The opening credits for I, Claudius (or Clavdivs, if you will and you probably should, so let’s) have long since passed into National Treasure status. No doubt the most aggressive bugle you’ll ever hear outside military boot camps that bookends each episode heavily influenced Eastenders’s famous beat, in addition to inspiring Blackadder II’s own gentle parody. In fact, I would strongly advise you keep your remote control handy so you can adjust the volume when necessary, and it will be very necessary, since a good deal of the dialogue is either bellowed or shrieked, notwithstanding the straight-up screaming.

Our first vision is that of Sir Derek Jacobi (old edition) acting through a few kilograms of pancake-slathered prosthetics. He’s pottering about his study, occasionally mumbling to himself but mostly addressing the audience via voiceover. To be honest, a direct fourth-wall break would have felt more natural and in keeping with the ‘this is a play broadcast on TV’ vibe going on. It would also remove the need for all that hokey nodding and overwrought puzzlement as Clavdivs mugs along to the voiceover. This device, as well as the total lack of soundbed and only occasional diegetic music, is really alien and took some getting used to.

Clavdivs has but one thing left on his bucket list while he idles away in his winter years: to write the definitive history of his family. Writing is self-care, and memoir in particular can be very cathartic, so he’s well ahead of his time. But of course his family is the powerful Julio-Claudian gang, and he’s writing to set the record straight and also for long-term revenge.

Like Dave Rudman, he’s going to bury his history, because he totally just remembered that when he was but a slip of a lad, he was plucked out of the queue, Studio 54-style, for a personal fortune-telling from the Sibyl. This scene is a weird cutaway to a small child barely in shot and then what appears to be a still image, with the prophecy delivered by voiceover. Which is just weird, and I have no idea what the thinking could be behind this direction. According to my extensive research (i.e., reading the Wikipedia page) the BBC shot on videotape in the studios at BBC Television Centre, for artistic rather than budgetary reasons, but it’s kind of hard to swallow that, given how janky it looks. Sibyl gasses on for a bit, but the crux is that while no one will listen to or care about what he has to say when he’s alive, they will in 1900 years’ time. Child Clavdivs files this away and presumably lives his life for several decades only for the penny to finally drop now that he’s putting stylus to scroll.

Flashback to Rome AD 54, and to begin a colossal, generations-spanning tea-spillage. And what better way to launch into a tale of people being nasty in the past-y than to cut away to TITTIES! Unsurprisingly, for a mid-70s depiction of Ancient Rome, there are very few Black people in this show, and so the depiction of ‘tribal’ topless dancers, for a few seconds of exploitation before the camera pans away beginning the story proper, is sadly predictable. There’s a big ol’ party going on right here, a celebration to last throughout the year, or until the poisoning starts. Celebrating the Battle of Actium serves as the MacGuffin for assembling the gang in order to honour Marcus Agrippa.

He would be pleased, except the boss’s shitwit son-in-law Marcellus keeps dunking on his age and insinuating the battle was all a bit of a doddle. But because Augustus continually brushes off the insults, there’s nothing Agrippa can do except sit there stewing. By which I mean lie there: this show leans hard into the “Romans ate lying down” trope, which translates into lounging about on the chaise longue all day long. To distract grumpy Father Ted, Augustus calls for the cake and ents: the cake being some inedible ship-shaped papier-mache and the ents being some prose poetry from a real-life Greek. We’re spared this performance in favour of voiceover Clavdivs providing a visual dramatis personae:

  • Marcus Agrippa – general and formerly the favourite and presumed heir to
  • Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus – beloved emperor
  • Livia Drusilla – his second wife, beloved scheming sociopath
  • Octavia – Augustus’s beloved sister and mother to
  • Marcellus –  beloved smarmy young shitwit, husband to
  • Julia – Augustus’s only beloved, slutty daughter

And it is helpful to have the visual alongside the character introduction, because much like the British royal family, the Julio-Claudian massive tend to recycle the same ten names over and over again. I kind of want someone to take this scene and do a hokey-ass AI trailer in the style of Guy Ritchie – I’d take that over ersatz Wes Anderson trailers for a month of Sundays. It’s also worth noting that Marcellus is Julia’s whole cousin, which never gets any less gross, whether you’re ancient imperials or this human nightmare. I kind of feel like the entire episode, not just this particular scene, should have started with this introduction, but this is just one of the many, many questions I have.

