How can you explain the hold the Roman Empire continues to exert on the modern imagination? Is it just that they built a lot of stuff that’s left for us to gawk at, from Morocco to Turkey, from Tunisia to Great Britain? Or is it that their impressive array of contemporary historians meticulously maintained a chronicle of debauchery and lust, gluttony and violence that both piques our prurient impulses and simultaneously assuages them?
Does the appeal lie in Rome’s being the last great pre-Christian civilization in Europe—or in the fact of its transition into a Christian empire that, one way or another, continues to influence the lives of hundreds of millions of us today? After all, without the Roman co-opting of a tiny, Middle Eastern Jewish splinter sect, it’s unlikely that Christianity would exist, certainly not in its globe-straddling form.
Whatever the reason, the Roman empire continues to thrive in the imaginations of many. Kickstarted by the Russell Crowe vehicle Gladiator (2000), we’re in a bit of a Roman Renaissance, these days. Movies like Centurion (2010) and The Last Legion and The Eagle (both 2011), and TV shows like HBO’s sexy and violent Rome and Starz’s sex-and-violence-saturated Spartacus, feed an apparently endless appetite for sweaty muscular guys in leather skirts and sandals.
These shows and films bring up another possibility for our fascination with these ancients: they are us. With the spectacle of gladitorial games echoing our own enthusiasms for football and ice hockey, and their pornographic mosaics and bacchinalian orgies reflecting an unnervingly modern lustfulness—not to mention, you know, their squabbling Senators and far-flung military adventurism—it might just be that we enjoy looking at the Romans because we know that, in some sense, we’re looking into a mirror.
A landmark in the development of Rome-as-entertainment came in the form of the BBC’s 12-episode production of I, Claudius, a TV serial based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Robert Graves. With a superb cast that includes Derek Jacobi in the title role, Brian Blessed as Augustus Ceasar, and the note-perfect Sian Phillips as uber-villainness Livia, the production benefited from razor-sharp acting throughout. John Hurt is slightly underwhelming as Caligula, but a pre-Captain-Picard Patrick Stewart—with hair! Though it’s probably a wig—makes up for it.
Thirty-five years on, though, the question is: how does the show hold up? The short answer: splendidly. The slightly longer answer: splendidly, but you know, it’s 35 years old.
This is most apparent in the staid and static staging. Like many BBC programs of the era, I, Claudius was shot on sound stages and looks like it. The sets have an airless sense of flimsy unreality to them, and the color palette is washed out, in part a result of shooting on videotape, not film. Most importantly to young audiences used to Rome and Spartacus, there are no exterior shots; few street scenes and no free-for-all melees. A whole lot of people die, but there isn’t a great deal of fighting to be seen. Crowds are thin on the ground, suggested by offstage sound effects, while burning buildings are indicated by lighting effects and horrified expressions. It all looks rather like a filmed stage play, because that’s more or less what it is.
The good news is that little of this matters. If there were ever a need to argue that excellent dialogue and on-target acting can trump big-budget spectacle, this series could function as Exhibit A. Jacobi and company rattle through Jack Pulman’s excellent screenplay with gleeful energy, and the viewer is taken along for the ride as plots are hatched and carried out, victims are eliminated and power is gained and lost. Claudius himself, crippled and stuttering, is seen by his own family as too simple and unthreatening to be concerned with, which turns out to be his salvation. That, and his brains, which are considerable.
Picture and sound quality are somewhat improved over previous editions. Colors are crisp, although still muted by today’s garish standards, and the pictures are uniformly clear. This wasn’t shot in HD and will never look like it was, but the clarity of the picture is more than merely acceptable. Sound remains occasionally problematic, with occasional words swallowed up by the echoey sound stages. This happens only rarely, though, and for viewers who prefer it there are subtitles available.
This five-disc 35th anniversary set offers an impressive array of extras, particularly for American audiences, who never saw the first two episodes in their entirety. This set replaces roughly six minutes of deleted footage that PBS excised in 1976, and then recombines the two into the single, double-length first episode as it was presented in the UK. There is also a 74-minute documentary on the creation of the series, and a 71-minute doc on the 1937 film version which was never finished. (With Charles Laughton cast as Claudius, we can only wonder what that movie might have looked like.)
The extras don’t stop there: there’s also a short interview with Jacobi, a 36-minute feature in which cast and crew members discuss favorite scenes, and a booklet that touches on the historical accuracy (or not) of Graves’ original work. The booklet also includes a family tree of the Roman nobles involved in the story, which might be of help to newcomers. All of these bonus features range from enlightening to fascinating.
It seems unlikely that our Romanophilia is going away anytime soon, and rumors abound that a new series of I, Claudius is on the horizon. It will be tough to beat the original, though. The effects might be better and the spectacle might be, well, more spectacular, but it’s difficult to imagine any improvement in the writing or acting.
Fans of the series who haven’t watched it in a while will be happy at the improvements and extras in this set. Viewers who haven’t yet seen the show should set aside the time to do so. This is landmark TV, and in some ways predates the cable-TV miniseries that has become a staple of good television. It should come as no surprise, though, that in this as in so many things, the Romans got there first.