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Evidently, quality of wits is more important than quantity.
This renowned 1976 mini-series (based on the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves) follows the history of the Roman Empire, from the latter reign of Augustus (starting around 24/23 B.C.) to the death of the eponymous character, Claudius, through whose eyes all of the action in the series is seen. The series opens with an elderly Claudius penning his memoirs, which tell of the history of his family.
Director Alexander Korda had attempted to film the story in 1937 with Charles Laughton in the role of Claudius, but for various reasons the movie was never completed. When The BBC decided to make their own version they had to negotiate with Korda's production company over screen rights to the story.
- The major events which the memoirs (and the TV series) cover are:
- The later reign of Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia, Claudius' step-grandfather and grandmother respectively. Augustus wants the children of his ditzy daughter Julia to rule Rome after him, but Evil Matriarch Livia wants Tiberius-- her own son from a previous marriage-- to become Augustus' heir. Livia's plan to accomplish this is by arranging a marriage between her son and Julia. Unfortunately, a few "impediments" crop up which keep this plan from coming smoothly to fruition. These "impediments" are soon removed by Livia (through the copious use of poison), and Tiberius and Julia are made to marry, but the relationship is a rocky one and it produces no heirs. Julia has children from a marriage previous to her relationship with Tiberius, and it seems as if they will ascend to the throne of Rome after Augustus, but Livia is not one to give up her plans so easily...
- Claudius' early life. Which was not easy, what with him being born lame and with a palsy that made him twitch and stutter. The fact that his father was murdered just after he was born, leaving Claudius solely in the care of his unsympathetic mother didn't help things. Claudius was largely considered a fool by the members of his family, but he did manage to make some close friends and supporters-- among them Postumus, one of Julia's children (and heir apparent to Augustus.) Unfortunately for Postumus, his position as heir placed him #1 on Livia's "to get rid of" list, so he wasn't going to be sticking around for very long. It was right about this time in Claudius' life that he was to receive from an aged scholar, an important piece of advice: Play the fool and let people think you're an unimportant idiot. Then, they won't try to kill you. (It would turn out to be a very sage piece of advice for a member of the Roman royal family living in this period of history.)
- The ascension and reign of Tiberius, who, unfortunately, isn't very happy with the job (since he was nearly an old man before he finally got his hands on it, and loathed being in the public eye in any case.) There are plenty of people who aren't too happy with Tiberius, either, among them his mother Livia, whom he hates and chooses to actively ignore. Tiberius prefers to slack off and leave the running of the empire to his right-hand man, Sejanus, but Sejanus has a lustful eye for Tiberius' (married) daughter-in-law, and an equally lustful eye for the throne of Rome as well. As such, he is quick to take up the series' role of "prime schemer" once Livia finally dies of old age. Unfortunately, Sejanus' schemes go awry after Claudius' mother catches wind of them and informs Tiberius about his treachery. This sets up a series of horrible events which will result in Claudius' young nephew Caligula becoming the sole heir to the imperial throne.
- The mad and bloody reign of Caligula, which starts out promising enough, with the death of the hated tyrant Tiberius (at Caligula's hands.) Unfortunately, Caligula turns out to be an even WORSE ruler than Tiberius, due in no small part to the fact that Caligula was (probably) a paranoid schizophrenic who believed himself to be a reincarnation of the Roman god, Jove. He then sets about murdering all of his political and familial rivals, but he spares Claudius (whom he thinks an amusing fool, and a reincarnation of the god, Vulcan.) Caligula's outrageous crimes can't remain unpunished forever and the assassination plot which topples him almost consumes Claudius as well-- thankfully, the remnants of Caligula's personal guard find Claudius and decide to prop him up as emperor. (After all, without an emperor, they'd all be out of a job.) Claudius, however, is not so hot about the idea...
