Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents
December 29, 2010
For many of us ancient history buffs, the obsession started with “I, Claudius.” This BBC miniseries following the scandalous, sinful, and always scintillating adventures of Rome's earliest Emperors was the “Spartacus” of its day; the thing that made ancient Rome cool and not just boring classroom crap. I got hooked on “I, Claudius” at the age of eight, clutching a family tree drawn by my mother to explain how all these people were related to each other (that stuck with me; I could draw out the family line of the Julio-Claudians long before I could draw out my own) and loudly protesting every time I was sent out of the room to avoid a scene with incest or murder. Fortunately for the ancient Rome fanatics created by Derek Jacobi & Co, we got another fix in the form of HBO's too-soon cancelled “Rome.” Another miniseries following the scandalous, sinful, and always scintillating days of the Republic's end.
So, which one is better? Someone has to look at this logically, and it might as well be me. Let's break this baby down like the sports analysts do. And my blog for some reason is refusing to do images, so I am not able to paste in lots of pictures of a half-naked Mark Antony and Cleopatra, as would normally be my habit. Sorry!
Both “Rome” and “I, Claudius” starred relatively obscure actors, and turned them into household names. “I, Claudius” featured a host of British character actors in the roles of shy stammering Claudius and his sprawling scheming royal family, most of them relatively unknown except to fans of UK stage and screen. “Rome” cast two minor players in the starring roles of buddy-legionaries Pullo and Vorenus. But “Rome” did have a few modest names like Polly Walker and Ciaran Hinds, so . . .
“I, Claudius” followed the politics of Rome's first Imperial dynasty through the eyes of one shy, overeducated, overlooked lad who ended up Emperor because he was smart enough to play dumb while his relatives murdered anyone else in the family who looked like a threat. “Rome” followed the Republic's downfall through the eyes of two legionaries, cheerful vulgar Pullo and upright honorable Vorenus, who somehow manage to be involved with Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, the young Octavian, and every historical event of note.
Slight edge: “Rome,” if just for having a broader canvas to include both the vulgar swearing plebs as well as the too-good-to-stab-my-own-victims royals.
Both “Rome” and “I, Claudius” abandoned the cheesy sonorous style that abounded in all those terrible fifties sword-and-sandal flicks, and went for the funny bone in a big way. “I, Claudius” offers such howlers as the Empress's exhortation to a band of gladiators “These games are being degraded by the use of professional tricks to stay alive, and I won't have it!” and her tart appraisal of the crippled Claudius “That child should have been exposed to die at birth.” “Rome” comes right back with lines like a jealous beauty's whispered farewell to Cleopatra, “Die screaming, you pig-spawn trollop” and Pullo upon seeing his best friend in a toga for the first time: “You look like laundry.”
BEST SCENERY AND EFFECTS
“I, Claudius” was shot on a very modest budget and takes place mostly in a soundstage mocked up like a palace. No lavish CGI, no hordes of costumed extras filling up the Colosseum, no teeming streets of Rome. “Rome” pulls out all the stops: the triumphs, the graffiti, the banquets, the palaces, the battlefields, the legionaries, the gladiators . . . it's a feast for the eyes even with the TV on mute. Pity the bill for all that onscreen luxury ran so high that “Rome” was canceled after two seasons.
Big edge: “Rome”
“Rome” has a sexy, slithery tune backed up against a lot of obscene Roman graffiti – a hint right off the bat that this version of Rome is not the pristine white marble version offered by movies past. “I, Claudius” offers a sexy, slithery tune set to the motions of a live snake as it hisses and undulates over a Roman mosaic. One of the creepiest opening montages of all time.
