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I, Claudius (1976) vs Rome (2005), or Ancient Rome revisited by television

Isabelle Roblin

Résumés

Par-delà les intentions philosophiques et/ou idéologiques, la manière dont l’Antiquité est représentée dans la littérature ou au cinéma a toujours été révélatrice de l’idéologie de la période où elle a été écrite ou filmée. Ainsi, le contexte social et économique a beaucoup évolué entre deux séries télévisées à succès ayant pour sujet la Rome antique : I, Claudius (BBC, 1976), adaptation des romans de Robert Graves, et Rome (BBC-HBO 2005). Alors que l’action de I, Claudius se situe presque exclusivement au sein de la famille impériale, Rome tire clairement parti de la fascination pour les différences de classe, et plus particulièrement de la division entre patriciens et plébéiens. Cette conception de l’histoire romaine est inscrite dans la structure même de Rome, où la vie de deux simples soldats est mêlée aux événements et personnages historiques, donnant ainsi une perspective nouvelle sur les hauts faits célèbres. La manière dont la sexualité et la religion sont traitées dans les deux séries est également indissociable de l’époque à laquelle elles ont été tournées mais d’un autre côté leur représentation du rôle des femmes, essentiellement en tant que mères, semble relever du même stéréotype.

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  • 1 BBC Handbook 1977 Incorporating the Annual Report and Accounts 1975-76, London, 1977, p. 47. In 200 (...)
  • 2 Sandra Joshel, “I, Claudius: Projection and Imperial Soap Opera,” in Imperial Projections: Ancient (...)
  • 3 For example, “a scene worth mentioning from the original” in episode 7 “is the devastating 10-minut (...)
  • 4 “Why I, Claudius should be remade,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/ tvandradioblog/2011/jun (...)
  • 5 See for example Mark Fleming’s article, “HBO, BBC2 Make Deal To Turn Robert Graves Novel ‘I, Claudi (...)

1Ancient Rome has been a popular topic for the cinema ever since peplum films started flooding the silver screens in the 1950s. Television series dealing with the subject were however few and far between. Among the rare examples, The Caesars, produced in 1968 by Granada TV for the ITV network in Britain, and I, Claudius, a 13- episode, 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ 1934 historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which has become one of the corporation’s most successful drama serials of all time, both critically and commercially. Indeed, rating surveys assessed the average audience of its original airing in 1976 at 2,500,000 viewers per episode1. It was made relatively cheaply, an hour of broadcast material reportedly costing at the time on average £60,000, and “the serial was shot entirely in the studio on a budget of approximately two million dollars2”. The cast and the sets were limited, giving the series a theatricality which is reinforced by the frequent use of monologues3 and “long, ‘unblinking eye’ camera shots, occasionally trundling in for close-ups in moments of high drama, with very few cuts4”. I, Claudius went on to win three BAFTA awards in 1977 (for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Design) and it was subsequently broadcast in the United States as part of PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre and in France in 1978, and then again in 1982 and 1986. It was reshown in 1978 and 1986 on BBC1 and its latest rerun was on BBC4 from March to May 2013. Recently, HBO has teamed with BBC2 to acquire the rights to develop a remake of the series5.

  • 6 He also wrote in a few private jokes: for example “in Claudius’s speech to the Senate in the final (...)
  • 7 Joshel, p. 139.
  • 8 Joshel, p. 120.

2I, Claudius considers the history of the early Roman Empire through the eyes of the fourth eponymous emperor, who is of course well-known in British history for his role in the conquest and Romanisation of Britain, which is often referred to in the series. For example, in the penultimate episode (“A God in Colchester”) Claudius learns that the Britons have made him a God and dedicated a temple to him in Colchester. Each of the thirteen episodes chronicles the bloody events which eventually led to his unexpected accession (in 41 A.D.) and death (in 54 A.D.). Jack Pulman, who scripted the whole series, privileged literary devices for his adaptation6. The narrational structure of the episodes has been analysed in depth by Sandra Joshel. Each episode starts with a flashback as the audience watches the older Claudius writing his memoirs “in the interior rooms of the palace: his bedroom, private study, and even toilet7” and reminiscing, sometimes in voiceover, about his own amazing destiny. The story of his imperial family, which in fact overlaps the history of Rome, “becomes the spectacle8”. Moreover,

  • 9 Joshel, p. 136.

since all viewers ever see of the empire is its ruling family, and since empire is narratively contained within the family in the form of objects, marginalized subject people, and talk, the family stands for the empire it rules. The imperial family becomes a metonymy for Rome, and Rome means empire9.

