For anyone unfamiliar with the early Roman principate, the Julio-Claudian dynasty was in power for a period of about 80 years from Augustus to the death of Nero in 68 AD. This TV series covers the period from about 20 BC to 54 AD - the death of emperor Claudius.
The story is semi-autobiographical, written by Claudius towards the end of his reign and covering the history of his family from Augustus down to the young Nero, his successor.
Murder is the dominating theme, as Augustus' wife Livia artfully dispatches one imperial contender after another so that her son Tiberius can be emperor. It is not simply vanity that drives her machinations, but she is convinced that only Tiberius can keep the principate intact. Should any other candidate take over from Augustus, Rome would descend into civil war and anarchy. It is mostly Livia's actions that drives the story forward.
The acting is top notch. Much has been made about Derek Jacobi's performance, as the lame, stammering, clumsy Claudius. His family does not think much of him, but it is obvious to the viewer that he is a lot smarter and observant then he looks, as he absorbs all the goings on around him to chronicle them later in his book. Jacobi's performance deserves to go into legend, but the quality of the other performances does not allow him to run away with the film. Brian Blessed as the benevolent Augustus, Sian Philipps as Livia are fantastic. George Baker as Tiberius is very good in a particularly difficult role while John Hurt has the most interesting role to play - that of the madman emperor Caligula. The vast supporting cast are all excellent, particularly Patrick Stewart as Sejanus - Tiberius' tough, ruthless and scheming head of the Praetorian Guard.
Considering this is a BBC series with limited budget the production values are great. Direction is first class. Herbert Wise handles the vast story and the army of superb actors with great assurance.
For a drama series the story is quite accurate with history. Just two minor gripes. First the part of Tiberius as written portrays him as very much under the thumb of his mother, with a weak will and indecisive nature. Certain historical facts have contributed to this impression, such as him divorcing the wife he loved to marry Augustus' daughter. But the real life Tiberius was also very efficient and competent, keeping the empire stable during his 23 year reign and leaving the treasury rich. In this series his virtues are not highlighted enough.
Secondly the performance of John Hurt as Caligula. Herbert Wise himself expressed his astonishment at the greatness of Hurt's performance and Hurt certainly gives it a real go. But personally I was disappointed in the way Caligula was portrayed by Hurt. In his interpretation Caligula is a one dimensional madman with cruelty as his dominating urge. No one could disagree given the historical facts, but perhaps due to the freedom allowed in this role Caligula could have been portrayed with more depth, rather than a screaming shouting spoilt young man who believes himself a god. The real Caligula did believed himself to be a god, but perhaps as a result of the absolute power he held in his hands rather than some sort of mental disease. In the way Hurt has chosen to play the role he plays it well. But a more sophisticated interpretation would have rendered Caligula even more believable, and more frightening.
This series has everything, even length - it runs to over 600 minutes. The quality is unwavering throughout. A real treasure to own. It is extremely rare for a work of this quality to be to be realised over such a length, all the more pleasurable for the viewer.
Several writers here have commented that I, Claudius is the greatest ever TV series, the series by which all other TV work should be judged. I cannot agree more.