A Romp Through I, Claudius

One Christmas (too many years ago), my trembling, puerile hands grasped the wrapping paper as I ripped off the colour to reveal editions of both I, Claudius and its sequel Claudius the God. My joy at this discovery far out-reached (no doubt to some embarrassment) the excitement with which I opened my main present. That night, I went to bed and opened the volume to read lines now committed to memory: “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus this-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles), who was once, and not so long ago, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "Claudius the Idiot", or "That Claudius", or Claudius the Stammerer", or Clau-Clau-Claudius", or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius", am now about to write this strange history of my life.…”

By New Year both novels were finished; I resisted the temptation to re-read them straight away and instead played with the my model aeroplane but Graves had fostered an my interest in Classics and (Roman) history: I constantly dipped into books, sometimes taking the plunge by committing myself to re-reading both books (a privilege extended to few).

Where is the appeal?

By inclination an admirer of the sophistication of Roman Republic, I was drawn in by the petty palace politics and deception of the early imperial era, but Graves also demonstrates, through Claudius’ eyes, the teething struggles of a changing political state from Republic to Empire, from corrupted liberty to insane tyranny. Graves’ interpretation does play down the gradual nature of the shift, forgetting the subtle nature of Augustus’ constitutional settlement which is first exposed by the accession of Tiberius, but made blatant by that of Gaius 'Caligula' and then Claudius himself. This is historical fiction and Graves plays on this: most of the main characters seem to hanker after the virtues of the Republic, a hankering that ‘political realism’ and the machinations of Livia prevents. This is an extreme interpretation, selective and sometimes fanciful, but so convincing that he always brings the reader with him.

Any “crimes” that Tacitus or Suetonius append to Augustus’ reign are blamed on the devious (but fascinating) Livia, while poor old Tiberius and Caligula are given no such bogey figures with which to excuse themselves from their accusers. The portrayal, for which there is some literary evidence, displays the differences between historiography and historical fiction: the latter is about choice and interpretation. Historical novelists are forced to fill in the blanks and lend add to interpretation to evidence. Moreover the novelist has less of a duty to be bound by strict historiographical codes as David Starkey alluded to when critiquing Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which re-interprets Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell. I, Claudius collectively is given a host of femmes fatales and errant women, which gives the volumes a faint whiff of misogyny. Livia has rivals in the form of Claudius' two wives, Messalina and Agrippina the Younger, who are both viciously portrayed as corrupt and licentious.  

And there is absolutely no evidence (that I know of) to suggest that Claudius, influenced by a Sibylline prophecy, promotes as his successor, his adopted son Nero, over his own son Britannicus in order to hasten the return of a reformed - could we say modernised? -  Republic. The more prosaic explanation is that he was forced to marry Agrippinilla as a descendent of Augustus to solidify his fragile regime which had been rocked by numerous attempted coups. On his accession he lacked what his predecessors had had: a family connection with the revered Augustus. Yet Graves' theory is a wondrous thought. When people criticise some of the extremities of HBO's Rome, they should remember that.

My relationship with I, Claudius continued with the purchase of the BBC dramatisation of the series under meta-title I, Claudius, a classic camp serial broadcast by the BBC in 1976. The series,which launched Derek Jacobi’s career (Claudius; he can still stammer on cue) and John Hurt (wonderfully deranged as Gaius ‘Caligula’) and included such luminaries as the gorgeous Sian Phillips (Livia), George Baker (Tiberius) and Patrick Stewart (Sejanus), was in many ways much in line with previous histrorical drama such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R. And I will defend to the death the casting of a (non-bearded) Brian Blessed as princeps Augustus. Robert Graves’ interpretation of the great man is as a grown-up school-boy and there can be no greater school-boy than the incandescent Blessed.

Despite its terrible sets (initially uncertain as to its reception, it was a low-budget production), terrible make-up (Why does Phillips’ Livia age convincingly, yet the older Claudius look like something that wandered out of a Hammer horror film?) and some appalling lines (Germanicus on Livia: “Between reading so many letters and arranging so many rapes, when does she ever sleep?”), television rarely gets this good and the series (of course, available on DVD) sits well today. Generally faithful to the book (though simplified) what is remarkable is the interpretation: the Julio-Claudians become a mafiaesque “family” in tunics with all the intrigue and back-stabbing which that implies. Most importantly the gruesome cast provide us with a master class in truly superb acting. And despite minor quibbles it is good, solid writing, which grips viewers and brings them into the epochal journey.

It is remarkable that nearly forty years later I, Claudius still sits well as an intense and human drama. Its legacy was a wealth of further historical drama, such as The Borgias, which unfortunately did not match the critical success of I, Claudius. Yet the adaptation did help to put historical drama on the television map.

In 2010  BBC Radio Four’s Classic Serial took on task of adapting the books for radio with Tom Goodman-Hill as Claudius; Goodman-Hill is a steady, perhaps somewhat lugubrious and world-weary Claudius, narrating the story as he faces death. After sixty years of violence and mayhem within the imperial family he seems to accept his family’s way of things: this Claudius lacks the angry resentment and conviction of Jacobi’s television performances. And thus he keeps the drama coming at a quick and current pace. The series, adapted by Rupert Brooks, lasts for six episodes with each episode roughly centring around one of the main characters. The casting is, quite frankly brilliant. Derek Jacobi (older, wiser) makes a return as a brilliant Augustus, Tim McInerney is a cautious and uncertain Tiberius (sometimes almost comically so) and the choice of Harriet Walter as Livia Augusta is nothing short of genius.

The adaptation itself is well-paced and extremely faithful to the original book but perhaps a little over-reliant of Claudius as narrator. Unlike the television series his interventions are not kept to a minimum, at beginning and ends of episodes or at moments of great drama and wickedness. This turn means that some scenes are short and almost perfunctory. The wonderful scene between a young Claudius, the historian Livy and Pollio, the last of the Romans, on the nature and purpose of historiography is wasted which is a real shame as it is a clever and witty insertion by Graves.

The thing is - and perhaps this is why I, Claudius lends itself to adaptation - when we read the book we never 'see' Claudius: he narrates and we see the world through his eyes and through how he see his family's perceptions of him. So where the series diverges from the television series is in its interpretation of the central character. This is a clever Claudius, who overplays his infirmities to survive court politics and murder: Goodman-Hill’s Claudius is no fool. His insider/outsider status is well portrayed. While the television series was epic in conceit, aspects of the radio dramatisation allow for a more personal look at Claudius, his doomed betrothal to the young Camilla, his relations with his first wife Plautia Urgulanilla and his mistress, the prostitute Calpurnia - all of which were unfortunately neglected in the television series. Radio also allows some things which the television does not: the scene when Claudius hears his unwanted fate as a young man from a mocking Claudius from the Sybil is genuinely terrifying. Even in our CGI world of today I doubt any visual media could match this) and, as in the books, a wren brings the news of Gaius’ death to Tiberius as he lies in exile on Rhodes. It is more than faithful, it is a nod to the surprising seriousness with which Graves’ Claudius and his family takes superstition and religion, a constant refrain through the novels.

I, Claudius is a tribute to the fact that both television and radio drama can be high-quality, gripping and faithful to the original. Perhaps surprisingly, there has not yet been a film version of I, Claudius: Alexander Korda’s epic version (1937, with Charles Laughton and Flora Robson) was never finished. Probably a good thing. There is constant chatter that HBO and the BBC are in partnership to film a new adaptation. Yet it might be years before we see anything. 

Luckily there is still the book...

Graham Kirby is the Editor of Iris Online.