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:
Tiberius has taken the throne after Augustus' death. Livia's newest henchman, Sejanus, killed Postumus at her behest, securing Tiberius as the sole heir.
Tiberius (George Baker) now rules Rome, and it seems the people don't like him much. (But he's so lovable!) The only person who can keep him in check is Germanicus (David Robb), but he dies after Tiberius sends him to Syria. His widow, Agrippina (Fiona Walker), suspects foul play. Finally, people are catching on!
Agrippina wants her husband's death avenged, and she specifically wants Piso (Stratford Johns) and Plancina (Irene Hamilton) to pay for having helped Livia poison Germanicus. Tiberius tries them in the senate, but there is the matter of a few loose ends -- namely, letters from Tiberius and Livia (Sian Phillips), and the woman who helped Plancina poison Germanicus.
Feeling threatened, Piso blackmails Livia and Tiberius with the letters that show they approved of Germanicus' death. Tiberius doesn't seem to care and is willing to throw his mother under the bus, so he insists on convicting Piso and his wife. Plancina has a different plan: She stabs Piso to save the family name from the "dishonor" of execution. Somehow, in her messed-up head, suicide is more honorable.
Oh, and Agrippina's brat of a son, Caligula (Robert Morgan http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0604994/)? He helped Martina get access to Germanicus' bedroom to poison him--between wanting to sleep with his sister and killing his father, that Caligula is a real winner. If you ever feel your family is dysfunctional, take comfort in knowing there is a very good chance this clan is far more crooked than your brood.
The juice (A.K.A. that awkward moment when):
When Agrippina tells the family of her suspicions in Germanicus' death, she recounts the entire story of his illness. It gets weird. Germanicus and Agrippina both distrust the people around them. (Sensibly so, since Claudius informed Germanicus of Livia's scheming ways). But while they are trying to figure out what's happening to Germanicus, a slew of very, very awkward things happen. A servant finds a dead baby with horns tied to its head. Then, they find a dead cat with wings. They discover the head of a black man with a hand in his mouth, and they see a skull with Germanicus' name written on it. Later, they find "Rome" written upside down, and the number 17 -- Germanicus apparently hates that number, which is strange in itself. The recounting of that story has got to be one of the most awkward things the show has seen, if only for the images alone.
Line of the night:
It's been a while, but the line of the night goes to Livia. She goes to speak with Tiberius about the way people have started to revolt over Germanicus' death, and she tells him that the people aren't exactly feeling warm toward him. "You just don't have a lovable nature. It's unfortunate, but even your own son doesn't love you much," Livia says with her signature biting tone. Shocking! And here I thought Tiberius was so charming.
Germanicus' death and Piso's trial are both significant events in Roman history. Revered as a great leader by the people of Rome, Germanicus' alleged murder in 19 A.D. sent shockwaves throughout the empire.
As this site explains it, Piso and his wife, Plancina, came to Rome denying any guilt or wrongdoing. As seen in "I, Claudius," Piso was tried in the senatorial court and charged with treason and poisoning. History maintains that Piso killed himself before he lost the trial. Plancina was later acquitted with Livia's help, which the show hints at.
A report of the trial and an accompanying tablet prove that treason was the greatest issue in the case. Tacitus, a historian and Roman senator, deviates from official reports of the trial by insinuating that Piso had a letter from Tiberius regarding Germanicus, and that he intended on showing the senate. This is likely where the show got the idea. Tacitus also implies that Piso may have been killed to keep the letter out of sight.
Following his death and the trial, Germanicus went down in history as a brave, well-loved man and a force in Roman politics.