  • 10 Ryan Parsons, “HBO Wants More ROME”, CanMag, September 13, 2005, http:/ www. canmag. com/news/4/ 21 (...)
  • 11 Jason Deans, “Rome’s bloody climax wins 3m”, The Guardian, January 5, 2006, http//www.theguardian.c (...)

3Thirty years later, another series, Rome, a HBO/BBC/RAI co-production in two seasons, of respectively twelve and ten episodes, was going to alter radically and even challenge this vision of both the history of Rome and Roman society. Not only had viewers’ mentalities considerably changed in a generation, not only had technical innovations, in terms of lighting and computerisation for example, revolutionised the filming process, but the broadcasting conditions on television, especially in the United States, had been totally transformed during these three decades. The appearance of Premium Cable TV, and particularly of HBO (Home Box Office, an operating subsidiary of Time Warner), free from the explicit or implicit censorship of family oriented networks such as ABC or CBS as well as from the financial pressure of the announcers thanks to its 30 million plus subscribers, made it possible for the screenwriters and producers to take a much more radical and (arguably) creative approach to the making of series, especially in the way sexuality, for example, is presented. The first season, with its stunning costumes and lavish settings (most scenes were shot in the legendary Cinecitta studios in Rome) cost more than US$100 million for the twelve, one-hour long episodes, and is regarded as being one of the most expensive in the history of television. It was hugely popular in the United States, with a total weekly audience exceeding seven million viewers for each episode10. When aired in the United Kingdom, the first episode attracted 6.6 million viewers but the figures declined in later episodes and “only” 3 million spectators watched the season finale11. It won numerous television nominations and awards, among which four Emmys in 2006, but the series ended with the second season (out of the planned five) due to cost.

  • 12 Executive producer and screenwriter Bruno Heller in the Rome (1st season) DVD bonus.
  • 13 See Vivien Bessières, “‘Rome, Sweet Rome’ : L'idée américaine du foyer dans la série Rome”, Les sér (...)

4As in I, Claudius, the first season of Rome is set within a traditional historical framework: it starts with Caesar’s victory over the Gaulish leader Vercingetorix, in 52 B.C. and ends with Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. However, one of its most innovative ideas is to provide a double viewpoint on this representation of the end of the Republic. Indeed, unlike I, Claudius, it focuses on the lives not only of well-known members of the aristocracy such as Caesar or Antony but also of two ordinary Plebeian Romans, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus who, at the beginning of the series, are legionaries in Caesar’s army and who, like most war veterans throughout history, find it difficult to readapt to civilian life after having spent eight years in the army. They too are to a certain extent historical characters, for the exploits of two centurions bearing those names are briefly mentioned by Caesar in his account of the Gallic War (book 5, chapter 44) as examples of a rather foolish but gallant rivalry. In the series “their characters are dramatized, but the world in which they’re moving and the context in which they exist can be fleshed out with historical detail12.” Thanks to their inclusion in the story, the viewer will have multiple points of view on the related events, which will no longer be seen exclusively from the Imperial family’s standpoint13.

5Thus both series were very successful both in terms of audience ratings and critical acclaim. This is probably due partly to the quality of the acting, especially in I, Claudius, and of the filming and photography in Rome. However, they differ greatly in the way history, religion and sexuality are represented even though there are striking similarities in the way women are portrayed in this male-dominated society.

