“What Shall We Do About Claudius?”

An Underdog Rising in Decline and Fall

illustration by Tom Ralston

One night in the early 1930s, the novelist and classicist Robert Graves was visited in a dream by one of history’s great underdogs: Claudius, fourth emperor of Rome. Claudius was an unlikely emperor; he had several disabilities (a limp, a stutter, and a nervous tic that made his head twitch), and he was far down the line of succession. Many people had to fall out of favor, or die (often violently or suspiciously) for Claudius to sit on the imperial throne.

In Graves’ time, Claudius was dismissed by historians as an unfit and ineffective ruler. Dream-Claudius implored Graves to set the record straight. And in two novels—I, Claudius and Claudius the God—he does this largely through vivid portraits of Claudius’ family, who were far worse rulers: self-involved schemers, murderers, and sex criminals (if not all of the above). Amidst this vipers’ nest, Claudius is a well-intentioned innocent, but also a shrewd observer of power and politics. His family underestimates him, and he plays into their low opinion of him in order to survive turbulent times. Claudius’ story—that of a (mostly) noble but (mostly) savvy ruler who restores order after the horrific reigns of his two predecessors—is something of a hero’s journey. It gradually develops into something more bitter, but infinitely richer, as a flawed but well-intentioned man grapples with the costs of staying alive and staying at the top (which are often one and the same). 

Graves’ vivid material, full of larger-than-life characters and melodramatic machinations, was ripe for adaptation. It took milennia to restore Claudius’ reputation, and almost as long for his story to make it to the screen. A planned 1937 film, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Charles Laughton, shut down production after a series of misfortunes so incredible that one might think the gods themselves had cursed it. In 1976, after intense negotiations over the rights, the BBC produced a 12-episode, 12-hour series, written by Jack Pulman and directed by Herbert Wise. Adapted from both books, and telling the story of Claudius’ family from before his birth up till his death and the succession of the infamously terrible emperor Nero, I, Claudius is a high-water mark of the miniseries format. It perfected a cocktail of sweeping historical drama and soapy, sexy palace intrigue, both grounded by superb performances from the crème-de-la-crème of British actors. Its influence has been profound: I, Claudius was the inspiration for the smash-hit 1980s soap Dynasty. Its most obvious successor was the more spectacular but equally scenery-chewing Rome, but its DNA is also evident in the more scheme-y, less dragon-y parts of Game of Thrones. Yet I, Claudius stands the test of time. It is not a visual feast like the classic swords-and-sandals epics; it was shot mostly on stage sets, and there’s not a lion or a chariot in sight. Most of the actors eventually sport plasticine aging makeup that has…not aged well. Despite all this, I, Claudius remains gripping and compulsively watchable. Its over-the-top, pulpy elements are entwined with and enriched by profound meditations on politics, morality, and aging.

These depths are most fully realized in Derek Jacobi’s beautifully layered performance as Claudius. The slowly-unfolding narrative gives him world enough and time to develop a character who is easy to root for but also complex and contradictory, and sometimes a mystery even to himself. As a gawky indoor kid, he becomes unlikely confidant to the most powerful people in Rome. As the tides of history change, he becomes a well-intentioned but ineffective member of the resistance to the tyrannical emperor Tiberius. Under the reign of a worse emperor, Caligula, he is suddenly thrust into the role of scrambling toady, where well-honed instincts help him praise and grovel. As an emperor, and an old man, we see him in a morass of regrets and what-ifs, fearing that his personal failings and feeble idealism make him lead Rome into further decline. And it’s largely Jacobi who charts Claudius’ unexpected—and unwanted—rise to power with texture, poignancy, and dark humor.

Even for an actor with a career as long and storied as Jacobi’s, Claudius is the role of a lifetime. Many performers would champ at the bit (too eagerly, perhaps) to portray Claudius’ disabilities. Jacobi plays them broadly, but believably and consistently. Their amplitude always seems appropriate to the level of stress or shock Claudius is experiencing. Jacobi subtly softens these traits as Claudius grows older, and more confident, but they surface again in moments of pique or confusion. Equally important—and just as difficult to play delicately—is Claudius’ aura of profound decency. Amidst his family of proud and arrogant (if not overtly villainous) royals, Jacobi gives Claudius a bashful naïveté, but also wells of sincerity and compassion, even for those who deserve it least. It’s something that comes through his eyes, even through layers of pancake makeup.

