One of the major themes in I, Claudius is the tension between the concept of the Roman Republic and the reality of the new Roman monarchy. It comes up in every episode in some form or another. But there are major problems with the way the series handles the issue.
The End of the Republic
Before we can see what’s wrong with the series’ approach to the issue, we need to look at what was actually happening in Roman history. The last century of the Roman Republic witnessed the state in the process of slow collapse. The causes of the collapse of the Republic are extremely complex. Starting in 133 BC, there were repeated violations of the Republic’s constitution; a man was only supposed to hold office for one year and was not allowed to stand for office while holding one, but increasingly men were illegally re-elected to offices they currently held. Soldiers gave their loyalty to their generals rather than to the Roman state, and that enabled ambitious generals to wage civil war in pursuit of political aims; civil wars happened nearly every decade, and sometimes more than once in a decade. Political factions tore Rome apart in pursuit of mutually opposing goals. Perhaps the ultimate cause was that the Republic was really only meant to govern one city, but had been increasingly stretched to govern the whole Mediterranean basin, and eventually the system simply couldn’t endure the political pressures on it; imagine the mayor and city council of Chicago serving as the government for the entire United States.
In 44 BC, Julius Caesar appeared to emerged as victor in the brutal Hunger Games of the Late Republic. But Caesar was a man of such blatant ambition that once he was truly ascendant, he was unable to conceal what looked to contemporaries a desire to become a king. The Republic was established to prevent the emergence of a new king, and while the Republic as a system was so moribund as to be non-functional, there was still a deep antipathy of the concept of a king; eastern peoples had kings, but Rome had elected consuls. Eventually Caesar’s close friends came to the conclusion that his ambition was a threat to theirs; the result was his infamous murder at the hands of several close friends.
His heir was his adoptive great-nephew Octavian, who fought several more civil wars before his final triumph over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. That victory left Octavian the unchallenged ruler of the Roman state. There was simply no one who could practically challenge him. But that had been Caesar’s situation as well, and when Caesar accordingly acted like a king, it got him murdered. So Octavian was left with a conundrum. He was unquestionably the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, but he could not admit to being the sole ruler without running the very real risk that he would be assassinated. So he had to find another way to rule.
Octavian (or as the Senate renamed him, Augustus) adopted the approach of claiming that he had ‘restored the Republic.’ Instead of inventing new titles and offices like Caesar’s perpetual dictatorship, he preferred to employ traditional Republican ones. He was named princeps (loosely, translated as ‘first citizen’, a traditional honor given to the longest-serving senator) and imperator (roughly, ‘one with the power to command’), another traditional title; from these two words we get the terms ‘prince’ and ‘emperor’, but crucially these words did not carry any suggestion of royalty, the way they do for us today. Rather than disrespecting the Senate, as Caesar had done, Augustus consisted treated the Senate with a great deal of respect, frequently asking for their advice. After several years of monopolizing the consulship, he realized that this was thwarting the ambitions of prominent men, so he stopped having himself elected consul so that others could enjoy the honor. Although he had been granted wide legal powers, he generally preferred to operate through traditional Republican officials, to maintain the illusion that the Republic was running as it always had.
In reality, however, Augustus ran the Roman state as he willed. The senators understood that they were no longer truly in charge and evidently appreciated being allowed to remain as prominent figures without much true power. After decades of civil war, they must have been desperate for a man who could truly guarantee peace and stability. Augustus eviscerated the inner workings of the Republic but kept its exterior for show; having gutted the Republic, he was walking around wearing its skin and claiming that the Republic had been restored to health with his help. He created a system modern historians call the Principate, a system in which the man in charge pretended he was nothing more than the ‘first citizen’ of Rome.
Such, at least, is the traditional picture of Augustus. That’s the version I learned as an undergraduate and it’s the version I teach to my students. But in the past generation, some historians have argued that perhaps the truth is more complicated. They point to the fact that much of our information about Augustus and his immediate successors is drawn from 2nd century AD historians such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, all of whom were writing with the knowledge of what the Principate looked like a century after its establishment. These historians argue that perhaps Augustus was serious about reviving the Republic but that the system was too moribund to be salvageable as anything more than a fiction. They note the very considerable continuities between the Republic and the Principate, such as its legal system and the major officials.
I’m not enough of a Classicist to go into much detail about this revisionist approach to the early Principate, so I’ll just leave it as a note that there is some debate among modern historians about exactly what Augustus thought he was doing. Whether Augustus was serious about reviving the Republic or if he was just cynically disguising his intentions, one thing is clear, he was not ruling openly as a monarch. He consistently avoided most of the trapping of monarchy in his day, such as a crown or a throne. Unlike kings, he did not dress in purple clothing; he preferred to dress simply, And he consistently refused to let the Romans worship him as a living god, because that was an honor demanded by Hellenistic kings in the eastern Mediterranean. He adopted a variety of dodges, such as allowing the dedication of temples to ‘Rome and Augustus’, but open worship as a living god was too strongly associated with kings for Augustus to be comfortable with it, even though he allowed the Senate to deify his dead adoptive father.