Marcus Agrippa can only take so much bad-natured ribbing and storms away, so we can fade back to old Clavdivs gazing into the middle distance and voice-overing to inform us that by the way, he’s not even born yet but will be eventually and that Livia was scheming away even then.

This show is chock filled with ACTING – brilliant, awful and very little in between; but LOOK AT HER FAAAACE! Siân Phillips as Livia owns every damn scene she’s in – rooting for a murderous sociopath has never been more fun, even when it’s rudely interrupted with a scene-shifting voiceover.

Back to the past, where Livia’s with her odious son Tiberius, skilfully blocked in the background looking bored; another point-score in the ‘brilliant’ ledger (I strongly recommend this video’s analysis of blocking in the show). Luckily for him, ma’s been summoned by the imperial stepdad, but unluckily, she orders him to tag along and then wait outside until she calls for him, because he apparently has nothing better to do. And of course he grudgingly obeys, as all despised, inept eldest sons desperate for crumbs of parental love are oft wont to do.

Livia’s come to bear witness to Augustus and Marcus Agrippa palling around. They’re men! They’re men’s men! They’re men’s men’s MEN! Manly men, doing masculine things in a dudely fashion. Marcellus is manfully prancing off to Syria as it’s become apparent his former bestie has picked a younger, smarmier version of himself, and Augustus will continue to pretend said new bestie isn’t a shitwit he only tolerates due to being his nephew-in-law. After they embrace in a not-at-all gay way and Marcus Agrippa takes his leave, Augustus immediately stuffs a metaphorical effigy of said former bestie in a dunking booth to cringe at his old ass and pathetic attempts to secure succession.

But also sashaying away is Tiberius, who is off to, ahem, “Germany”. Turns out the BBC didn’t think their mid-1970s viewers would understand where or what “Germania” is. It’s the briefest of interactions, since Augustus has important emperor shit to do, like wandering aimlessly through his gardens bellowing at figs, leaving Livia alone to berate her son via exposition.

She coldly advises him to commence sucking up much harder and longer, because someone has to take over from Augustus, and it can’t be his brother Drusus because he’s pro-republic and therefore unsuitable, and it obviously shouldn’t be Marcellus who is dead to her and soon to all.

We get a tidy summary of how she herself has been biding her time, painstakingly shitcanning husband 1 (i.e., her children’s pa) to advance herself (and by extension her sons) with Augustus – and now look at her! Wearing the equivalent of Balenciaga togas and everything! (I would wear the shit out of the women’s fashion here – it’s like the flowing kaftans of Blanche Devereaux in soft, breathable cotton; the touch, the feel, the fabric of our lives.) Also a dead chicken told her Tiberius would be emperor one day. So that’s us told.

She’s technically correct – famously, the best kind of correct – but what I find vexing is that we’re never shown WHY she wants the power. And here we have the main issue with both the source material and the era, which infers that her motives are incidental, because they are too obvious to explore. If this were aired today (and lord knows it’s ripe for a reboot like everything else), it would be allocated at least twice as many episodes, or at least enough to provide a decent backstory and some frigging context. In fact – scrap the reboot: let’s just have I, Livia Drusilla! The story of how she was passed over for an idiot older brother or cousin on the basis of being a girl. Sadly, we don’t get this for her, or any other female character. I’m by no means mad at all her delicious, sly looks, and I certainly don’t need to be signposted to everyone’s ulterior motives; it’s just tedious that all the women are given exactly one dimension (Bitches Be Crazy).

Anyway, she drops a backhanded compliment and orders him to kiss her and skedaddle, and then the disembodied voiceover of Clavdivs cuts in to tell us Livia be scheming on how to get rid of Marcellus.

Yes, despite the fact that we have literally just seen this happen before our human, viewing eyes! These stupid voiceovers are so pointless, and I hate them for that.

This clunky segue takes us to the fam munching fruit in the garden and chatting about immigrants: Marcellus: pro, because so far he has demonstrated 0 charisma, and this is our very last chance to see any good qualities in him; everyone else: con. Augustus and Marcellus exit to plan the victory games commissioned to celebrate the aforementioned Battle of Actium, leaving Julia and Livia to fail to pass the Bechdel test, so they can prattle on about Marcellus while trading barbed comments about the lack of issue in both their marriages.

