When in Rome, don’t do as Romans do

I, Claudius (1976, UK)

BBC Mini Series (13 Parts)
Director: Herbert Wise
Written by: Robert Graves (novels), Jack Pulman
Cast: Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, George Baker, Margaret Tyzack, Ian Ogilvy


‘Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out’

Marvellous BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ novels about the Julio-Claudian dynasty as seen through the eyes of the unlikely emperor Claudius. Not a slight task to transfer this fascinating period of history to the small screen. But they pull it off with some brilliant production design, acting and writing.

Every episode (except for 10) starts with an aging Claudius flashing back in time. From the beginning of the dynasty, when Augustus was emperor, until the rulership of Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius himself (who was eventually followed up by Nero). Brian Blessed stars as Augustus, a decisive emperor with a talent for leadership. His reign takes place in a time of conquest when Rome was still rich and powerful. Augustus’ scheming wife and Claudius’ grandmother Livia poisons everybody that has a claim on the position of Caesar until the time is right for her son, Tiberius, to rule. One by one, the members of the imperial family are killed off by Livia. All except for Claudius, who has a disability but is held for a much greater fool than he really is. It is only by acting like a nut that Claudius survives…

The cast of this great mini-series is top-notch. Derek Jacobi does a fantastic job as Claudius. A man whose weaker points don’t withhold him from becoming a great leader. Even though it is by a great coincidence that he gets to wear the Caesar robe. Claudius’ rulership follows the horrible reigns of Tiberius (fine performance from George Baker) and the insane emperor Caligula. The poisonous Livia is portrayed by Siân Phillips, whose evil schemes are a joy to behold. John Hurt gives a terrifying performance as Caligula whose very presence is constantly threatening to Claudius and others. By pursuing his mad ideas and his obvious fondness for sadism and incest (he marries his sister Drusilla), he makes an even scarier villain than Livia. There are also early performances from Patrick Stewart and John Rhys-Davies amongst others.

There is quite a lot of violence and sexual content in this series although not everything is explicitly shown. Still for a television production from the seventies, it is quite shocking. There was obviously no budget for grand settings a la Spartacus and much of the series plays indoors. Still all the sets look beautiful and give the series something theatrical.

To this day, this remains one of finest mini-series ever made. And I love it even more for inspiring The Sopranos, my all-time favourite show. I, Claudius is a definite must-see to those who enjoy historic drama, intriguing plots and superb acting.

Advertenties

The Lesson of Aluminum

Gaius Plinus Cecelius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, was born in Italy in the year AD 23. He was a naval and army commander in the early Roman Empire, later an author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, best known for his Naturalis Historia, a thirty-seven volume encyclopaedia describing, well, everything there was to describe.

In one of his later volumes, Earth, book XXXV, Pliny tells the story of a goldsmith who brought an unusual diner plate to the court of Emperor Tiberius. The plate was a stunner, made from a new metal, very light, shiny, almost as bright as silver. The goldsmith claimed he had extracted it from plain clay, using a secret technique, the formula only known to himself and the gods.

Tiberius, though, was a little concerned. The emperor was one of Rome’s great generals, a warmonger who conquered most of what is now Europe and amassed a fortune of gold and silver along the way. He was also a financial expert who knew the value of his treasure would seriously decline if people suddenly had access to a shiny new metal rarer than gold. “Therefore”, recounts Pliny, “instead of giving the goldsmith the regard expected, he ordered him to be beheaded.”

The shiny new metal was aluminum, which remained scarce for a very long time after the beheading. It was the creation of a new breakthrough technology known as electrolysis, discovered independently and almost simultaneously in 1886 by American chemist Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult that changed everything. The Hall-Héroult process, as it is now known, uses electricity to liberate aluminum from bauxite. Suddenly everyone on the planet had access to ridiculous amounts of cheap, light, pliable metal.

Save the beheading, there’s nothing too unusual in this story. History is littered with tales of once-rare resources made plentiful by innovation. The reason is pretty straightforward: scarcity is often contextual. Imagine a giant orange tree packed with fruit. If I pluck all the oranges from the lower branches, I am effectively out of accessible fruit. From my limited perspective, oranges are now scarce. But once someone invents a piece of technology called a ladder, I’ve suddenly got a new reach. Problem solved. Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant.

So what do we have shortage of? Water? Energy? The Earth is a water planet covered 70 percent by Oceans, however 97.3 percent of all water on this planet is salt water. As for energy, there is over five thousand times more solar energy falling on the earth surface than we can use in a year. It is not an issue of scarcity, it’s an issue of accessibility. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.

Abundance

Excerpt from ‘Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
By Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler