I, Claudius: Episode 12

Written by
Christian Niedan

Episode 12: Old King Log



One of my favorite facts about I, Claudius is that Robert Graves wrote its two source books for some quick money, as he recalled in the 1965 documentary, The Epic That Never Was:

The whole story starts with the appearance in my life of the emperor Claudius. And that was in about October 1929, just before I immigrated to Majorca, where I’ve been living ever since. 

I’d been reading the story of Claudius in Suetonius and Tacitus, and I knew there was a mistake somewhere, and that one day I’d write the real story if I ever needed the money. I actually said it in those words. Well, then I went to Majorca, and after about five years money started running out, and I got caught in a very big land deal… I had to make 4,000 pounds.

I regard this as a very personal deal between me and Claudius. So the book came out, and I made 8,000 pounds, so I was able to take the mortgage off my house, and able to think about things again. 

Well, I thought that was over, and then one day I got this cable from [film producer, Alexander] Korda, saying that he wanted to buy the rights. So I thought, “Fine.” 

That pragmatic approach is shared by Graves’ Claudius during his waning days as emperor. He wants the return of a Roman republic, but realizes that his own job stands in the way, thanks to his unplanned ascendency after Caligula’s murder. So, drifting through a fog of too much wine, a voiceover summarizes his greatest regret, with a poetic flourish: 

The frog pool wanted a king. Jove sent them Old King Log. I have been as deaf and blind and wooden as a log. My chief fault: I have been too benevolent. I repaired the ruin my predecessors spread. I reconciled Rome and the world to monarchy again. By dulling the blade of tyranny, I fell into great error. By sharpening that blade, I might redeem that error. Violent disorders call for violent remedies. Yet I am, I must remember, Old King Log. I shall float inertly in the stagnant pool. 

Then, Claudius speaks a mantra that will shape his plan of succession:

Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out. 

Claudius believes wholly in the suppressed Sibylline prophecy that Livia gave him just before her death — which foretold the reigns of Caligula, himself, and future adopted son Nero (instead of his own son, Britannicus). Fully aware that Nero is mad, and that his mother Agrippinilla craves imperial power just as much as Livia once did, Claudius agrees with his traitorous advisor Pallas to marry Aggripinilla, despite being her uncle. Claudius’ other advisor Narcissus immediately raises concerns over incest — concerns that don’t faze Agrippinilla, who has slept with both her brother Caligula and son Nero. Yet, Claudius immediately puts the issue aside when the prospective couple meet to discuss a union:

Claudius: “The question of incest is somewhat academic.”

Agrippinilla: “What does that mean?”

Claudius: “It means that beautiful as you are, your body is of less interest to me than your mind. I’m marrying you for your head, my dear, not your heart. Of which, I suspect you have very little.”

Agrippinilla: “Well, then, that suits me. You’re not the sort of lover one dreams of.”

Claudius: “Well, certainly not the sort that you dream of. Still, I won’t discuss your dreams — not on a full stomach. I’m marrying you, because I’m tired of ruling alone, and there are so many things that an emperor’s wife could do that others can’t. But I need a woman with a mind. Now, does that appeal to you?”

Agrippinilla: “Admirably. But I shan’t be a cipher, I can tell you that. If you give me power, I shall use it.”

Claudius: “Now, why else do you imagine that I’m giving it to you?”

Despite its benefits, Claudius’ bargain disturbs the scheming Agrippinilla, who senses something odd about his quick easy agreement to all facets of what was supposed to be a long difficult plan of manipulation — a blueprint similar to Claudius’ previous wife, Messalina. Like her, Agrippinilla benefitted from a random whim of Caligula — her mad brother banishing her to die on an island, where she instead remained safe from Cassius Chaerea’s assassination plot against her family. Now, she is primed to take power, with plans to wield it via manipulation of her son, Nero, in his position as emperor… all of which Claudius knows, and reshapes into his own plan for Rome’s future, as he tells Narcissus:

All my life, I wanted to see the republic restored. Yet, I let myself be made an emperor. That was written, too. But I made a mistake. I tried to rule wisely and justly, blunting the edge of monarchy, reconciling the people to it. In doing that, I was helping monarchy. Now, I shall destroy it once and for all — or rather, Nero will destroy it. He’s as mad as my nephew, Caligula. We’re all mad, we Caesars. And when we are gone, the people will finish with monarchies once and for all, andreturn to the sanity of the republic. 