6In I, Claudius the credits, showing the head of Derek Jacobi, who played the title role, as a classic Roman mosaic of Emperor Claudius, with a snake slithering across it (see plate 1), as the title appears on the screen, followed by the names of the actors, unambiguously reveal a view of history as made by “great men”:

Plate 1: I, Claudius credits

Plate 1: I, Claudius credits

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  • 14 I use the term in a positive, more American, way, as Walt Whitman for one used it.
  • 15 Raymond Chandler’s famous description of the hard-boiled detective in Dashiell Hammet’s crime novel (...)
  • 16 For a detailed description and analysis of the credits, see Julie Gallego, “Jules César au secours (...)
  • 17 This 1st century mosaic can be seen at the Naples National Archeological Museum.
  • 18 Audio commentary of episode 1 on the first DVD of the first season of Rome.
  • 19 Ibid.

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Notes

1 BBC Handbook 1977 Incorporating the Annual Report and Accounts 1975-76, London, 1977, p. 47. In 2000 it was ranked 12th in the British Film Institute’s list, drawn up by industry professionals, of the “100 Greatest British Television Programmes” and in 2007 it made the list of Time magazine’s “Best TV Shows of All-TIME” (James Poniewosik, http://entertainment.time.com/2007/09/06/the-100-best-tv-shows-of-all-time/slide/i-claudius/, consulted in October 2013.

2 Sandra Joshel, “I, Claudius: Projection and Imperial Soap Opera,” in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern popular Culture, Baltimore and London, John Hopkins UP, 2001, p. 155, note 3.

3 For example, “a scene worth mentioning from the original” in episode 7 “is the devastating 10-minute confession from Lollia”, a traditional Roman matron played by Isabel Dean, “that she cannot live with the memory of being abused by Tiberius. Her subsequent suicide is made all the more shocking by the eloquence of her speech.” Ben Lawrence, “I, Claudius: what HBO can learn from the BBC classic”:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10096739/I-Claudius-what-HBO-can-learn-from-the-BBC-classic.html, consulted in September 2013.

4 “Why I, Claudius should be remade,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/ tvandradioblog/2011/jun/13/i-claudius-hbo-remake, consulted September 2013.

5 See for example Mark Fleming’s article, “HBO, BBC2 Make Deal To Turn Robert Graves Novel ‘I, Claudius’ Into Epic Miniseries,” June 10, 2011, http://www.deadline .com/2011/06/hbo-bbc2-new-make-deal-to-turn-robert-graves-novel-i-claudius-into-epic-miniseries/, consulted in September 2013.

6 He also wrote in a few private jokes: for example “in Claudius’s speech to the Senate in the final episode, Claudius prophesies that ‘the man who dwells by the pool shall open graves, and the dead shall live again’. This is a reference to the scriptwriter, Jack Pulman, and a pun on the book's author, Robert Graves”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ I,_Claudius _%28TV_series%29, consulted in November 2013.

7 Joshel, p. 139.

8 Joshel, p. 120.

9 Joshel, p. 136.

10 Ryan Parsons, “HBO Wants More ROME”, CanMag, September 13, 2005, http:/ www. canmag. com/news/4/ 21/1963, accessed in November 2013.

11 Jason Deans, “Rome’s bloody climax wins 3m”, The Guardian, January 5, 2006, http//www.theguardian.com/media/2006/jan/05/overnights, consulted November 2013.

12 Executive producer and screenwriter Bruno Heller in the Rome (1st season) DVD bonus.

13 See Vivien Bessières, “‘Rome, Sweet Rome’ : L'idée américaine du foyer dans la série Rome”, Les séries américaines. La société réinventée ?, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2013, p. 122 : “Une chose manquait à I, Claudius par rapport à une série classique américaine comme Rome : la multiplicité des points de vue. Le point de vue était essentiellement celui de Claude […]. À l’instar du péplum de cinéma, la série ne descendait jamais dans la rue ou pour de courtes excursions vite oubliées. Tout se passait dans la famille impériale, à l’intérieur des murs du Palais [...]. Dans Rome, le point de vue sera disséminé aux quatre coins de la Ville et le foyer ne sera plus seulement le foyer impérial, qui coïncide avec la nation, mais aussi le foyer familial”.