Jacobi shows us how our hero is simultaneously warped by and unconcerned with the ways he doesn’t fit the mold of the Roman nobility. Claudius is born into a culture that values beauty and strength above all, and mistakes his disabilities for idiocy. The measures of a man’s worth are military triumphs and expansion of the empire. So ingrained are these values that many Romans, who are obsessed with augurs and omens—they think “a propitiating sacrifice of nine black puppies to Hecate” is a normal thing to do—ignore the prophecies foretelling that Claudius will be emperor one day. In his family, appearances are everything: imperial rule is relatively new and still unstable. (Many, including Claudius, want Rome to be a democratic republic again.) The emperor Augustus is obsessed with having the ideal Roman family: respectable, industrious, and harmonious. Meanwhile, his wife, Livia, is quite literally poisoning the family from within, slowly killing anyone who stands between her son Tiberius (Augustus’ stepson) and the throne; all the while, the chillingly controlled Livia (played with vicious relish by Siân Phillips) maintains the facade of the perfect Roman matron, even as the bodies start piling up. It’s Claudius who the family believes embarrasses everyone in public.

And because of this embarrassment, Claudius’ family is staggeringly cruel to him in his young adulthood. They are tight-faced and irritated at his clumsiness, and wait with lock-jawed impatience as he stutters through his sentences. His own mother, Antonia, confesses that she finds it hard to love a child that’s “so stupid.” He remains truly loving toward his family, though his enthusiastic gestures of affection almost always go wrong: he steps on their feet and tips over wine glasses whenever he moves to embrace them. It’s painful to watch all the ways Jacobi shows Claudius internalizing his family’s embarrassment ​​at his disabilities. He’s sweetly apologetic for his clumsiness, always rushing to help clean up whatever he’s knocked over, and finding ways to make himself small. Claudius’ enduring love for his family, despite their cruelty and monstrosity, is one of his most perplexing and interesting qualities. It’s the place where his tendencies toward compassion and moral relativism get most muddied—a confusion that will keep him alive, but at a cost.  

As a young man, Claudius thrives under his family’s neglect. It leaves him time to pursue his interests: history, oratory, and great rulers. (His fascination with autocratic rulers of the past will eventually make him a thoughtful ruler, but also more accepting of tyranny than he’d like to admit.) The historian and orator Pollio, impressed at Claudius’ wit, gives Claudius some advice: “If you want to live a long and useful life, in that case exaggerate your stutter and your limp, let your wits wander, and play the fool as much as you like.” It is counsel Claudius will need, and soon. Because they think he is a harmless fool, his family members all confide in him. He is kind, obsequious even, always granting benediction to their failings and affirming their belief in their own goodness. By listening and forgiving, Claudius hears everything, and he starts to piece together the truth about LIvia’s doings. 

During Tiberius’ reign, the bookish Claudius is politically committed, but often dreamy and oblivious to the moves of “high politics.” He’s part of a circle of friends and family who are trying to fight the emperor’s excesses. Yet at the same time, he agrees to marry the sister of Sejanus, Tiberius’ ambitious second-in-command. It’s not clear exactly why Claudius does this (Claudius seems to view marriage as an annoyance that interferes with his scholarship). It seems like he may be consenting to a marriage just to get out of an awkward conversation. Whatever the reason, it shows a certain willingness to bend with the wind—a side of Claudius we will come to know much better in later episodes. 

Claudius flounders around like this, until Livia sees his fate and initiates him as a political player. Nobody in the family has been crueler to Claudius than his grandmother Livia: she mimics his stutter, and once tells him that if he can’t stop his head twitching she’ll cut it off and put it on a pike. (“That’ll fix it.”) She hasn’t even seen him for seven years when she mysteriously invites him to her birthday party. Claudius is extremely anxious, as anyone would be with Livia in a food-and-beverage situation. But Livia now finds Claudius politically useful, if only because she herself is not what she once was. Though still sharp as a tack, she has no political influence since her husband’s death (that is, since she poisoned him). She killed half her family to put her son Tiberius on the throne, and he is a terrible emperor. A self-pitying sybarite and rapist, he has abdicated almost all his responsibilities to Sejanus, who’s busy creating a police state with an endless stream of show trials. Even the proud and single-minded Livia has to be wondering why she did it, and she’s certainly worried about the price to be paid. Livia, previously so fixated on earthly affairs, is now thinking of her own mortality. 

