Empire: Caesar’s Will

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Empire  is quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever watched on ancient Rome. I’ve gotten freshman term papers on ancient Rome that were way more interested in the facts than this piece of crap is. But I’m getting paid to review it, so I need to do another post on it. Please bear with me.

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The plot of the series turns on the question of who Caesar’s heir will be. At the start of the series, Caesar (Colm Fiore) is correctly positioned as the dominant man in Rome, although it’s not explained how or why he got there, except that the crowds of Rome love him. Early on, Brutus (James Frain) and Cassius (Michael Maloney) comment that Caesar wants to be both king and god, statements that are fairly accurate for 44 BC. When Caesar is assassinated in the Senate chamber, he tells Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake) that his heir is going to be Octavius (Santiago Cabrera), not Mark Antony (Vincent Regan). This comes as a surprise to everyone, including Octavius, who was under the impression that Caesar despised him. Brutus and Cassius are desperately trying to get Caesar’s will so they can quash this, while Cicero (Michael Byrne) and Camane (an utterly wasted Emily Blunt) are doing everything they can to disseminate the will so that everyone in Rome will know the truth, so that the Senate will have to…make Octavius king maybe? Something like that. I’m not sure the series knows, but who cares? It’s only the main plot of the whole goddam thing.

The reality is, surprise surprise, different. Julius Caesar had no surviving children, despite three marriages, but his sister Julia did have a grandson, Octavius, who was the logical person to make his heir. So late in 45, Caesar wrote a will that adopted Octavius and bequeathing him about 75% of Caesar’s considerable fortune. The will would have been given to the Vestal Virgins, who were responsible for keeping wills, and would not have been publicly announced until after Caesar’s death. It is not known if Caesar told Octavius about the contents of his will, but it seems to me highly unlikely that the will would have been a surprise to Octavius; he was the obvious choice of heir being Caesar’s closest male relative, he was a canny and astute politician (as his entire political career demonstrated) who must have known what his position in Roman society was, and Caesar was smart enough to have recognized that he would have to groom Octavius as his successor (although he certainly didn’t foresee getting murdered just a half-year after making his will). Additionally, as soon as news of the assassination reached Octavius, who was in Apollonia on the west coast of Macedonia at the time, he immediately began to act like Caesar’s heir, ordering that Caesar’s war-chest be sent to him in Apollonia. If he was unaware of his status as heir, it’s improbable that he would have done this.

However, the series’ assumption that Octavius found his designation as heir a surprise is not an entirely outrageous one, because we have no formal evidence that he was told about it before Caesar’s murder. So I’ll reluctantly give the series a pass on this one.

(A short aside about names is necessary here. When he was born, he was given the name Gaius Octavius, since his father was from the Octavian gens. Upon his adoption, he legally became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the ‘an’ element signifying that he had been adopted out of the Octavian gens. After he achieved complete domination of the Roman political world in 27 BC, he was given the agnomen Augustus, which he consistently used down to the end of his life. There is no evidence that he ever actually styled himself Octavianus (although some of his opponents did). He preferred to refer to himself as Caesar and later Augustus Caesar, using the formal ‘Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus’. However the universal modern historical convention is to call him Octavian (the anglicization of his name) for the period between 44 and 27 BC and then Augustus thereafter. Since his adoption was posthumous, the series is technically correct to call him Octavius, even though pretty much no one today ever uses his birth name unless they’re being super-precise.)

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Octavian, being posthumously appalled by this series

 

According to Roman law, a posthumous adoption only applied to inheritance of property. Caesar had no legal way to pass on any of his formal political power or office, any more than John Kennedy could have bequeathed his presidency to one of his children, since in the Republic, all political offices were subject to public election and were not personal property. So what Octavian was technically inheriting was his adoptive father’s wealth and his name (since posthumous adoption typically required the adoptee to accept the adopter’s name). Informally, Octavian was inheriting the enormous goodwill the Roman crowd had for Caesar as well as the prestige of now belonging to perhaps the oldest and most glorious of all Roman gens. Since the anger of the crowd pushed the Senate to immediately declare the dead Caesar a god (something that Caesar seems to have been angling for already in the last year of his life), Octavian also acquired the huge and unprecedented clout of being able to style himself Divi Filius, ‘son of the god [Julius]’. In order to achieve his father’s political power, however, he was going to have use that inherited wealth, prestige, and goodwill to fight his way up to political power, especially because Mark Antony was the clear successor to Caesar’s military authority, since he was essentially Caesar’s lieutenant and an experienced soldier, while Octavian had no military experience to speak of, being only 18.