14 I use the term in a positive, more American, way, as Walt Whitman for one used it.

15 Raymond Chandler’s famous description of the hard-boiled detective in Dashiell Hammet’s crime novels in “The Simple Art of Murder,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 1944, p. 59.

16 For a detailed description and analysis of the credits, see Julie Gallego, “Jules César au secours des scénaristes américains : l’incipit de la série Rome,” Entre la fiction, les faits, et le réel, TV/Series #1, juin 2012.

17 This 1st century mosaic can be seen at the Naples National Archeological Museum.

18 Audio commentary of episode 1 on the first DVD of the first season of Rome.

19 Ibid.

20 Graffiti are going to play an important part in the series, especially in episode 5 when Atia organizes a smear campaign against her rival Servilia and her lover Caesar by having very explicit and crude sex graffiti and inscriptions (such as “Servilia Caesaris fellator” which, as one internaut pointed out, is self-explanatory even if you don’t know any Latin) drawn on the walls of the city. http://glaukopidos.blogspot.fr/2005/09/hbos-rome-ep-5.html, consulted September 2013.

21 Bruno Heller’s comment on the bonus DVD.

22 Sylvaine Bataille, “Haunted by Shakespeare: HBO’s Rome,” Television Shakespeare. Essays in honour of Michèle Willems, Mont-Saint-Aignan, Publications des Universités de Rouen et du Havre, 2008, p. 220. She further remarks that “for all their advertising on the authenticity of the series’ depiction of Rome, the creators did not go so far as to write the dialogues in Latin, and stopped short of imitating Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004), shot entirely in Aramaic” (p. 229), even though they sprinkled the dialogues “with a fair amount of Latin words, such as names of places, gods or mythological creatures, and idiomatic expressions” (p. 231) as well as Shakespearian-sounding insults and metaphors (p. 233-236). I for one agree with her when she writes that series like Rome combine “popular conventions with scholarly references,” raise “the interest of a varied audience”, and create “a sense of shared culture,” p. 246, 247.

23 Ibid.

24 Joshel, p. 132

25 Bataille, p. 225.

26 Bataille, p. 235

27 Pierre Sérisier (“Rome, une série hors-norme,” http://seriestv.blog.lemonde.fr/2009/05 /27/rome-une-serie-hors-normes/), who is quite enthusiastic about the series (“L’ambition de Rome n'était pas de réussir une reconstitution fidèle des événements, mais à travers le prétexte de l'Histoire de décrire une atmosphère, une manière de vivre et des mœurs, celles qui existaient à Rome à cette époque. De ce point de vue, la série est une magnifique réussite “), also notes that “certains acteurs majeurs sont ignorés en particulier dans le conflit entre les optimates et les populares.”

28 See Yann Le Bohec, ROME. Un conte d’amour et de mort, Paris, PUF, 2013, p. 54, 70.

29 Bruno Heller in the bonus DVD.

30 The most graphic example is probably the torture of Servilia by Timon in Atia’s house in episode 4 of the second season.

31 This particular scene was almost immediately removed from the master tape: “BBC management got cold feet about this specific shot and edited it out prior to the repeat in the same week,” the producer of the I, Claudius DVD recently said (Radio Times, “Censored 1970s cuts to I, Claudius”, 15-21 June 2013, p. 157), and in the closing seconds of episode 9, instead of the door swinging open to reveal the gruesome scene, the camera pulls away, leaving the spectator to imagine “the horror, the horror”, as Conrad’s Marlow would say.