When Livia lets Claudius’ creepy nephew Caligula (more on him later) kiss his great-grandmother on the lips and maul her breast, Claudius knows he’s been thrust into the world of “high politics” and its perverse mysteries. Livia gets down to brass tacks and tells Claudius why she needs him. He is clearly fascinated, and perhaps not as horrified by Livia’s tactics as he ought to be. The scene is the crowning example of one of the great pleasures of I, Claudius: a long, two-hand scene where characters who possess entirely oppositional world views hash it out. They may snipe bitchily, but they emerge with a better sense of each other. Claudius, the republican (small r), and Livia, monstrously staunch defender of the empire, come to a strange kind of understanding, one that paves the way for Claudius’ destiny. Livia engages Claudius as the politician she knows he is fated to be, and Claudius sees Livia as a vulnerable human destroyed by the crimes she’s committed, supposedly for the good of the state. Livia tells Claudius that she’s letting Caligula feel her up because it is prophesied that Caligula will be the next emperor. Claudius is a greater strategist than he realized, and he smells a rat. He transforms as he starts to figure out what’s going on. He shakes his head (a knowing shake, not a twitch), and stares at her. He takes pleasure at his own cunning as his voice grows darker and clearer.

“Grandmother,” he says, “after all these years you didn’t invite me to dinner just to tell me this.”

Livia is amused at Claudius’ transformation: “Wine has made you bold, hasn’t it?…Lost your stutter, too, I see.” She’s impressed.

When an emboldened Claudius keeps interrogating her, Livia becomes equally transformed, and makes a teary, childlike plea: “I want to be a goddess, Claudius.” She needs to be one—only gods and goddesses are spared eternal torments for their crimes. (And only emperors can deify people, hence the need for Caligula.)

Claudius is once again a confidant who misses nothing he hears. “I’ve done many terrible things,” Livia says. A note of uncertainty enters her voice before she shrugs it off: “Well, no ruler could do otherwise.” As a survivor of the civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, Livia firmly believes Rome needs the stability that comes with a monarchy, no matter the cost. Claudius, an idealist who’s also more clear-eyed about Tiberius’ excesses, confidently proclaims that if he had any power, he’d make Rome a republic again. 

Claudius, ever the family man, comforts the weeping Livia as she experiences her sole moral reckoning and moment of doubt. But Claudius the historian wants the truth. Livia, facing the camera, calmly confesses everything. This scene should center on Phillips’ bravura performance, but Jacobi’s role is equally essential. This conflicted confessor subtly conveys a whole range of emotions as he processes both moral horror and moral complexity, as he weighs his love for his poisoned and poisonous family against his self-conception as the detached, analytical observer.

Sometimes he’s a wide-eyed innocent agape with shock, but at other times he nods slowly in comprehension—as if a mystery has been solved, but perhaps also because he’s come to understand Livia’s political reasoning, however perverse. If he’s becoming a moral relativist, he’s also a moral inquisitor when he forcefully asks how she could have murdered Augustus, her own husband. (“That was the hardest thing I had to do,” she says sadly.) Before he leaves, Livia drops a bomb on Claudius: it is prophesied that he will be emperor. Claudius, incredulous, walks off into the background, cackling, while Livia stays in the foreground, staring blankly into the middle distance. It’s a tableau of innocence and experience: one who thinks he’ll never have to rule, and one who has been ruined by the will to power.

This scene gives the first real glimpse of the traits that will make him a complex, conflicted politician and survivor. His love for this family—even Livia—displays an empathy that will serve him well, but also bring him low. He shows an understanding of the twisted logic and inflated egos of tyrannical rulers, which will help him survive their reigns. But Livia, though an extreme case, foreshadows the inevitable pitfalls of autocratic rule: that morally dubious choices are inevitable.

