and with each episode it jumps a quite a few years. The final episode I watched today closed with the death of Augustus (in 14 C.E) meaning it has covered some 39 years in a mere 4 episodes.

The historical skeleton Graves used to pin his story onto was already juicy enough (he bases the story on Tacitus and the famous gossip Suetonius) - the family drama of the Julio-Claudians in this period was really great stuff - full of intrigue, jealousy, bad luck and even a bit of murder (maybe). The greatest thing about Graves' story is that it brings to life an immensely complicated and important period of Roman history - one can believe in the characters, and get a real flavour for their family dramas.

The scheming of Livia (exaggerated but really compelling viewing!) and the trials of Augustus' search for a successor (everyone keeps getting murdered by Livia!) let alone the various pressures of being part of the Imperial family on it's many members, who are variously seen having all sorts of problems. The focus is the Imperial family, not political movings and shakings (although, they of course, are what the Imperial family was all about).

The direction, writing and acting are all top notch (getting a glimpse of a personal hero of mine - Patrick Stewart - as Sejanus was a particular high point for me) and I must concede that I adore the TV show - and it really, really stands the test of time. It's some 33 years old now, but barely shows it.

Derek Jacobi is in scene stealing form as Claudius, cerebral palsy (the modern consensus is) and all. The characterisation of Claudius by Graves and Jacobi's personification of that character make the whole show work. Graves reads into the history and we're all the better for it. We can get a feeling for the motivations and the emotions of these historical figures, and while they may not be true, such conjecture can help bring the ancient world to life in a way that is often difficult for us to grasp.

When the more recent series Rome appeared on TV screens a few years ago, many folks in the media billed it as natural successor to I, Claudius. In many respects, I think that's quite true. Rome boasts a huge budget and lavish sets, while I, Claudius was filmed mainly on indoor stages, but the quality of both is exceptionally high. The focus of Rome was the Julio-Claudians in their infancy, and we are connected to the history via two plebeian soldiers. In I, Claudius the rank and file get little mention, and the focus remains the Imperial family - I think this shift in interest reflects changes in scholarship in the 70 or so years between the writing of Graves' book and the production of Rome.

The greatest strength that both shows share is that they animate Roman history and bring it's characters to life. We can see Caesar at the Rubicon, Octavian triumph over Mark Antony, Augustus weep when his adopted sons Gaius and Lucius both die young and witness the temperament of Tiberius - how sympathetic yet unlikeable he is. We cannot get this from the ancient historians to the same extent, and that is where historical fiction (of really good quality) comes into it's own.

Funnily enough, I think the best works of historical fiction are also the best researched ones, and often those rooted in real events are the most exciting. I suppose this is an indicator of just how fascinating ancient history is and how complex her famous figures were. I, Claudius illustrates this perfectly.


  1. I was awfully disappointed when Rome got cancelled after series 2, but we have ended up with Rome leading into I, Claudius rather nicely!

  2. For sure!

    I think a Rome movie is being talked about. Originally the makers wanted it to run 4 or so seasons, and for it to continue through the birth of christ etc.

    Really great TV show, but just too expensive to make, I think.