I, Claudius: The Problem with the Series

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I have very fond memories of watching I, Claudius with my parents when it first ran here in the States, and again in the late 80s with my father when I was in college. But watching it more recently, with 30 years of experience thinking about the position of women in society and how they are depicted, I noticed something troubling that escaped my younger selves.

Claudius

It’s really misogynistic.

In order to see what I mean, let’s run down the female characters in the series (omitting a few women who only appear in a single scene):

Livia, Augustus’ wife and mother to Tiberius and Drusus: the chief villain of the

piece

Julia, Augustus’ daughter and Tiberius’ wife: commits multiple adulteries

Antonia: Claudius’ mother: stern, conservative, has contempt for her own son

Livilla, Antonia’s daughter and Castor’s wife: falsely accuses Postumus of rape,

drugs Castor so she can commit adultery, then poisons him

Agrippina the Elder, Julia’s daughter and Germanicus’ wife: strident foe of Tiberius

Plancina, wife of Piso: accused of poisoning Germanicus, she tricks Piso into

committing suicide

Martina: poisoner who corrupts Caligula and gets him to murder his father

Aelia Paetina, Claudius’ second wife and sister of Sejanus: enters into a loveless

marriage with Claudius

Drusilla, sister and concubine of Caligula: plays into Caligula’s madness

Messalina, Claudius’ third wife; commits multiple adulteries and manipulates Claudius

Scylla: prostitute with whom Messalina competes to see which of them can exhaust

the most sex partners in a night

Domitia, Messalina’s mother: tries unsuccessfully to rein in her daughter

Calpurnia: prostitute who genuinely cares for Claudius

Agrippina the Younger, Claudius’ niece and fourth wife: manipulates and poisons

Claudius, commits incest with her son Nero

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Agrippina the Younger

When you look over the list, these women fall into several fairly obvious groups:

The Manipulators: Livia, Livilla, Plancina, Messalina, Agrippina the Younger, and

maybe Drusilla

The Bad Wives/Sluts: Julia, Livilla, Messalina, Plancina, Aelia Paetina, arguably Agrippina the Younger, the prostitutes Scylla and Calpurnia are honorary members here by virtue of their occupations

The Bad Mothers: Livia, Julia, Antonia, Agrippina the Younger

The Poisoners: Livia, Martina, Livilla, Plancina, Agrippina the Younger

The only women in the show who are entirely proper, guiltless women are Agrippina the Elder and Domitia. Agrippina the Elder (Fiona Walker) features almost entirely as a foe of Tiberius, repeatedly denouncing himself to his face for his role in her husband’s death. While clearly virtuous, her constant strident arguments make her seem rather foolhardy, and the show makes no attempt to make her likeable in real fashion. As a child, she mocks Claudius. On the other hand, Domitia is really only in the show to give someone for Messalina (Shiela White) to play off of when Claudius isn’t around. She’s virtuous, but only gets 2 or 3 scenes. Similarly, the basically likeable Calpurnia only appears 2 or 3 times and has only a single function in the story, to tell Claudius (Derek Jacobi) that Messalina has committed bigamy. Drusilla is essentially Caligula’s victim, but she moves from playing into his madness because she’s afraid of him to playing into his madness because she enjoys the power.

Antonia (Margaret Tyzack), Claudius’ mother, also needs special discussion. She’s a very conservative woman, the embodiment of traditional Roman feminine values. She’s utterly faithful to her late husband Drusus, a strict disciplinarian to her children, and rigidly moral. That’s admirable, and the show gives her scenes with Julia that demonstrate her basic decency. But her strictness makes her a rather grim mother. When she learns that Livilla (Patricia Quinn) played a role in destroying Postumus, she locks Livilla in a room, sits down in front of it, and waits until Livilla has starved to death, punishing both of them simultaneously. She has little but contempt for Claudius’s clumsiness and perceived stupidity, even later in life when she realizes that he’s not really so stupid. She tells Julia she doesn’t love him when he’s just a boy. Her final act is to tell Claudius that she’s going to commit suicide. By Roman standards, she virtuous, but by 20th century standards she’s an awful mother, and her repeated insults toward Claudius, the hero and audience identification character, render her essentially unlikable.

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Tyzack’s severe Antonia

Some of these women have positive traits. Livia is clever and sharp-tongued, Julia is witty in a catty sort of way, Antonia is morally upright. But over and over again we get female characters who are essentially bad women. Only Agrippina the Elder and Domitia can pass muster by the simultaneous standards of ancient Roman and 20th century British society. The former is unlikable and the latter is unimportant. The show’s female characters are a long parade of misogynist stereotypes.

To make matters worse, only a few of these characters are given complex motivations. Julia and Antonia get enough screen time so that we can see them as full personalities. Livia is highly complex, but her real motives aren’t fully clear. If she’s motivated by maternal love, why does she have so much contempt for the son she wants to make emperor? Sian Phillips makes the character work, but I’m not sure Livia is actually written to be the full person Phillips makes her. Livilla and Messalina come across as just manipulative and slutty from start to finish. Agrippina the Younger is basically one-dimensional power-hunger made flesh.

One reason for the thinness of most of the female characters is that as the show goes on, it stops developing characters over the course of several episodes. Instead it introduces them only when needed for the plot. Drusilla is barely even seen before Caligula becomes emperor, which means her only scenes are played in the shadow of her brother’s madness. Agrippina the Younger literally only appears in the final episode. So the characters introduced at the start get development over several episodes, while the later characters just sort of walk on, say their lines, and walk off. As a result, we get little sense of who they are as people.

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Livilla, slutting it up with Sejanus

Unfortunately, as Robert Graves and screenwriter Jack Pulman write it, the story of the Julio-Claudian family is one of female malice poisoning male virtue. Most of the male characters are basically decent men ruined by the women in their lives. Livia manipulates everyone around her. She twists Augustus’ good intentions into a despotic monarchy with her determination to make her unwilling son Tiberius his successor, she tricks Lucius into betraying his own mother, and she corrupts Livilla along the way into ruining Postumus. Tiberius’ harshness as emperor is substantially due to Livia’s destruction of everything he loves. Plancina and Martina conspire to poison Germanicus, and Martina corrupts the young Caligula by telling him that he’s a god in human form and making him her accomplice in her crimes, while Plancina ultimately becomes Piso’s undoing by persuading him to stop fighting the charges against him; she tricks him into suicide by promising to kill herself with him and then failing to do so. Once Caligula is dead, there are no males left alive in the family other than Claudius and Nero, and that’s because Livia has killed them all. Claudius’ decency is constantly hammered down by the horrors he witnesses, including his mother’s suicide, and the last person he truly trusts, Messalina, utterly and shamelessly betrays him. He marries Agrippina the Younger knowing she’s a viper, and she proves true to character and poisons him exactly as he plans. The few decent female characters are minor players in this story.

Robert Graves authored the decidedly pro-female White Goddess, a poetic celebration of female divinity, so it’s surprising that he would tell a story that is so misogynistic at its heart. Part of the issue is that Graves’ source material is profoundly hostile to the Julio-Claudian women. Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio all considered female exercise of political power abhorrent and evidence of moral deviation from other standards of propriety. They attack most of the Julio-Claudian empresses as being abusive with their political power and sexually insatiable to the point of unfaithfulness, two charges that are essentially flip sides of the same coin for Romans.

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Messalina with her son Britannicus

Because our sources for this period of Roman history are so dominated by these three authors, it is challenging to understand what might be underneath these hostile characterizations. Their depiction of Messalina is perhaps the most obvious example of this. As Tacitus and Suetonius describe her, Messalina manipulated Claudius easily, so that he completely failed to see her many adulteries. Cassius Dio claims that she forced the matrons of Rome to prostitute themselves in the imperial palace and rewarded their husbands with political promotions. She persuaded her lovers that Claudius knew and approved of her affairs, so that men were reluctant to refuse her advances. Juvenal, a Roman satirist of the early 2nd century, claims that Messalina was so eager to engage in sex that she used to sneak out of the imperial palace, go to a brothel, and work there under the name Lycisca (‘wolf girl’). She supposedly competed with another prostitute to see which of them could exhaust the most lovers in a single night. Most shockingly, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio all claim that she bigamously married one of her lovers, Gaius Silius, while Claudius was out of town, down to signing a marriage contract. Claudius’ appalled servants persuaded the prostitute Calpurnia to tell Claudius about Messalina’s betrayal, and then persuaded him to execute her before she could manipulate him into forgiving her.

These stories are hard to credit. The only source that any of the historians acknowledge is the memoir of Agrippina the Younger, whom Messalina reportedly hated and persecuted. Since Agrippina succeeded Messalina as Claudius’ wife and needed her son to displace his children by his earlier wives, one can imagine that this memoir might not be particularly honest about Messalina. The idea that Messalina turned the imperial palace into a brothel without Claudius noticing is hard to believe, and it’s worth pointing out that almost the identical story is also told of Caligula. No one takes Juvenal’s charges as truth; he notoriously invented all sorts of slanderous stories to lob at men and women he disliked, and while his poems make for fun reading, they have to be taken with more than a grain of salt. The idea that Messalina thought she could get away with bigamy is hard to imagine, since her entire position was based on her status as Claudius’ wife. If the story is anything other than fabrication, there must be more to it than the facts that have come down to us.

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White’s Messalina at the sex contest

What lies underneath all of these accusations is that idea that Claudius was a bad ruler because he was blind to such outrageous immorality taking place in his own household. That’s generally how the Roman historians depict Claudius; he’s not such a fool as everyone thought before he became emperor, but he was somehow an even bigger fool than that, because he was the puppet of his wives and his domestic servants. So these stories are not likely to be true; they’re intended to besmirch Claudius by painting his wife as an immoral whore who fooled him at every turn.

Graves isn’t responsible for the stories his Roman sources told. But he was responsible for which sources he chose to trust. In particular, his use of Juvenal is pretty shameless. Even in the 1930s, scholars didn’t take Juvenal’s poetry as fact, so his choice to repeat the whole sex contest story is a sign that he wasn’t being particularly discriminating about the anecdotes he incorporated into his novels. He’s also responsible for the way he chose to assemble his sources into a coherent narrative, and the theme that the Julio-Claudians were good men ruined by bad women was something he imposed on the material, since the Roman sources are quite critical of some of the men in the family.

For example, the actual Postumus was apparently a much darker figure than the Postumus of the series; Tacitus describes him as “young, physically tough, indeed brutish….devoid of every good quality” (Tacitus, Annals, 1.3), while Suetonius and Cassius Dio are much harsher. But Graves and Pulman make him a thorough decent and likeable young man, a friend of Claudius, who is falsely accused of rape by Livilla because Livia views him as a threat to Tiberius’ succession. So Graves chose to ignore his historical personality in order to make him a better person. Similarly, while the historical Drusus Julius Caesar was apparently a rather violent man (which might explain his wife’s decision to have an affair with Sejanus); in the series Castor is something of a partier who grows up as he realizes the corruption of his father’s rule. So Graves and Pulman have a tendency to make the male Julio-Claudians better than they were, while accepting at face value the highly-negative picture of the women. In other words, the misogyny of the series might have its roots in the series, but Graves wasn’t just passively repeating his sources. It’s an unfortunate element of an otherwise stellar series.

