What Shall We Do About Claudius?
Scenes from the BBC television series, I, Claudius
Winter was approaching in September of 9 AD in what is now western Germany between the Rhine and Weser rivers, when Roman governor Publius Quinctilius Varus led three legions to their deaths during three rain-soaked days of desperate muddy fighting in tree-covered hill country — an ambush massacre that became known as the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. A German and former-Roman captive named Arminius secretly united the forces of several German tribes to kill up to 20,000 Roman troops, and inflicted the greatest single Roman military disaster. It left a deep psychological wound on Augustus, who stopped shaving or cutting his hair, and purportedly responded to news of the loss by shouting, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” I, Claudius portrays Augustus shouting the slight variation, “Quinctilius Varus, where are my eagles?!” — reference to the three metallic eagle legion standards captured by the victorious Germans.
Brian Blessed’s Augustus receives news of the battle late at night (with Tiberius and Livia present) from an exhausted dirt-covered courier who has ridden four sleepless days to make his report:
The 19th legion does not exist anymore. Nor the 17th, nor the 18th. The whole army of Quinctilius Varus was massacred in the Teutoburg Forest. Nothing stands between the German tribes and our provinces in Gaul.
There is no army in across-the-Rhine Germany. Troops, and orderlies, auxiliaries, and general staff massacred to a man. Those who survived the battle were hunted down and killed.
We were on a punitive expedition, because we’d heard news that a tax collector and his staff had all been murdered.
We’d had a mass of intelligence warning us that things were happening in the villages. The commander ignored it.
We were advancing along a forest track. We didn’t even put out advance guards or flank guards. Our progress was slow, because we were constantly felling trees, and this gave the tribes time to gather. Then it started to rain. The archers couldn’t keep their bows dry, and then our shields became soaked and too heavy to carry. Then our carts got stuck in the mud. When the Germans attacked, we were in a hopeless position.
Only one officer kept his head. Cassius Chaerea. He formed up about 120 of us, and we cut our way out and back to the fort. The others are still there.
He concludes his report by noting that Roman prisoners were put in wicker cages, and burned alive. The resulting shock felt by the Julio-Claudian family from Roman soldiers dying in Germany stands in sharp contrast to the pleasure they feel from betting on the blood sport of gladiators hacking each other to death in a Roman coliseum (save for Claudius, who is repelled by the sight, and passes out). As the most-bloodthirsty character in the series to this point, with Caligula having yet to be introduced, it’s fitting that Livia descends into the staging chamber beneath the coliseum to address the gladiators who are to battle in honor of her dead son, Drusus, who was possibly murdered at her order:
Livia: “Now, these games are being held in honor of my son, Drusus Nero, who was worth the whole lot of you put together. It’s my intention that these games will be remembered long after you’re all dead and forgotten, even by your nearest and dearest. You’re all scum, and you know it. But you have a chance here, some of you, to prove that you’re a bit more than that. And for those whom death doesn’t liberate, there will be plenty of freedoms handed out afterwards, to say nothing of gold plate and coin. But, I want a good show. I want my money’s worth. I don’t want any kiss in the ring stuff. And I don’t want my family watching two grown men pussyfooting around each other for half an hour, before one of them aims a real blow. There’s been too much of that in the past. And don’t think you can fool me either, because I know every trick in the book — including the pig’s blood in the bladder to make it look as if one of you is dead. There’s been too much of that too, lately. These games are being degraded by the increasing use of professional tricks to stay alive, and I won’t have it. So put on a good show, and there will be plenty of money for the living, and a decent burial for the dead. And if not, I’ll break this guild up, and I’ll send the lot of you to the mines in Numidia. That’s all I’ve got to say to you.”
Livia then continues eliminating obstacles to Tiberius becoming sole heir to Augustus. She manipulates Claudius’ sister Livilla — alternately threatening her with banishment, and tempting her with a promise to make her husband Castor heir to Tiberius — into framing Postumus for rape, and getting him banished to an island. Beforehand, Postumus publicly tells Augustus that his wife is behind the deaths of Gaius and Lucius, and likely Drusus. Throughout, Livia looks on serenely from a few feet away, counting on Augustus’ willful ignorance to shield her.
Claudius soon loses his own serene ignorance of his family’s deadly treachery, after a conversation with Roman historian Pollio. The old man tells 19 year-old Claudius that his father and grandfather were poisoned for wanting the return of a Roman republic, and gives the teenager some advice toward avoiding their fate:
Pollio: “Do you want to live a long and useful life? In that case, exaggerate your stutter and your lip. Let your wits wander, and play the fool as much as you like.”
When Postumus briefly escapes arrest for rape, he makes for Claudius’ room, telling his cousin the truth of the charge, and gives him the further advice to “Go on playing the idiot. It’s safer that way.” He also expresses regret at not being able to attend Claudius’ upcoming wedding:
Claudius: “Don’t worry. It will be a very small affair. I embarrass them all far too much.”
Postumus: “Good. Go on embarrassing them.”
The episode’s final scene, though, is a joke on Claudius. He is married to a woman who towers over him, and the palace halls echo with the laughter of his older family and royal court. They see Claudius as a harmless joke — an opinion that will keep him alive through the carnage to come.