Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.
Everything I know about Roman history I learned from I, Claudius. As a result, my Augustus Caesar is a bit of a bumbling old man, my Claudius good-natured and well-meaning, my Sejanus a dead ringer for Patrick Stewart, and my Livia deliciously evil (that last, at any rate, is likely factual). Nevertheless, despite the series’ liberties with the personalities and appearances of its characters, it seems to be largely historically accurate, and is therefore a treasure trove of knowledge for Trivial Pursuit tournaments.
I just finished my third I, Claudius viewing, this one with J (who, by the way, is the best person to watch shocking scenes with, since his reaction is always very dramatic and therefore satisfying). What interested me this time around wasn’t the series’ historical accuracies or inaccuracies, but rather the contemporary historical lens through which it was filmed. There’s a fascinating allegory between 1970s Britain and the Julio-Claudian dynasty that’s inescapable, not only in the accents of the actors, not only in the written dialogue, but in the narrative’s construction of Britain as wild, triumphant resister.
Typical for British films of this period with non-English speaking characters, I, Claudius distinguishes between its aristocrats and its servants with specifically delinated British accents that suggest class differences. Augustus, Livia, and the entire royal family speak with Received Pronounciation. The soldiers largely have Cockney accents (there are a few Geordies here and there). The slaves do not speak (nor, to be fair, would it be prudent to do so, in the presence of their owners). This is a linguistic code that the viewer takes for granted. Augustus the Cockney would be preposterous, where as an Augustus with RP fits the prerequisite image, and is therefore unquestioned. If it speaks like a king, it’s a king.
The film is aware of the ridiculousness of imposing British linguistic patterns on the ancient Romans; at one point, Antonia praises Herod Agrippa, a Jew, with the consummate compliment: “How well he speaks Latin!” It’s a clear acknowledgment, heavy-handed, but perhaps necessary, that the Romans did not speak English, and that the British filmmakers do not expect the viewer to imagine they did. Herod, of course, has just been speaking English, but Antonia’s line is a winking aside: Herod’s English, though hesitant and accented, has an accent akin to that of the royal family. A Cockney accent for Herod would not, within the film’s linguistic code, translate into well-spoken Latin.
Despite the pervasiveness of the actors’ accents, the analogous empires are perhaps the most overt connection between I, Claudius and the environment that created it. Claudius witnesses (and participates in) the beginnings of the destruction of the Roman empire, while still enjoying the advantages of controlling much of the known world. Great Britain, of course, was in the 1970s still in the process of transitioning out of its title as Ruler of the Free World; just thirty years before it had been the world’s greatest colonial power. Livia has a fantastic line in reaction to Claudius’s birthday present to her, a vase from India: “It’s such a pity we never got around to that part of the world. So many things we could’ve picked up, cheap.” No need, of course, to mention India in the script (since, as Livia says, the Romans did not attempt to conquer it), except that it is one of Britain’s most prominant ex-colonies, a place where their armies did, indeed, pick up many things cheaply, including labor. What does this serve as for the viewer? A reminder of glory? A reminder of lost glory? What is this meant to evoke?
The spirit of ex-empire, of strikes and garbage in the streets and high inflation and universal malcontent, all part of the 1970s British zeitgeist, is not, however, the message with which I, Claudius intends to leave the viewer. Much is made of Claudius’s conquest of Britain, a battle successful for our hero (which pleases the viewer, who identifies with Claudius) but also the result of a fierce and drawn-out struggle from British tribes (which pleases the nationalist sensibilities of the viewer). Several minutes is spent detailing the capture of British chieftain Caratacus, who was brought back to Rome to be executed, but whose impassioned speech on behalf of his country incites their forgiveness and clemency. (Much of this is historically accurate, but Caractacus’s speech was, as written down, more of a plea for personal lenancy than an ode to country.) This exhultation, says I, Claudius, is the root of our country; this chieftain of old is our national pride, our backbone, our fighting spirit. We are not doomed as Rome is to debauchery and destruction.
And so, ultimately, this brilliant series is more about the future of Britain than about Rome’s past. As Jameson says, “Always historicize”: history, of course, is not only what has occurred, but what is occuring.