'I, Claudius,' Episode Five: "Poison Is Queen"

Before "The Sopranos" promoted a negative stereotype of Italians, before the "Game of Thrones" families taught the world how to stab each one another in the back, and before those "Downton Abbey" folks showed off the cushier side of period dramas, there was "I, Claudius," the 1976 BBC series that tells the story of Claudius, the fourth emperor of Rome. Combining Roman history with campy, soapy melodrama, "I, Claudius" is a must-see for TV fans and history buffs alike. Keep up to speed with this treacherous Romans~with KCET's recap series and character guide.

Where we left off:
Postumus was banished to a small island by Augustus for allegedly trying to rape Livilla. Before he was taken, Postumus told Claudius his theories of how Livia had been plotting all the deaths within the family. Germanicus was sent to Germania to handle the aftermath of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Recap:
Germanicus (David Robb) has defeated the Germans and has returned to Rome. Claudius (Derek Jacobi) tells him of Postumus' suspicions, and Germanicus relays the message to Augustus.

Augustus (Brian Blessed) takes a trip to Corsica and just happens to stop by the island where Postumus was banished, after hearing the suspicions from Germanicus. He regrets what happened to Postumus, and resolves to bring him back to Rome. Augustus wants to change his will so Postumus will succeed him instead of Tiberius (George Baker). Of course, Livia (Sian Phillips) finds out and shortly after Augustus mysteriously falls ill. (Seriously, no one is catching on to her?)

Augustus recovers because he has realized getting his own milk and picking his own fruit is the only way to escape being poisoned by his crazy wife. (She is not aging, well, by the way.) But his success only lasts so long, and he dies in the end.

Livia sends a new officer, Sejanus (Patrick Stewart), to finish the job and kill Postumus, securing Tiberius' place on the throne.

The juice (A.K.A. that awkward moment when):
Augustus' illness and subsequent death are the most important parts of "Poison Is Queen." Naturally, that's the juiciest part of the episode. It's no surprise that Augustus gives Livia a death stare when he keels over the second time -- he knows what's coming and now he knows why, thanks to Claudius and Germanicus. He insists that no one gives him food, and only eats fruits from the garden that he can pick himself. "Nothing that has been touched by human hands," he says to his caretakers. "Not even Livia's."

As always, Livia is one step ahead. She has found a way to get to his figs -- something she makes abundantly clear when she tells Tiberius, "By the way, don't touch the figs." She smugly makes an exit after crying a few crocodile tears over her husband's death.

Line of the night:
Germanicus is stunned when he hears of how Livia has been destroying anyone who gets in the way of her path to the throne. After listening to Claudius' suspicions, he says: "Between reading so many letters and arranging so many rapes, when does she ever sleep?"

Historical Spotlight:

Statue of Caesar Augustus, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The real reason behind Augustus' death in 14 A.D. is still a mystery. Some historians posit that Livia actually poisoned Augustus' figs while he was visiting in Nola, but it has never been proven. Tiberius did in fact succeed him, however. What "I, Claudius" fails to show is Augustus' famous last words: "Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit."

Such a dramatic line -- you'd think the show would have gone for it.


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