This post, and the others on I, Claudius was made possible by a very generous donation from a regular reader. Thanks, Lyn! If there’s a movie or TV show you want me to review, please make a donation to my Paypal account and let me know what you’d like me to review. I have another request coming up after I finish I, Claudius, so please be patient.

 

Want to Know More?

I, Claudius is available on Amazon, as is the combined I, Claudius pair of novels by Graves. They’re both highly recommended.

If you’d like to know more about Livia, try Anthony Barrett’s biography, Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome


I, Claudius: Livia!

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The most memorable performance in I, Claudius is Sian Phillips’ Livia. Her personality drives the action in the first half of the series, and Phillips gives a truly unforgettable, incandescent performance as the ruthless schemer who systematically manipulates everyone around her except Claudius (Derek Jacobi), whom she wrongly considers too stupid to pay attention to until late in her life. The performance netted her a much-deserved BAFTA award. So let’s take a look at her and see how fact meets fiction.

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Livia in the Series

When we first meet Livia, it’s at a banquet celebrating the seventh anniversary of Augustus’ triumph over Antony and Cleopatra. She’s watching everyone in the room, catching every detail of what the people do, and she demonstrates her ability to manipulate Augustus (Brian Blessed). She’s iron-willed, arrogant and condescending, clever, and in many ways the power behind Augustus’ throne. And she is absolutely determined that her older son Tiberius (George Baker) is going to succeed Augustus as ruler of Rome. For the first four episodes, nearly everything she does is about eliminating all the possible alternative candidates, of whom there are several. Her problem is that Augustus dislikes the prickly Tiberius and would much rather have anyone else as his successor. So she has her work cut out for her. Over the course of the first seven episodes, Livia

  • Poisons Marcellus, Augustus’ young nephew and initial favorite so that Agrippa will return to Rome, since she’s convinced that Augustus needs Agrippa
  • Poisons Agrippa between episodes 1 and 2 because Agrippa required a marriage to Julia, Augustus’ daughter, as the price of returning to Rome, and Livia wants Tiberius to marry Julia
  • Ignores Augustus’ explicit wishes and arranges for his deification on the eastern side of the Empire
  • Apparently poisons her own son Drusus (Ian Ogilvy) because it looks like he might try to rebel against Augustus to restore the Republic
  • Poisons Julia’s son Gaius off-screen because he’s Augustus’ obvious successor now
  • Persuades Plautius (Darien Angadi) to spy on Julia and compile a list of Julia’s lovers
  • Persuades Lucius to reveal his mother’s adulteries to Augustus so that he won’t appear complicit in the affairs, thus getting Julia exiled in hopes that Augustus will change his mind and recall Tiberius from exile
  • Arranges for Plautius to kill Lucius in a boating ‘accident’ because he’s now Augustus’ successor
  • Persuades her grand-daughter Livilla (Patricia Quinn) to falsely accuse Augustus’ last surviving grandson Postumus (John Castle) of attempted rape so that Augustus will have to recall Tiberius and make him his successor
  • Tricks the chief Vestal Virgin into breaking her oath and allowing Livia to look at Augustus’ will and then substituting a fake will when she discovers that the will names Postumus as Augustus successor
  • Poisons Augustus by painting poison on the figs he’s growing because he won’t eat anything anyone else has touched
  • Sends Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) to murder Postumus so he can’t succeed Augustus
  • Sends assassins to murder Fabius Maximus because he knows about Augustus’ intentions for Postumus succeeding him
  • Sends her agents to spirit away Martina, the woman who poisoned Germanicus (David Robb), so that Piso (Stratford Johns) can’t use her testimony against Tiberius during his murder trial, compares notes about poisoning with Martina, and suggests that she could easily have poisoned Martina if she wanted to
  • Intervenes in Gnaeus Piso’s trial to protect his wife Plancina, which Tiberius refuses to do
  • Persuades Plancina (Irene Hamilton) to persuade Piso to commit suicide so that Livia can destroy the letter than implicates her in Germanicus’ poisoning
  • Persuades Claudius to promise to deify her by telling him who she murdered, and admits to Claudius that she didn’t orchestrate the deaths of Drusus and Germanicus only because they died without her intervention
  • And finally dies an old woman, with Claudius the only person who knows about her long list of crimes

Whew! That’s a rap sheet that even Shakespeare’s worst villains can’t match. So is any of it true?

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Philiips as Livia

 

The Real Livia

Probably not.

As Augustus’ wife, Livia played an important role in his rule. Publicly, she was offered as the embodiment of traditional Roman feminine virtue, a great beauty, and a matron devoted to her family. She made many of her family’s clothes herself, a traditional marker of moral virtue for Roman women. To some extent, this traditionalist depiction was a strategy of Augustus’ to provide cover for the radical political changes he was introducing at Rome, but Augustus may also have been a man of conservative social tastes. His choice to exile Julia for the rest of her life (and deny her the right to drink wine) after her adultery was revealed was reportedly gut-wrenching to him because he loved her dearly, so he was clearly horrified at Julia’s immoral behavior. According to Cassius Dio, Livia attributed her influence over Augustus to her unswerving faithfulness to him and overlooking his various flings.

As she aged, she became a model for the depiction of the goddesses Piety and Concord and as such helped shape the Roman view of its future empresses, who were expected to faithful and devoted wives and mothers. At public events, she was allowed to sit with the Vestal Virgins, the most honored women in Rome. And of course after her death, Claudius had her deified, the first Roman woman to achieve that honor.

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Livia

She was clearly interested in promoting her two sons politically. Both Tiberius and Drusus became important and trusted generals. Drusus married Augustus’ niece Antonia Minor and Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce his beloved wife Vipsania in order to marry Julia. This was clearly an unpleasant experience for the unfortunate Tiberius and Julia; they got along poorly, which probably contributed to Julia’s decision to start sleeping with other men, and the loss of Vipsania seems to have permanently scarred Tiberius emotionally. But whether Livia played any role in orchestrating these two marriages is unknown.

The ancient sources all agree that Livia had a good deal of influence with Augustus. She is known to have helped him with the administration of the Empire, often replying to correspondence in his name. This gave her the opportunity to make important decisions on matters of second-tier importance. It’s unlikely that she presumed to handle the most important matters. Given that Augustus trusted her to handle a lot of routine and less important matters, it’s likely that the two discussed issues of governance and she probably acted as an important advisor to him.

Tacitus claims that “she had the aged Augustus firmly under control” and asserts that she was the driving force behind his decision to exile Postumus. The reason Augustus did this is unknown; the story of Livilla accusing him of rape at Livia’s behest is made up. But note that Tacitus says this was when Augustus was quite old; if the charge is true, it was a consequence of decades of ruling and not a basic characteristic of their marriage or Livia’s personality. Suetonius, in a striking turn of phrase, claims that Gaius Caligula described Livia as “Ulysses in petticoats” (Ulixem stolatum). Since in Greek mythology Ulysses (or rather Odysseus, the Greek form of his name) is marked out by his cunning more than his martial skills, the quip is a charge of being manipulative. But elsewhere he says that Augustus refused her request to grant citizenship to a Gaul.

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Livia as Ops, Goddess of Wealth

The sources definitely accuse her of some of the murders she commits in I, Claudius. Tacitus claims that she murdered both Gaius and Lucius. He claims, quoting an unnamed source, that Marcia, the wife of Fabius Maximus, revealed to Livia that Maximus had accompanied Augustus to his reconciliation meeting with Postumus, and then subsequently said at his funeral that she had been the cause of Maximus’ death. But he admits this is a rumor. He says that Tiberius claimed that Augustus had left instructions for Postumus’ death, and then based on no evidence whatsoever asserts that it is more probable that Tiberius and Livia arranged it out of fear of Postumus, a rather odd claim given that Tiberius was emperor and Postumus was a disgraced prisoner. He notes that “some suspected” that Livia might have caused Augustus’ final illness out of fear that he would restore Postumus. Tacitus clearly disliked Livia, describing her as a curse to the empire and curse to her family.

Tacitus also accuses Tiberius and Livia of conniving with Gnaeus Piso and his wife Plancina to arrange the death of Germanicus. The reported motive is that Germanicus was a threat to the possible succession of Tiberius’ son Drusus (called Castor in the series) and that Livia hated his wife Agrippina and wanted to ruin her because she had more children and was more famous that Livia. When Piso and Plancina returned to Rome, the Senate demanded a trial for the death of Germanicus. Tacitus claims that Plancina was saved, despite her guilt, because Livia begged Tiberius to rescue her friend. The claim that Livia orchestrated Plancina getting clemency has been confirmed by the discovery about 20 years ago of a senatorial decree that explicitly says as much.

Suetonius repeats the claim that Livia might have ordered the death of Postumus, saying that the tribune who did the deed had received a letter from Augustus ordering it, but that Livia could have written it. He says that as emperor he became vexed that Livia was claiming to rule jointly with him and went out of his way to avoid meeting privately with her. Their final breach happened when, during an argument, she produced some letters that Augustus had written to her complaining about Tiberius; since Suetonius had access to the imperial archives he might have seen such letters, although he doesn’t quote them as he does with other correspondence between the couple. But that’s the only crime he accuses her of, and given that Suetonius was normally eager to repeat dirt on the Julio-Claudians, it’s striking that he does say anything about Tacitus’ other accusations.

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Agrippa Postumus

The idea that Livia was systematically murdering her way through Augustus’ possible successors rests primarily on Cassius Dio. He says that she was accused of poisoning Marcellus, but then says that a lot of other people died of disease the same year, so that people were uncertain whether the charge was true. He says that Gaius died of an infected wound and Lucius of illness and people suspected Livia because this happened about the time that Augustus recalled Tiberius from exile. He claims that she manipulated Augustus into being merciful toward an attempted assassination plot as part of a Machiavellian scheme of her own. (Indeed, the conversation he invents about this is possibly one of the longest speeches an ancient author attributed to any woman. It runs for seven paragraphs.) He expands on Tacitus’ claim that she poisoned Augustus by inventing the absurd story that she smeared poison on some figs in Augustus’ garden and then offered them to him, eating clean ones to prove that they were safe. He repeats the claim that she might have arranged Postumus’ death. He says that people gossiped that Livia had secured Tiberius’ succession, much to Tiberius’ consternation, and that she claimed this as well, and that eventually she wished to take precedence over Tiberius. Tiberius grew tired of this, forced her to step out of public life, and then grew so tired of her trying to manage his household that he retreated to Capri to get away from her.