Whether his adoption surprised him or not, Octavian immediately moved to capitalize on the opportunity the adoption provided. As noted, he took charge of Caesar’s war-chest, sailed to Naples, and traveled north to Rome, collecting political support and a modest army along the way. He demonstrated a solid understanding of Roman politics, contacting key political figures for their support; he decision to land at Naples allowed him to meet up with Cornelius Balbus, one of Caesar’s most important supporters. At no point did he ever betray any sense that he was doing anything other than acting on his full legal rights as Caesar’s heir.

In Empire, however, Octavius is a cloth-headed idiot. When Tyrannus tells him that Caesar has named him his heir, Octavius initially refuses to believe it, and refuses to leave Caesar’s villa outside Rome until his mother warns him that he’s in a butt-load of danger and Tyrannus can protect him. Tyrannus insists on fleeing Rome entirely with no money or guards or anything else. The next morning, however, Octavius wakes up before Tyrannus, and rides back to Rome to see his girlfriend, some skank whose father is a senator but who immediately betrays him to the gladiator/soldiers who are looking for him. He gets chased, Tyrannus rescues him by magically knowing where he is, and Cicero gives them a list of supporters to track down. Then they ride out of Rome again. All of this is a real disservice to Octavian, who ranks among the savviest politicians in the history of the world.

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Octavius and Camane, wishing they weren’t in this series

 

Brutus and Cassius, meanwhile, are torturing Octavius’ mother for the will, intimidating Cicero, and threatening the Vestal Virgins. They are having trouble with the crowd, which catches them trying to smuggle Caesar’s corpse out of the city, and seizes the corpse and burns it, which outrages Octavius even though it’s basically the way elite Roman funerals worked. Camane orchestrates a plan to produce dozens of copies of Caesar’s will and nail them up all around the city so everyone will know that Brutus and Cassius are dicks. They respond by lighting Rome on fire, which seems like something of an over-reaction, given that if the city is destroyed, there isn’t much of a Roman state for them to govern. Then they send an assassin after Octavius, but Tyrannus spots him because apparently in ancient Rome only assassins carry gladiator swords that are actually late medieval short-swords.

Then Octavius and Tyrannus run off to visit Senator Magonius (Dennis Haysbert), a black man who has a northern Celtic name at a time when senators were only drawn from Italy. Magonius refuses to give the gladiator/soldiers his legion (despite the fact that legions were only given to sitting or just-stepped down consuls at the authorization of the Senate). So, despite the legion Magonius owns, the gladiator/soldiers decide to make him a slave because in times of political unrest, historical accuracy is always the first casualty.

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Brutus and Cassius with some woman who might be Servilla

 

Oh, and evidently because apostrophes haven’t been invented yet, the subtitles telling us where things happen never use apostrophes. So scenes take place at ‘Julius Caesar Villa’ and ‘Vestal Copy Room’.

You can do this, Andrew. You’re getting paid for this.

Want to Know More?

Well, if you insist, you can find Empire on Amazon.

There are lots of biographies of Augustus. The one I have on my shelf is Pat Southern’s Augustus.


Empire: God Help Me

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My review of I, Claudius inspired one of my readers, Victor, to make a generous Paypal donation and request that I review the 2005 ABC miniseries Empire, which, like I, Claudius, deals with the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. So you’re going to get a few more posts on Ancient Rome.

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And hoo boy does the first scene promise a strong contrast with I, Claudius. Whereas Robert Graves was at pains to mine the historical sources for the facts, this show promises to mine absolutely nothing except old clichés. The show opens with a gladiatorial combat that works overtime to avoid anything resembling fact. The two fighters, one of whom is named Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), are equipped with gear that is almost entirely made up; he gets two short swords because that means he’s cool. The scene repeats the nonsense that gladiatorial fights always involve the death of all but one fighter. And then after he defeats his opponent, more gladiators surprise him and he has to fight them to the death too. I’ve already discussed everything wrong with this scene in a review of a different movie. (What makes this even worse is in a later scene, Tyrannus correctly describes how a Thracian gladiator is equipped.)

