Shortly after this project began, I was lucky enough to watch Richard Ayoade and Black Francis perform “Hey” during Adam Buxton’s live podcast. It was an evening packed with hilarious AI-generated art, charming anecdotes and general ramblechat, as one would hope for such an event. At one point during the evening, Adam referenced the earnest, possibly joking but also-maybe serious fan letter/lecture penned by Steely Dan©  to Wes Anderson. I roared with laughter and thought, “Just write fanfic like everybody else, The Dan©!” But then a few days later, I posted the recap of “Waiting in the Wings” where I offered my unsolicited script-writing fix so as to better introduce Castor to I, Claudius. And even when laughing at the audacity of The Dan©, it took me several weeks to accept my hypocrisy and see that egg and my face were in alignment.

Art can’t and shouldn’t achieve perfection, but it can be sublime (for some given, subjective value of sublime). Fandom is another way to fall in love and all love involves eventual disillusionment, so naturally when a beloved favourite fall short of expectations, it can invoke an atavistic resentment. Back to the Robot Devil’s sage criticism of Fry’s holophonor opera as lousy as it is brilliant, which encapsulates so many things, but none more so than I, Claudius. I can’t think of anything else in recent memory to have zapped my neurofunky synapses as much as this show has, enough to inspire this absurd exegesis.

When I first came to the show as a teenager, it followed a 1980s childhood built on a solid foundation of refined sugar and emotional neglect. At the time, it wouldn’t have ever occurred to me to analyse the portrayal of women and their limited access to power or any inconsistencies in character development. And if I had been a touch more precocious instead of just pathologically back-chatty, I may have even recognised a lot of my own family’s internecine beef. I came for Sejanus, I stayed for Caligula, and I made some very cherished, confused and inaccurate memories along the way.  

Then I returned to the show after any number of random universal nudges, or perhaps simply because it was on the iPlayer and coincided with a time when I was forcing myself to lay off the news-doomscroll loop I’ve been trapped in since the summer of 2016. As an adult, I have been most affected by the wounded family tragedy hiding in plain sight within this campy historical soap opera. I spent a lot of time hyper-analysing the characters (which is totally normal), before concluding I needed to write about them and therefore, would need to watch the entire series yet another time.

During this intensive third watch, I reviewed some scenes four or five times, and even then may have missed some of the detail. It doesn’t help that the iPlayer’s subtitles were sometimes a bit off, and sadly I must issue a correction: the man who accompanied Augustus to Planasia was Fabius, not Flavius Maximus (thanks, Mary Beard!). Still, even during scenes where only two characters are sparring/plotting/schmoozing/smooching/what have you, there is a lot to take in. And some scenes were enjoyed multiple times because they were just plain hilarious, whether intentionally or not. 

In many ways, my issues with the show’s tropes and stereotypes, especially about the women, are just the problems of 1970s lazy characterisation writ large. Julia was fun, even though I know I’m supposed to have considered her a baddie. Instead I chose to enjoy her joyful sex-positive cluelessness; what annoyed me was her unrealistic total lack of response to Gaius’s death. The show jumped forward in time a lot, but years later, Augustus was still very upset, whereas she put all her energy into seducing Lucius’s friends. 

Antonia had lots of potential to be a well-rounded, complicated character. She may have been a cold, distant mother, with some old-fashioned hangups, but I never bought her as stupid. And yet when it suited the plot, there were a number of things she didn’t understand or believe, like when she refused to countenance Tiberius wanting to kill Drusus. You mean the man who (deep breath) stalked his wife, was complicit in the murder of all three of his stepchildren, married a woman he detested because he couldn’t stand up to his mama and threw constant temper tantrums? He wouldn’t remove his vastly more popular, republican-sentimental younger brother?

But we also got Agrippina, modelled on a woman who does appear to have been a legit badass. Firebrand Pina had agency and decent dialogue; she was a genuine inspiration and brilliant foil. And that’s why Messalina proved such a disappointment, and not just because I hated her cloying voice and fuckable-baby mannerisms. Her character was a weak compound of those who came before her; even Julia made more sense by comparison. By watering down Livia’s conniving, Livilla’s weaponised promiscuity and the political drive of Pina in her characterisation, she never made a worthy adversary.

