Every now and then you are forcibly reminded just how British television has declined over the last few decades. BBC4 is currently reshowing the series I, Claudius. When the series was first broadcast I was too young to watch it. I caught it the second time around when I was a university student, and was mesmerised by it. That was back in 1985, if memory serves. I had of course read the books by then, and have read them many times since. And now, nearly thirty years later, I, Claudius, is as good now as it was then.
The books are curious in that they are not characteristic of Robert Graves’s other works. I have tried reading Wife to Mr Milton, and not had much success. I have heard it said that Graves himself saw the Claudius novels as something of an excursus in his literary career, but, as is so often the case, he is remembered chiefly for these books, which is not what he would have chosen, one feels.
The books have enormous appeal because they are about the timeless struggle between good and evil. Claudius is good, and Livia is evil, as are many of the other characters. Sadly evil triumphs in the end, largely because it can disguise itself as good. And yet evil has an almost insane glamour about it. One is fascinated by Livia, and one admires her. One is certainly fascinated by Caligula, and one is enthralled by Agrippina, who is the star of the final book. (Tacitus loved Agrippina too, one feels, and the story of the collapsible ship is his masterpiece.)
The series diverges form the novels in that it does not follow this rigorously moral path, which is outlined in the first novel with the song about the Claudian tree producing both good apples and crab apples. Rather the series takes a different perspective, that of a horror comedy. Livia, played in the series by the superb Sian Phillips, is a consummate ironist. “Goodness has nothing to do with it,” she tells Marcellus, who thanks her even as she spoons him the poisoned food.
Were the Julio-Claudians really that bad? Did they really, as Claudius tells us, murder each other until he alone, more or less, was left? It seems incredible, but our own Plantagenet dynasty was almost as terrible. Shakespeare’s Richard III resembles I, Claudius, in that it is about one family member gradually disposing of everyone who stands in his way, and is often played today as a horror comedy. But Richard is killed in the end. I, Claudius reminds us that the wicked frequently get away with it. After all, Claudius, who knew her so well, makes Livia a goddess.