So between the three of them we find the following accusations (in chronological order):

  • The poisoning of Marcellus
  • The poisonings of Lucius and Gaius
  • The poisoning of Augustus
  • The murder of Postumus
  • Perhaps the murder of Fabius Maximus
  • The poisoning of Germanicus

That means that the other crimes, including the murder of Agrippa, the exposing of Julia’s adultery, the framing of Postumus, the theft of Augustus’ will, the suicide of Piso, and the kidnapping/rescue of Martina are entirely invented.

With the exception of the killings of Postumus and Fabius Maximus, Livia is accused of poisoning her victims (the sources disagree about how Lucius died). The problem with this is two-fold. First, the ancient world had only a hazy notion of medical issues. People easily died unexpectedly of undiagnosed maladies such as heart disease and sudden crises such as stroke, of fevers and other illnesses that simply couldn’t be treated, and from food poisoning, given the poor state of preservative techniques. Any of these could produce a sudden unexplained death. Injuries could easily turn infected and gangrene could set it. Because the ancient world could not easily explain such things medically, it was incredibly common for people to suspect poisoning and curses, because that made an unexpected event easily understandable in human terms. A second problem here is that the ancient world widely viewed poison as a woman’s weapon. Because women were physically too weak to use weapons successful (or so ancient culture assumed), they preferred to resort to poison to eliminate their enemies.

As a result, I am always very skeptical of historic accusations that a woman has poisoned men, because they can easily be expressions of misogyny and a lack of medical knowledge. Gaius’ death from a wound that became infected is so easily understood that attributing it to Livia is perverse. Similarly, Augustus was in his late 70s when he died; the idea that Livia would have going to ridiculous lengths to poison the men who was the source of her political clout is absurd. Marcellus died in a year when many others died of disease as well. Germanicus and Lucius both died a long way from Rome, and murdering them would have required Livia to pull a lot of strings and risk her position if exposed. In all cases, Ockham’s Razor means that we ought to consider these deaths as result of natural causes rather than Machiavellian plotting.

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A cameo of Livia

Our sources also acknowledge this. They repeatedly comment that these charges are rumors, that some people thought she might have poisoned Marcellus, Gaius and Lucius, that Livia could have forged a letter from Augustus ordering the death of Postumus. They offer no firm evidence for any of these claims. The only hard evidence we have for any of this is that Livia intervened to rescue Plancina from a poisoning conviction. That doesn’t prove that Livia had conspired with Plancina to poison Germanicus or even that Plancina had actually poisoned him, merely that helped Plancina get off. An equally probably reading of the evidence is that Livia sincerely believed Plancina was wrongfully-accused and acted to help an innocent friend.

Notice also that the motives attributed to her are the typically misogynistic ones of advancing a son’s interest and, in the case of Germanicus, feminine resentment that another woman was more successful than she (a pretty absurd charge for a woman of Livia’s towering stature). The idea that a woman would kill another woman’s husband simply because they had more children than she did is the sort of misogynistic nonsense that ancient authors were prone to.

Livia makes a marvelous villain, perhaps one of the greatest evil women in all of 20th century film and television, thanks to Sian Phillips remarkable performance. I’ve always suspected that Tony Soprano’s viciously manipulative mother was named Livia as a nod to Phillip’s performance. But while she’s a remarkable character, the historical Livia was probably quite different.

Want to Know More?

I, Claudius is available on Amazon, as is the combined I, Claudius pair of novels by Graves. They’re both highly recommended.

If you’d like to know more about Livia, try Anthony Barrett’s biography, Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome



I, Claudius: Let’s Talk about Caligula

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Caligula is probably the most infamous Roman Emperor there was. He’s so infamous, he’s probably the only emperor to be the subject of his own Gore Vidal-scripted porn film. But Caligula is also one of the hardest-to-understand emperors, which makes giving him a reasonable treatment on-screen nearly impossible.

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Much of the traditional narrative for Gaius Caligula’s reign derives from Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, which includes a biography of him. Tacitus’ Annals included perhaps two book (or as we would say, chapters) on the reign of Caligula, but unfortunately those books have no survived. Cassius Dio includes a chapter on Gaius in his Roman History, but parts of the chapter have been lost (although enough remains to offer a coherent and detailed narrative of events). The normal story of Gaius Caligula is based on Suetonius for two reasons. First, since Suetonius was much closer in time to Gaius Caligula than Cassius Dio was and since Suetonius had access to the imperial archives, his version of events is more likely to be accurate. Second, Suetonius shapes his material into a much more dramatic and satisfying narrative than Dio’s. However, it’s vitally important to remember that both Suetonius and Dio were deeply hostile to the Julio-Claudians and are therefore not objective historians.

The traditional story of Caligula is that he was a very popular and well-liked child, his father being Germanicus, the grandson of Augustus and a man of enormous popularity in Roman society. Germanicus died, perhaps of poison, in 19 AD, when Caligula was only 7 years old. After that he was variously raised by his mother Agrippina, his great-grandmother Livia, his grandmother Antonia and finally by Emperor Tiberius, who had executed Agrippina and exiled or imprisoned his two brothers Drusus and Nero. He appointed Caligula one of his heirs, along with his grandson Tiberius Gemellus, and so when Tiberius died in 37 AD, Caligula became emperor at the age of 25, easily pushing aside his co-emperor Gemellus and eventually executing the unfortunate lad.

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Germanicus

Initially Gaius Caligula was well-liked and ruled well. He abolished a variety of bad practices, revoking various banishments that Tiberius had imposed, and published the financial records of the government. He wooed the public with gladiatorial games and theatrical shows.

But then a few months into his reign he fell ill, and when he recovered he was a changed man. He became tyrannical, casually ordering unjust executions, humiliating the Senate in various ways, and doing a variety of outrageous things. He committed incest with his sister Drusilla until she died of an illness. He demanded to be worshipped as a living god, set up temples to himself, and sometimes dressed as a god. He dressed in women’s clothing and had a male lover. He threatened to make his racehorse Incitatus a consul. Eventually his abuse of Cassius Chaerea led the man to orchestrate his assassination.

That, as I said, is the story that Suetonius tells, and modern treatments of Caligula have often assumed that he was insane. The assumption is that he perhaps suffered from megalomania or paranoid schizophrenia, which drove him to killing people, committing incest, and declaring himself a god. But Suetonius never accuses him of insanity (apart from saying that his partiality toward his favorites was a form of madness) and Dio says only that Caligula “continued to play the madman”, in reference to his behavior that provoked Charaea’s plot. So while both Suetonius and Cassius Dio depict a ruler who started well and then descended into tyranny, they do not really suggest that he was insane. That’s a modern reading of Caligula’s personality, and it has seized on details like his fondness for his racehorse, developing what seems to have been a joke into a sign of mental illness.

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A statue of Gaius Calgula

Two details of the narrative deserve special attention. The first is the claim that he was incestuous with his sisters, particularly Drusilla. Only Suetonius makes this charge, and here it is:

“He lived in habitual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above. Of these he is believed to have violated Drusilla when he was still a minor, and even to have been caught lying with her by his grandmother Antonia, at whose house they were brought up in company. Afterwards, when she was the wife of Lucius Cassius Longinus, an ex-consul, he took her from him and openly treated her as his lawful wife; and when ill, he made her heir to his property and the throne.” (Suetonius, Life of Caligula 24)

There are three claims here. Taking them chronologically, first he “is believed” to have had sex with Drusilla when they were children. Second, he “treated her as his wife” and took her away from her husband. Third, he used all his sisters as the hostess of his banquets instead of giving that honor to his wife; At a banquet, the hostess, traditionally the wife, reclined on the couch next to (or ‘below’) the host. The implication is that if he treated his sisters like wives socially, he must also be treating them like wives sexually. Notice that the first charge is based entirely on rumor. Apart from that single rumor, Suetonius’ evidence seems to be merely the fact that Caligula violated normal protocol by allowing his sisters to act as his hostess at banquets and the fact that Drusilla lived in the imperial palace rather than with her husband. This is very typical of Suetonius’ work. He treats rumors as fact and places the most negative possible interpretation on whatever facts he has in front of him. He clearly cared deeply about Drusilla; when she died from an illness, he had her deified as part of the imperial cult. But for a man who had grown up in such difficult circumstances and saw his father be poisoned and both his brothers and his mother executed or starved to death while he was growing up, it’s hardly surprising that he would care deeply about his surviving family. He doesn’t have to be sleeping with his sisters to want to elevate them to positions of high honor. Why would Suetonius fabricate or exaggerate charges that Gaius Caligula committed incest? Because in Roman political thought, those who are politically wrong tend to also be sexual deviants, rapists, or otherwise sexually improper, so accusations of sexually immorality reinforce the accusations of political tyranny and vice-versa. This is also probably the reason for his comment that Caligula dressed outlandishly and his comment with Drusilla’s husband was Caligula’s lover.

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Drusilla

The charge that Caligula wanted to be worshipped as a living god is on much more solid foundations. Philo of Alexandria, his contemporary and an historian, makes the same claim, and Caligula’s desire to erect a statue of himself in the Second Temple in Jerusalem might have caused a rebellion if Caligula’s death hadn’t aborted the project. But here too there is more going on than meets the modern eye. As Cassius Dio points out in his section of Caligula, Caligula’s predecessors as emperor were worshiped as living gods in the eastern half of the empire and after their death at Rome. So the unusual thing that Caligula was doing was not asking to be worshipped as a god; the Romans already accorded those honors to Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius. What was novel was that he was asking Romans to worship him while he was still alive.

As historian Anthony Barrett has argued, the worship of a ruler as a living god was a characteristic of monarchy in the Hellenistic world of the eastern Mediterranean. Augustus had wanted to avoid the appearance of monarchy, so he had refused that honor. Barrett suggests that what Caligula was doing was simply abandoning the pretense that he was not a king by adopting the outward trappings of monarchy, perhaps because he lacked the patience for Augustus’ elaborate charade of not being in power. To me, that’s a far more plausible scenario than that Caligula was insane.

Caligula in I, Claudius

I, Claudius follows Suetonius’ narrative on many points, but adds considerably to it in ways that alter Suetonius’ depiction of him. He appears in two episodes as a child, one episode as an adult during Tiberius’ reign, and then two episodes during his own reign. So the series follow Caligula (he’s not called Gaius at all) all through his life.

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John Hurt as Caligula

The approach the series takes to Caligula is that he was a monster from his youth. As a child, he helps murder his own father Germanicus by poisoning him and stealing a protective talisman that Germanicus believed would keep him safe. He was recruited by the woman who poisoned Germanicus, who flattered Caligula and planted the idea in his head that he was actually a god. That seems to be entirely Graves’ invention, having so far as I know no basis in the Roman sources. In the next episode Antonia (Margaret Tyzack) says she caught him molesting Drusilla. So the show establishes that he’s a natural monster in the model of the Bad Seed.

As a young man Caligula (John Hurt) is portrayed as callous, wasteful, and utterly unconcerned about other people. He’s good at faking virtue for Tiberius (George Baker), who decides to make Caligula his heir precisely because he wants the horrid Caligula to make him look good by comparison. That’s actually the opposite of what Suetonius says, which is that Tiberius recognized Caligula’s cruelty and tried to train him out of it by allowing him to indulge his taste for dance and theater.

