I just have a few final observations to make about I, Claudius, things I didn’t fee like turning into a full post.
- The series nicely captures Claudius’ interest in history. Claudius spent much of his life prior to become emperor indulging antiquarian interests, such as a history of the Etruscans and an 8-book history of Carthage, neither of which survive. He also invented three new letters, meant to express the BS/PS sound, W, and Y. They received some use during his reign, but were abandoned after his death.
- The series probably paints Claudius as being a nicer person than he actually was. Derek Jacobi’s Claudius is uncomfortable with gladiatorial combat, in contrast to less admirable characters (like Livia) who don’t seem to care that men are being killed for sport. The real Claudius reportedly loved gladiatorial games and enjoyed executions. Roman historians accuse him of cruelty and bloodthirst, although that might be an exaggeration, since those were stereotypical traits of bad rulers.
- The sources also claim that he had a taste for slave girls, which Messalina reportedly used to distract him from her own adulteries. The series’ offers almost no hint that Claudius was anything other than a faithful, somewhat befuddled husband, which heightens the viewer’s sympathy for him over the course of his lousy marriages. The only suggestion that he wasn’t faithful is his relationship with the prostitute Calpurnia, which is shown to be more about friendship than sex. Since Roman men were free to have sex with prostitutes and slaves even while their wives were expected to be faithful, it’s probable that Claudius did have sex with such women, although again, the claim that he was besotted by pretty women may just be a way of saying he’s a bad ruler.
- The series’ depiction of Nero (Christopher Biggins) is awful. He’s barely even two-dimensional in the one episode he appears in. He’s corpulent, carries a lyre around, commits incest with his mother, and when Agrippina throws Claudius’ autobiography into the fire, he stares at the burning papyrus with fascination, like a budding pyromaniac. So the series hints that he was responsible for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. It’s true that some ancient sources do claim Nero deliberately set the fire, modern scholars don’t take such claims seriously. The Fire destroyed a large portion of Nero’s own palace, the Domus Transitoria, so the claim that he burned down Rome because he wanted to build a new palace gets things exactly backward; he built the Domus Aurea to replace his damaged palace. Nero was also quite popular with the Roman popular for much of his reign, so he’s unlikely to have been the pathetic creep the series offers.
Again, I’d like to thank my regular reader Lyn for the generous donation that made my review of I, Claudius possible. I hope you feel like you got your money’s worth, Lyn!
Reader, if you have a film or tv show you’d like me to review, please make a donation to my Paypal account and let me know what you’d like me to review. If I can get a hold of it and I think it’s appropriate for the blog, I’ll tackle it. In fact, this review inspired another reader to donate and request a review of a short-lived American tv series about ancient Rome. So Empire is next up!
Want to Know More?
There’s also a nice website, The I, Claudius Project that was created by the St Anselm’s College Claudius Seminar to provide resources for those interested in the series. So it includes a breakdown of each episode, including analyzing the sources for each scene so you can see what’s fact and what’s not, a brief biography of the major characters, and a discussion of the reliability of the major sources. I found it quite helpful as I was write my reviews.