A Few Words about that I, CLAUDIUS Prequel

August 30, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

HBO calls it Rome, but it's really a prequel to I, Claudius. The classic 1970s BBC series (based on the Robert Graves novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God) examined the reigns of the first four Roman Emperors: Augustus (born Octavian), Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius (with a guest appearance by Nero). It was one of the great TV sagas of the decade, not only breaking new ground with its depictions of sex and nudity, but with its literacy and intelligence. I, Claudius brings life to historical events in a way that no other filmed version of Roman history has.

Rome, which is co-produced by the BBC, turns back the clock several decades before I, Claudius to the time of Julius Caesar. The first season of the drama recounts the "Caesar years," and ends with the "et tu, Brute" bloodbath. If it's made, season #2 will presumably chronicle the struggle between Octavian and Marc Anthony for control. If the series survives long enough, it will be interesting to see whether it eventually starts re-creating events that were dramatised in I, Claudius. That's when the comparisons will start in earnest. But that's a concern for the future.

Rome feels a lot like I, Claudius with a larger budget. Lavish sets, impressive costumes, and lots of extras are the areas in which the improvements are the most noticeable. The writing for the earlier series is superior (at least based on the first episode of Rome), but not glaringly so. Plot-wise, there are similarities: betrayals, treachery, warfare, and gruesome political machinations. Rome has its Livia, as well. Her name is Atia, and she's played by Polly Walker. Like Livia, Atia's goal is to get her son, Octavian, on the throne. Walker is not as forceful an actress as Sian Phillips, but she is more attractive. And she doesn't hide anything from the camera. Those who have appreciated Walker's charms in her numerous film roles are cautioned not to miss Rome's premiere.

The cast is comprised of respected British thespians, including Ciaran Hinds (Caesar), Kenneth Cranham (Pompey), James Purefoy (Marc Antony), Linday Duncan (Servilia), and Kerry Condon (Octavia). Young Max Perkis leaves a strong impression as Octavian. The first episode was directed by Michael Apted, so there's at least one A-list filmmaker behind the lens. If Rome falls on its face, it's not for a lack of talent.

Ultimately, it's too early to make a determination about the series, which will run into the fall before exhausting its time on Sunday evenings. So far, so good. Rome doesn't have to match I, Claudius to work. (To do so is likely impossible, anyway.) But if it delivers some of the same excitement and anticipation, it will find an audience. The key to the success of I, Claudius was its ability to make known historical facts immediate and interesting. That challenge now faces Rome. We know that Caesar is going to be murdered in the Senate. So here's the question: Can Rome make us care enough about the characters and circumstances leading up to that event so we aren't just waiting for the inevitable?