When Caligula takes the imperial office, instead of months of good reign, he gets half a day. He makes a few nice proclamations before having some sort of psychotic breakdown in which he hears a loud drumming in his head, the first sign in the show that Caligula is actually insane. His insanity is depicted with the traditional elements of Suetonius’ narrative: he wants to be worshipped as a god and quarrels with Jupiter, he makes his racehorse a consul, he’s casually vicious to everyone around him and capricious in his moods, and so on.

He declares Drusilla a goddess and sleeps with her to the point of getting her pregnant. Then, following the Greek myth of Zeus overthrowing his father, he becomes afraid of the child Drusilla is carrying, ties her up, and cuts the baby out of her, obviously killing her the process. None of that has any foundation in the sources other than the claim he committed incest with her. He did not have Drusilla deified until after her death. There’s no evidence he ever got her pregnant. She died from a short illness partway through his reign, not by his hand, and her death was a profound shock to him, not a matter of near indifference as the show presents it.

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Hurt as Caligula in drag as the goddess Venus

In the last episode involving Caligula, he opens a brothel in the imperial palace and orders all the senators to bring their wives to staff it, ordering the senators to pay for the purpose of sleeping with each other’s wives. This is a somewhat exaggerated version of Suetonius claim that he opened a brothel in the palace as a money-making effort because he was too lavish with his money. Suetonius claims that he staffed the brothel with young men and ‘matrons’, meaning married women, but he never says he forced senators to bring their wives. Like the other claims of his sexual irregularities, it’s likely that Suetonius is making this up or just reporting hostile gossip.

In the show, Cassius Chaerea (Sam Dastor) orchestrates a substantial plot to murder Caligula and restore the Republic. Suetonius claims there were only two conspirators, Chaerea and the tribune Cornelius Sabinus. Chaerea was the tribune of the Praetorian Guard, and was therefore in a position to manipulate the Guards to get Caligula alone, but in the show, the Praetorians are an obstacle that the conspirators need to get around by tricking Caligula into a tunnel and then shutting the gate behind him so that the Guards cannot protect him. In contrast, Cassius Dio says that practically everyone in Caligula’s court was involved in the conspiracy, which is highly improbable.

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Caligula with Incitatus

Overall, I, Claudius’ Caligula bears only a moderate relationship to the actual historical Caligula, although Graves could reasonably claim that he was drawing his portrait to a considerable extent out of Suetonius and Cassius Dio. In the late 70s, Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula as a coldly deranged and wildly unpredictable lunatic must have been quite chilling, but of all the elements in the series, it has probably aged the worst, since today it seems a rather clichéd performance like every other deranged killer in movies and television (although, to be fair, I passionately hate the deranged killer trope as hackneyed and in desperate need of total retirement, so maybe you’ll like the performance more than I do these days).

This post, and the others on I, Claudius was made possible by a very generous donation from a regular reader. Thanks, Lyn! If there’s a movie or TV show you want me to review, please make a donation to my Paypal account and let me know what you’d like me to review. I have another request coming up after I finish I, Claudius, so please be patient.

Want to Know More?

I, Claudius is available on Amazon, as is the combined I, Claudius pair of novels by Graves. They’re both highly recommended.

If you want to know more about Caligula, I recommend Anthony Barrett’s Caligula: The Corruption of PowerIt’s the best thing I’ve read on Gaius Caligula, and does a very good job sifting through the rather problematic sources on him.

Purchasing any of these is a small way to support my blog. Thanks!



I, Claudius: A Word about Names

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As I’ve commented before, films about ancient Rome always get the names wrong (or nearly always). Perhaps because it’s a TV show based on a novel drawn heavily from Roman sources, I, Claudius doesn’t butcher Roman naming conventions by just making up whatever nonsensical Roman-sounding names the screenwriter wants. So kudos to Robert Graves and Jack Pulman! But that doesn’t mean the show gets the names exactly right.

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Several of the characters are not referred to properly. To refresh your memory, upper-class Roman male names have three components: the praenomen, the nomen, and the cognomen. The praenomen was a man’s private, personal name, like the Western ‘first’ name. It was used by his family and his closest friends in private, but was not generally used publicly. His nomen was his clan’s name, essentially the Western ‘last’ name, and was the normal way to refer to a man in public. The cognomen was used to distinguish that specific man from the various other men who might have his praenomen and nomen. It was often a nickname based on a significant feature of his body (Ahenobarbus means ‘bronze-beard’, for example), but it could also be a reference to a personality trait or something else. A man’s cognomen sometimes became so strongly associated with him that it became hereditary, so that Ahenobarbus’ descendants would have that cognomen without having bronze beards. The Romans also sometimes granted men an agnomen, a name that indicated a great accomplishment; Scipio was granted the agnomen Africanus after defeated Carthage in the Second Punic War. Unlike cognomens, agnomens rarely became hereditary.

Claudius was not the emperor’s praenomen; it was his nomen. But throughout the series, his family refers to him as Claudius. This would be like everyone in my family called me ‘Mr. Larsen’ throughout my life. His nomen  was Tiberius, and that’s what his family called him. For example, Suetonius quotes several letters written between Augustus and Livia about the boy, and they consistently refer to him as Tiberius. However, it’s easy to see why the show does this. There’s already a Tiberius who’s an important character in the show, and Claudius is historically referred to by his nomen rather than his praenomen, so it would be confusing to viewers.

Several other characters are also referred to using names that it’s unlikely their families would have employed. Postumus was a traditional cognomen for men who were born after their father’s death. Marcus Agrippa Postumus would have been called Marcus, but the show already has a Marcus Agrippa and a Herod Agrippa, so clearly the show decided to call him by his cognomen so viewers wouldn’t be confused.

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John Castle as Postumus

The character the show calls Germanicus (played by David Robb) was probably born Nero Claudius Drusus, but all three of those names are used by other characters. Scholars aren’t clear what his actual birth name was, because the sources consistently use his agnomen Germanicus. His father referred to as both Nero Claudius Drusus and Drusus Claudius Nero and in the show simply as Drusus (Ian Ogilvy) received that agnomen for his conquests in the Rhineland. The Julio-Claudians had a tendency to treat agnomens as hereditary, and so Drusus’ son wound up with it as an agnomen. The sources pretty consistently call him Germanicus so that’s how the show names him, even though that probably isn’t how his family called him.

Something similar happens with Claudius’ son Tiberius Claudius Caesar. When Claudius’ troops conquered Britain, he was accorded the agnomen Britannicus. He turned it down for himself and awarded it to his son instead. The show calls this boy Britannicus, whereas his family probably called him Tiberius, although given that that was his father’s praenomen as well, they might have called him Britannicus simply to distinguish him from his dad.

In a rather different vein, the emperor Caligula’s full name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Caligula was actually an agnomen he picked up as a child. As a small child, he lived in his father Germanicus’ military camp, and Germanicus seems to have dressed him like a Roman soldier, including having child-sized military sandals, caligae, made for him. Caligula is a diminutive form of caliga, meaning literally ‘Little Boots’. It was a nickname the soldiers gave him, and as an adult, he despised it. In the series, everyone refers to him as Caligula. When he was a child, that’s plausible, but as an adult, it’s unlikely people called him that to his face, especially after he became emperor. But Caligula is how everyone thinks of him today so the show uses that. (I tend to think of him as Gaius Caligula.)

Probably the most egregious example of this happens with Castor (Kevin McNally), the son of Tiberius. His name was Drusus Julius Caesar. Castor was an agnomen he picked up in his early 20s when he got into an argument with someone and punched the name. The gods Castor and Pollux were associated with boxing, so Castor was a joking reference to that incident. But in the series, he’s called Castor even when he’s a young boy, long before he acquired the nickname. The obvious reason for this is that the show already has a Drusus.

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Kevin McNally’s Castor

The show makes a pretty reasonable set of choices here. Roman naming practices were getting pretty confusing by the early Principate; the Julio-Claudians repeatedly changed their names and the use of agnomens got somewhat out of hand because they were trying to emphasize how militarily successful they were. They also wanted to shoe-horn in the fact that they were legally descended from Julius Caesar and Augustus, because they wanted to draw on the popularity of those two. And the practice of emperors adopting their successors caused name changes as well. If the show had tried to be historically accurate with names, the viewers would have been bewildered. The fact that several characters had the same praenomen would also have led to confusion. And Caligula and Claudius are known by those names and not their praenomens. So I think the show has good justification for fiddling around with the names of its characters.

 

Want to Know More? 

I, Claudius is available on Amazon, as is the combined I, Claudius pair of novels by Graves. They’re both highly recommended.

Purchasing either of these is a small way to support my blog. Thanks!


I, Claudius: Hey, Kids! Let’s Restore the Republic!

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As I mentioned last time, the theme of I, Claudius is the tension between monarchy and republic. The show beautifully contrasts the immorality of the Principate with the supposed moral virtue of the Republic. But the whole theme of the series is fundamentally improbable.

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In the Show

 The first third of the series, the theme is expressed through the question of what will happen when Augustus dies. As Drusus (Ian Ogilvy) hopes, will Augustus (Brian Blessed) retire and allow the Republic to resume? As Livia (Sian Phillips) intends, will Tiberius (George Baker) succeed him? A few episodes later, Cassius Chaerea (Sam Dastor) and two colleagues plot to assassinate Caligula (John Hurt) and restore the Republic. But once they commit the killing, the Praetorian Guard seizes on Claudius (Derek Jacobi) to make him emperor, because without Claudius, they will lose their easy post and have to go back to normal legionary duty. The Senate starts to debate restoring the Republic, but once it’s clear that the Praetorians support Claudius the Senate has no choice except to yield.

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Ian Ogilvy as Drusus

In the second-last episode, Claudius’ wife Messalina (Sheila White) bigamously marries her lover Gaius Silius, who wants to use the marriage to overthrow Claudius and restore the Republic.

In the last several episodes, when Claudius is ruling as emperor, he formulates a plan to overthrow the Principate. He knows that the Sibyl has prophesied that Nero (Christopher Biggins) will succeed him, so he clears the way for it by marrying his niece Agrippina and adopting Nero. He knows that Nero and Agrippina are immoral and unfit to rule, but that’s his point. He wants Nero to be a tyrant, because that will make people eager to overthrow him. He tries to arrange for his son, Britannicus (Graham Seed), to be smuggled out to northern Britain so that when people turn against Nero, Britannicus can return, overthrow him and restore the Republic. But Britannicus refuses to go along with the plan because he wants to oppose Nero openly. After Claudius dies, the Sibyl appears to him and among other things tells him that Nero will execute Britannicus and that there will be many more emperors after Nero. The Republic is dead.