The Principate in I, Claudius
In I, Claudius, however, Augustus (Brian Blessed) and the members of his household talk plainly about the Republic being dead and discuss the Principate as a monarchy. In the first episode, Tiberius (George Baker) directly asks Drusus “do you think the monarchy will survive Augustus?” His brother Drusus (Ian Ogilvy) replies that Rome will be a Republic again. There is a great deal of discussion about the line of succession, with everyone assuming that it will follow biological order, the way it might in a monarchy. Drusus and Livia explicitly discuss Augustus as a monarch.
In the same episode, Julia wonders why her father puts up with the Senate at all, and Livia (Sian Phillips) replies that Augustus ‘observes the forms’ and that the Romans like to think they govern themselves. She’s exactly right about this, but it’s virtually the only hint the series gives about the historical Augustus’ strategy for governing. Julia’s response is that the younger generation don’t care about such things.
After Marcellus dies, a mob forms outside Augustus’ house. Livia confronts it, shouting “What do you want? The Republic? The Republic is all humbug!…You’re all crying for the moon!” Such a blatant statement that the Republic was dead was exactly the sort of thing that Augustus would not have permitted, and the historical Livia certainly understood that.
The Senate is treated as being a bunch of largely useless fools and in one scene Augustus’ wife Livia summons a senior senator and simply gives him orders. Since Livia had no official role in Roman government, the idea that she would boldly gives orders to key senators is rather improbable. Livia certainly was a powerful woman, and she took some of the work of governing off Augustus’ shoulders, but not in such a blunt and obvious way. That sort of disrespectful treatment of senators was exactly the sort of thing that Augustus knew he needed to avoid.
Repeatedly, the good characters in I, Claudius talk about bringing back the Republic. Drusus is openly in favor of a Republic and encourages Augustus to retire. Postumus (John Castle) and Germanicus (David Robb) are both portrayed as favoring a return to the Republic, and Claudius (Derek Jacobi) consistently expresses Republican sentiments, including grooming his son Britannicus to lead an overthrown of Nero and restore the Republic. There’s absolutely no evidence that any of these men felt this way; it’s entirely the invention of Graves and the show’s screenwriters.
Much of the plot of the first third of the show revolves around the question of Augustus’ successor, and, as I noted, the series approaches this question as if it’s obvious that Augustus’ office will pass by simple hereditary succession following something like primogeniture. In the first episode, the order of succession is Marcellus (Augustus’ nephew and adopted son), followed by his sons Gaius and Lucius, and then Tiberius, the son of his wife. But actual Roman law was rather more complicated than that. Roman law made a man’s heirs his sons and daughters in equal shares, as well as his son’s children, but not his daughter’s children. But the law made no distinction between biological sons and adopted ones. So in fact, Tiberius was not in the line of inheritance at all, because he was not adopted by Augustus until 4 AD, after Marcellus, Gaius, and Lucius were all dead, whereas Julia would have been in the line of succession, had there been such a thing.
I say ‘had there been such a thing’ because all of this assumes that the Principate was a form of property that would pass to Augustus’ heirs the way kingship would pass to a son. However, Augustus’ approach to governing involved denying that he held any special office. His governing powers were not rooted in a specific office but were rather cobbled together in an ad hoc fashion to meet his needs. There was no way to pass these powers on to an heir. This was, in fact, the biggest flaw in Augustus’ system. How could he pass on an office he couldn’t admit to holding? Over the course of his reign, Augustus’ solution to this was to build up a chosen man in prominence through office-holding and military service; then he adopted the man so that the man would inherit his wealth and his family name. So his strategy was to promote the man without explicitly designating him as a political successor. The problem that he encountered is that his chosen successors kept dying: Marcellus, Agrippa, Lucius, and Gaius. As we’ll discuss in a later post, Graves’ approach to this is that Livia was systematically murdering all of Augustus’ possible heirs until he finally settled on Tiberius, and then murdering anyone who might be an obstacle to that succession.
So the series’ approach to Augustus’ rule is mostly wrong. Perhaps his family might have privately spoken about Augustus as if he were a king, but they would certainly have known that he wasn’t a king and that his rule was based on a constitutional fiction that would collapse if it was openly discussed. Augustus’ system is hard to explain, and it’s understandable that the series decided to simplify it for the viewers, but they simplified it in a way that misrepresents how the system worked.
Want to Know More?
There are many excellent biographies of Augustus. One good one is Adrian Goldsworthy’s Augustus.
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