When Caligula does become emperor, he is far worse than Tiberius. Claudius is now a middle-aged man. While his symptoms have lessened significantly he is still dismissed as a fool. So he survives Caligula’s reign of terror by playing court jester to a vain, unstable, and murderous dictator. In I, Claudius’ telling, Caligula is a bad emperor for all the reasons enshrined in legend: sleeping with his sisters and then killing them, throwing orgies in the palace, making his horse a senator. But he’s also awful because he’s insecure and in constant need of reassurance (he’s fixated on his thinning golden hair) and volatile (an unexplained “galloping” in his head can turn him into a petulant child or a raving maniac). John Hurt as Caligula nails the dynamics of these many facets. In default mode, he seems no more than a fey little weasel, but when he stills and his eyes go black you know you’re in trouble. He enjoys cruelty, and lets out a vicious little squeal when he makes a courtier do something humiliating, or when he threatens to kill one of them.

What Hurt’s portrayal really gets right is that the dictator is not just terrifying but also incredibly annoying. To survive, you have to muster up enthusiasm for long tirades and monologues, and come to his drag shows at 4 in the morning. But Claudius, the background observer and confessor to his monstrous relatives, has become a very good listener. He’s also become a good reader of inflated egos, and inured to cruelty and insults.    

Claudius shows his twin talents for cunning and self-abasement when a convalescing Caligula summons him to the palace. Claudius, in soft focus, flounders into the room, ominously approaching a very sharp sword resting in Caligula’s hand. Claudius circles around the emperor, pathetically genuflecting and stuttering as he expresses joy at Caligula’s good health. Caligula, creepily still, announces that he’s undergone a “metamorphosis.” Claudius, vamping, stammers through a series of questions to buy time: could he know the nature of this “glorious change?” The tension mounts with the cutting between Claudius’ panicked sputtering and Caligula’s creepy placidity.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Caligula fumes. The camera cuts back to Claudius and we see the blade at his’ throat. Claudius’ eyes dart wildly before an incredulous moment of realization. He blubbers, “You’re a god!” Instantly, he knows what to do: prostrating himself on the ground, he cries, “Let me worship you!” This seems to placate Caligula, but Claudius knows he has to spread it on thick. The well-read Claudius sucks up to Caligula by comparing him to other gods, as Jacobi goes full Shakespearean here: “Your face shines like a lamp!” But you can never truly please an egomaniac; Caligula wants to be greater than all the other gods. To prove he is greater than Zeus, he, too, confesses to Claudius that he killed his own father (and Claudius’ beloved brother) Germanicus. Claudius worshipped and mourned his brother, and for this one moment, his great sadness makes him drop the facade of the obsequious courtier. We see genuine shock and sadness in his big eyes as he asks—sincerely, plaintively—why his brother had to die. Germanicus was in Caligula’s way; apparently one does not impose bedtimes on a young god. But despite his shock and sorrow, Claudius knows how to make a hasty retreat. He asks to leave. “The divine air you exhale is too strong for me,” he says as he exits, bowing all the way. Caligula replies: “Go in peace. I was thinking of killing you, but I’ve changed my mind.” Jacobi’s performance—a constant dance of scraping and bowing, a hellish improv of constantly mounting praise, the desperate, secret search for an escape hatch—is exhaustive and exhausting, encapsulating the trauma of living under tyranny.

After this, Claudius is out of breath but relieved. (In a weird reaction of relief and celebration, he pours a goblet of wine over his head.) Claudius believes that, since Caligula is clearly mentally ill, the Senate will depose him (“We’ll have the Republic back!”). Shockingly, the Senate, with a mixture of ambition and panic, all trip over themselves to affirm Caligula’s Big Lie. Claudius’ life becomes a series of bizarre, terrifying, and humiliating encounters. But by making himself the butt of the joke, he can usually navigate Caligula’s moods, and can do some good (or at least prevent something truly bad). When Caligula makes him the cashier at a (mandatory) brothel he runs at the palace, he’s able to stop a senator’s wife from being raped. He once spares the lives of Caligula’s brothers-in-law by, at Caligula’s command, reciting some lines of Homer by heart. He is a friend and ally to Caesonia, Caligula’s long-suffering wife. Claudius muddles on because he still believes in loyalty to family. He ruefully accepts that he has fallen far below the Roman standards of honor that Antonia strives to maintain while their world crumbles around them. 