- Claudius' reign and death in AD 54. The last part of the series covers the 15 years of Claudius' reign as emperor, which, sadly, were no less free of death and intrigue than the rest of his life had been. Making things worse was the fact that Claudius married two scheming women (one of whom he had to execute when she "married" someone else and plotted with that person to seize the Imperial throne). Claudius, believing that emperors were a bad idea and that Rome should become a republic, tried to make this come to pass with a Zany Scheme in which his birth son Brittanicus would go into hiding for a while. Claudius would then make his adopted son-- the slimy Nero-- emperor after his death. Nero's rule would be so oppressive that the people of Rome would overthrow him, at which point, Britannicus could come out of hiding and set up a republic. Unfortunately Britannicus hadn't seen the rest of the series up to this point and so he refused to go along with the plan, naively-- some might say, suicidally-- believing that he could take power in Rome and rule in his own right. (Of course, he was immediately poisoned right after Claudius' death, thus setting Nero up as emperor and... well... the rest was history.)
This British series is probably one of the best dramas ever produced for television, starring loads of famous actors (among them Patrick Stewart-- Jean-Luc Picard himself-- as the shifty Roman general Sejanus.) John Hurt puts in a good turn as the giggly-insane Caligula, but it is Sian Phillips who steals the show as the scheming Livia, a character who is as deft at cutting people down with her dry wit as she is at poisoning them. George Baker's in it too. And let's not forget Derek Jacobi's breakout performance as the poignant Claudius, a man who-- even after he gets the reins of power firmly in his hands-- finds he can do very little to stop the whirlwind of death and corruption which threatens to destroy those he loves.
It is occasionally pronounced ironically by British viewers as written-- "I, Clavdivs".
- Ancient Rome: First century of The Roman Empire.
- And Another Thing: Livia's "Don't touch the figs"
- Arranged Marriage: Most of these seem to end badly. Claudius' marriage to his second cousin, Messalina, was especially disastrous.
- Awesome Moment of Crowning: Subverted with the least awesome crowning in history, as the Praetorian Guard, rampaging through the palace after the murder of Caligula, finds Claudius literally hiding behind a curtain. They immediately proclaim him emperor, his protests of "I don't want to be an emperor! I w-w-want a rep-p-public!" notwithstanding. Apparently this was basically how it went down in Real Life.
- Balancing Death's Books: Invoked by Caligula. During an illness that would end up with Caligula believing he was transformed into a god, a sycophantic senator announced to all who would listen that he begged to the gods to take his life if it would spare Caligula's. Caligula got better, and then made sure the senator kept his vow.
- Based on a True Story: Yes and no. Most everything in the books and the series, including the really outrageous stuff like Livia poisoning half her family or Messalina having a sexathon, comes from ancient primary sources. However, modern scholars consider much of that to be ancient rumormongering and/or propaganda.
- Berserk Button: Mention Aggrippina's name around Tiberius and he'll want to murder everything in sight. (Sejanus was able to press this button whenever he wanted to get rid of a political enemy who might have had even the loosest connection to her.)
- Big Screwed-Up Family: The Julio-Claudian dynasty.
- Black Widow: Livia. Bonus points for Offing the Offspring.
- Bodyguard Betrayal: Caligula is done in by his Praetorian Guard.
- British Accents and The Queen's Latin: Most of the characters have upper-class British accents, and the few times we see lower-class members of society, they're speaking with Cockney accents.
- Brother-Sister Incest: Caligula and Drusilla. "And you know how I love my sisters..."
- Incest Subtext: Tiberius and Drusus in the bath together, naked.
- Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards: One of the difficulties faced in assassinating Caligula is the large contingent of German guards he has around him. He apparently didn't trust his native-born Praetorian Guard and military officers very much (with good reason, as it turned out.)
- The Caligula: John Hurt as the Caligula. And he is magnificent.
- Caligula's Horse: The original.
- Call Forward: Nero-- "What a pretty thing a fire is."
- Carrying the Antidote: A good reason for this trope. Two notorious poisoners meet.
Martina: "I never bothered much with antidotes."
