Pop Culture Review: "I, Claudius"

I Claudius posterI, Claudius
BBC, 1976

Claudius - Derek Jacobi
Augustus - Brian Blessed
Livia - Sian Phillips

"I, Claudius" is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and my absolute favorite with a disabled character.

It is a 12-part TV mini-series produced in 1976 by the BBC, brought to American television by PBS. It is an adaptation of two historical novels written by Robert Graves in the 1930s, about the Roman Empire's first imperial family, the Julio-Claudians, focusing mainly on Claudius. Claudius was a grandson of Emperor Augustus. Historical records suggest that he had either epilepsy, cerebral palsy, or possibly both. He walked with a pronounced limp, stuttered, and may also have been partially deaf.

History doesn't say much about how these disabilities affected his life, but Graves' novels offer a vivid take on what they might have meant. To begin with, the Claudius of "I, Claudius" is something of a laughingstock and irritation to his own family.

Even though "Grandmother" Livia is nasty pretty much to everyone, her insults and eye-rolling attitude towards Claudius are just somewhat extreme versions of what most people around Claudius think of him. He's a "halfwit" who's embarrassing and annoying to have around. This scene also shows how peoples' impatience with Claudius' disabilities make the disabilities more pronounced; the more Livia sighs and calls him an embarrassment, the more Claudius stutters and the clumsier he becomes.

There are a few very enjoyable exceptions to this attitude. Emperor Augustus, Claudius' grandfather, at one point tells Claudius that he's underestimated him. A couple of scholars come to realize how smart Claudius is after meeting him in the library. Herod, the visiting Prince of Judea … (yes, that Herod) … is a true childhood friend and adult supporter to Claudius. And there's my favorite example, Claudius' brother, Germanicus, who never disparages Claudius and speaks to him entirely as an equal:

A major theme of the story is that Claudius' "infirmities" actually save him from most of the intrigues and literal backstabbing that plagues his family. When Emperor Caligula is assassinated, the Preatorian Guard, grab Claudius from where he's hiding, and instead of killing him as they're doing to the rest of the imperial family, laughingly declare him to be the new Emperor. It is implied that they, too, see Claudius as a halfwit … not responsible for Caligula's horrible behaviors … and someone they will be able to control. As both the story and actual history make clear, they made a pretty good choice, but not for the reasons they thought.

In addition to being a key turning point in the larger story, Claudius' exchange with the Senators is an eloquent statement of the contrast between specific impairments and a person's actual worth.

The end of the scene hints at why Claudius isn't exactly a perfect role model for people with disabilities. Although now regarded as one of Rome's "better" Emperors, Claudius did preside over his share of corruption, war, and political murder. Still, he wasn't was a fool, and compared to dozens of Rome's "non-disabled" Emperors, Claudius seems to have been genuinely responsible for major territorial expansions (conquests), civic improvements, and somewhat less corrupt administration. Rome as a whole did well under Claudius' reign, and that can't be said of plenty of Emperors who didn't have disabilities.

Even though "I, Claudius" is a televised version of a fictionalized account of sketchy, 2,000 years ago history, let's just say that Claudius, as portrayed by Derek Jacobi, is one of my favorite disabled role models, and an indication that even in ancient times, disability wasn't always destiny.

"I, Claudius" is available on DVD, and also appears to be viewable in its entirety on YouTube.