When a group of conspirators finally do strike Caligula down, stabbing him to death on his way out of the Colosseum, Claudius becomes an unlikely, and unwilling, emperor. He only survives because, in the ensuing chaos, he’s found by Praetorian guards before the assassins get to him. (killing the entire imperial family would make the restoration of the republic more likely.) The guards, who will be out of a job if there is no emperor to guard, crown him, declaring him “better than nothing.” It’s a ridiculous stand-off; Claudius says he’s not the emperor, the Senate says he isn’t emperor, but thousands of armed men say he is. Claudius, perhaps unbeknownst to himself, has not only been beaten down by Caligula but also weathered by decades of moral compromise and justifications for imperial rule. He is gradually persuaded out of his staunch republican convictions—if there’s no emperor, not only will a lot of men be out of work, but ambitious senators will likely plunge Rome into civil war. There’s also one more wrinkle: if Claudius abdicates, he and his family will surely be killed. 

The scene where Claudius ends this impasse and proves himself worthy of the throne is almost pornographically satisfying to any bookish nerd who has dreamed of showing them all one day. In the Senate, Claudius is imperious, totally commanding the room with his oratory. Jacobi plays this beautifully: he doesn’t eliminate the stutter completely, but he is still and confident, his voice low and clear. There are echoes of that long-ago moment when Claudius finally went toe-to-toe with Livia. His twists of rhetoric are flawless: it may be true that he’s “half-witted,” but he’s survived longer than many who had “all their wits intact.” He turns the blame for the situation back on the senators, and his voice blazes with real anger as he reminds the senators that they foolishly handed their power over to the imperial family in the first place. Finally, he makes his case: he is a good listener, and he will not violate the Constitution. He is totally sincere in his conviction that he can be a better kind of emperor.

Yet choices get difficult almost immediately. He sentences the assassins to death (not for killing Caligula, but for murdering his wife and child). One of them tells him that this is “your first act of tyranny,” seconding Livia’s warning that autocratic rule inevitably means blood on your hands. Sadly, Claudius cannot comprehend the true tenor of the warning. He tries to be reasonable and hear everyone out, but the end result is usually the same: When passing death sentences in the future, Claudius will say “you leave me no choice,” distancing himself from the brutality of the act that he must commit if he is to stay in power. And ultimately, Claudius’ improbable triumph is a bitter one. He is a better kind of emperor—there’s a great little scene in which, by playing dumb, he slyly exposes and shuts down the graft in a project for a new harbor. But the show soon shifts focus, showing how all his good governance can’t keep Rome stable if his personal life is out of control. He is totally fleeced by his promiscuous young wife, Messalina, a hyped-up, rabbity minx, and a fifth-rate schemer compared to Livia, with no end game beyond her own pleasures. To the viewer who has come to admire Claudius’ perception and cunning, it’s incredibly disappointing to see him thoroughly taken in by Messalina’s flimsy deceptions. It is also heartbreaking: Claudius, who has so lacked any real love in his life, yearns for it so desperately that he can’t see what’s right before his eyes.

Once Claudius finally (but still reluctantly) executes Messalina (after she tries to depose him and make her new boyfriend emperor instead), his broken heart plunges him into a drunken, self-pitying torpor almost as bad as Tiberius’. The last episode is a sour and mournful coda, in which the profound questions that have always driven the show’s soapy plots surface with a gut-punching intensity. We see Claudius from the outside: a fat drunkard, detached from reality. Claudius’ advisors—the loyal Narcissus and the conniving Pallas—are in the background, like a devil and angel on his shoulders. Pallas provocatively suggests Claudius’ niece (and his secret lover) Agripinilla. Claudius remains immobile in the foreground, a disgustingly eerie smile on his face. His eyes (once so lively and inquisitive) are dark, vague, and dull. Eventually, Claudius, in a monotone, agrees to the odious proposition of marrying his own niece (for what it’s worth, he never sleeps with her). He ends the scene with a cryptic declaration: “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.”