Then we cut to the ‘Vestal Temple’, where Camane (Emily Blunt), a virgin priestess, is praying in front of what is clearly a statue of naked Aphrodite, which is sort of like having a statue of a porn star in a Catholic convent. But she’s making a sacrifice of flower petals, so I guess that makes everything chaste. Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) asks her is “her gods” ever answer.

The show also doesn’t care about giving its characters real names. ‘Tyrannus’ is apparently his birth name, and his son is named ‘Piso’, which isn’t even a given name (it’s a cognomen). And what the fuck sort of name is Camane? It doesn’t even sound Latin! And instead of ‘Octavian’ (short for Octavianus), the kid’s name is Octavius.

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Unsurprisingly, the costuming isn’t very accurate either

Then Julius Caesar (Colm Fiore) asks Tyrannus to be his personal bodyguard, overlooking the fact that he has guys like Mark Antony to protect him, and also overlooking the fact that in 44 BC, Caesar is the dictator, which comes with a staff of 24 lictors, who were also essentially bodyguards.

We’re only 20 minutes into this thing and I already I hate it.

Then Camane milks the ceremonial goats (wtf!) and they give only blood, which means bad things are coming. She has to warn Caesar for some reason, but the Chief Vestal tells her to forget what she’s seen, maybe because she knows there’s no such thing as ceremonial goats.

Then Piso’s mother buys something for “three cents” and it becomes clear that the film isn’t even trying. Piso disappears in the market place, and I see a whole lot of manpain coming for Tyrannus.

The Praetorian Guard exists, even though it won’t be created until there are emperors, since its job is to protect the emperor. Camane warns Caesar, but he declares that he’s lived his whole life in defiance of the gods, so he’s going to ignore the omen. Then he gets into a positively absurd-looking carriage with pillars, a couple centuries before the first thing that might be called a carriage will be invented.

Tyrannus is running around the marketplace looking for Piso, because Caesar, having commissioned him to be his bodyguard, has promptly left Rome without him.

Victor, could you make another generous donation? I think this miniseries qualifies for hazardous duty pay.

Then the Senate gaks Caesar and the assassins who are trying to kill Tyrannus tell him that it was all a distraction, which is really nice of them if you come to think of it, because it means he can run to the Senate house and find Caesar dying, who tells him to protect Octavius. And then Mark Antony (Vincent Regan) shows up and claims Caesar’s crown.

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For Colm Fiore, this counts as a mercy killing, because he doesn’t have to keep appearing in this turd

Mark Antony is pissed because the senators asked to shake his hand without washing the blood off theirs first. This turns out to be a faux pas on the Senate’s part, because they don’t have an army and Antony does, so they have to raise an army of gladiators, led by General Rapax (Graham McTavish), who you know has to be a bad guy because his name is Rapax.

The show has by this point forgotten that Tyrannus is a slave because he’s just running around freely, giving Piso’s mother money to sail away from Rome, and so on. Having ridden back to Rome to protect Piso and his mother, Tyrannus then has to fight a dozen soldiers/gladiators so he can get horses to ride away on. This show can’t even keep track of its own material from one moment to the next, much less know anything real about stuff that happened 2,000 years ago.

Oh, god, make this stop, please!

Mercifully, this turns out to be the end of the first episode.

 

Want to Know More? 

No, trust me, you don’t.

Hugo: Cinema History Come to Life

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I know I promised to look at Empire, but I felt I needed a break from the Julio-Claudians. So last night I sat down and rewatched Hugh (2011, dir. Martin Scorsese, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick).

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It’s a charming film about an orphaned boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris at some point in the 1930s, where he maintains the station’s clocks and eludes the station’s inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who wants to send him to an orphanage. Hugo’s only possession is a broken automaton that his father was trying to repair when he died in a fire. He develops a complicated love/hate relationship with Georges (Ben Kingsley), who runs the station’s sweet and toy shop and from whom Hugo steals the parts he needs to fix the automaton. Eventually it’s revealed that Georges is actually Georges Mélies, one of the first commerical film-makers in the world. The automaton turns out to be something Georges created when he was a professional stage magician. But when his studio, Star Films, went bankrupt, Mélies lost the automaton as well as everything else except his mistress and later wife, Jeanne d’Alcy (Helen McRory), and was forced to make a living running his small shop in the train station.

