Sex and murder are integral components in the story of mankind, so it’s no surprise the two are just as prominent throughout the ages in art, mythology, and entertainment, from Shakespeare to slasher films, from the Bible to True Blood. I, Claudius, the 1976 BBC miniseries based on Robert Graves’ 1934 historical novel of the same name and its sequel Claudius the God, is an outstanding television drama where both elements are shown to have a great impact on the rulers of the Roman Empire from Augustus Caesar through to Nero.
Acorn Media released a 35th Anniversary Edition in 2012, which is accurate when using the series U.S. debut on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater the following year. The series opens with “A Touch of Murder,” which is also available in two extended parts as part of the set’s bonus materials. Emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi) is nearing the end of his life. He is writing the history of his family which has ruled Rome since before his birth.
He begins at a time when Augustus Caesar (Brian Blessed) is considering an heir. When it seems his young nephew Marcellus is the likely person, his friend Marcus Agrippa (John Paul), who felt the position should be his, leaves Rome. Augustus’ second wife, Livia (Sian Phillips) is an utterly ruthless woman who stops at nothing to not only keep power but expand it. She wants her son, Tiberius (George Baker), who Augustus has adopted, to become Emperor and maneuvers behind the scenes to take down his rivals. No one ever realizes she has the upper hand until it’s too late for them. However, she’s not infallible and her plans don’t always come to fruition. With her cunning and calculating ways, Livia is one of my favorite villains.
Each episode relates critical times as power shifts and sways in Rome. After Augustus dies, Tiberius and later Caligula (John Hurt who revels in the character’s insanity like few actors ever have) become Emperor. Under both, the city grows increasingly decadent, matching the Emperor’s depravity. Conspiracies to overthrow each are considered. Considering the way each rose to power, both men know they must be ever cautious. They deal harshly with those cross and even those who only appear to be a threat. This is why Claudius was warned by a few who care for him to play up his limp and stammer so he’ll be considered an idiot, too stupid to cause any harm. And yet against his will, Claudius eventually finds himself as Emperor, fearful that he will meet a similar fate as those who held the title before him.
The set comes with extras that should please fans of the production and source material. Created in 2002, I, Claudius, A Television Epic (74 min) is a thorough exploration of the making of the series with director Herbert Wise and cast members. “Favorite Scenes of the Cast and Director” (36 min) is compiled from the same interview sessions. The 1965 documentary The Epic That Never Was (71 min) tells the story of Alexander Korda’s 1937 adaptation, which was never completed. Charles Laughton starred as Claudius and can be seen in footage made available. Author Robert Graves and director Joseph von Sternberg, who almost got the job, are seen in interviews. The “Derek Jacobi Interview” (12 min) was conducted in 2010.
Led by an all-star cast and recognized by both BAFTA and the Emmys, I, Claudius is an outstanding television series. Thought set in ancient Rome, the struggles for power and affairs of the heart are timeless dramatic devices, and they are captivatingly executed, as are a few of the characters along the way.