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I, Claudius, reminds us that the wicked frequently get away with it

I, Claudius is a brilliant summary of the struggle between good and evil

By on Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Author Robert Graves Photo: Press Association

Author Robert Graves Photo: Press Association

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.

  • paulpriest

    Well to some extent but Chapter 25 is a deep ethical dialogue on why Livia did what she prevent Augustus plunging Rome into civil war through his favouritisms and antipathies,,,and to thwart that pernicious ‘fool’s dream’ disease of republicanism…
    Livia’s maleficence is actually mollified and ‘dumbed down’ by Jack Pulman [e.g.editing out the murder of Claudius's betrothed Camilla, the psychological war-games against Augustus for being 'impotent' and a vast array of the side-killings/exiles] and despite being despicable one can at least understand why she did it – and she freely confesses she never did anything for her own benefit but for Rome.

    Some of the most terrible incidents in the novels are not even mentioned [e.g. Urgulanilla's revenge, Lesbia's framing, Tiberius blinding and murdering the fisherman, Calpurnia's being burned alive] and the TV series inserts the shocking Caligula & Drusilla scene…

    But it constantly tends to give some psychological ‘justification’ for the characters’ malevolence…
    With Tiberius it’s the separation from Vipsania, the loss of Drusus, the nightmare of being married to Julia and the despondency of selling his honour out to get what he discovered he never wanted leading him to loathe his mother and her machinations…[the Lollia rape and Agrippina the elder scourging , the Piso/planciina poisoning trial and the egyptian porn scenes - no matter how sick, wicked and pervy he becomes - always have that echo of original loss - he was turned into a bad man - not born one...
    With Caligula it's being a spoiled brat via Agrippina and being the army mascot, and being 'too long in the east' and being clinically insane with migraines , being praised and endorsed by sycophantic terrified cowards who wouldn't take a stand, and by being punished overly-severely by Germanicus his father and Antonia his grandmother....
    With others it's blind ambition [Livilla, Agrippinilla, Pallas,] or being given positions of power to which they were not suited [Sejanus] or being forced to be pawns in bigger power struggles…[Livia's long-reach!]

    ..but BY FAR…the most ‘evi’l among them in the whole two novels
    is Messalina
    …and the reason for her actions?
    Because she could! And no matter what she did she got away with it because Claudius would never believe she was capable of such things….hence she could destroy everyone around her…
    Which is the most terrifying of all situations….

  • James Moriarty

    Ah, Fr Lucie-Smith would be so unhappy if you were to refuse to rise to one of his blog posts.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Oh James…..

  • paulpriest

    If you understood the irony of what you just said?.

    Put it this way. Any saintly or angelic onlookers would be inhaling sharply and deeply.

  • paulpriest

    Well if you loved what you’ve learned you would be champing at the bit to discuss the issues and subtleties…
    Was Livia’s protection of Rome as a political reality where its survival was seen as a prime directive [amd any action conducive to or eliminating any threat to that position was a price worth paying ]

    ‘one master passion in the breast like Aaron’s serpent swallow[ing] up the rest’?
    …fearing men of one book – but those with one moral principle must be signifivantly more scary and dangerous.

    How much is guilt or culpability mitigated by nurture, neglect or by being a Prometheus unchained where all psychological and socio-cultural reticences are abandoned and the Gyges ring comes into play that there are no consequences for one’s actions…How many of us would be Messalinas?

    Agatha Christie made a valid point that when you are the last person anyone would suspect it makes it so much easier to commit an offence

    Doing something and getting away with it because one can do something and get away with it…is a bit like an ourobouros…a dangerously self-destructive moral subroutine with no escape much of our morality would be compromised by the temptation of the certainty of never being found out?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Caroline, agreed. I wish Mr Priest would open a blog of his own which might be a better platform for his writings. Because nothing he writes here ever seems to the point, though I confess to never reading more than the first few sentences, as I find his style impenetrable.

  • paulpriest

    I get the hint, Father; I shall not trouble you with my ‘irksome impenetrabilities’ again.

  • James M

    Claudius, good ? Not if Tacitus & Suetonius are half-right. The Julio-Claudians, with the partial exception of Augustus, sound like a bunch of perverts; even if Tiberius has been very, very maligned, that leaves headcases like Caligula & Nero, and those furies Messalina & Agrippina. Livia managed to survive to 85 – but she sounds like a born manipulator. She could hardly avoid deification, given that the Divine Augustus, adopted son of the Divine Julius, was her hubby. Could she have lived so long, if she had not bumped off inconvenient people in case they did for her ? The only decent characters are the ones who are bumped off very young, like Britannicus, or the children of Drusus. The Julio-Claudians are a freak show, a gallery of grotesques.

    Things only get better once that crowd are out of the way, and Trajan takes over. That’s a long time to wait.

  • Frank

    The only doubt I have Fr. A is that I’m not convinced the wicked frequently get away with it even though they may, sometimes, appear to from the outside. If there is temporal punishment for sin maybe we don’t always see how it is meted out?

  • Jack Haggerty

    Someone said that things got better once the Julio-Claudians had departed the scene. I have no knowledge of that, but I came upon an important fact in ‘The Rome of Saint Paul’ (1930) by Albert MacKinnon. This old scholar points to the Mithraic temple under the Basilica of Saint Clement. Mr MacKinnon writes that the temple wasn’t erected until after the martyrdom of Clement ‘during the reign of Trajan’. Regarding Father Alexander’s difficulties with the Milton novel, can I recommend ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar? The Modern American Library edition carries an afterward by the novelist. She quotes a sentence from Flaubert. ‘Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had no yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.’ I am always grateful for the living faith we share when I reread this novel.