IS THERE ANYONE IN ROME WHO HAS NOT SLEPT WITH MY DAUGHTER!!!
- Also Tiberius:
Bring me a VINE BRANCH!!! This Queen needs flogging before she goes!!
- The Chains of Commanding: By the time Tiberius becomes Emperor, he's too old to care.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: John Rhys-Davies' character, Macro, plays a key role in the downfall of Sejanus and accession of Caligula, and then disappears.
- Though only in the miniseries. The book reveals that Caligula soon got suspicious of him (probably correctly) and poisoned him.
- In Real life, he fell prey to the same trick that had been pulled on Sejanus (he was duped into giving up command of the Praetorian Guard to become governor of Egypt, only to be arrested the moment he got on the boat and forced to kill himself. Wow, Karma truly is a bitch.)
- Classical Antihero: Claudius.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Claudius, although it's mostly an act. Lampshaded by Tiberius in the book.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: A common Roman way of dealing with one's political enemies, if one just doesn't have them poisoned or stabbed outright.
- Creepy Child: Caligula is portrayed this way in the TV version. He becomes partially responsibly for the murder of his father when he was just hitting puberty.
- Curtain Camouflage: Claudius is hiding behind one when he is crowned emperor
- Deadly Decadent Court
- Deadpan Snarker: Almost everyone gets at least one or two lines of delicious dialogue. (Livia tends to get the most and the best ones.)
Augustus: Ah, not slept [with Augustus' libertine daughter]... You mean it happened standing up perhaps, or in the street or on a bench? Not slept?
Tiberius: Has it ever occurred to you, mother, that it's you they hate and not me?
- Defiant to the End: Agrippina the Elder and Asinius Gallus.
- Defiled Forever: Lollia commits suicide in front of her husband and friends after being defiled by the emperor Tiberius.
- Delayed Narrator Introduction: It's around three episodes before the narrator is even born, although it's explicitly a story told by Claudius from the beginning.
- Den of Iniquity: Tiberius' mansion.
- Department of Redundancy Department: Claudius.
"Spies! Spies everywhere, spying on me!"
- Did You Actually Believe?: Caligula to Livia on her deathbed, when he mocks her for thinking she would ever be made a goddess.
- Dies Wide Open: Augustus. Say what you will about Brian Blessed but the way he conveys Augustus's death just by letting his face go still was a fine piece of acting.
- Lollia as well.
- Dirty Old Man: Tiberius. Do NOT go to his villa in Capri.
- Driven to Suicide: Antonia, Claudius's mother, who has grown weary of the corruption and violence engulfing Rome. However, unlike most examples of this trope, she's very matter-of-fact about it.
- Dying Dream: The final episode ends this way.
- The Emperor: Four of them.
- Even Evil Has Standards: As horrible as Livia was, even she was disgusted to learn that Caligula had murdered his own father. And she felt genuinely bad about murdering Augustus.
- The look on Sejanus' face when Caligula brings his Great-Uncle Tiberius a scroll of perverted drawings as a gift speaks volumes about his private opinion of his Emperor and Caligula.
- Evil Laugh: Livia gets an epic one at the end of "Poison is Queen". Starts here, at 3:58.
- Evil Matriarch: And how. Livia bumped off at least half a dozen of her own family members-- and those who remained alive were usually made quite miserable by her.
- Finish Him!: Livilla says exactly this at the gladiator games in "What Shall We Do About Claudius?".
Sejanus: (About Germanicus) Well if he's profoundly loved, he's also profoundly dead. Everybody's loved when they're dead.
- Also, after hearing a prophecy that Claudius will become protector of Rome, young Livilla hopes aloud that she'll be dead by the time it happens. Her mother, in response, angrily sends her to bed without supper. This not only foreshadows the fact that Livilla will die before Claudius becomes emperor, but also her method of execution-- Her mother locks her up in her room and forcibly starves her to death.