Georges Mélies

Mélies (1861-1938) was one of the most important early film-makers, serving as screenwriter, director, actor, and producer, and churning out a staggering 500 films between 1895 and 1913, when bad business decisions left him bankrupt. The Great War put the last nail in the coffin of Star Films, and about 80% of Mélies’ ouvre was melted down for silver and celluloid, destroying them forever.

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Butterfield and Kingsley as Hugo and Georges

Prior to discovering the new medium of film, Mélies had worked as a stage magician, and he brought a magician’s eye to his work as a film-maker. So he specialized in films that told fantastic stories and often employed stage magic tricks. For example, in Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb, considered one of the first horror films, Cleopatra’s mummy is chopped into pieces and then burned in a brazier, from which a woman emerges, while in The Famous Box Trick, a magician cuts a boy in half with an axe, producing two boys, whom he procedures to turn into other things. In his One Man Band, Mélies becomes seven different musicians playing a tune together.

He eventually moved up to telling stories with more complex plots. His most famous work, 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, tells the story of Professor Barbenfouillis, who builds a space-ship in the form of a bullet, which he fires at the moon, striking the Old Man in the Moon right in the eye. The crew nap until the goddess Phoebe causes it to snow on them, forcing them to take refuge in a cavern, where they are taken prisoner by the insect-like Selenites. Escaping, the crew climbs back into the bullet, which falls off a cliff and into the Earth’s ocean, where they are rescued and given a parade to celebrate their accomplishment.

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In addition to being one of the first film-makers to tell narrative stories, Mélies also invented a number of simple special effects that he used repeatedly, including multiple exposure (filming something, rewinding the film, and then adding something to the scene, which is how Mélies become seven men playing instruments together), advancing the camera on a track to make something seem to grow in size, split-screen exposure, and dissolves. By putting a fish tank in front of the camera, he created the illusion that he was filming underwater. In his films, men and women turn into skeletons, butterflies, and other creatures, people explode in burst of smoke and sparks, travelers encounter fairies, aliens, and Satan, people take off their heads and argue with them, and many other delightful things happen.

The man was a visionary and for a period the most popular film-maker in the world, and he profoundly infuenced the development of all later film. In many ways, the film is Scorsese’s love-letter to Mélies, and an effort to make sure that this pioneer isn’t forgotten by modern audiences.

The film’s treatment of Mélies is pretty accurate. The middle portion of the film is a reasonably factual, though simplified, account of Mélies’ career. It omits the fact that his brother played an important role in his film company, and it condenses Mélies’ two wives into his second wife Jeanne (his first wife Eugenie having died young in 1913). He really did build an automaton that wound up in a museum where it was ruined. He really did go bankrupt (though less because of the Great War and more because of poor decisions) and wind up running a toy and sweet shop in the Gare Montparnasse. And he really did enjoy a final period in his life when film enthusiasts recognized his enormous contributions to the medium. It’s refreshing to see an historical film that actually tries to get the facts more or less correct.

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Georges Mélies

The Train

But in addition to being a wonderful introduction to the work of Mélies, Scorsese has another point to make. Hugo was made in 3D, and Scorsese was trying to get away from the use of 3D to simply make the audience gasp, exploring its potential as a cinematic device. He plays with snow, steam, and a cloud of papers in a way that is reminiscent of the way Mélies played with his film tricks.

The film twices shows the famous early film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, a brief 1895 film that simply shows a train pulling into a French train station. The film repeats as fact what is quite possibly an urban legend that when the audience saw the train approaching, they panicked because they were unable to distinguish the film from reality because the technology of film was literally brand-new and the audience was unfamiliar with it.

Later in the film, Hugo has a dream in which he finds himself on the train tracks of the Gare Montparnasse as a train is bearing down at him. The train runs him over, jumps the tracks, and plows through the station, plunging out of a window and down to the street below. This scene is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it recreates an actual train accident that happened at the Gare Montparnasse in 1895 (the same year L’Arrivée d’un train was first shown). So Scorsese cleverly conflates the train footage with an actual train crash the same year.

