Don’t Let Dated Sets and Stagey Acting Keep You From This Brilliant BBC Drama

With compelling characters and unforgettable scenes, this sexy, funny and surprisingly historically accurate series, now back on BBC iPlayer, deserves to be on everybody’s watch-list.

Sian Phillips and Brian Blessed in I, Claudius
Photo: BBC

In my other life, I am an Ancient History lecturer at a UK university, which means I am often giving my students recommendations for films and TV shows to watch about Ancient Rome. None of them are especially historically accurate (a totally historically accurate film would probably be a boring film) but as long as you don’t take anything in them too literally, they are a nice introduction to the world of ancient Rome. Gladiator might make Rome a Republic again about 1600 years too early, but it shows how the Colosseum functioned, trapdoors and all, very well. The Eagle’s history of the Ninth Legion and depiction of Iron Age Picts might be a bit iffy, but it gives you a taste of life in the Roman provinces. You get the idea.

TV shows are particularly useful for getting to grips with a large cast of characters and learning everyone’s names and more or less where they all slot into the turbulent political history of the last century BCE and the first century CE. The Romans were not very imaginative with names; by the first century CE there were only about 18 first names in general use, for example, and daughters were often given the female form of their father’s names (Julia daughter of Julius, Octavia daughter of Octavius, and so on). They also liked to change their names when they were adopted – which could happen as an adult, not just in childhood – or for political reasons, leading to a confusing mess of long dead men with similar names, which keep changing. Watching a TV show, however historically inaccurate, puts a living, breathing face to the name and gives them a memorable character arc, helping someone studying complex history for the first time to remember who everybody is and how they relate to everybody else.

I’ve had a lot of success recommending the BBC/HBO series Rome, which ran 2007-2009, to my students. I’m pleased about that; although the ending was cut short and horribly rushed, it’s a great show full of memorable characters and offers a mangled but vaguely appropriate version of the history of the fall of the Roman Republic. A few of those with stronger stomachs are willing to watch STARZ’s Spartacus as well. But the one show I cannot get them enthusiastic about is my absolute favourite, the series that got me to do a degree in Ancient History in the first place – the BBC’s 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius and its sequel, Claudius the God. Originally broadcast in 13 episodes in 1976, I, Claudius tells the story of the first four Roman Emperors – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius – and their families.*

*Not Julius Caesar, who was technically a Dictator, not an Emperor.


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