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I, Claudius and How the Romans Invented Intrigue

Game of Thrones season 2 is finally over and they’re still fighting over that massively uncomfortable-looking chair. I tell you, the Romans were much better organized. Sure, if you’re left jonesing for more imperial backstabbing you could go to the George R.R. Martin tomes, but if you’ve already inhaled those or you’re ready for a break from white walkers and incest babies but want to keep the rape, murder, incest, and intrigue, then I, Claudius will keep you occupied for a while.

I, Claudius, like Game of Thrones, comes in book and TV form. First written in 1934 by Robert Graves, well known classical scholar and translator, the book was adapted  along with its sequel Claudius the God into a relatively accurate 13 episode BBC miniseries in 1976. It’s set in the city of Rome at the dawn of the empire, late in the reign of the first emperor Augustus, successor to Julius Caesar (who was never “technically” emperor). Rome was not set up to be an empire and the people (especially the senators) balked at the idea of supreme leadership; even Augustus would talk about restoring the Republic someday. However, those closest to absolute power, like Augustus’ wife Livia, were not so eager to give over control to a group of pompous senators. It’s a familiar goal: keep the power, keep the empire. The story is all told by Claudius, member of the royal family yet still a Republican. He has access to much of the scandal since no one takes much notice of him due to his twitching, limping, and stammering impediments. Everyone thinks he’s an idiot and lets him remain present and graciously unpoisoned.

At nearly 40 years old, the series does not rival the production quality of Game of Thrones. Every scene is indoors on a set, and you’re going to hear the same music cue over and over again. Cardboard sets don’t matter when the characters are this good, however. Sian Phillips’ Livia, clearly the best characterization in the series, could bat Cersei Lannister around in her paw all morning and have her poisoned by lunch. She gets so intimidating in just a few episodes that anyone who goes to visit her chambers just immediately falls to their knees and apologizes for everything. Her forgiveness is also more terrifying than her indifference: Livia owns you now and that probably means you have to rat out all your friends. Cersei gets power by lying and covering up the truth, Livia keeps power by unveiling truths about everyone else. She’s unspeakably evil, even her own sons aren’t safe. Phillips is clearly having so much fun playing her.

It wouldn’t be a royal family without some crazy people to make things more interesting. In comes John Hurt as Caligula, simpering and bouncing around, deciding he’s Zeus when really he’s just got a bad case of seizures. There is one scene that’s so deliciously nasty it can’t be spoiled. Let’s just say that Caligula was insecure about his legacy being usurped, even from rivals still gestating. Crazy crap like that cannot be rivaled by molten gold helmets or menstruation monsters in mirrors (RIP Renly). On the less crazy, more scheming side, there’s also Patrick Stewart and John Rhys-Davies (Picard and Gimli) looking positively fetal when compared to their more well known roles. Patrick Stewart has hair! They serve as the emperor’s support systems, enacting their crazy “justice” and taking the grisly beheading work into their own hands.

There aren’t quite as many boobs as Game of Thrones (what, were you watching for the riveting plot?) but nothing on TV does outside Cinemax at 3am. There aren’t NO boobs, mind you, just fewer. While the menfolk (and Livia) are killing off anyone who stands in their way, the unsupervised wives and daughters are banging their way through Rome. Literally. All of it. It’s hilarious to watch Brian Blessed as Augustus walk around a room full of men asking “did you sleep with my daughter? And you? And you? Just once? Oh okay then.” Caligula uses the imperial palace as a brothel to pay off his massive debts. Yet another woman has a contest with a prostitute to see who can sleep with the most men in one day. 24 hours and some very mussed hair later, the prostitute declares her royal rival the winner. Even Tyrion Lannister would blush.

Plus it’s all true…. more or less. Rome invented the gossip blogger and Graves uses the worst of the worst rumors to aid the plot, the juicier the better. Then again, if you want to be able to rattle off the first five emperors in order (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero) or just want to explain to loved ones who are passing by why you’re watching orgies, remember, it’s educational. It’s on the BBC. It’s not streaming anywhere yet so you’d have to get the DVDs but there are many things less entertaining to do in 13 hours than watch crazy Romans run around in togas. For extra bonus points, go all the way back and read the books. The adaptation is pretty faithful but there are a few more plot twists and character beats that they just couldn’t cram in to the series. Whether in Rome or in Westeros, the subtleties of ascension to power cannot be contained in a single television series.

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