I, Claudius: Hail Who?
December 8, 2017 8:09 PM - Season 1, Episode 9 - Subscribe

Rome, AD 40–41. Claudius is living with the ex-prostitute Calpurnia in meagre circumstances. Caligula has turned the palace into a brothel where he sells the wives of high-ranking Senate members to the highest bidder during sexual orgies and forces Claudius to take money at the door. As a joke, he arranges for Claudius to marry the much younger, extremely beautiful Messalina. Totally insane, Caligula makes his horse Incitatus a senator, and takes his legions on a campaign to Germany to put down an alleged rebellion and then to the English Channel where he attempts to do battle with Neptune, bringing back seashells as booty.


Which leads us to... a proper Roman orgy!
After weeks of waiting, we are treated to a full on orgy - well, as full on as the BBC will allow, we're not talking Caligula here. But for it's time, it was pretty shocking,with bare breasts everywhere, cavorting, messed up togas, grapes and two men kissing practically on top of the camera, which was pretty far out for the BBC in the 70s. Caligula's pregnant wife, who is older, not especially pretty and seems bizarrely sane, thanks Claudius for rescuing a new mother from the orgy, and Caligula himslef enters, in all his barely dressed glory, to discover Claudius in the act of beating up another over-enthusiastic customer. Caligula has decided to go to war in Germania. To escape the degradation of Rome.
WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST WATCH?
It’s endlessly fascinating to me that Caligula is portrayed as being partially aware of his delusion. He makes multiple references to the fact that he knows he is giving his subjects impossible situations to navigate, such as demanding that the senators not celebrate his return, but then publicly berating them for following his commands. How much of his delusional behavior did he believe? I think that’s directly related to how he was “more afraid than the rest of us,” as Calpurnia put it. (Actually, I may have gotten the wrong character there. Perhaps Caesonia said that? Oh god, I can’t find it online.) I don’t think Caligula, at least in this version of him, totally believed everything he was doing. I think he was enabled to do whatever the hell he wanted with the power that he had, and he got off on getting away with everything.
posted by the man of twists and turns (3 comments total)
 
Little Boots! Let's not turn this into a Trump thread, people.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:22 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Caligula's drag dance scene feels like something out of Tim and Eric. Such as this segment.

The sequence in Germany where Claudius is walking a tightrope to placate Caligula is just flat-out thrilling, despite being all dialogue.

And introducing Messalina, possibly the only character who out-Sejanuses Sejanus in terms of being purely villainous with no redeeming/mitigating/pity-inducing qualities. Man, all these nutjob Romans; makes you wonder if there was something in the water. Oh right, there was.

Let's not turn this into a Trump thread, people.

I see you lookin' at me. Ya know, YOU'RE the one who used the T-word in the same thread as the word "orgy." X(

How much of his delusional behavior did he believe? I think that’s directly related to how he was “more afraid than the rest of us,” as Calpurnia put it. (Actually, I may have gotten the wrong character there. Perhaps Caesonia said that? Oh god, I can’t find it online.) I don’t think Caligula, at least in this version of him, totally believed everything he was doing. I think he was enabled to do whatever the hell he wanted with the power that he had, and he got off on getting away with everything.

IIRC it was indeed Caesonia. But I think the author is at least partly right here about Caligula's extent of self-awareness. If the show's depiction of his boyhood is at all accurate, then I'd conjecture he had some very serious personality disorder. Combine that with the circumstances surrounding him growing up and becoming emperor, and then with absolute power, and you've got a toxic combination. The thing, then, of which he was "more afraid than the rest of us" may have been himself. He may have become aware (maybe due to those headaches?) that something in his brain was off, but couldn't ever admit it to anyone except in private moments where his guard is lower, to Caesonia presumably or like when he asks Claudius if he's mad. Maybe he started being Caligula-ish as a defense mechanism, but couldn't turn it off.

And this Madness of King George stuff is all by itself a sufficiently powerful argument against autocracy. Hey, way to go me, I did not use the T-word.

#giveusakiss
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 3:38 AM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]


Standout line from Claudius: "You set the standard of sanity for the whole world"

It's almost possible to pity Caligula in that scene. I've had my own bouts with mental illness. Nothing so severe as depicted here, but imagining going through some altered state of consciousness with absolute power is horrifying. One of the worst parts of it is the inability to control it. You know you're depressed, you know you're being irrational, at least some part of you knows and can't stop it.

Caligula has every reason to be afraid as well. In Caligula's case it probably gets rid of the gnawing fear. He killed his own father. He lived through the era of Sejanus and arranged for his downfall. He watched Tiberius get smothered. He knows that no matter how many guards you have, no matter how much power, no matter how safe you may seem someone can get to you and someone can kill you.

In that state being afraid, out of control, knowing it, and having nothing and no one to stop you must make steering into the skid awfully tempting. Abandoning yourself to the delusion that you're a god gets rid of your own sense of powerlessness over yourself. How does a God get assassinated? Meanwhile everyone around you is only too happy to grease the slide for you, out of fear for their own lives.

Also, this is is the episode where I, Claudius gets bleak; it's gotten dark and violent, but I always remember the last three episodes as being just oppressively bleak. Part of that, as I said previously, is just Claudius as a narrator. However, I also think this is where the show dispenses with hope. The reaction to Caligula's death shows there's really no way back. Once you show that it's possible to be an Emperor, once you have a system that's set up to have an Emperor, you'll get an Emperor. Weather it's mad Caligula, the viper Tiberius reared in the bosom of Rome, Claudius sucked up into the vacuum, or Galba, Vitellius, and Vespasian marching in with their legions to grab for the brass ring. The Empire will have an Emperor.

Like I said. Bleak.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:06 PM on December 9, 2017 [2 favorites]


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