- Foregone Conclusion: In both the novel and the BBC TV series, we are told at the start that Claudius is going to become Emperor. Nonetheless, the description of 60 years of Roman politics and intrigue leading up to this event manages to remain amazing and entertaining.
- Friendly Address Privileges: Castor, the nickname by which Drusus Julius Caesar is commonly known, invokes this with Sejanus in "Some Justice".
Sejanus "Ah, Castor, how nice to see you."
- From My Own Personal Garden: Augustus treats his stomach ailments with figs he grew himself. This backfires.
- Gilligan Cut: At the beginning of "Hail Who?", Caligula has asked Claudius to take the money at the door of the brothel he has set up in the Imperial palace; Claudius categorically states that he wants nothing to do with the enterprise. Cut to the next scene, in which Claudius is taking money from a customer at the brothel.
- A God Am I: Well, Caligula thought he was, at least.
- "And his sister Drusilla's become a goddess. Any questions?"
- Played with by Livia: In her mind, she needs to be declared a goddess, since all the horrible, horrible things she's done have guaranteed her to an eternity of punishment in the Afterlife. Unless she's promoted to goddess, of course. You almost pity her when Caligula sneeringly denies her dying wish. On her deathbed, no less. Sian Phillips is a really, really good actress.
- "And his sister Drusilla's become a goddess. Any questions?"
- God Save Us From the Queen: While no one tops Livia, every empress aside from Caligula's wife Caesonia.
- Good Bad Girl: Julia.
- Grapes of Luxury: More than once.
- The Hedonist: Julia.
- Historical Domain Character: Most of the characters, but particularly Emperor Augustus and Emperor Caligula,
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Claudius and his desire to restore the Roman Republic, which is also somewhat unhistorical, since at that time there was no distinction made between the Republican and Imperial eras.
- Historical In-Joke: Don't worry about that Jewish messiah, that's going nowhere.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: In all likelihood, the real Livia was not a scheming mastermind and never poisoned anyone.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Calpurnia, one of the few people Claudius truly trusts.
- Hypocritical Humor: Caligula --"People really are despicable."
- I Comma Noun: The book may be the Ur Example.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Livia ruthlessly manipulates and kills family members and anyone else close to them to ensure her son becomes emperor and Rome does not return to being a Republic, convinced this is the only way for the city to remain great.
- I Made Copies: Nero and Agrippinilla burn Claudius's book. He already had it copied and buried.
- I Was Quite a Looker: Livia in "What Shall We Do About Claudius?".
- I'm a Humanitarian: Caligula + Drusilla + amateur Caesarian section + fetus = Squick to the power of infinity.
- Impairment Shot: The last thing that poor Castor sees as he's dying is his wife Livilla and Sejanus, who conspired to poison him, embracing.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Gemellus. Only it's not the cough that kills him.
- Infant Immortality: Averted.
- Insane Equals Violent: Manages to subvert this despite featuring the actual Caligula. His violent / psychopathic tendencies are explicitly shown NOT to follow from his psychotic delusions: he's a killer from childhood, but doesn't go mad until after he becomes Emperor years later. Livia and other murderous characters are described as "mad" by other characters, but are not shown as irrational - even Nero, explicitly called "as mad as... Caligula", is clearly nothing of the kind.
- Insult to Rocks: Claudius' mother, Antonia, manages to make this one do double duty, by finding something a moment later that she thinks is a sufficiently insulting comparison.
Antonia : That man [a senator] ought to be put out of the way! He's as stupid as a donkey—what am I saying? Donkeys are sensible beings by comparison—he's as stupid as... as... Heavens, he's as stupid as my son Claudius!
- It Amused Me: Caligula has some shades of this - he does things like set up the young, beautiful Messalina with unattractive Claudius because he thinks it's funny.
- Just the First Citizen: According to the "memoir", Claudius followed Augustus' example to an extent, only taking on further titles as they were earned (i.e. not calling himself imperator until he commanded troops. Even Caligula started like this, before the whole A God Am I thing).
