I, Claudius: Episode 5

Written by
Christian Niedan
Episode 5 – Some Justice



Watch I, Claudius, and you see subtle details of royal Roman behavior, thanks to series historical consultant Robert Erskine. For example, everyone eats with their right hand, because their left would be used to wipe their asses. Also, when interacting with palace slaves, Erskine instructed the Julio-Claudian cast to think of their cupbearers and handmaidens as “present day machines.” He explains why in the documentary, I, Claudius: A Television Epic:

How should they behave towards their slaves? Severely, do you think? With familiarity? Actually, I should think neither. I suspect they’d take no notice of them at all, because they were simply chattel to be bought and sold at will, like a dishwasher or a hat stand.  

You didn’t say “please” or “thank you” to a slave. You just held out your cup, and it’s filled.

Siân Phillips recalls initially finding it difficult to be sufficiently rude to Livia’s servants, since typical behavior dictates that “We tend to say ‘thank you,’ or we at least look at people when they do things for us, and nod.” To shake her of this habit, series director Herbert Wise would forcefully remind her, “No, Siân! No! Beastly to the servants! Be beastly to the servants!”  

Consequently, when a Julio-Claudian falls ill with poison, slaves are a typical scapegoat — as Augustus says (shortly before his own fatal poisoning), “You never know what gets into food when it goes into the kitchens. The slaves are so careless.”

When Claudius’ brother Germanicus dies suddenly in Syria, the popular general’s wife Agrippina points blame at recently-fired Syrian governor Piso and his wife Plancina — who is suspected of bribing her way into the kitchens to poison Germanicus’ food. Highly superstitious, Germanicus also believed that Plancina used witchcraft against him, and Agrippina describes the response:

He made a propitiating sacrifice of 9 black puppies to Hecaty, which was the proper thing to do when being victimized. And the very next day, a slave who was washing the floor noticed a loose tile. Lifting it up, he saw beneath it the naked and decaying corpse of a baby — its belly painted red, with horns tied to its forehead. We made an immediate search in every room, and equally gruesome finds were made: a corpse of a cat, with rudimentary wings growing in its back; the head of a negro, with a child’s white hand stuck in its mouth; the skull of an ass, with the word ‘Germanicus’ written across it; cocks feathers smeared in blood were found among the cushions; the word ‘Rome’ written upside down; and the number 17. Now, only I knew that the number 17 upset him dreadfully.

One of the things that upset him the most was the appearance of his name, each day shortened by a letter. It would appear quite suddenly without explanation in rooms to which the servants had no access, and where the windows were too small for a man to climb through. He told me he was doomed. But I told him, “No, not as long as you have the green jasper charm of Hecaty with you.” He felt under his pillow, and he found it, and that comforted him. Because he knew as long as he had that talisman safe, nothing could happen to him. That night, while he was asleep, he felt a tiny movement under his pillow. He turned on his side, and fumbled for the charm. It was gone.

The thief is Germanicus’ 7 year-old son, Gaius — known to history as Caligula (Latin for “little boots”, after the child-size soldier shoes he wore around his father’s troops). The demented child carried out an elaborate assassination plan devised by local notorious poisoner, Martina, who is working for Plancina. When Piso and Plancina are put on trial, Martina is brought to Rome as a secret witness against them, and hidden by Claudius and his friend Herod. However, Livia’s agents make off with the provincial poisoner, who is soon having dinner with her urban equivalent:

Livia: “Tell me, what did you use on my grandson, Germanicus.”

Martina: “Ah, belladonna.”

Livia: “Ah, that accounts for the red rash.”

Martina: “It nearly always leaves that mark. That’s why I didn’t want to use it. But Plancina insisted. I warned her. But she’d been told by know-it-alls how tasteless it was. You know what people are like.”

Livia: “Amateurs. But you used witchcraft as well.” 

Martina: “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. All I did was arrange some apparitions. Your grandson was more superstitious than any man living. I just frightened him to death. If a man believes he’s going to die, he’ll die a lot quicker than if he doesn’t.”

Livia: “How did you gain access to that house?” 

Martina: “You remember when Germanicus went to Egypt, he took Aggripina with him, but left little Caligula behind as a punishment?”

Livia: “What for?”

Martina: “Oh, that child was never out of mischief. He hated his father. They fought like cat and dog. It was he who told me how superstitious his father was. Well, they left him in the care of a tutor, a Greek, whom I knew. He took the child for walks all over the city, and each day he brought him to see me. Ooh, that child’s a strange one. He told me once he was born a god — and such was the conviction with which he said it, that I believed him, and I said I did. It was then that I suggested he play the death game. I said, ‘A god should be able to frighten a man to death,’ and he shouted, ‘Tell me how, and I’ll show you.’ So, I told him.”

Livia: “Are you telling me that that child was responsible for poisoning his own father?”

Martina: “Shocking, isn’t it.”

Livia: “Boy’s not a god. He’s a monster.”

Martina: “You try telling him.”

Soon enough, Livia will do just that — befriend that monster, after once more manipulating the fortunes of her son Tiberius through blackmail of Plancina and murder of Piso. Indeed, it is Tiberius, who defers more and more power to captain of the guards, Sejanus, who will use his leisure time on the isle of Capri to nurture the viper Caligula from boyhood frightener to full-grown homicidal maniac and sexual deviant — embodied in a series-stealing turn by John Hurt.

Check back next week for Episode 6