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The 1895 Montparnasse derailment

But what I find even more clever about this sequence is that by doing it with the relatively new modern 3D technology, he gives 21st century audiences an experience not unlikely the one the audience in 1895 had, of having a train appear to come hurtling toward them in a way that unnerves the viewer. In a film about the early history of cinema, Scorsese has brilliantly given audiences a sense of what it might have been like to be one of those early film-goers, thus increasing our ability to understand the whole point of the film.

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Hugo’s dream of the Montparnasse dereailment

This isn’t the only time Scorsese references early cinema in Hugo. At one point Hugo, fleeing from the station inspector, is forced to climb out onto the minute hand of the station’s largest clock in a scene that directly references Harold Lloyd’s famous stunt in Safety Last. There are also more subtle homages to Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine (1938). And throughout the film, Scorsese and his team tried to work in as many of the techniques that Mélies pioneered as they could, so that the film’s cinematography and special effects were as much an homage as the story.

Want to Know More? 

Hugo is available through Amazon, as is Selznick’s Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

You should totally watch Mélies’ A Trip to the Moon. It’s on Netflix, and also available through Amazon. Although its special effects are primative by modern standards, it really is a must-see. If you want to know more about Mélies, try Elizabeth Ezra’s Georges Mélies. It’s more a study of his films than a history of the man, but it treats him as a serious film-maker, not just a man playing around with special effects.

If you want to dig a little deeper in the film’s use of visual effects, here is a good page on the subject.



An Open Letter to Donald Trump

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Dear President Trump,

Normally this blog is about is the intersection of history with film and television, but occasionally I offer my thoughts about political comments about history. And recently you drew attention by saying “But why was there the Civil War? Why couldn’t that one have been worked out?” A lot of commentators have attacked you for asking the question and arguing that you ought to have known the answer. But as I tell my students occasionally, there is no shame in not knowing something about the past. The whole point of taking history courses is to learn things about the past that you didn’t know (and to learn a set of incredibly useful general skills that can be applied to almost any situation you’re in). So rather than shaming you, I’m going to answer the question for you.

As it happens, the answer to that question is both simple and complex at the same time. I’m not a specialist in American history but I do teach Modern Western Civilization pretty regularly, which requires me to discuss the issue, and here’s my take on the question. The Civil War couldn’t be “worked out” because 1) the Southern states were committed to the principle that black people were not truly humans but merely property that white people could own and use for labor, 2) the Constitution was written in such a way that, short of a massive change of heart across the South, there was no legislative solution to the dispute over slavery, and 3) Southern politicians were committed, not just to maintain their “peculiar institution” (as they liked to refer to slavery) but also to expanding slavery into areas where it was not currently allowed. (By the way, if you need to practice your writing, that previous sentence is what’s called a “thesis statement.” It summarizes my main point in this essay. You sometimes have trouble expressing your arguments clearly, so you might try using a thesis statement.)

Southern Attitudes toward Slavery

My first point is that the Southern states were deeply committed to the principle of owning black people as property. You can see that in the statements the Southern states made when they were justifying their secession from the United States. For example, the Mississippi Declaration of Secession says in its second paragraph,

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

Seven of the ‘facts’ it cites are explicitly related to slavery and most of the remaining ones are indirect references to slavery or issues related to slavery.

South Carolina’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union takes somewhat longer to get to the point, but eventually explains that Northern states were refusing to live up to their Constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves (as expressed in as the Fugitive Slave clause) and that the non-slaveholding states have sought to undermine the ownership of slaves as property.

Texas’ A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union says in its third paragraph “[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.” It goes to say a few paragraphs later that many of the Northern states have violated the Fugitive Slave clause of the Constitution, and that these states have formed a ‘sectional party’

“based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”

Notice how explicit the Texas statement is about the moral value of slavery. It calls it a “beneficent and patriarchal system” supported by “the plainest revelations of Divine Law.” That sort of language is surprisingly common among Southern politicians in the decade before the Civil War. Albert Gallatin Brown, a prominent politician from Mississippi who served in the House of Representatives and the Senate and two terms as governor of Mississippi declared in his 1858 Speech at Hazelhurst, “I think slavery is a good thing per se; I believe it to be a great moral, social, and political blessing—a blessing to the master and a blessing to the slave, and I believe, moreover, that it is of Divine origin.” In the face of pressure from abolitionists, Southerners had developed a justification of slavery that argued that it was not just useful, but actually one of the greatest moral goods in human history. While shockingly racist by modern standards, these sentiments were quite common in the Old South.