- King on His Deathbed: Notably Augutus and Tiberius.
- Large Ham: BRIAN BLESSED as Augustus and John Hurt as Caligula are the two major offenders, although Brian is fairly low-key by Brian standards.
- Like a Weasel: Most everyone behaves like this with Caligula, desperately trying to humor him so he doesn't kill them next.
- Linear Edit: The series was entirely shot on videotape, using multiple cameras, one scene at a time. This resulted in a very theatrical look to the performances, which suited the story very well.
- Literary Agent Hypothesis: Robert Graves' premise in the book was that he had really discovered the memoirs of the historical Emperor Claudius, "nineteen hundred years or near" i.e. in the present.
- Lonely At the Top: Claudius learns this the hard way after being forced to execute Messalina. When Claudius sees a vision of all the important people in his life, Tiberius's ghost flat out tells him "wasn't worth it was it?", showing that Tiberius also felt that way as well.
- The Long Game: Overlaps with Literary Agent Hypothesis above; in both the book and the series, Claudius writes and buries his memoirs for the specific purpose of having them discovered "nineteen hundred years or near" later, as the Sybil said they would be.
- Manipulative Bastard: Messalina. Livia, more than anyone else.
- Sejanus does a pretty good job manipulating himself and his family into positions of power, even convincing Claudius to marry his sister.
- Master Poisoner: Livia, and later Agrippina.
- Don't forget Martina (who met her match with Livia). And Livilla, who willingly fed poison to both a husband and a daughter.
- Modesty Bedsheet: Averted in that nudity on the part of the female actors was allowed-- a shocking thing to see on network TV at this point in time, at least in America.
- Mood Whiplash: "Some Justice" opens with Claudius relaxing at a party with his friends--until Lollia, the hostess, relates how Tiberius defiled her, then kills herself in front of her guests.
- My Beloved Smother: Livia to Tiberius. When he can finally shove her out of power, he does so happily.
- Never Trust a Trope: Herod's insistent advice to Claudius--Trust no one
- Nobody Poops: Averted - Claudius wakes out of a dream that he fell into whilst sitting on the toilet.
- Not So Above It All: A darker version of this trope: Claudius thinks he can remain separate from the murderous schemes absorbing his family. Unfortunately, when Claudius himself comes to power, he finds he must get his own hands dirty in order to survive.
- Obfuscating Disability: Claudius exaggerated his stutter, limp and general clumsiness. This barely kept him alive when he had to work for The Caligula
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Claudius found playing the fool to be a necessary survival tactic in a family where anyone with even an ounce of ambition would wind up brutally slaughtered.
- He was good enough at this that arch-schemer Livia only picked up on this being obfuscation quite late in life.
- Parental Incest: In a scene deleted from the American version of the series, Agrippinilla-- another of Caligula's sisters-- uses sex to keep her son Nero in line. It doesn't work and he eventually has her murdered.
- The Plan: Livia puts her son Tiberius on the throne using some truly devious political maneuvering, along with generous amounts of poison.
- Please Spare Him, My Liege: Too many times to count. Notably, Claudius and Caesonia manage to talk Caligula out of murdering the Senate by appealing to his ego.
- Praetorian Guard: The original one plays a major role, putting Claudius on the imperial throne.
- Prophecies Are Always Right: Three prophecies are mentioned during the series: that Rome would be placed in Claudius' hands in the hour of need, that Claudius' memoirs would be discovered after nineteen hundred years, and that the Messiah would be born on Livia's birthday. The first two come true, and it's heavily implied that so did the third.
- The Purge: Sejanus embarks upon a carefully planned campaign to imprison and destroy Agrippina, her children and supporters in order to pave his way to the Imperial throne. Once his plan is discovered by the Emperor, Sejanus himself becomes the victim of a purge, which consumes his family and supporters.
- Really Gets Around: IS THERE ANYONE IN ROME WHO HAS NOT SLEPT WITH MY DAUGHTER [Julia]?
