A low-budget, studio-based drama series from the late 1970’s, based on two novels about the life of a Roman Emperor. It would seem logical to assume that I, Claudius won’t appeal to a young, twenty-first century audience that’s already saturated with special effects, celebrities and big-budget American TV dramas.
Logical, but wrong.
Currently I, Claudius ranks among the most downloaded BBC productions on iTorrentz, a meta-search-engine for torrent files*. It seems unlikely to me that this phenomenon can be explained by pointing to the rising average age of internet users, considering that the show was first aired when my parents’ generation were still kids and I am yet to meet anyone of that approximate age in my professional or personal life who will admit to knowing what a torrent file is.
Thus unable to explain the popularity of I, Claudius using empirical evidence, I offer you an anecdote instead:
I first discovered I, Claudius whilst casually searching for BBC torrents, at a time when I should have been working on my dissertation; I’ve always had a casual interest in ancient Rome and some vague recollection of the title tickled the back of my mind so I queued up the series to download**.
Two weeks later I had finished season 5 of The Wire (but not my dissertation) and was looking through my downloads for something to watch in my spare time. I settled on I Claudius with the expectation that – in spite of my love of ancient Roman history – I’d quickly become bored and reach for the ‘delete’ key before moving on to the next item in my list, yet instead I found myself quickly engrossed in the story. Since then I have watched the series twice through with different flatmates and they too were enraptured by it; in fact, I am yet to receive anything less than positive feedback from those of my peers (all in their early twenties) to whom I have recommended I, Claudius. From this I can only surmise that great dramas, such as this one, shouldn’t ever be limited in our expectations to any one demographic or ‘target audience’.
I also feel that I, Claudius is particularly relevant to a 21st century audience, for reasons I shall make clear below…
Cast & characters
Watching I, Claudius feels comparable to watching a theatre production and this is in no small part due to the cast of classically trained, first rate actors that populate the show. Unable to properly describe their talent, I have instead included two YouTube clips so that you can witness it first-hand.
Here, the sharp-tongued Livia (played by Sian Phillips) belittles the shuffling and stuttering grandson Claudius (Derek Jacobi), her adopted grandson:
And here, a fleeting moment of happiness for Augustus Caesar (Brian Blessed), as he plays an ancient version of ‘Risk’ with his grandsons Gaius and Lucius:
Whilst the performances of Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips and John Hurt (for his role as the infamous Caligula) have received countless accolades, it feels unfair to pick just three out of many talented cast-members for special treatment so, for the sake of fairness, an honourable mention must go out to Brian Blessed, Margaret Tyzack (Antonia), Patrick Stewart (Lucius Sejanus), George Baker (Tiberius Caesar), Sheila White (Messalina), James Faulkner (Herod Agrippa), Barbara Young (Agripinilla) and John Castle (Postumus Agrippa) for their superlative efforts.
Liberty, tyranny, posterity
One advantage I, Claudius has over a contemporary equivalent like Rome (another series dearly beloved to me) is that the style, reminiscent of a high-brow play, lends itself extremely well to reflecting the philosophical and political concerns which preoccupied Roman scholars, like Tacitus and Suetonius, who wrote the first histories of the imperial family and upon whose accounts much of our understanding of this period relies. While Rome, with its big-budget HBO production values, is perfectly able to provide a strictly realist rendition of the ancient capital city, with all of the grime, poverty and violence juxtaposed against the opulence enjoyed by the patrician class, I, Claudius is instead about the lives of emperors and because of this the series does not suffer from the limitations of being exclusively studio-based. Without the impressive backdrops and action sequences we are instead focused on the actors and their dialogue.
Central to the plot of I, Claudius is an ongoing conflict between libertarians, who desire political freedom, and authoritarians, who believe that only a strong emperor can restore Rome to its former (mythological) glory and protect it from the threats within and without. This is a theme which should feel familiar to a contemporary audience; is it possible to maintain a position of world power and be truly democratic? To what extent can civil liberties be maintained in a world at war? Are people prepared to sacrifice their freedom for security and stability? Citizens of the UK or the USA may find this drama of ancient history to be peculiarly relevant to their own 21st century political experiences.
Amongst my favourite scenes in the series is when Claudius, still a naive (and routinely ignored) young man, by chance encounters two of the most prominent historians of his time, Livy and Pollio, whilst in the Palace Library. In this scene the three men debate the merits of their different writing styles (Claudius being an amateur historian, in awe of the two elder scholars) and, without breaking the fourth wall, illuminate for us the conflict between accuracy and poetic license that underpins any historical drama.
After all that…why Claudius?
If you aren’t already convinced to give the series a try, then gaze upon the image of John Hurt below:
Yes, that’s right. Allow it to sink in for a moment…
If you want to know how on earth this could possibly happen (and how it almost gets three men killed), then you’ll have to watch I, Claudius – and you won’t regret it.
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*Note: I’m not encouraging you to copy me and download the series from p2p sources. I didn’t provide a link or anything…
** No, really, don’t copy me. It’s probably better for everyone that you buy the DVD.