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I, Claudius

I, Claudius is a novel by Robert Graves, (ISBN 067972477X) first published in 1934, dealing sympathetically with the life of the Roman Emperor Claudius and the history of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and Roman Empire, from Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BC to Caligula's assassination in 41 AD. Graves's interpretation of the story owes much to Tacitus and Suetonius. Graves continued his tale (from Claudius' accession after Caligula's death to his death in 54 AD, as well as a segue involving the early life of Herod Agrippa) in Claudius the God (1935).

The message of the story appears to concern the relationship between liberty (as demonstrated by the Roman Republic, and the dedication to its ideals shown by Augustus and young Claudius) and stability (as demonstrated by Empress Livia, Herod, and the elder Claudius). The Republic provided for freedom, but was inherently unstable and threw the doors open for endless civil wars, of which the last was ended by Augustus after twenty years of fighting. While Augustus harbors Republican sentiments, his wife Livia manages to convince him that to lay down his Imperial powers would be to destroy the peaceful society they have made. Likewise, when the similarly-minded Claudius becomes emperor, he is convinced by Empress Messalina and Herod to preserve his powers, for much the same reason. However, Graves acknowledges that there must be a delicate balance between Republican liberty and Imperial stability; whereas too much of the former led to civil war, too much of the latter led to the corruption of Tiberius, Caligula, Messalina, Sejanus, Herod, Nero, Agrippinilla, and countless others - as well as, to a lesser extent, Livia and Claudius himself.

There also seems to be a subtle feminist message: Julia, Livia, Drusilla, Messalina, and Agripinilla are quite obviously the powers behind their husbands, fathers, brothers, and/or sons; a good example being: whereas Augustus would have inadvertently caused civil war, Livia managed, via quiet manipulation, to preserve the peace.

The book was to have been the subject of a 1937 film, produced by Alexander Korda and starring Charles Laughton, but it was dogged by ill-luck, culminating in a serious accident involving the female star, Merle Oberon, which caused filming to be abandoned.

In 1975, the book, together with its sequel, was adapted for television by the BBC, and proved one of the corporation's most successful drama serials of all time. It starred Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Siān Phillips as Livia, George Baker as Tiberius, John Hurt as Caligula and Brian Blessed as Augustus Caesar. The cast also included Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, John Paul as Marcus Agrippa and John Rhys-Davies as Macro. Wilfrid Josephs provided the suitably eerie title music.

Production of the series was delayed because of complex negotiations between the BBC and the copyright holders of the aborted film version. This did however give scriptwriter Jack Pulman more time to fine-tune his script.

The series was subsequently broadcast in the United States as part of PBS' s Masterpiece Theatre series, where it was widely acclaimed and accepted. It has come to be widely regarded as one of the best television series ever made, which is remarkable given the violence and highly sexual themes contained within. In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, I, Claudius was placed 12th.

Most VHS and DVD versions of the TV series include a BBC documentary on the Korda film project called The Epic That Never Was, featuring interviews with key production staff and actors as well as most of the surviving footage. The 2002 UK DVD edition also contains a documentary on the series, I, Claudius - a Television Epic, as well as some alternate and deleted scenes.

The Canadian independent film I, Claudia was inspired in title by this book. Another title punning I, Claudius is the book by Clare de Vries about the author's drive across America with her old Burmese cat.

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04