Throughout the show, as I noted, the Republic symbolizes moral virtue. All of the morally upright characters want the Republic back: Drusus, Postumus, Germanicus, Claudius, as well as a variety of secondary characters like Chaerea, all of whom wind up dead prematurely. Exactly what the Republic is or how it works is never clearly explained, but the show intends the audience to sympathize with it and to view the Principate as inherently evil and corrupt.

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Christopher Biggin’s Nero is a wild cliché of Bad Emperor tropes

However, nearly all of that is made up. There is no evidence that Drusus, Postumus, Germanicus, Gaius Silius, Chaerea, or even Claudius were particularly proponents of a return to the Republic. (See Correction) The only moment during the reign of the Julio-Claudian dynasty when there is any evidence for interest in restoring the Republic (so far as I know—classicists, please correct me if I’m wrong) came when Gaius Caligula was assassinated. Suetonius hints at the possibility when he says that right after Chaerea murdered Caligula, “the consuls with the senate and the city cohorts had taken possession of the Forum and the Capitol, resolved on maintaining the public liberty” (Suetonius, Life of Claudius 10), which seems to be a reference to restoring the Republic. Cassius Dio makes a more direct claim. “After the murder of Gaius the consuls despatched guards to every part of the city and convened the senate on the Capitol, where many and diverse opinions were expressed; for some favoured a democracy, some a monarchy, and some were for choosing one man, and some another.” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LX 1)

There are two notable points here. First, there is no evidence that Chaerea assassinated Caligula in a bid to restore the Republic. The sources all emphasize that his complaint was more personal. Suetonius tells us that he used to taunt Chaerea for being effeminate; he used to give Chaerea insulting watchwords like ‘Venus’ and ‘Priapus’ and make obscene gestures at the man. So Chaerea wanted to avenge slights against himself.

Second, if Cassius Dio is correct that there was a substantial debate in the Senate, it probably wasn’t because there was a burning desire for the Republic. Rather the issue was who would follow Caligula, because in 41 AD the Julio-Claudian dynasty was close to extinct. Augustus’ descendents through his daughter Julia were all dead except his great-granddaughter Agrippina and her four-year old son Nero. Tiberius’ son and grandson were dead as well, although a grand-daughter Julia Livia still survived. Tiberius’ brother Drusus’ living descendants were the aforementioned Agrippina and Nero, his son Claudius, and his daughter Julia Livilla. Nero was obviously too young to serve as emperor, and Claudius had little governing experience, was physically deformed (a clubfoot), and was widely reputed to be a moron. The debate must have turned on what to do if Claudius was unacceptable. Either the Senate could re-establish a Republic or it would have to choose a new ruling dynasty, which meant persuading most of the senators to accept someone other than themselves as the new emperor. In other words, it wasn’t so much yearning for the Republic as a lack of strong alternative candidates for the imperial office that made a restored Republic seem like a reasonable option. Then the Praetorian Guard solved the problem by proclaiming Claudius as emperor.

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Sam Dastor as Chaerea

Why Restoring the Republic Wasn’t an Option

The series opens in 24 BC, 7 years after the Battle of Actium, at which Augustus had defeated Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra and secured his stranglehold on Roman government. Depending on exactly when one wants to mark the start of the Principate, it began either in 31 BC or in 27 BC with the so-called First Settlement, when the Senate and people of Rome officially granted Augustus wide ruling powers. That means that the Republic has been gone for between 4 and 7 years at the start of the series. Claudius wasn’t born until 10 BC, about two decades after the end of the Republic. Augustus functionally became sole ruler in 31 BC and ruled until his death 14 AD. Of his successors, only Tiberius, who was born in 42 BC, was born during the Republic. His brother Drusus, born in 38 BC, is the only one of the series’ Republican characters who was born during the Republic. With the exception of Drusus, the Republican characters are all yearning for a Republic they have no personal experience of, and even Drusus can’t have remembered it well, since he was only 11 years old in 27 BC.

Graves and series screenwriter Jack Pulman suggest that the Republic was a healthy, dynamic institution until 31 BC and that Augustus must somehow have toppled it almost single-handedly. But that’s a long way from the truth. The Republic had been a moribund shell of its old system for some time when Antonius and Augustus led the final Republican civil war. In 43 BC, the Senate had formally voted to turn over the reins of government to the Second Triumvirate (Augustus, Antonius, and a colleague Lepidus), thus largely abrogating the normal rules of political power. The Second Triumvirate was preceded by Julius Casesar’s domination, which was barely challenged after 49 BC, and before that was the First Triumvirate, in which Caesar, Pompey Magnus, and Marcus Crassus manipulated the political system and elections behind the scenes starting around 60 BC. Elections were held normally through most of that period, but were either manipulated to produce dishonest results or else the elected officials were not given real political power. So if by Republic you mean something more than just a sham Republic with meaningless elections, then even Augustus, who was born in 63 BC, had no memory of the Republic.

One of the reasons the Republic collapsed was that it was a political system designed to run a city government (Rome’s) that had been stretched to run a Mediterranean empire without ever being overhauled properly to perform those functions. The system simply couldn’t contain the political pressures and ambitions that this new massive state unleashed, and the result was decades of civil war, electoral manipulation, and blatant violations of the Roman constitution; those were problems that were already evident in the 130s BC. The constant civil wars had brought the Roman populace to the brink of disaster, and by 31 BC, people were desperate for peace and stability. The civil wars also resulted in a gradual consolidation of political influence and wealth in increasingly fewer hands, so that by 31 BC, there really wasn’t anyone with the wealth or influence left to challenge Augustus. So if the Julio-Claudians suddenly disappeared, as they seemed to be on the brink of doing when Caligula was murdered, the Roman state might well have fallen into the resulting void.

No one wanted that. The Principate was very good for Rome economically, as peace and stability usually are. Later generations of historians painted the Julio-Claudians as degenerate monsters, but contemporaries don’t seem to have felt that way. One of the few contemporary chroniclers, Velleius Paterculus, knew Tiberius personally and has nothing but good things to say about him, although his praise is usually dismissed as obsequious flattery. Graves used Velleius’ History for facts, but borrowed none of the man’s pro-Tiberian rhetoric because it was at odds with the story he wanted to tell.

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Velleius Paterculus

So while the political theme of I, Claudius is very appealing to modern Western audiences who are highly sympathetic to representative government and who may worry about authoritarian rulers who shall remain nameless but whose initials are Donald Trump, the reality is that few Romans wanted a Republic anymore, none of them had any personal memory of a healthy Republic, and there was probably no way to actually recreate a republic anyway.

This post, and the others on I, Claudius was made possible by a very generious donation from a regular reader. Thanks, Lyn! If there’s a movie or TV show you want me to review, please make a donation to my Paypal account and let me know what you’d like me to review. I have another request coming up after I finish I, Claudius, so please be patient.

 

Correction: After writing this post, I ran across a reference that Suetonius makes to a letter in which Drusus discussed the possibility of restoring the Republic with Tiberius. Although Suetonius goes into no detail about the letter, there is at least some factual basis for the idea that Drusus might have disliked the idea of Principate.

 

Want to Know More?

I, Claudius is available on Amazon, as is the combined I, Claudius pair of novels by Graves. They’re both highly recommended.

Cassius Dio’s fragmentary Roman History is available on Kindle quite cheaply. Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars is another vital source for the Julio-Claudians. Both men are quite hostile to the Julio-Claudians and strongly influenced Graves’ narrative. If you want to see what someone who liked the early Caesars had to say, read Velleius Paterculus’ Roman History.

Purchasing any of these is a small way to support my blog. Thanks!





I, Claudius: Republic vs Monarchy

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One of the major themes in I, Claudius is the tension between the concept of the Roman Republic and the reality of the new Roman monarchy. It comes up in every episode in some form or another. But there are major problems with the way the series handles the issue.

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The End of the Republic

Before we can see what’s wrong with the series’ approach to the issue, we need to look at what was actually happening in Roman history. The last century of the Roman Republic witnessed the state in the process of slow collapse. The causes of the collapse of the Republic are extremely complex. Starting in 133 BC, there were repeated violations of the Republic’s constitution; a man was only supposed to hold office for one year and was not allowed to stand for office while holding one, but increasingly men were illegally re-elected to offices they currently held. Soldiers gave their loyalty to their generals rather than to the Roman state, and that enabled ambitious generals to wage civil war in pursuit of political aims; civil wars happened nearly every decade, and sometimes more than once in a decade. Political factions tore Rome apart in pursuit of mutually opposing goals. Perhaps the ultimate cause was that the Republic was really only meant to govern one city, but had been increasingly stretched to govern the whole Mediterranean basin, and eventually the system simply couldn’t endure the political pressures on it; imagine the mayor and city council of Chicago serving as the government for the entire United States.

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Julius Caesar

In 44 BC, Julius Caesar appeared to emerged as victor in the brutal Hunger Games of the Late Republic. But Caesar was a man of such blatant ambition that once he was truly ascendant, he was unable to conceal what looked to contemporaries a desire to become a king. The Republic was established to prevent the emergence of a new king, and while the Republic as a system was so moribund as to be non-functional, there was still a deep antipathy of the concept of a king; eastern peoples had kings, but Rome had elected consuls. Eventually Caesar’s close friends came to the conclusion that his ambition was a threat to theirs; the result was his infamous murder at the hands of several close friends.

His heir was his adoptive great-nephew Octavian, who fought several more civil wars before his final triumph over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. That victory left Octavian the unchallenged ruler of the Roman state. There was simply no one who could practically challenge him. But that had been Caesar’s situation as well, and when Caesar accordingly acted like a king, it got him murdered. So Octavian was left with a conundrum. He was unquestionably the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, but he could not admit to being the sole ruler without running the very real risk that he would be assassinated. So he had to find another way to rule.

Octavian (or as the Senate renamed him, Augustus) adopted the approach of claiming that he had ‘restored the Republic.’ Instead of inventing new titles and offices like Caesar’s perpetual dictatorship, he preferred to employ traditional Republican ones. He was named princeps (loosely, translated as ‘first citizen’, a traditional honor given to the longest-serving senator) and imperator (roughly, ‘one with the power to command’), another traditional title; from these two words we get the terms ‘prince’ and ‘emperor’, but crucially these words did not carry any suggestion of royalty, the way they do for us today. Rather than disrespecting the Senate, as Caesar had done, Augustus consisted treated the Senate with a great deal of respect, frequently asking for their advice. After several years of monopolizing the consulship, he realized that this was thwarting the ambitions of prominent men, so he stopped having himself elected consul so that others could enjoy the honor. Although he had been granted wide legal powers, he generally preferred to operate through traditional Republican officials, to maintain the illusion that the Republic was running as it always had.

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Augustus

In reality, however, Augustus ran the Roman state as he willed. The senators understood that they were no longer truly in charge and evidently appreciated being allowed to remain as prominent figures without much true power. After decades of civil war, they must have been desperate for a man who could truly guarantee peace and stability. Augustus eviscerated the inner workings of the Republic but kept its exterior for show; having gutted the Republic, he was walking around wearing its skin and claiming that the Republic had been restored to health with his help. He created a system modern historians call the Principate, a system in which the man in charge pretended he was nothing more than the ‘first citizen’ of Rome.