32 Joshel, p. 102

33 Joshel, p. 120.

34 Vivien Bessières contrasts the representations of the topos of the gladiatoral games in the arena in Gladiator, I, Claudius, and Rome: “Dans Gladiator et dans le péplum en général, on ne voyait que l’arène, avec de rares contre-champs sur certains personnages du public. Dans I, Claudius, on ne voit plus que les gradins. Dans Rome, on voit presque autant les deux, jusqu’à leur entrelacement, quand Vorenus fait irruption, depuis les gradins, dans l’arène.” (Bessières 2013, p. 122). In an earlier article, he had propounded a detailed analysis of the same scenes in Gladiator and Rome, stressing the difference in their treatment on TV and at the cinema: “Ce qui diffère […] du film à la série, c’est la nouvelle découpe faite dans le réel : non pas que l’un soit plus réaliste que l’autre, mais la série traite un autre champ du réel que ne traitait pas le cinéma : le champ du familier, du quotidien, du commun. Du film à la série péplum, nous passons d’un réalisme de l’événement spectaculaire, centré sur le héros, à un réalisme du quotidien familier, centré sur une communauté, ici une ville antique, représentée par le trajet des deux héros, mais aussi par toute une série d’autres personnages, fictifs ou historiques.” (Vivien Bessières, “Rome : un péplum enfin réaliste ?” in Les Séries télévisées américaines contemporaines : Entre la fiction, les faits, et le réel, TV/Series #1, juin 2012, p. 58)

35 Jonathan Stamp in the bonus DVD.

36 Bruno Heller in the bonus DVD.

37 This is the only religious ritual depicted in the series that the French historian Yann Le Bohec who, contrary to other French academics like Florence Dupont, actually admits that he enjoyed the series, considers as fairly accurate: “Un ‘taurobole’, toutefois, est représenté avec assez de vraisemblance, avec beaucoup de sang” (Le Bohec p.46). He finds the other rituals shown laughable and verging on the ridiculous: “faits d’un tiers de grand guignol, d’un tiers de christianisme fantasmé et d’un tiers d’animisme papou.” (Ibid.)

38 Timon, a horse-trader who becomes one of Atia's lovers and hired swords, is Jewish. In the second season, under his brother's influence, he (re)discovers his Judaism and even participates in revolutionary activities, and in episode 8 of the second series he and his family leave Rome for Judea.

39 The one exception might be the low born Calpurnia, a recurrent character, a prostitute who is a loyal friend to Claudius and is given the thankless task of informing him of his wife’s deceits (episode 12).

40 Jonathan Stamp in the DVD bonus.

41 Maria Wyke, The Roman Mistress. Ancient and Modern Representations, Oxford, OUP, 2002, p. 384.

42 Wyke, p. 357.

43 Sandra Joshel quite convincingly argues that the New Right routinely blamed the feminists for the “coming apart of American power abroad” (in Vietnam), of “American society at home” (the various civil rights movements and the Watergate scandal) and, more generally, of “a masculine maintenance of power” by attacking the traditional family values and “emasculating the father/husband,” Joshel, p. 128-129.

44 Wyke, p. 384, 388, 389.

45 Joshel, p. 142.

46 Ibid.

47 This is also Florence Dupont’s contention about Rome, which, as Sandra Joshel does with I, Claudius, she compares to Dallas (“L’antiquité falsifiée. ‘Rome’, ton univers impitoyable,” Le Monde Diplomatique, avril 2007, p. 31). Florence Dupont’s harsh criticism of Rome has been in turn criticized by many French classical scholars, such as Yann Le Bohec and Michel Eloy, as well as screenwriters Denys Corel and Antoine de Froberville and “sériephile” journalist Pierre Sérisier. Most experts on Ancient Rome seem to think that the series does a fairly good job at recreating the end of the Republic, give or take a few anachronisms (especially in the second season); see for example Florence Broizat, “La véritable histoire de Rome”, Télérama n°2998, 27 juin 2007: “quelques infidélités historiques, mais des moeurs conformes à la réalité.” (p. 26).

48 Once again, the series goes farther than the novel: “Graves devotes a relatively small number of pages to unchaste and manipulative wives. In fact, although Graves notes cases of female sexual misbehavior, he stages no scenes of sexual excess.” (Joshel, p. 123)

49 The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 had provided for a limited decriminalisation of homosexual acts in England and Wales but all homosexual behaviour was illegal in Scotland and Northern Ireland until the early 1980s.