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The page quote is from a speech Claudius delivers to the senate when they refuse to recognize him as emperor, and he agrees with them, but he can't help pointing out that the senate spinelessly handed over power in the past and it wouldn't be unlikely for them to do it again, even though he's fully in support of them restoring the Roman republic.
- Red Right Hand: Inverted, since the limping, twitching, stammering Claudius is portrayed as one of the few decent people in the entire family, and most of his able-bodied relatives are unstable, scheming, murdering bastards.
- Reluctant Ruler: Claudius. Tiberius was fairly reluctant about the role his mother planned for him, too. The power went to his head pretty quickly, though.
- Replacement Scrappy: An in-universe example: each Emperor names someone worse than themselves so that they wouldn't be remembered so harshly.
- Royally Screwed-Up: To say the least.
- Sarcastic Confession: "Oh, I care very much whether he lives or dies." Livia, of course.
- Scream Discretion Shot: Done twice. (These were cut for American audiences)
- First with Caligula's attempted abortion on his sister's baby where we only see a bit of blood around Caligula's face when he leaves the room and Claudius' reaction to what he sees.
- When Macro orders the rape of Sejanus' daughter, which we never see but only hear her scream.
- Seppuku: What Roman Generals (like Quintilius Varus of the "WHERE ARE MY EAGLES!" fame) were expected to do after losing battles. Another form of ritual suicide (by opening a vein) was also available to people facing political disgrace, or to people who had simply grown tired of life. Of course, when doing this, it's always handy to have one's treacherous wife standing by to gut-stab you should you chicken out at the last minute...
- Smug Snake: Sejanus.
- Shown Their Work: Graves translated many classical works into English, including one of the major sources for the life of Claudius. Much of the novel's material can be traced to Roman authors such as Suetonius and Tacitus.
- If you're familiar with Latin literature, then you'll find that the style of the novel reads very much like something that has been translated faithfully from Latin. The style is quite distinct. After a while, you forget that you're not really reading a Roman book. It's that accurate.
- Springtime for Hitler: When seeking favor from Caligula, do not tell him you've offered your life to the gods in place of his if he gets sick. He may decide to take you at your word when he recovers.
- Stealth Insult: (To Caligula) "Mad? Why your majesty, you set the standard of sanity for the entire world!"
- Succession Crisis: Several.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: "Not slept."
- Take Me Instead!: When Caligula falls ill, some of his subjects make grandiose public announcements that if Death spares the Emperor, they'll kill themselves in his place. Later, when Caligula gets better, he forces them all to follow through on it.
- Tangled Family Tree: An example of Truth in Television; the convoluted relationships (both through blood and through marriage) between all the Julio-Claudians were so complex that a copy of the Julio-Claudian family tree was included in the DVD box-set, available to consult when they watched this series.
- True Companions: Inverted. Claudius starts at the centre of a network of close friends. As the series progresses, this group dwindles--as characters either die or are exiled--until only Claudius remains.
- Traumatic C-Section: Caligula cutting out and eating his and Drusilla's incest baby.
- Unexpected Successor: Claudius after Caligula's death.
- The Vamp: Messalina
- Villainous Incest: Caligula, naturally.
- Unfortunate Name: Postumus, whose name is phonetically identical to "posthumous" aka "after-death". Intentional, historically, the character was born after his father had died and hence was a "posthumous" son. Also fitting, considering his eventual fate.
- Villainous Breakdown: Messalina suffers a particularly nasty one after she's arrested. Sejanus also has one when the letter from Tiberius turns into a denunciation and arrest order.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: We don't hear about the fate of Claudius' son from his first marriage, or what happened to Helen after her mother, Livilla, attempted to poison her.
- Would Hurt a Child: Several examples.
- You Can't Fight Fate: Claudius's attitude towards the end of his life.
- Zero-Percent Approval Rating: Tiberius and Caligula. Claudius tried to achieve this through his reign and Nero's to renew fervour for the Republic.