Such, at least, is the traditional picture of Augustus. That’s the version I learned as an undergraduate and it’s the version I teach to my students. But in the past generation, some historians have argued that perhaps the truth is more complicated. They point to the fact that much of our information about Augustus and his immediate successors is drawn from 2nd century AD historians such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, all of whom were writing with the knowledge of what the Principate looked like a century after its establishment. These historians argue that perhaps Augustus was serious about reviving the Republic but that the system was too moribund to be salvageable as anything more than a fiction. They note the very considerable continuities between the Republic and the Principate, such as its legal system and the major officials.

I’m not enough of a Classicist to go into much detail about this revisionist approach to the early Principate, so I’ll just leave it as a note that there is some debate among modern historians about exactly what Augustus thought he was doing. Whether Augustus was serious about reviving the Republic or if he was just cynically disguising his intentions, one thing is clear, he was not ruling openly as a monarch. He consistently avoided most of the trapping of monarchy in his day, such as a crown or a throne. Unlike kings, he did not dress in purple clothing; he preferred to dress simply, And he consistently refused to let the Romans worship him as a living god, because that was an honor demanded by Hellenistic kings in the eastern Mediterranean. He adopted a variety of dodges, such as allowing the dedication of temples to ‘Rome and Augustus’, but open worship as a living god was too strongly associated with kings for Augustus to be comfortable with it, even though he allowed the Senate to deify his dead adoptive father.

The Principate in I, Claudius

In I, Claudius, however, Augustus (Brian Blessed) and the members of his household talk plainly about the Republic being dead and discuss the Principate as a monarchy. In the first episode, Tiberius (George Baker) directly asks Drusus “do you think the monarchy will survive Augustus?” His brother Drusus (Ian Ogilvy) replies that Rome will be a Republic again. There is a great deal of discussion about the line of succession, with everyone assuming that it will follow biological order, the way it might in a monarchy. Drusus and Livia explicitly discuss Augustus as a monarch.

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Blessed as Augustus

In the same episode, Julia wonders why her father puts up with the Senate at all, and Livia (Sian Phillips) replies that Augustus ‘observes the forms’ and that the Romans like to think they govern themselves. She’s exactly right about this, but it’s virtually the only hint the series gives about the historical Augustus’ strategy for governing. Julia’s response is that the younger generation don’t care about such things.

After Marcellus dies, a mob forms outside Augustus’ house. Livia confronts it, shouting “What do you want? The Republic? The Republic is all humbug!…You’re all crying for the moon!” Such a blatant statement that the Republic was dead was exactly the sort of thing that Augustus would not have permitted, and the historical Livia certainly understood that.

The Senate is treated as being a bunch of largely useless fools and in one scene Augustus’ wife Livia summons a senior senator and simply gives him orders. Since Livia had no official role in Roman government, the idea that she would boldly gives orders to key senators is rather improbable. Livia certainly was a powerful woman, and she took some of the work of governing off Augustus’ shoulders, but not in such a blunt and obvious way. That sort of disrespectful treatment of senators was exactly the sort of thing that Augustus knew he needed to avoid.

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Phillips as Livia

Repeatedly, the good characters in I, Claudius talk about bringing back the Republic. Drusus is openly in favor of a Republic and encourages Augustus to retire. Postumus (John Castle) and Germanicus (David Robb) are both portrayed as favoring a return to the Republic, and Claudius (Derek Jacobi) consistently expresses Republican sentiments, including grooming his son Britannicus to lead an overthrown of Nero and restore the Republic. There’s absolutely no evidence that any of these men felt this way; it’s entirely the invention of Graves and the show’s screenwriters.

Much of the plot of the first third of the show revolves around the question of Augustus’ successor, and, as I noted, the series approaches this question as if it’s obvious that Augustus’ office will pass by simple hereditary succession following something like primogeniture. In the first episode, the order of succession is Marcellus (Augustus’ nephew and adopted son), followed by his sons Gaius and Lucius, and then Tiberius, the son of his wife. But actual Roman law was rather more complicated than that. Roman law made a man’s heirs his sons and daughters in equal shares, as well as his son’s children, but not his daughter’s children. But the law made no distinction between biological sons and adopted ones. So in fact, Tiberius was not in the line of inheritance at all, because he was not adopted by Augustus until 4 AD, after Marcellus, Gaius, and Lucius were all dead, whereas Julia would have been in the line of succession, had there been such a thing.

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Jacobi as Young Claudius

I say ‘had there been such a thing’ because all of this assumes that the Principate was a form of property that would pass to Augustus’ heirs the way kingship would pass to a son. However, Augustus’ approach to governing involved denying that he held any special office. His governing powers were not rooted in a specific office but were rather cobbled together in an ad hoc fashion to meet his needs. There was no way to pass these powers on to an heir. This was, in fact, the biggest flaw in Augustus’ system. How could he pass on an office he couldn’t admit to holding? Over the course of his reign, Augustus’ solution to this was to build up a chosen man in prominence through office-holding and military service; then he adopted the man so that the man would inherit his wealth and his family name. So his strategy was to promote the man without explicitly designating him as a political successor. The problem that he encountered is that his chosen successors kept dying: Marcellus, Agrippa, Lucius, and Gaius. As we’ll discuss in a later post, Graves’ approach to this is that Livia was systematically murdering all of Augustus’ possible heirs until he finally settled on Tiberius, and then murdering anyone who might be an obstacle to that succession.

So the series’ approach to Augustus’ rule is mostly wrong. Perhaps his family might have privately spoken about Augustus as if he were a king, but they would certainly have known that he wasn’t a king and that his rule was based on a constitutional fiction that would collapse if it was openly discussed. Augustus’ system is hard to explain, and it’s understandable that the series decided to simplify it for the viewers, but they simplified it in a way that misrepresents how the system worked.

Want to Know More? 

I, Claudius is available on Amazon, as is the combined I, Claudius pair of novels by Graves.

There are many excellent biographies of Augustus. One good one is Adrian Goldsworthy’s Augustus.

Buying items through these links is one way to support this blog, since I get a small percentage of the sale. Another option to support me is to donate through Paypal. This series of posts was commissioned by someone who made a generous donation and asked me to review I, Claudius. So if there’s a film or tv show you’d liked to get my thoughts on, please donate and let me know what you’d like me to review.



I, Claudius: First Comments

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As I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents were devotees of Masterpiece Theater, which ran a seemingly endless series of BBC costume dramas. We only had one tv set (apart from a crappy little black and white set that lived in the kitchen), so I watched what they watched: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, Upstairs Downstairs, and I, Claudius. I think those shows played a big role in teaching me to love history. By the time I Claudius rolled around, I was old enough to have some real understanding of what was going on. It was my first introduction to Roman history, and I confess that whenever I think of Augustus, Livia, Caligula, and Claudius, I still tend to picture Brian Blessed, Sian Phillips, John Hurt, and Derek Jacobi. I watched the show again when I was in college and had studied some Roman history, so I appreciated it more. And over the years, I’ve thought about watching it again, now that I’ve had a chance to dig further into Roman history.

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So I was incredibly excited when a reader of this blog made a very generous donation to my Paypal account and asked me to review I, Claudius. Last night as I sat down to watch the first episode, I felt a thrill of childhood nostalgia as the brash, jarring opening music played and a serpent slithered across a portrait of the Emperor Claudius. So my next couple of posts will be about this classic look at Rome’s first emperors.

The show has a lot to recommend it. The cast is excellent and one of the joys of the series is spotting actors you know for elsewhere, like Patrick Stewart, John Rhys-Davies, Simon McCorkindale, Bernard Hill (Theoden in the the Lord of the Rings movies), Kevin McNally (from the Pirates of the Caribbean series), Patricia Quinn (of Rocky Horror fame), John Castle (from my favorite movie ever), Patsy Byrne (Nursie in the second season of Blackadder), and someone from damn near every episode of Doctor Who ever made. The script is rich and complex, the characters fully-realized, and the story combines the emotional complexity of a family drama with the high melodrama of political intrigue. This show has everything: scheming, adultery, false accusations of rape, murder, poisonings, insanity, betrayal, incest… It’s everything American soap operas hope to be, but done much better and solidly based in historical fact.

The series is based on Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, published n 1934 and 35. Graves was a celebrated poet, novelist, and non-fiction author; his White Goddess exercised a profound influence on the nascent neo-pagan revival, his collect of Greek myths still sells well, and his translation of the Latin classic The Golden Ass remains one of the best. The two I, Claudius novels, however, represent his greatest work; they still rank high on the list of the best English-language novels ever.

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Robert Graves

The novels purport to be the autobiography of the Emperor Claudius (41-54AD). According to the conceit, after Claudius became emperor he decided to write his autobiography to reveal all the sordid truths about his extended family and predecessors, the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But a sibyl prophesied to him that the book would not be read for 1900 years. The scenario is less preposterous than it sounds, since Claudius was actually an historian and is known to have written an autobiography, although none of his writings have survived.

Graves’ books and the tv series are heavily based on three major narrative sources for the first century, the Annals and Histories of Tacitus, the 12 Caesars of Suetonius, and the Roman History of Cassius Dio. While there are other sources for the Julio-Claudian dynasty, these three sources give the most sustained narratives for the period. Graves’ novels draw heavily from the stories these three authors tell, but he fills in a lot of blank spots with his own invention to create a fiction that draws heavily from historical sources.

One of Graves’ concerns with these novels was to liberate historical novels with the self-conscious archaizing that was so common in 19th century historical novels. His characters don’t use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and other such old-fashioned language meant to convey a sense of the seriousness and importance of the past. Instead, his characters speak in common 20th-century English, employing contemporary idioms, to communicate a sense that the past felt like the present to those who lived it. So, for example, early in the series, Augustus comments that he wants some information ‘chapter and verse’. That’s a reference to the division of the Bible into verses, which was done in the 13th century by Archbishop Stephen Langton, so there’s no way Augustus could have used such a phrase. But the anachronism works because it makes Augustus seem like a contemporary of the reader, which was Graves’ whole point.

However, Graves used his sources very uncritically. His goal was to create a satisfying fictional story, not a truly accurate historical piece of work. The major problem with the three Roman authors is that all three were writing in the 2nd century AD, long after the establishment of the imperial office, and none of them were fans of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Tacitus provides the most coherent narrative but consistently speculates in negative ways about his subjects. Suetonius had access to the imperial archives and therefore probably had the best source of information, but was deeply hostile to the emperors, was happy to rely on sources like drinking songs and obscene graffiti, and generally twisted his material to present his subjects in the worst possible light. Dio’s narrative is much more removed from the events, since he was writing at the end of the 2nd century AD, and large portions of it have not survived; he also made a lot of factual mistakes.

