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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!