Claudius wants Britannicus to be the instrument for restoring the republic, and hatches a secret plan to make that possible — relying on the help of the recently defeated leader of tribal Britain, King Caractacus. When the captured warrior with lime-spiked hair is brought before Rome’s senate in chains, he gives a proudly defiant speech that highlights the brutality of empire for conquered peoples:

I’ll tell you this: If the sword is all that you’re prepared to show us Britons, then be prepared to carry it forever in your hand, and sleep with it forever at your side at night — for you will need it!

It makes sense then that Caractacus (whose bold speech moves the senate to spare his life) would help bring about the replacement of Rome’s empire with a (presumably) less expansion-minded republic. Yet, Claudius must still convince Britannicus. The two have a brutally honest conservation, wherein Claudius reveals that he believes Caligula to be the boy’s biological father, but that he still loves him as his own — despite his public favoritism of Nero. To save Britannicus from his stepbrother, Claudius lays out his plan:

The world is now wholly Roman. There is nowhere you can fly to be safe, except to the remotest part of Britain. Nero will not be able to touch you there, for there is no one to give you up. Now, very soon, I shall allow some of Caractacus’ young men to return to northern Britain, and you will go with them in disguise. You will stay at the court of Queen Cartimandua. Only she and Carctacus’ son will know your real identity. And from there, she will send you north, into regions where no Roman’s foot has ever trod, but where she has friends — and there you shall wait! Nero is mad. He will destroy the empire. His excesses will demand the return of the republic, and you will return to restore it. The republic will live again. 

Britannicus refuses, deeming the plan “not honorable”:

Do you think that I, a Claudian, will paint my face blue and go and hide among barbarians? 

I’m not afraid of Nero. Nero is a coward. I can protect myself. Let me put on my manly gown. Once I’m officially a man, I’ll match Nero in everything he does. I don’t believe in the republic. No one believes in the republic anymore. No one does, except you. You’re old, father, and out of touch. I want my chance to rule, and rule Rome as it should be ruled. If you love me, give me that chance. 

Claudius agrees, even though he knows it means the boy’s certain murder. Soon, Old King Log will allow himself to eat poisoned mushrooms given to him by Agrippinilla. However, on his deathbed, he has his second hallucination of the episode — a vision of the Sibyl, who informs him of Agrippinilla’s future execution by Nero, whose own death will signal the end of the Julio-Claudian family of emperors.

Earlier in the episode, his first hallucination includes a ghostly vision of Augustus, Livia, Tiberius, Caligula, and Antonia shuffling about the senate floor — accompanied by Claudius uttering a prophecy of his own:

One day, they will all live again. The dead will come to life. The man who dwells by the pool will open graves and deliver Rome up again. She shall be seen for what she truly was

That “man who dwells by the pool” and “graves” refers to series writer Jack Pulman and source books author Robert Graves, respectively. Pulman would continue his prolific television writing career until May 1979, when he died of a heart attack at age 53 — followed by Graves’ death in December 1985 at age 100. While both lived to enjoy evolving success of I, Claudius’s television adaptation, series producer (and staunch supporter for Wise’s directorial vision) Martin Lisemore did not — dying in a car accident in February 1977, some 7 months before the U.S. premiere on PBS. 

40 years later, I, Claudius benefits from its timeless visual style and witty writing. Back in 2002, for the documentary, I, Claudius: A Television Epic, the series’ Nero (Christopher Biggins) described it as a sort of Roman version of long-running ITV series, Coronation Street:

I think that’s where it scored, because it was everyday life, in a way, and portrayed as such. And yet, the most appalling things happened, like murders and everything. Which of course wouldn’t happen in an everyday soap of today. But in those days, it did. And I think that’s where the public really liked it. I think that’s where the public took it into its heart, and relished it.

Circa 2017, however, a first-time viewer of I, Claudius would find themes familiar to fans of the most popular drama on U.S. television: HBO’s Game of Thrones. When GoT author George R. R. Martin was asked in a 2013 io9 interview if he was influenced by I, Claudius, he answered thusly: 

To some extent. I read I, Claudius and Claudius the God many, many years ago. And of course, I loved the TV series. I think the TV series is one of the best series ever done.