The result is a rather lurid story about these men and women, but one that is probably not really true in its essence, despite being rooted in historical sources. While Graves was interested in history, he was far more interested in getting to what he considered the higher poetic truths behind the facts. In the next several posts, we’ll look at some of the problems with I, Claudius’ version of events.

The Eagle: The Interview

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As I promised previously, it’s time for an interview that I had the pleasure of doing by email with Lindsay Allason-Jones, who worked as the historical consultant on The Eagle (2011, dir. Kevin McDonald).

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Lindsay Allason-Jones is the founder and former director of the Cluster for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies at Newcastle University, as well as a Visiting Reader at Newcastle.  (For those not familiar with British universities, a ‘reader’ is the equivalent of a full professor at an American university.) She is a specialist in the archaeology of Roman Britain, and was thus a very good choice to consult on The Eagle, whose director was serious about trying to by historically accurate with the film.

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Lindsay Allason-Jones

So let’s get to the interview (which has been edited for readability).

An Historian: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I’ve wanted for some time to interview someone who’s worked as a historical consultant, and The Eagle impressed me as demonstrating more attention to detail than a lot of films set in the Roman Empire. How did you wind up as the historical consultant for The Eagle?

Allason-Jones: The director, producer and script writer came up north to see if it was possible to film on Hadrian’s Wall – sadly it proved to have changed too much for this to be viable – and met me in the old Museum of Antiquities where I was director. We had a general chat and I thought no more about it until I was contacted a few months later and asked if I would be the formal advisor.

H: What did your actual work as the consultant look like? Were they calling you up with questions, or having you on-set to give advice?

A-J: I was first sent a typescript of the film and asked to check it out for inaccuracies. My blue pen became very blunt pretty quickly! This wasn’t the script writer’s fault but was due to the fact that Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel was 50 years old and written by someone who wasn’t up to date even then with archaeological thought. Example: RS had her hero Marcus, a centurion, in charge of a fortress; a Roman fortress had 5,500 soldiers in it whilst a centurion would only have been in charge of 80 men. Also, at the time the action was supposed to be taking place, there would have been no fortresses in the south west. We got round this by inventing a (plausible) look-out post in the Severn estuary.

I had hoped I would get to visit the set but most of the filming was in Hungary and Newcastle University wasn’t keen to let me wander off in my busiest teaching period so I never got on set. The Director’s assistant, Ben, and I corresponded by e-mail and telephone and I would send what I hoped was useful bumf about what things would have looked like and how people would have behaved for the costumiers etc.

H: Is there a detail in the film that you feel particularly pleased about—something that you got them to include or that you felt that the film got just right?

A-J: I was particularly pleased with the milecastle on Hadrian’s Wall. When I worked out the approximate timescale when the action took place I realised that Hadrian’s Wall had been largely abandoned and the frontier was up on the Antonine Wall. Rosemary Sutcliff clearly hadn’t realise that and it would have been very confusing for the audience to introduce the idea of two walls but I persuaded them to make Hadrian’s Wall look really scruffy and any guards on duty obviously low grade troops and that they did very nicely.

H: Was there any thing you were disappointed about—something that they chose not to follow you recommendation on or that you wished they had done differently?

A-JThere were two things I said very firmly at the beginning – no togas and no stirrups (the Romans didn’t use stirrups) so I was a bit cross when togas were worn by some actors and the two lead actors had stirrups – although you had to look very carefully to see they did. When I told Jeremy off for these faults he said that re: togas, when early rushes of the film were shown to an American focus group they said they didn’t know who were the Romans and who the Brits if they all just wore tunics. Re: stirrups, apparently both the leads had to learn to ride for the film and the insurance company wouldn’t let them on a horse without stirrups, despite the fact that it almost impossible to fall out of a Roman saddle! I was very entertained by both these arguments.They are also examples of how practical matters often get in the way of historical accuracy in making a film.

Some of the armour was a bit odd as well but that was because it’s, apparently, not usual to invest in new armour for all the cast of a film as that is prohibitively expensive, so you have to use whatever is already at your preferred costumiers. I have since discovered that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and Sid James and Fenella Fielding in Carry On Cleo were wearing the same costumes!

Occasionally there were a few glitches – there is definitely a 4th century brooch being worn two centuries too soon but I suspect I’m the only person to have spotted that, whilst the tableware at the Governor’s palace at the end of the film is spot on.

H: Do you have any fun stories you’d like to share about your experience?

What I found fascinating was that when a film is finished it is handed over to another firm to sell it and promote it. At this stage I found I had to start all over again explaining the difference between a legionary and an auxiliary, etc. The distribution company wanted to produce a leaflet for schoolchildren, which I was asked to check. This included the wonderful line that ‘a Roman legionary carried a gladiolus’! I was very tempted to leave that in as the idea of Roman soldiers going into battle waving their gladdies in the air like Edna Everage appealed, but I did change it to gladius after a wrestle with my conscience.

People have since asked me why film people, having decided to make a film of a book because they like the book, then change it. In the case of The Eagle there were several details that had to be changed because they were completely wrong or would have disturbed a modern audience (Marcus’s relationship with the little girl would have seemed unsettling today) but other things I have no idea why they changed them. In particular, the beheading scene was not necessary and simply ensured that the age group the book had been written for couldn’t see the film, which struck me as ridiculous on so many levels.

I enjoyed the experience and it was lovely to see how my students enjoyed seeing the film with me – as one of them said, it is rare for a student to be able to be involved in a lecturer’s research in that way. They al stood up and cheered when my name appeared I the credits, which I was very touched by though it rather confused the rest of the audience.

H: How important do you think historical accuracy in film is? Did you work as a consultant influence the way you understand depicting the past on film?

A-J: I think it is imperative that films don’t try to change history as this misleads people. However, the odd detail being wrong probably doesn’t matter as much as long as it isn’t so obvious it detracts from the audience’s enjoyment because it is distracting.

I enjoyed myself and would do it again because, no matter how many books I write or lectures I give, I can’t reach as many people as a film, particularly one as popular as this one, and I believe that academics need to make their knowledge widely available.

H: Thank you so much for such detailed answers!

Hidden Figures: Laudable Lies

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I know that I promised my next post would be with the historical consultant for The EagleBut I just saw Hidden Figures (2016, dir. Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) and I really wanted to get my thoughts about it down in blog form. So I promise I’ll get to the interview in my next post.

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Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning on seeing this movie, you may want to put off reading this, since I talk about major plot points.

Hidden Figures tells the fascinating story of three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s. All three were originally hired to work as ‘computers’, women who did the low-status work of laborious mathematical calculating and double-checking the work of higher status male scientists in the era before the birth of electronic computers. Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematician whose calculations proved invaluable to the launch of the Atlas rocket that made John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is the head of the ‘Western’ Computing group, a group of African-American female computers kept separate from the ‘Eastern’ Computing group, who were white women; realizing that her job will eventually be made obsolete by the arrival of an IBM computer, Vaughan teaches herself Fortran and becomes an expert in computers. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) pursues her ambition of being an engineer for NASA.

All three women encounter racist obstacles at NASA. Jackson struggles with the fact that the only bathroom African-American women can use is located literally half a mile away on the Langley campus where she works, forcing her to take extended breaks simply to use the bathroom and thereby drawing the ire of the division head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Vaughan is long overdue for a promotion; she has been acting as the supervisor of the Western Computing group, but hasn’t been given the title or the pay of a supervisor, and the woman she reports to, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) doesn’t seem to care. Jackson needs to take night classes in order to apply for the engineering position, but the only school that offers such classes is segregated, and she has to persuade a judge to allow her to attend the classes.

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Monáe, Henson, and Spencer

Ultimately, all three overcome their obstacles. Jackson repeatedly demonstrates her invaluableness to Harrison, who increasingly bends the rules to allow her to participate in the work of getting Glenn safely into space and back. Vaughan masters the newly-installed IBM computer before anyone else, and then teaches the other members of the Western Computing group how to work with it, thus saving all of their jobs and giving them a future on the cutting edge of computer science. This convinces Mitchell to arrange Vaughn’s over-due promotion. Jackson persuades the judge to let her attend the night school classes she needs and by the end of the film is on her way to becoming an engineer.

The story is well-told all around. The script is funny and does a good job of making the mathematical problems of early space flight intelligible to a general audience. The performances are all solid, especially Henson’s. And the costume designer does a very subtle job of highlighting the exclusion of African-American women from NASA; the white men tend to vanish into a sea of identical white dress shirts and dark ties, while the black women stand out in demur but colorful skirts and blouses, highlighting the absence of ‘colored’ people whenever they’re not around.

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Katherine Johnson

The story it tells is an important one. These three women all played important roles at NASA and made major contributions to American space exploration for several decades. Their story deserves to be told, and it’s exciting to see the movie do so amazingly well at the box office. All too often, American history is presented as the accomplishments of white men, and Hidden Figures does a good job of reminding us that women of color have made great contributions to the country as well. It’s particularly nice to see a biopic about African-Americans who aren’t entertainers or athletes. These women are important not because they’re pretty or can sing, but because they’re smart. And the film confronts the problems of segregation head-on, particularly in Johnson and Jackson’s storylines. Americans need a reminder of just how ugly and unjust segregation and Jim Crow were.

The problem with the film is that in the pursuit of its goal of highlighting the struggles these three women had with segregation and racism, it significantly misrepresents what was going on at NASA in the 60s.

NACA and NASA

The organization we think of NASA began life in 1915 as NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It existed until 1958, when it was shut down and replaced with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NACA began hiring African-Americans to work as computers already in 1941, but like many branches of the American government in the period, NACA was segregated. It had a system of bathrooms, cafeterias, and other facilities for whites, and less well-maintained parallels for blacks.

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Henson as Johnson solving a problem involving the space capsule

However, when NASA was formed in 1958, it wasn’t segregated. For example, NASA abandoned the system of segregated bathrooms, even though many of its properties were carried over from NACA. The story about Johnson having to run back and forth between buildings to use the bathrooms is actually a story that Jackson told about NACA in the 1950s. In the film, Johnson has to make several bathroom trips, once in the rain, trying to do her calculating work on the toilet so as not to fall too far behind in her work. Finally, when she breaks down and complains to Harrison, Harrison angrily goes out and uses a crowbar to tear down the sign labelling a particular bathroom as being for colored women. It’s a great scene that produces cheers in the audience, but it’s simply untrue.

Similarly, Vaughan was denied the supervisory position she deserved for some time, but that was during the 1950s. By the time the film opens in 1961, Vaughan had already been a supervisor for 3 years. Jackson was offered a position in an engineering team and then had to find a way to get into those classes, whereas the film suggests that she is kept from applying for the position because Mitchell is somewhat racist and unwilling to bend on the rules. So far as I can determine, the film consistently projects the segregation of 1950s NACA half a decade backwards onto 1960s NASA.

NASA in the 1960s was actually a tool for desegregation. Already when he was the Senate Majority leader, Lyndon Johnson saw NASA as a way to advance African Americans by hiring and promoting them into better-paying and more respectable positions. It’s no coincidence that NASA desegregated in 1958; Johnson was the head of the subcommittee that oversaw the passage of government act that created the agency.

