A brief history of the "I, Claudius" TV series

The TV production had a lot of problems, but Robert Graves, who wrote the 1930s novels on which the series is based, had faith:

“I’ve communed with Claudius,” he said at the time, “and he reassured me that this would be a great success.”

The series launched Derek Jacobi’s career.

“I owe ‘Claudius’ so much on both sides of the Atlantic,” Mr. Jacobi said in a telephone interview. “If he has haunted me, it’s been a beneficent ghost.”…

The durability of “I, Claudius” began with Graves’s books. Cast as the secret memoirs of Claudius himself, they were grounded in exhaustive scholarship but imbued with a novelist’s imagination. They had plenty of skulduggery, perversion and other delectable malfeasance, set against the marble majesty of Roman antiquity.

The TV version, however, came close to missing the mark. “It was so badly received in its first two weeks,” recalled Sian Phillips, who played the empress Livia, “because it was so different.”

That difference lay in the series’s down-to-earth treatment of epic material. Despite its imperial setting “I, Claudius” was a small studio effort devoid of huge sets and sprawling battle scenes.

In whittling down Graves’s tomes (which total some 1,000 pages in paperback) to a little over 11 hours of television, the scriptwriter Jack Pulman, who died in 1979, effectively rendered them as a soap opera, emphasizing the dysfunctional relations inherent in any extended clan. At various points he called his teleplay a Jewish family comedy and a treatment of a Mafia dynasty.

The TV show used natural language, rather than the high prose that was common in previous Roman stories. Scenes were small. The action encompassed huge battles and riots sweeping the city, but we don’t see those. We just see and hear a few people talking about them.

Phillips, who played the ruthless villain Livia, had difficulty finding her character, but finally, director Herbert Wise told her to just ham it up.

‘Just be evil. The more evil you are, the funnier it is, and the more terrifying it is.’ ”

In the TV series and books, Rome is portrayed as being in decay, due to its transition from republican government to monarchy. But this is a bit of authorial fudging.

In reality, Rome peaked long after the action of the stories.

The Emperor Claudius died in AD 54. The land area of the empire peaked around 100 AD.

Prior to the empire, Rome wasn’t a republic as we think of it today. Only a very small aristocracy participated in government, and millions of people were slaves. Many historians say that the life of a Roman citizen was best in the period 100-200 AD., and Rome extended citizenship broadly to the people who lived within its borders.

Rome finally fell in 476 AD, four centuries after the action of I, Claudius. And that’s only the Western Empire. The Eastern Empire, which we now call Byzantium, continued on until it fell to the Ottomans in 1453 AD.

Mitch Wagner @MitchWagner