50 In season 2, he tells his wife Livia that he will occasionally beat her because it arouses him.

51 Yann Le Bohec concurs: “de nombreuses sculptures et bien des textes montrent une approche de la sexualité bien différente de celle qu’ont imposée les religions monothéistes depuis vingt siècles”(p. 133), even though he points out that, in fact, “les nobles et les intellectuels veillaient au plus haut point à la maîtrise de soi et la philosophie, le stoïcisme, à la mode juste après cette guerre civile, et le néo-platonicisme devenu dominant au IIIè siècle, incitaient les hommes à une relative chasteté.” (p. 134)

52 “[L]es réalisateurs auront tout de même moins de mal à filmer des scènes d’amour entre femmes qu’entre hommes. La caméra s’attardera ainsi sur les relations amoureuses entre la sœur d’Octave et la concubine de César, Servilia. Elle passera rapidement sur une scène de sodomie aux motivations plus intéressées.” (Bessières 2013, p. 123)

53 Buno Heller in the bonus DVD.

54 This “anthropological error” in Rome is also condemned by Vivien Bessières : “les intentions réalistes de Rome échouent non seulement parce que la série accumule les erreurs factuelles, historiques, mais aussi et surtout à cause de l'erreur anthropologique qui consiste à gommer les différences entre l'homme de la Rome antique et l'homme des Etats-Unis modernes.” (Bessières 2013, p. 114). Yann Le Bohec concurs : “[Les créateurs de Rome] ont plus ou moins transposé dans l’Antiquité et dans la Méditerranée des préoccupations proches du XXIè siècle et des pays de l’Atlantique …. peut-être par le désir plus ou moins conscient de faire croire [aux téléspectateurs] que les Romains étaient plus proches d’eux qu’ils ne l’étaient en réalité.” (Le Bohec, p. 17).

55 Joshel, p. 126, 150.

56 Robert Graves’ novels constitute in themselves “a highly idiosyncratic, revisionist history of Claudius’ early life,” Wyke, p. 355. Wyke also reminds the readers and the viewers of I, Claudius who might be in search of what the “real” Messalina was like “of the dominating position Graves’ novels have held (and continue to hold) in the Anglo-American popular production and consumption of the meretrix Augusta,” p. 353. She points out that the caption of the webpage of the I, Claudius project, “set up in January 1999 through the department of classics at St Anselm College in new Hampshire, USA, as part of a student project to analyse and evaluate the British television serial” (p. 352), depicting Messalina as “nothing but a tramp” “neatly summarizes the characterization of the televisual Messalina inherited from Robert Graves’s twin narratives.” (p. 354).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Plate 1: I, Claudius credits
Crédits source: mcwetboy.net
URL http://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/docannexe/image/295/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Titre Plate 2: Rome, Gorgoneion from credits (1st season)
Crédits source: answers.com
URL http://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/docannexe/image/295/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Titre Plate 3. Rome, title screen credits (1st season)
Crédits source: en.wikipedia.org
URL http://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/docannexe/image/295/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Titre Plate 4. Rome, Caesar’s triumph, season 1, episode 12
Crédits source: duke.edu.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/docannexe/image/295/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
Titre Plate 5: I, Claudius, the Sybil and the dying Claudius, episode 13
Crédits source: kcet.org
URL http://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/docannexe/image/295/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 180k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Isabelle Roblin, « I, Claudius (1976) vs Rome (2005), or Ancient Rome revisited by television », TV/Series [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/295 ; DOI : 10.4000/tvseries.295

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Auteur

Isabelle Roblin

Isabelle Roblin is an Assistant professor at the Université du Littoral-Côte d’Opale. She specialises in contemporary anglophone literature. She is currently working on literary and cinematographic rewritings of the British and American literary canons and has
published an essay on Harold Pinter’s adapted screenplays.

Isabelle Roblin est Maître de Conférences à l’Université du  Littoral-Côte d’Opale, spécialisée en littérature anglophone  contemporaine. Elle travaille actuellement sur les réécritures littéraires et cinématographiques des canons littéraires britannique 
et américain, et a publié un ouvrage sur les scénarios d’Harold Pinter.

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