Livia, on the other hand: brava. Siân Phillips restrained herself when many other august (ho ho) actors either couldn’t or weren’t given direction to do so. While I still think her motives weren’t explored enough, she was by far the most interesting and complex female character on the show. I’m particularly drawn by her confession scene with Clavdivs, a kind of anti-Walter White moment where, unlike his eventual epiphany, she maintained  that everything I do, I do for this family. Except her blood family was Rome itself, and her actual family were expendable pawns. She faced her death sincerely believing that her murderous actions were justifiable, so much so that she deserved deification. 

I loved all her scenes, even when they were difficult to watch. All the scheming and murderous sentiments were delightful; what I struggled with was the pathologically driven drip-feed of pointless cruelties: using Clavdivs’s stammer to dub him ‘Claw-Claw’, continually setting Tiberius up to fail so she could sneer at his intellect, or only praising her husband and younger son after they’d died. And yet, she was the twisted, broken heart of the show.

If Siân Phillips was the heart, Brian Blessed was the soul. His somewhat hapless ‘normal dude with extra responsibilities’ shtick worked splendidly, because every now and then you’d get a flash of the machinations he constructed and the people he betrayed, even during times when I half-expected him to bellow, “Then maybe you shouldn’t be living heeeeere!” I also found his characterisation an interesting left turn from what might have been expected. Our Augustus was indeed charismatic and powerful, but also cried at the drop of a hat and struggled to fathom his blood- and found-family’s intentions. Together, like sweet, sonorous strawberries and choking-thick cream, Augustus and Livia made magic. And after they’d gone, the dynamics of the show were considerably altered. 

At this point, my focus couldn’t help but shift to Sejanus, and happily, Patrick Stewart did not disappoint and, in fact, proved even hotter and more commanding than in my memory. And when he left us all too soon, John Hurt’s magnificent Caligula forced me to confront the fact that my relationship with tropes about dangerous, sexy men wasn’t Sejanus-specific. I would be remiss if I didn’t link to Mary Beard’s engaging debunk of most of the myths surrounding Caligula (do not watch if you are a Senator Incitatus stan).

As for our (anti)hero/victim, for the most part I loved watching Derek Jacobi gorging on an all-you-can-eat scenery buffet. This excellent segment is a fun watch and conveys his genuine enthusiasm for the role and indeed for the entire production. Because for all my griping about the weird voiceovers and mostly unnecessary flash-forwards, he treads the fine line between portraying a Clavdivs we could root for, while simultaneously wanting to smack. It is something of a moral quandary; Clavdivs is too cringe for words in his younger years and irascible in his latter, but in between he’s mostly lost, trying to understand his family and his place in it, and more than anything else, seeking and failing to find pure love. All the same, it’s often difficult to like him, even while understanding the reasons for his behaviour. 

I soon realised that whenever I was dunking on Clavdivs, I was projecting on to my disowned shadow self. I am also socially awkward, known to accidentally insult people without realising it, with a propensity to gas on about my own interests without clocking everyone is bored. I also have a history of self-anaesthetising overwhelming emotions with oceanic quantities of wine and falling victim to love-bombing. But perhaps most painfully, I too spend most of my free time writing things destined to garner a near-zero readership. 

And like Clavdivs, I understand that when your formative years are spent being told who you are and what you are capable of, decades later, you will still struggle to understand yourself. Maybe if Clavdivs’s chums hadn’t for the most part been, to quote Ryan North again, weapons-grade jabronis, he may have made some better choices. But this was about as realistic as beating the Sibyl’s prophecies, given his family of origin’s treatment of him precluded well-considered friendship choices. His questionable comrades also helped set up just how strange his ascension to power was, like a weird Universe B Sopranos where Johnny Sack and Paulie Walnuts executed a successful hit on Tony and then installed Bobby Bacala as the DiMeo family boss. I can even imagine Bobby hiding behind curtains, protesting, “But I don’t WANT to be the boss!” – in a fairer world, he’d have a career as a highly regarded elder caregiver, feted for extending sincere compassion even while being called a calzone on legs. It makes as much sense as Clavdivs as Emperor.

Clavdivs primarily saw himself as an historian leading us to The Truth, though it is apparent that what he was truly seeking was a kind of closure with his (in)famous family and therefore with himself. What we get is a collection of stitched-together fragments of a disjointed whole story surmised by Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius, distilled by Robert Graves and rehashed by Jack Pulman and now obsessed over by me. I, Claudius is currently available on the iPlayer for another two months, and I really do recommend watching it. Despite some clunky devices and dated characterisation, it has a powerful and ageless resonance quite unlike anything else. 

Before I finally shut my gaping maw, here’s a playlist of the songs that were my soundtrack / earworm throughout this project.