Rome and its emperors are with us still. What are the “Hunger Games” but a modern version of the gladiator fights-to-the-death with which the emperors pacified unruly citizens? If television had existed in 12 B.C., the emperor Augustus would certainly have seen the value in enlarging the audience beyond the 50,000 people who could fit into Rome’s Coliseum to see the killing.
There is a lot of killing in the brilliant 1976 BBC miniseries “I Claudius,” newly remastered with a sharper look, and released on DVD by Acorn Media. It’s not the first time that “I Claudius” has been available on video, but this 35th anniversary edition has subtitles and includes – quite helpfully – a genealogical chart, a scorecard of the marriages, divorces, and untimely and unnatural deaths of those who wanted to be emperor and the nephews, brothers, and cousins who stood in their way. Like “Dallas” and “The Sopranos,” “I Claudius” is a drama about a family running a family business.
Based on poet Robert Graves’ 1934 novel “I Claudius” and 1935 sequel “Claudius the God,” Claudius is the accidental emperor. A lame, stammering boy who drooled and was always crashing into vases or walls, he was considered such an idiot that no one – not even his evil grandmother, Livia — thought it necessary to poison him. But, inside his twitching body, Claudius observed and learned and remembered what he learned. “I Claudius” is framed by the old Claudius writing a history of his family.
Brilliant is often a misused word, but the splendid performances of Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Sian Phillips as Livia — as deft with flattery and blackmail as with her vials of poison — are flawless.
The bonus material on Acorn’s DVD includes a 71-minute documentary, “The Epic That Never Was,” about Alexander Korda’s attempt to film “I Claudius” in 1937. Starring Flora Robson as Livia and Charles Laughton as Claudius, the documentary includes all the surviving scenes that were shot before the project was abandoned. And that disaster makes clear what an achievement the 13 episode miniseries is. (The BBC put episodes one and two together. PBS showed them separately. Acorn viewers can see it both ways.)
“I Claudius” has its flaws. People talk too much, as though they were in a stage play, and the production values are low. There obviously wasn’t enough money to stage gladiator contests. Yet everything that is occurring in the Coliseum can be read in the horror on Jacobi’s face before he escapes by fainting.
The story, the language, and the actors are fascinating. Brian Blessed is an aging and not-too-bright Augustus, deaf and dumb to the dead bodies his third wife, Livia, leaves in her passion to secure the throne for her son, Tiberius (George Baker) who doesn’t want to rule Rome. John Hurt, golden-haired, moves like a snake as the depraved Caligula who taunts his great-grandmother Livia on her deathbed because he no longer needs her; and a young Patrick Stewart, later the captain of the Starship Enterprise, is the spymaster, Sejanus.
How much of what Graves imagined about Claudius is true can only be guessed at, but Claudius did write histories, and he was the last person in Rome who could read Etruscan.