Edge: “I, Claudius”
I, Claudius Opening credits
Rome Opening credits
“Rome” offers two marvelously contrasted (and seriously hunky) heroes in the towering and humorous Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and the well-bred and honorable Vorenus (Kevin McKidd). But Derek Jacobi's Claudius is a masterpiece: a boy born with a variety of crippling physical handicaps but gifted with brains and wit. The marvelous Jacobi takes Claudius from insecure boy to all-powerful Emperor, never losing the character behind the gimmicks of the limp, the twitch, the stammer, or the fifty years of age makeup. A masterpiece of acting that launched his career, though McKidd and Stevenson enjoyed similar luck after “Rome.” Stevenson will reprise Pullo in a “Rome” movie, McKidd is McSteamying it up on “Grey's Anatomy,” and Derek Jacobi has entered that pleasant era of a stage-trained British actor's career where he gets cast as the villain in bad American movies like “Underworld Evolution” and receives a large paycheck in return for a ten minute scene where all he has to do is enunciate.
Edge: “I, Claudius”
Plenty of villains in “Rome,” including the future Emperor Augustus as an eerily self-possessed and mercurial teenager who by the age of fifteen or so has conducted a torture interrogation in the Roman sewers, committed murder, and slept with his sister. But “I, Claudius” offers two scene-stealing villains: Emperor Caligula (John Hurt), who in one arresting sequence dresses up in pink gauze and falsies and performs a dance as the goddess Dawn (see it and believe it on Youtube here) and the charming but scheming soldier Sejanus played by Patrick Stewart back in the days when he still had hair.
Edge: “I, Claudius.”
Both shows serve up winners in this department – two women, both bent on advancing their beloved sons to ultimate power. “Rome's” Atia (Polly Walker) is lucious, oversexed, corrupt, and entertaining, while “I, Claudius” offers Empress Livia (Sian Phillips), a pristine tart-tongued schemer who plots six or seven relatives into their graves, including her Imperial husband of fifty years.
Edge: “I, Claudius.” Atia redeems herself and becomes more sympathetic as the series advances, but Livia is pure unrepentent baddy from start to finish.
“Rome” is splashy and violent, and doesn't stint on the gore. People are beheaded, tortured, scourged, killed in battle, killed in streetside knife fights, killed by poisonous soup and poisonous snakes. “I, Claudius” is less liberal with the gore but no less shocking: the scene where Caligula stabs his pregnant sister and tries to eat the unborn baby might cut away at the crucial minute, but still packs a powerful punch, and I routinely fast-forward past the moment when two innocent children are murdered by soldiers off-screen but their cries are all too audible.
Edge: Neither. Both get honorable mentions, and the prize goes to “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” which has more violence than both “Rome” and “I, Claudius” combined. (Read my review of “Spartacus” here)
It wouldn't be a Roman epic without sex, and neither series stints on full-frontal nudity. The insatiable Atia in “Rome” has enough sex scenes with Mark Antony (James Purefoy – lucky her!) to fill a Cosmo from cover to cover. “I, Claudius” limits the nudity shots to waist-up, but covers all the bases with several orgies, plenty of naked dancers, and one unforgettable scene (true to history) where Claudius's slutty young wife Messalina challenges Rome's best courtesan to a contest of who can take the most lovers in one day. (This one is also available on Youtube here)
“I, Claudius” ran as a multi-part miniseries, and finished strongly (if sadly). “Rome was canceled at the end of the second season (damn you, HBO), and had to shoehorn what should have been two more seasons into the last two episodes. The result is rushed and unsatisfying, though fans have been appeased by the prospect of a “Rome” movie to tie up loose ends.
Big edge: “I, Claudius”
So in the end, who wins?
I hate to wimp out on you here, but I don't think tallying the score gives any kind of satisfying answer. In the words of sports blogger Bill Simmons, it's useless to ask “who was better?” of two great things, because at some point greatness cannot be surpassed, it can only be joined. So I will cop out and say that if you liked “I, Claudius” you will like “Rome,” and if you liked “Rome” you will like “I, Claudius.” Now if HBO will please hurry up and get on that “Rome” movie, because both these fantastic series are done and I need another ancient Rome fix.