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Albert G Brown

The Confederate Constitution, which is largely modeled on the United States Constitution,   generally makes explicit references to slavery where the US Constitution was more discreet about the issue. It forbids the important of “negroes of the African race”. It declares that “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” (The italicized text is new.) Should the new Confederacy acquire new territory, “In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.” Clearly, the Confederate states wanted to ensure that slavery was guaranteed permanetly in their government.

 

Slavery in the Constitution

The American Constitution is in many ways a wonderful document. You should read it some time; my students are always surprised by the rules it establishes for how we can run our political system. But one of the places where it fails to live up to its promise is in its acceptance of slavery. The Constitution was very much a compromise document, seeking to balance the interest of large states against small states and of Northern non-slaveholding states against Southern slaveholding states. Without that compromise, it wouldn’t have been accepted by different states. It enshrines political compromise as a basic principle in our system. If the House and the Senate can’t agree on a law, that law can’t get passed, and if the President can’t agree with Congress, that law is probably not going to get enacted. One of the places where the authors of the Constitution compromised was by allowing slavery. In fact, slavery is written into the Constitution so deeply that achieving a legislative solution to the dispute over slavery was essentially impossible.

You might be surprised to hear that slavery is entrenched in the Constitution. The words ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ never occur in the document. But that doesn’t mean it’s not in there. The men who wrote the Constitution (James Madison in particular) were aware that Northern states were hostile to slavery, so they sought to disguise the presence of slavery in the document by referring to it obliquely. By my count, the Constitution discusses slavery 3 times, mostly with an eye to protecting it.

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James Madison

For example, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 says “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” Did you catch that reference to slaves? They’re the “all other Persons” who aren’t “free Persons” or “Indians not taxed.” This is the famous 3/5th Compromise, which declared that slaves were to be counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of apportioning representation in the House.

Maybe you knew about the 3/5 Compromise, but you probably didn’t stop to think about what the practical effect of it is. By treating slaves as a form of property that still counts toward political representation, this clause over-represents the Southern states relative to the Northern states (which didn’t allow slavery). That guaranteed that even if there were an equal number of slaveholding and non-slaveholding states, the slaveholding states would always have a larger voice in the House, thereby ensuring that no law hostile to the interests of slave owners would be able to pass.

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 states “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” That sounds innocuous until you realize that the “importation of such persons” is a reference to importing blacks as property. The purpose of this clause is to forbid Congress from forbidding the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade until 1808 and forbidding Congress from trying to stop the trade by imposing steep tariffs on imported slaves.

Then there’s Article 4, Section 1, Clause 3, the aforementioned Fugitive Slave clause. “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” In other words, no runaway slave can escape his slavery by fleeing to a non-slaveholding state. Slave owners could legal require that the authorities in non-slaveholding states had to turn over escaped slaves. One could also argue that Article 4, Section 1, Clause 1, the Full Faith and Credit clause, deals with slavery as well, since it requires non-slaveholding states to acknowledge the purchase and sale of slaves in other states.

But that’s not the end of the ways the Constitution protects slavery. Article 1, Section 7, Clause 1 says that all bills dealing with taxation must begin in the House. That means that Congress would not be able to tax slavery out of existence, because slaveholding states were over-represented in the House. Article 1, Section 9, Clause 5 specifies that “No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State.” Slaveholding states were perhaps the major exporters in the United States because slaves were primarily used to run plantations that produced crops like cotton and indigo, so it would not be possible to abolish slavery by taxing the exports that made slave owners wealthy.

The 3/5 Compromise also affected the election of presidents, since the number of electors that a state received was based on the number of Representatives it had plus the number of Senators it had. So the over-representation of slaveholding states skewed the presidency toward slaveholding states. It’s no wonder that 10 of the first 16 presidents were slave owners, although two of them, Van Buren and W.H. Harrison inherited their slaves. (Despite being a Northerner, Harrison was a supporter of slavery.)

