Episode 6 – Queen of Heaven
Poison and violence ended the reigns of Roman emperors… and then their heirs. The topic of regicide was detailed by UCLA professor Eugene Weber in 1989, during his 52-part history lecture series on PBS television (through WGBH Boston), The Western Tradition. Two episodes were dedicated to the heirs of the old Eastern Roman Empire: the Byzantines.
Having moved the Roman Empire’s capital to Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, and now Istanbul) in 330 AD, Constantine is considered the first Byzantine emperor. His ascension was aided by being the son of a Roman emperor. Yet, the Byzantine rulers who succeeded Constantine took a remarkably eclectic range of paths to the throne. This was because the only real qualification to rule was to be a Greek Orthodox Christian. Weber points out how the church was the common bond that defined Byzantine nationality, and so the throne was open to pretty much any of the faithful — be they wealthy or poor, educated or illiterate:
Leo I in the 5th Century had been a butcher. People in Constantinople used to point out the stall where he and his wife had sold meat. Justin I in the 6th Century was a poor swineherd from the countryside who first appeared in the capital with bare feet and a pack on his back. And then one day, his nephew left the family village to join him. His name was Justinian, and he became emperor in 527… Phocas, who ruled in the 7th Century, was a simple centurion. Leo III in the 8th Century was an odd job man. Basil I in the 9th Century was a peasant, probably a shepherd from Macedonia. And Michael IV in the 11th Century was a servant from Paphlagonia on the Black Sea.
But once an emperor took the throne, there was no constitutional method to unseat him, except by a successful revolution. If you won your revolution, you were God’s chosen man in Constantinople. Lose, and you were a usurper, and could expect a painful death. Yet, Weber says that even winners were very aware of the precedent for abbreviated reigns:
Out of 88 emperors who ruled in Byzantium through 11 centuries, more than one third would be usurpers, and as many more died in violent circumstances — poisoned, stabbed, strangled, beheaded, starved, tortured to death, or simply blinded, which was considered more humane.
In I, Claudius, the imperial heirs to the poisoned Augustus face a similar prospect of unnatural death — and the ambitious everyman plotting his own Byzantine-like ascension to the throne is Livia’s Praetorian Guard assassin, Aelius Sejanus, played by Patrick Stewart. Having proved his loyalty by killing Postumus, Sejanus is now Tiberius’ right-hand man who runs the day-to-day operations of the empire (while the emperor indulges in palace slave orgies). He even manipulates Claudius into marrying his sister, Aelia (Sejanus quipping, “You’re the emperor’s nephew. That’s a good alliance for my family.”). The emperor’s son, Castor is outraged by the power of Sejanus, who is having a secret affair with his wife, Livilla, and warns Tiberius:
Castor: “Father, open your eyes. The man is using you. You know nothing he doesn’t want you to know, and you see no one he doesn’t want you to see.”
Tiberius: “He is the partner of my labors.”
Castor: “Yes, and soon he’ll be your colleague. But even that won’t be enough for him. That man has an appetite for power unknown to you and me.”
Tiberius replies that Castor is simply envious, but his son describes architectural evidence of Sejanus’ growing influence:
Castor: “His statue is now to be seen in Pompey theatre, and replicas of it are to be found all over Rome. He’s built a network of spies that have spread like an infection through the city. Well, don’t you see? He’s building a prison here, stone by stone — and one day, when you’re gone, we’ll all wake up, and find the doors locked and the bolts down.”
The natural balance to Sejanus could have been Claudius’ popular brother, the general Germanicus. However, after putting down an army revolt in Germany which could have propelled his own claim to the throne, Germanicus dies mysteriously while overseeing the eastern empire, in Syria. After his widow Agrippina forces Tiberius to grudgingly lay blame against Piso (who is stabbed to death by wife Plancina), she and her family are persecuted by the emperor. The exception is youngest son Caligula, who is the true assassin of Germanicus. Played with dramatic relish by John Hurt, the adult Caligula is introduced while encouraging his great uncle Tiberius’ darkest urges — bringing him a book of pornography. Later, he is dining with Livia (who only calls him “monster”), when she tells Claudius of his nephew’s murderous behavior:
Caligula: “Do you think it’s safe that uncle Claudius should be told my secret? Or are you going to poison him?”
Livia: “Oh, he’s quite safe. And remember this, monster, your uncle Claudius here is a phenomenon. He’s so old fashioned, that because he’s sworn to protect his brother’s children, he will never harm you. And remember this, too: Thrasyllus has prophesied that he will avenge your death. So you cannot harm him.”
When Caligula leaves, Livia forges a bargain with Claudius: he will help to declare her a goddess, thus saving her from the torments of hell for her many murders. In return, she tells her history-obsessed grandson the truth about her role in their family’s deaths: Marcellus, poisoned; Agrippa, poisoned; Gaius, poisoned; Lucius, drowned; Postumus stabbed. Then, Claudius asks about his father Drusus and brother Germanicus:
Livia: “Your father died of his wound, and Plancina poisoned Germanicus without instructions from me… but I had marked them both down for death.”
Livia: “They were both infected with that infantile disorder known as republicanism.”
She concludes her confessions by admitting to spending an entire night poisoning Augustus’ figs (calling it “the hardest thing that I ever had to do.”), and gives Claudius a parchment of suppressed Sibylline verses that prophesize Claudius becoming emperor. That prophecy soon becomes crucial to the hell-bound fate of Livia’s soul, when Caligula reneges on his promise to make Livia a goddess — softly murmuring a final savage taunt on her deathbed:
What makes you think a filthy smelly old woman like you could become a goddess? I don’t need you anymore, great-grandmother. My secret will die with you. You’re going to stew in hell for ever and ever.
I shall become the greatest god of all. And I shall look down on you, suffering all the torments of hell, and I shall say, “Leave her there. Leave her there for ever and ever and ever.”
Indeed, Caligula is preparing to bring hell on earth as the next emperor — and Livia warns Claudius to “go on playing the fool,” since he will have to survive through more family deaths and personal indignities, before finally fulfilling his prophesied role of avenger of a maniac.