It may be some time, if at all, since you last delved into the vicious and lethal grandeur of Rome as it was portrayed in I, Claudius. After all, Robert Graves’s book was first published in 1934. The BBC series first aired in 1976. In Pittsburgh, it ran on WQED, the local PBS station. My father watched it religiously.
So it was with more than a little nostalgia that I recently took to the series again. Fair warning: the first three episodes? Slow going. But you owe it to yourself the wade through them. That’s when the intrigues, mayhem, and bloodshed take off exponentially.
This includes what I find to be several fine horror sequences, things that are horrific not so much in terms of gore (there really isn’t any, though some is strongly implied).
No, this is more often malevolence on a psychological level. Implacable Kafka-esque bureaucracy as in, say, The Trial. Creepy outright ickiness. Or just death on a grand scale.
Here, then, is a wee sample.
Livia, The Serial Poisoner– Played by Siân Phillips, Livia is possibly the most interesting character after Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and sometimes more so. She has a long string of victims, pretty much anyone who might even remotely become a political obstacle to the rise of her son, Tiberius (George Baker). Okay, “obstacle” isn’t the right word. Livia even bumps off a few people who would have been, at most, speed bumps on the road to the reign of her son. Eventually she even ices her own husband, Augustus (Brian Blessed, who I always see as Vultan from Flash Gordon, but nevermind that now).
The Godfather, Roman Empress Style– Remember what happens after Marlon Brando dies in The Godfather? While Al Pacino attends his godchild’s christening, his hitmen wipe out all the New York dons as well as Moe Greene. Well, when Augustus dies, Livia does pretty much the same thing. Keep in mind, though, that Graves wrote this in the 30s, long before Mario Puzo. Woulda been nice, though, to hear something along the lines of, “Leave the sword. Take the ______ (insert ancient Roman equivalent of cannoli).”
Pretty Much Everything About Caligula– Livia and Claudius are interesting, complex characters to be sure, but Holy Roman Crap is John Hurt fascinating. Once his segment of the series is over, you feel like you need a shower. He’s not just evil, like Livia, but crazy, weird, cruel evil. Highlights, if you can call them highlights, include turning the palace into a brothel, making his horse a senator, a truly bizarre hermaphroditic dance performance, and cutting his unborn child out of his wife and swallowing it because he thinks he’s Zeus and fears the child will be greater than he is (as in the myth of Athena’s birth). Sheesh.
Beheading Of Messalina– This is a simple scene with no bloodshed, yet it remains one of the most chilling things I can remember. Messalina (Sheila White) was Claudius’s beautiful and much younger wife (a marriage arranged by Caligula as a cruel joke–what a prankster). She was also ambitious, scheming, and evil. Ultimately she is rounded up with a number of other conspirators and beheaded. What makes the scene so effective is her scream-queen-like shrieking, “Not my head! Not my head!” right up to where a guard grabs her hair and swings his sword, at which point the camera spins away. I don’t know why, but it still makes me shudder.
Ah, the glory that was Rome.