Monday, October 20, 2008

I, Claudius

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to grow up in a famous family? What privileges and riches you might have, and—more ominously—what expectations you’d have to live up to?
What if you were born to one of the most famous families in history? What if your grandfather was Mark Antony…your step-grandfather, Augustus Caesar…your uncle, Tiberius Caesar. Yeah, no pressure there. Not to mention your father, brother, cousins, and even nephews, all of `em busy morning til night trouncing Germans on the battlefield, being appointed to high office, and generally running the whole damn Roman Empire. While you…oh, my. How to put this gently?
You’re the family idiot. Your own mother treats you as an embarrassment. In a family of massive overachievers, you stammer, your head twitches uncontrollably, you have a congenital limp, and you can’t enter a room without breaking or tripping over something. Your uncle Tiberius quips you could wreck the empire simply by strolling through it.
Unloved by all but a few, the butt of every family joke, and the least likely person anyone can imagine ever ascending the imperial throne, you are Claudius…the fourth emperor of Rome.
Never heard of him? Neither had I, until the first time I saw the BBC miniseries I, Claudius on DVD. I loved it so much, I immediately 1) bought the DVD set for myself, and 2) read the novels on which the series is based: I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves.
Imagined as an autobiography, Claudius tells the story of his family and his own role in it. And what a story! He begins before his birth with Augustus Caesar and his wife, Livia. You think Scarlett O’Hara was sassy? You think Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington was a bitch? Claudius’s grandmother Livia could eat both of them for lunch and not break a sweat. Sweet grandma she was not. Oh, she’d bake you cookies, all right…and then cry convincingly at your funeral. Her one goal: to have her son, Tiberius, succeed his stepfather Augustus as emperor. Here is Tiberius belittling her grand plans:

Tiberius: Anyway, where does all this get us? There's not only Marcellus, there's Agrippa too. And Augustus prefers both of them to me.
Julia, Marcellus’s wife: [Screams off stage] No, noooo!!
Tiberius: Ye gods, what's that?
Livia [calmly serene]: It sounds as though there is now only Agrippa.
And that’s just the first episode. I, Claudius is packed with intrigue, betrayal, passion, and a galaxy of unforgettable characters—the most compelling, Claudius himself*. His only goal is to survive his murderous family and live quietly as a scholar. (Hard to do when one of your nephews grows up to be the infamous Caligula). Not only does Claudius not want the throne, he’s opposed to the very idea of the monarchy. He longs for the vanished days of the Roman republic, when the people ruled themselves, free of king or emperor. How he ends up exactly where he doesn’t want to be—and what happens when he gets there—makes for 10 hours of some of the best television ever made.

Senator: You're not fit to be Emperor.
Claudius: I agree. But nor was my nephew [Caligula].
Senator: Then what difference is there between you?
Claudius: He would not have agreed. And by now, your head would be on that floor for saying so.
Having seen it now approximately eleventy-three times (I’m watching it again as we speak) I can tell you with authority: I, Claudius is a gem you cannot miss.
*Claudius is played by the amazing Derek Jacobi (before he was a Sir). And yes, that is Patrick Stewart—Captain Picard himself—in one of his early roles, the ambitious and dastardly Sejanus. If I ran the universe, though, the biggest award ever made would go to Sian Phillips. Her Livia is a masterpiece: pure ruthlessness seething under a façade of grace, modesty, and impeccable moral rectitude. Livia insists everything she does is for the good of Rome. She truly believes she is right…and that, somehow, makes for the most heart-chilling evil of all.


Anonymous said...

Wow, great review. If you ever decide to take a break from writing YA and healing sick kitties, you'd have no problem making it as a film reviewer!

Anonymous said...

OK, so now there's two choices for what to get me for Xmas. Nice to have it be a surprise!

Sara said...

I agree! We were required to watch this ten years ago when I was in high school Latin, and we didn't mind it at all -- it made the historical study of the Roman Empire that much richer to us.

Christine Fletcher said...

Lisa, I'm less a reviewer than I am a recommender--I picked up that term from the bloggers' conference, and it fits perfectly! If I love something, I'll recommend it. But if I don't, my lips are sealed (on my blog, anyway).

Hmm, anonymous. We'll take it under advisement. ;)

Anne, I'm impressed! First, because I've only met a couple of other people who took Latin in high school (I did, and I loved it)and because they let you watch this, with all its violence and racy bits?!? So good on you--it must have made learning about Ancient Rome WAY more fascinating!

Anonymous said...

When I took Latin in High school we didn't watch movies, or learn about the Roman empire. We learned Latin. I had to take Ancient History to learn about the Roman empire and to watch movies. That was fun. I thought it interesting at the time that we didn't learn ANY ancient history of the East, only the West. No doubt Ancient History in Chinese high schools has a different focus.
Yea for any high school offering Latin! I'm pleased to learn that some are still doing so, at least 10 years ago. Mine also offered Russian.
One of my strategies for surviving high school was to find the GOOD teachers and take as many classes as possible from them. Hence the Russian, Latin, and Ancient History.

Sara said...

Yep! My Latin teacher was really big on the comprehensive approach. She figured that we weren't learning the language in a vacuum, and that Cicero and Caesar and Livy would make that much more sense to us if we understood the culture behind the rhetoric.

As far as the violent and racy bits, our teacher knew that we were A.probably doing twice as much behind closed doors, and
B. cool kids who wouldn't rat her out to the administration.

If I'm not mistaken, my high school still has Latin, along with Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, and Arabic (I'm not sure if German and Russian have made a comeback yet.)

Melissa Amateis said...

I love historical mini-series, but not sure I could get into I, Claudius. I have never bene a fan of Ancient Rome, etc. But now that I've read your review, my interest is picqued! (is that spelled right? I fear I'm still a bit woozy from my trip...)

Christine Fletcher said...

Anne, you went to a cool high school. Latin was the most exotic language taught at ours. There were ten people in the first year course, and six in the second. I think they stopped teaching it after us, due to lack of interest.

Melissa, for me it's the Victorian era. It usually leaves me flat, but I recently finished Falling Angels, by Tracy Chevalier, and I was hooked all the way through. If the characters and story are compelling, I'm there! But I admit I've always had a fondness for ancient Rome, so I definitely came to I, Claudius with a bias!

Anonymous said...

Chinese is the next big thing. They should do the Chinese Immersion thing for 4 year olds, since the Chinese are going to have a whole lot more influence over them when they are adults than anyone else.
~ For me, the historical period of most interest is 'prehistorical'. I'm real old school.