We’re repeatedly assured that Marcellus is very popular, a difficult task given his inherent shitwittishness. Livia notes that Tiberius’s wife Vipsania seems fine and all, but doesn’t Julia remember how much she adored Tiberius when she were a lass? Because Livia thought they were just adorbs and that she always hoped they’d get married. HINT HINT. Julia ignores her in favour of shoving more figs in her gob.

We then jump to the victory games, and this time we’re allowed to deduce for ourselves that time has passed without a ‘helpful’ voiceover. I say we jump to the games, but what I mean is we jump backstage, guided with the BBC sound effects track ‘large crowd in marquee, indistinct busy speech’. Livia is disengaged, instead focussing on her correspondence. When called on the optics, she looks at Augustus like she would sooner rip off her own face and eat it than spend even thirty seconds of her life watching competitive murder, and can you blame her? No, you cannot.

Marcellus is gleefully greeted by the sound effects crowd (remember: he is POPULAR, and NOT a self-important gasbag), which enrages Livia so much that she has to feign a headache and duck backstage to fume. Augustus, ever the dutiful husband, checks in, presuming she’s upset because he’s about to schlepp off to the Eastern provinces because Reasons. His ‘comfort’ to Livia is that Rome will be in great hands with Marcellus, once again failing to understand her in any way.

So we skip ahead again to find Livia’s apparently constant flow of unspecified admin interrupted by the news that Marcellus is a bit peaky, plus Julia and Octavia are away. Cashback! Despite his protestations that it’s just a summer cold, she offers to ‘take care’ of him. And that goes as well as you’d predict: the doctor becomes baffled because he’s never before seen a summer cold produce green slime. Tiberius returns from “Germany” so Livia can order him to comfort the about-to-be-widowed Julia; isn’t she fetching? Tiberius can hardly begin repping for his actual wife when Julia’s off-camera scream confirms that Marcellus is finally dead, which is frankly a relief.

Everything about this scene confirms the awful brilliance of Livia, whether she’s comforting a grieving widow by slapping her, to the flash on her FAAAACE when the doctor suggests it might be something he ate, to the palpable relief when she realises he means FOOD poisoning, not food POISONING. Octavia’s reaction is also as priceless as it is useless.

In the Eastern provinces, Augustus reads the news of his successor’s demise. Much is written (understandably so) about Brian Blessed’s stentorian boom, but the grief he shows via body language in this scene is incredible. Unfortunately, disembodied Clavdivs voiceover cuts in to inform us that ROME IS PISSED OFF at their favourite son’s passing. The BBC stumped up for a handful of extras to support the ‘large crowd of men rioting, with boos and shouts’ sound effect to help us picture the off-camera mob, furious about Marcellus’s dodgy death. Livia genuinely believes she can lecture the crowd into sodding off with some weaksauce demagoguery but is driven away with rotten veg and the realisation that Marcus Agrippa’s old ass needs some serious kissing so he can take the flak while she figures out how to install Tiberius.

So once again, our bros enjoy a manful chuckle over their definitely still-intact pride. Marcus Agrippa is NOT gloating over Marcellus’s death, even though he was a prick, and yes, of course he’ll come back because he loves Rome almost as much as he loves his emperor; not just him but his whole family! Including newly single Julia! Augustus is visibly disgusted for a full fifteen seconds before concluding that needs must, and what’s the point of having female issue if you can’t barter with them?

Livia’s livid, and the ensuing row is chock full of convincing bouts of sniping, cajoling and guilt-tripping. This final scene honestly makes the episode for me, with both actors totally sucking me into the autumn years of a marriage based entirely on wishful thinking for both parties. She (somewhat half-assedly) tries to convince Augustus she’s all for girl power and that’s totally the reason why she’s cheesed, and he knows she’s probably lying, but it’s all pointless. Because as disembodied Clavdivs intones, she got her way in the end!

NEXT TIME: Will Augustus finally secure his sucessor? Will Will Clavdivs stop butting in with voiceovers? All will be revealed next time on “Family Affairs”!