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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.