Later, we learn that Caludius’ consent to an incestuous marriage is actually part of a byzantine plot, one both recklessly naïve and deeply nihilistic. He’s an old man making a desperate attempt to turn back the clock and undo his greatest regret. “I have been too benevolent,” he says. “I reconciled Rome and the world to the monarchy again…By dulling the blade of tyranny, I fell into great error.” Marrying his vile niece and naming her son, the oily and piggy Nero, as his heir, is a Hail Mary pass to correct this: an emperor as bad as Nero might “sharpen” that blade, and force a return of the republic. He tries to get his son Britannicus (to whom, by preferring Nero, he has been as cruel as his own mother was to him) to go along with this harebrained scheme, but Britannicus will have none of it. He wants to be emperor himself, shutting down his father’s ostensible goal once and for all: “Nobody believes in the Republic anymore.” This is a shock for Claudius, a moment where he must acknowledge that even an emperor cannot beat or stop the tide of history. It is one of the most painful realizations of maturity: there was a window when real change was possible, but now it is closed. There is no longer the political will for democracy. Claudius meets the pang of disillusionment with bittersweet acceptance, ruefully accepting that his son’s worldview is different from his own. “Perhaps you will confound the prophecies,” he says; Claudius, who once scoffed at the prophecy that he would be emperor, is now convinced by one that says Nero is fated to succeed him. But his parting words to his son are an old man’s token gesture to youthful optimism. Britannicus is doomed as much by Claudius’ actions as by any prophecy. And Claudius, so committed to his hopeless scheme, will allow his wife to poison him to death. 

When I return to I, Claudius, I am increasingly grabbed by the way its pleasurably juicy plots curdle into this final episode. Underdog stories are so often arcs that bend toward triumph, and—especially in historical and political narratives—justice and the promise of a better world. I, Claudius subverts these expectations, offers our scrappy protagonist no such certain victory, and ends in regret and darkness. In his failure to return Rome to a democracy, Claudius’ descent into passivity makes us reassess his political journey and asks us to draw out the threads of character and experience that brought him to this place.

As I try to figure out the Claudius of episode 12, my speculation makes me as much of a historian as Claudius himself, or as much a storyteller as Robert Graves. I try applying a new lens to his character. While young Claudius seemed like such a contemporary personality (empathetic and strongly invested in democracy and societal improvement), at the end he is fundamentally Roman. Like Livia, his last moves on the chessboard are fueled by a firm belief in prophecies—a fatalistic attitude that excuses him from taking action. Scenes replay in my mind: was Claudius’ adeptness at handling Caligula something he uses to justify knowingly installing a bad emperor? As I look back at forks in the road, I speculate on what agency Claudius actually had. If he had abdicated after Caligula’s assassination—and perhaps sacrificed his life—would that have been a moment where the Republic could have truly been restored? Claudius seems to think so, but he has always been naïve about the ease of major historical change, and the ability to budge a dictatorship once it has been entrenched. As I sift through the story and its turning points, it’s hard to say what exactly “hatched out” of the mud of Claudius’ reign. I see both a decadent, cynical old emperor who refuses to rule and a sacrificial lamb laying down his life for a lost cause.  

The richness with which I, Claudius renders the character of its underdog—the good and the bad, the inconsistent and the inexplicable—leads us to the deepest, thorniest questions about our place in history, and how things happen (or don’t) in turbulent times. When I first saw the series as a young adult, I reveled in the murder and intrigue of the early episodes, and cheered Claudius as he outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted. As I grow older, I feel his moments of moral compromise and debasement very deeply, and come to appreciate the dilemmas he replays in his mind as he tries to evaluate and live with his choices. The inevitable imponderables of maturity bear down on me. As we age, do we inevitably return to the conservatism of our societal norms? What are we to make of, and do with, our winnowing chances to redress our mistakes and regrets? I could not, as that young adult, have predicted how distressingly relevant these questions would become. The ways individual characters intersect with and influence moments of rising tyranny are no longer just the fun hypothetical musings you get from great historical fiction. Claudius’ strange story, and its darkly complex ending, make us confront uncomfortably elusive questions of our role in our own place and time, and how we are shaped by larger social movements. More importantly, and more depressingly, it makes us aware of the many forces—large and small, personal and political—that make the transformation of entrenched institutions (however rotten) almost impossible. 

Yet we cannot know if we can confound the prophecies, and so, like Claudius, we must make our last, foolhardy move on the board.