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George Washington, slave owner

Eventually, the higher population growth of the Northern states began to enable the free states to overcome the artificial bonus that slaveholding states had, but at that point, the fact that all states got an equal number of senators began to work in the South’s favor by preventing anti-slavery laws from passing in that chamber. Since ties are broken by the Vice-President and a majority of the Vice-Presidents were supporters of slavery, slavery remained protected.

The cumulative effect of this entrenchment of slavery in the Constitution was that a peaceful, legislative solution to the dispute over slavery was nearly impossible to achieve, because slaveholding states and politicians had a decisive upper hand in the Federal Government. That meant that the only way slavery could be abolished was through violent conflict.

The Expansion of Slavery

Post-Civil War propaganda in the South has sought to depict the Civil War as a “War of Northern Aggression”, but the reality is that it was Southerners who wanted to expand slavery. Southern states insisted on the enactment of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which was designed to overturn Northern states laws intended to make the return of escaped slaves harder by fining government officials who did not arrest alleged slaves; the law provided that government officials had to accept a slave-owners sworn testimony that a particular black man was a runaway slave. This made it quite easy for Southerners to essentially kidnap free blacks into slavery. The 1857 Dred Scot decision declared that blacks could not be citizens and therefore could not easily bring lawsuits alleging that they were free. It also declared that the Federal government had no power to regulate slavery in federal territories acquired after the American Revolution. By suing to force the return of slaves from free states, Southern slave-owners were often seeking to overturn free state laws, thereby undermining the ability of free states to remain free states.

(My own state, Wisconsin, I am proud to say, openly defied the Supreme Court on this issue and refused to hand over the escaped slave Joshua Glover. A mob broke him out of his prison at what is today Cathedral Square in Milwauee.)

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There was also a vehement quarrel over the admission of new states to the Union. Abolitionists hoped that by admitting more free states, they might eventually be able to overcome the lock the slaveholding states had on the Federal government. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 maintained the balance of power by admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state.

Southern states, in contrast, wanted to export slavery wherever they could. In Albert Gallatin Brown’s speech, he declares the importance of exporting slavery.

“I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it. If the worm-eaten throne of Spain is willing to give it for a fair equivalent, well—if not, we must take it. I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican States; and I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery… I would spread the blessings of slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth, and rebellious and wicked as the Yankees have been, I would even extend it to them. I would not force it upon them, as I would not force religion upon them, but I would preach it to them, as I would preach the gospel.”

Apologists for the Confederacy have often claimed that the Civil War was caused by the issue of ‘state’s rights’. But in fact, when you read the various Declarations of Secession, you find the seceding states complaining that the Federal government wasn’t enforcing the Constitution on the Northern states. So they were actually opposing the idea of state’s rights.

Obviously the causes of the Civil War are complex. I’m not a specialist in American history, and I’m sure a good Civil War historian could greatly elaborate on (and perhaps in a few spots correct) my argument. But that’s the basic reason why the problem of slavery couldn’t be “worked out.” All avenues for resolving the dispute peacefully had essentially been foreclosed by the way the Constitution was written and by the insistence of Southerners that their system was inherently good and needed to be expanded.

Most of the confusion about the Civil War’s causes has been due to Confederate apologists seeking to justify their failed secession after the Civil War and by 20th century racists who began to glorify the Confederacy during the Civil Rights era (for example by insisting on raised the so-called Confederate Flag at state-houses in the South). But that’s an issue that can be addressed with more emphasis on history education. I’d encourage you to do some reading about the subject or talk with an historian of the Civil War. Ignorance of the past is nothing to be ashamed of, but committing to ignorance of the past is.

Want to Know More?

One simple place to start is David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification. It does a good job of showing how slavery was enshrined in the Constitution.

I, Claudius: A Few Last Comments

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I just have a few final observations to make about I, Claudius, things I didn’t fee like turning into a full post.

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  • 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, carrying 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.
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Biggins as Nero

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?

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

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.


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.

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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 Piso’s trial to protect his wife Plancina (Irene Hamilton), which Tiberius refuses to do
  • Persuades Plancina 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 whom 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 both 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 dislikes 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 Tiberius 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 not 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 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 man 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 she 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.

Claudius

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!