Decadent Rome. Decadent America?
I don’t really remember how I, Claudius got on my Netflix radar. I think it was my sister who suggested it. But in any event, it took months, even years, for it to work its way to the top of my queue. But I’m glad-I think-that it eventually did.
A 1976 BBC TV series, the show depicts the early days of the Roman Empire. From the Pax Romana of Augustus, to Tiberius, and then to Caligula the Empire sank ever further into corruption, depravity, luxury and ruthless violence. There’s a brief respite when Claudius, who escaped assassination only by playing the part of a harmless idiot, assumes the throne. But at the death of Claudius (probably at the hands of his wife Agrippina), the loony excesses of Nero lead the Empire over the cliff to ruin. And so, with a whimper, ends the line of emperors that began with the mighty Augustus.
Allowing for dramatic license, the show actually seems pretty accurate. Moreover, the show was a huge commercial success and was voted by others in the British film industry as the 12th among the 100 best TV programs of all time.
Fine. But what’s ancient Rome got to do with us?
Good question. But, unfortunately, I fear that the excesses of the Roman actually have quite a lot to say to the America of our day.
Start with something simple: the relative burdens of “empire.” Ours, with its globe girdling military presence, dwarfs anything Rome ever ruled. The Pentagon “estimates” that we have 5,600 bases around the world. Which, when you’re fighting perpetual wars, isn’t all that surprising.
And the sheer cost of our military? The U.S. spends more on arms than the next six countries combined. And four of those six could be considered allies. Keeping the Empire’s barbarian hordes at bay eventually bankrupted Rome. What makes us think we’re any different?
As depicted in I, Claudius, the Legion’s elite Praetorian Guard routinely interfered with politics, making and unmaking Emperors and even assassinating some, such as Caligula. Now, under Trump and for years before him, key cabinet posts are filled by generals and admirals. Are we to the point of having our own version of Rome’s lawless and cosseted Praetorian Guard? Perhaps not yet. But who can make a persuasive case that is not the direction in which we’re trending?
And then there’s Harvey Weinstein
By today’s standards, I, Claudius is pretty tame sexually. But what it lacks in today’s explicit, pornographic images, it makes up for with suggestion and imagination.
For example, there’s the scene where Caligula (who’s declared himself the incarnation of the god Jupiter), suspends his nude, very pregnant wife by golden handcuffs. (She‘s also his sister. And, as is only fitting for a god’s consort, is a goddess herself.) As her nervous titters morph into horrified awareness, he proceeds to disembowel her because the unborn infant “might become a threat to my rule.” Which, judging by the standards of the rest of this despicable bunch, is a reasonable prophesy.
At the outset, we only see the woman’s back. And, fortunately, the relatively prudish 1970’s era camera diverts its eye even further at the end of the scene so that we only hear the woman’s hideous screams from the other side of a closed door as she’s butchered.
But no such luck with the low life Harvey Weinstein and his vile film, Pulp Fiction. Harvey and the film’s director, Quentin Tarantino, hold nothing back: gore, graphic sex of all varieties, drug fueled orgies, you name it. (I couldn’t bear to watch this stinker through to the end.) Sure, I know most critics fawned over it. But so what? The cowering sycophants around Nero and Caligula did the same for their “gods.”
But what’s really troubling about Pulp Fiction isn’t so much the film itself, but what it’s enthusiastic reception has to say about our larger culture. What can you say for a nation that celebrates all the varieties of perversion and violence that were on display in this movie? Probably the same thing you’d say about a decedent Roman empire that did very much the same thing.
Is it too late for us to draw back from this yawning brink? I’d say no; it’s never too late. But I’d say that this is equally true: those who fail to learn from history, are condemned to repeat it.
In other words, I, Claudius is a show all concerned Americans should watch. Carefully. And learn from.