Television audiences felt the same way, with I, Claudius’ weekly BBC audience estimated at 2.5 million during its initial 1976 run. It then won acting BAFTAs for Derek Jacobi and Siân Phillips (but not Best Drama Series, which went to Rock Follies), while art director Tim Harvey snagged both a BAFTA (Best Design) and an Emmy (Outstanding Art Direction). Harvey’s was the only Emmy won in a tough 1978 TV award field — though, the production was nominated for Outstanding Limited Series, and Wise for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series (which went to Holocaust, and its director Marvin Chomsky, respectively).

However, the greatest recognition of I, Claudius’ extraordinary quality may be that it aired free of charge across America’s many PBS stations via Masterpiece Theatre, despite its more salacious and bloody content, and the doubts of the woman responsible for bringing it to U.S. television screens — as Les Brown wrote in The New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section on the day of its premiere (November 6th, 1977), in an article titled, “TV’s ‘I, Claudius’ Will Test the Boundaries of Pubic Broadcasting”:

Getting the program past the PBS acceptance standards was one hurdle the series faced in the United States. Another was to win the approval of the Mobil Oil Corporation, the underwriter of “Masterpiece Theater” for all its seven years. In the past, “Masterpiece Theater” has presented such “sale” miniseries as “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “The Forsyte Saga,” “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Dickens of London.” And as a rule, sponsoring corporations generally eschew any identification with controversy on commercial or public television; this Is the reason most investigative documentaries and serious original dramas on television go begging for advertising support.

Joan Sullivan, the executive at Boston’s WGBHTV who puts together the “Masterpiece Theater” package, advised Mobil that “I, Claudius” was likely to create controversy and that the company might not want to associate its funding signature with a program so steeped in violence [and sex]. Miss Sullivan, who became interested in the series even before it was produced and knew she wanted to buy it for this country when she saw the finished work, noted in a memo to Mobil that WGBH would try to find another way to present the series if “I, Claudius” was considered unsuitable for “Masterpiece Theater.”

But Herbert Schmertz, vice president of public affairs for Mobil, said he had no reservations at all about “I, Claudius.” “There’s no question that it’s adult fare, but there’s a big difference between adult and controversial. [I] would be surprised if it were controversial,” he remarked.

He added that he expected Mobil to gain from the presentation “the satisfaction of providing television extraordinary quality,” as well as an identification with that quality. Indeed, Mobil’s underwriting of public television programs, begun at the start of the energy crisis, generally has been designed to make a favorable impression on opinion leaders rather than to sell its petroleum products to mass audiences.

Mobil no doubt was comforted also by the fact that the sex and violence in “I, Claudius” is set around 2,000 years ago. As Miss Sullivan observed, “There is some insulation from the historical distance.”

Brown specified the sex and violence that benefitted from that historical distance:

What makes the 12 hours of “I, Claudius” troublesome to public television stations here is that the political tale is played against the background of incest, prostitution, adultery, rape, sex tournaments and sex orgies. There are also several seduction scenes, instances of toplessness, the peregrinations of [a] nymphomaniac, moments of homosexual loveplay and a gruesome abortion.

These are interlarded with beheadings, assassinations, gladiator games, murder by sword and murder by poison. Yet for all this, an apologist for “I, Claudius” put it accurately when she said: “No matter how it sounds, it ain’t 42 Street.”

That may have been just fine for the New York City market’s PBS station, WNET, which Brown describes as “one of relatively few community-operated stations, and the principal outlet for the largest and most sophisticated metropolitan area, it has over the years maintained a higher degree of permissiveness than most public television stations around the country.” Instead, it was in U.S. “Bible Belt” regions that Brown foresaw other PBS stations facing a tough choice with I, Claudius:

Generally, none of these governmental or institutional owners wishes to become involved with, or held responsible for, putting on the air programs that may be controversial for showing nudity, for using blasphemous or obscene language or for dealing excessively with sexual themes.

“I, Claudius,” therefore, is a chancy venture for American public television and one that got on the national service — through the highly regarded “Masterpiece Theater” series — on sheer merit.

Said Lawrence K. Grossman, president of PBS: “It is historically accurate, written by a true artist and beautifully mounted and performed. These are grounds for accepting it; I don’t know on what grounds we could have legitimately declined.”

40 years later, that sentiment continues to resonate among viewers who either re-watch this now-landmark miniseries for enjoyment, or who are experiencing it for the first time out of curiosity — for as Grossman notes, with so much going for it, how can you say no to I, Claudius? It’s must-watch television of historic quality.