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Morgan Watson, NASA’s first black engineer

Katherine Johnson herself denied experiencing the treatment the film shows her receiving. “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research…You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job…and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.” Likewise, Jackson only recalled one instance in which she felt disrespected, and the man involved subsequently apologized when he realized that he was in the wrong.

So by painting early 1960s NASA as a strongly segregated environment, the film is somewhat unfairly tarring NASA for NACA’s failings, and denying NASA’s modest role in helping advance the interests of African-Americans. The real racism that the women experienced in this period seems to have been from the communities around Langley. Vaughn had difficulties find a place to stay. In the 1960s, many of the black male engineers encountered threats and violence from the white locals, and one white NASA employee was so badly injured and threatened that he left NASA entirely. Had it chosen to, the film could have made its point more honestly by contrasting the comparatively accepting environment of NASA with the much more racist environment beyond its gates.

Racism or Sexism?

The more I think about the film and read about the background, the more I find myself thinking that the real problem Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson experienced wasn’t so much racism (although they clearly did encounter some of that) but sexism. Consistently, there is a pattern of the men doing the important, high-status work (such as figuring out the physics of space flight and designing the capsules) while the women (both black and white) are relegated to the low-status work of computing, even though the film makes clear that doing so is a waste of their talents, especially Johnson’s. Apart from Johnson, the only other woman in the Space Task group, Ruth, appears to be a secretary, and there are no women at all in the engineering group that Jackson is involved in.

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Dorothy Vaughan

Johnson repeatedly insists that she needs to be involved in the key meetings where decisions are made, because excluding her means that she has to wait to get the data she needs, which often renders her work obsolete by the time she’s finished it. She persuades Harrison to bend the rules for her to sit in on briefings with the Air Force, and eventually he invites her into Mission Control when Glenn’s flight happens (a decision that the film claims probably saved Glenn’s life). The issue here is not that she’s African-American, but that she’s a woman and the men around her are uncomfortable with her presence.

While the film suggests that the white computers earned more than the black computers, the truth is that the two groups were paid the same, but that their pay was 40% less than the equivalent male pay, even during the NACA period.

So I think that the real problem with the film, at least for me, is that it was trying too hard to make its point about segregation, a point it could only make by misrepresenting the degree of segregation at NASA. Instead, the real story in the material seems to be the way that NASA was excluding women of talent from important roles. Their obstacles were clearly intersectional, involving both their race and their gender, but the film discourages us from thinking too much about gender by highlighting a simultaneous divide of gender and race; the scientists and engineers are all white men and the computers almost entirely black women (the exception being Vivian, who leads the white female computers, but who is never shown making any intellectual contributions to the project and who mostly acts as an administrative obstacle to Vaughn). The result is that whenever gender emerges as an issue, race is almost always there at the same time. There is one scene when Johnson’s future husband (an African-American) makes a sexist remark, but that’s almost the only moment when gender is highlighted as an issue. So the film tends to subsume gender issues under race issues in a way that makes it hard for the audience to see the gender component of the problem.

None of this makes Hidden Figures a bad movie, merely a movie that privileges its message over the facts. It tells an important story that people need to know. I just wish it had been a bit more honest with the facts.

(I feel a need to point out that I’m not a specialist in either American history or NASA history. I’m basing my comments on information I’ve been able to dig up online, and it’s possible that I’ve missed evidence that NASA was a more segregated environment than I realize. I’m certainly not suggesting that NASA was magically free of racism in the 1960s. It clearly wasn’t. I’m sure that these women encountered many obstacles due to their race, but they weren’t the specific obstacles the film offers.)

 

CorrectionAn earlier version of this post described John Glenn as the first American in space. I should have written that he was the first American to orbit the Earth, since Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom both flew high enough to be in what is defined as space prior to Glenn’s flight, but neither of them achieved orbit. I regret the mistake. Thanks to T Rosenzveig for catching it!

 

Want to Know More?

Hidden Figures is still in the theaters, so it’s not available on Amazon. However, if you want to do some reading about these women, their story is told in Hidden Figures, by Mary Lee Shetterly. Another book about them is Sue Bradford Edwards’ Hidden Human Computers. Richard Paul and Steven Moss’s We Could Not Fail discusses the history of African-Americans in the space program.

Finally, you could look at Steven Moss’s unpublished master’s thesis, NASA and Racial Equality in the South, 1961-1968, which is available online.


The Eagle: Roman Scotland

My previous post on The Eagle (2011, dir. Kevin McDonald) took issue with the film’s terrible prologue text. So let’s look at the film itself and see what there is to say about it.

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The Eagle’s plot focuses on Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), and for once a Hollywood film gets the Roman names right. His father was the commander of the ill-fated 9th Legion, lost in Scotland a generation before. Initially, he wants to make up his family’s dishonor through military service, but in a battle with the Celts he suffers a leg injury that leads to his honorable discharge. So he decides to travel into Scotland seeking the lost Eagle Standard of the 9th Legion. He is accompanied only by Esca (Jamie Bell), a slave that he rescued from a gladiatorial fight.

Once they are north of Hadrian’s Wall, Marcus becomes heavily dependant on Esca, who can communicate with the Picts when Marcus can’t. Eventually they discover that the Seal People have the Eagle. The Seal People chieftain (Ned Dennehy) welcomes Esca, who claims that Marcus is his slave. Esca figures out where the Eagle is kept and they steal it, but in the process they slay the chieftain and must flee back toward the Wall, pursued by the Prince of the Seal People (Tahar Rahim) and their warriors.

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Tatum as Marcus

When it looks like the will be overtaken, Esca manages to find the survives of the 9th Legion, who have been living among the Picts. He persuades them to stand and fight for their lost honor, and this motley army manages to deal the Prince of the Seal People and the other warriors, thus enabling Marcus and Esca to return the Eagle Standard to the Roman authorities.

The film has a simple plot, and despite the somewhat improbable final battle, the film works as a modest story of a man recovering his family’s honor through a single brave deed. It doesn’t try to be more than it is, and it avoids the grandiosity that so many action films have these days. A particularly effective sub-plot is the relationship between Marcus and Esca, who begin as master and slave, then have that relationship literally inverted, before finally become friends. Esca’s loyalty to the man who saved his life is a familiar film trope, but it works here perhaps because the source material is a Young Adult novel; the earnestness of the moral point feels genuine, and Bell does an excellent job with his character’s evolution. Tatum’s modest acting skills actually work to his advantage here; he conveys the appropriate Roman Stoicism nicely.

What’s North of the Wall?

In the film, the people north of the Wall are referred to in passing as the Picts, but other than that, the film doesn’t identify them, and its clear that the Seal People are just one tribe in the region. The Seal People dress differently from the other peoples Marcus and Esca talk to; in particular their warriors coat their bodies with some sort of mud or brownish body paint.

Historically, as I’ve discussed before, the people living in what is today Scotland in the 2nd century were not Picts, but rather Caledonians. The exact relationship between the Caledonians and the later Picts is unclear (since neither was a literate people, and the Romans wrote about them only in passing), but Pictish society may have emerged out of a collapsed Caledonian society. But the term Picti (Latin for ‘painted ones’) only occurs in the later 3rd century. In the 2nd century, soldiers at Hadrian’s Wall used the term Brittunculi (roughly, ‘nasty little Britons’).

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The Seal Prince (Rahim) threatening Marcus while Esca watches

So the film is, like all films about Roman Scotland, simplifying by projecting Pictish society back in time a little bit. But at least these Picts aren’t painting themselves blue the way most cinematic Scottish people do.

Another problem with the film’s depiction of Caledonia/Pictland/Scotland (for convenience, I’ll just call it Scotland) is that once the characters pass Hadrian’s Wall, they are in a sparsely-inhabited wilderness where no one knows Latin at all, thus making Marcus rely on Esca’s knowledge of the Celtic language.

There are a couple issues here. First, the film finesses the language issue a bit. We don’t know what language the Picts spoke. Scholars have debated whether Pictish was a branch of the Celtic language or a totally unrelated indigenous language. Esca is a Brigantes, the Celtic tribe in northern England, so if Pictish was a branch of Gaelic it’s reasonable to assume that he could have muddled his way through simple conversations with people who spoke a related language. But if Pictish was unrelated to Gaelic, it’s less plausible. But the film does a decent job of trying to handle the language issue. The Seal People speak modern Scots and Irish Gaelic, and the film went to the trouble to casting actors who actually know those languages rather than just giving them a dialect coach.

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As I’ve mentioned before, skin-tight leather wasn’t a thing back then

Another problem is that the film is set in the 140s, about 20 years after the 9th Legion’s supposed destruction. But in the 140s and 150s, the Romans were attempting the occupation of southern Scotland, so that Hadrian’s Wall would not have been the Roman frontier at all, and it is likely that people north of the Antonine Wall (the new frontier) would have been more familiar with the Romans than this film suggests. And Scotland wouldn’t have been desolate and unoccupied as the film suggests.

But we can probably forgive these mistakes. Explaining that Britain had two Roman frontier walls would have been more complicated than it was worth. The film never directly explains the geography. It’s unclear just how far north Marcus and Esca go before they find the Seal People, although the geography suggests northern Scotland (and in fact the film used a location in northwestern Scotland for the Seal People village).

If you analyze it too closely, the geography doesn’t really work. The 9th Legion marched into Scotland and got wiped out in an ambush by the tribes in the region. This seems likely to have happened somewhere in southern Scotland—how could they have marched all the way north without encountering resistance and only then get ambushed? But if they were ambushed in southern Scotland, why were the Seal People involved? The surviving Romans appear to be living 1-2 days south of where the Seal People live, suggesting that Marcus and Esca traveled the length of Scotland and barely ran into anyone on the way, but if Scotland is that depopulated, it seems unlikely that there were enough Picts to annihilate a whole legion of about 5,000 men. But that’s a small quibble. The film is compressing geography for the sake of story, and that’s entirely reasonable.

One very nice touch is that the film gets the difference between Roman and Celtic fighting systems correct in the two battle scenes it shows. The Romans are heavily armored and employ complex tactics like the testudo, whereas the Celts are essentially naked and rely on swarming the enemy and using raw fury to overpower their opponents. This explains why a small Roman force is able to prevail over a much larger group of enemies. Unlike in most historical action films, armor actually has protective value and brute force doesn’t win the day.

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The Roman testudo

In my next post, I’m excited to be able to offer an interview with Lindsay Allason-Jones, the historical consultant on the film!

Want to Know More?

The Eagle  is available on Amazon. Sutcliff’s original novel (and its two sequels) is too.

If you’re interested in Roman-era Scotland, there are not a lot of books on the topic, but David Breeze has written a number of works on the subject, including the appropriately-titled Roman Scotland and The Antonine Wall. There’s David Shotter’s The Roman Frontier in Britain: Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall and Roman Policy in Scotland.