The Ecphorizer

What, Me Claudius?
Gareth Penn

Issue #21 (May 1983)

Facts Gibbon never told you

Viewers of Masterpiece Theatre will be thrilled to know that we have come into possession of the story outline used by the BBC in the production of the dramatic series, "I, Claudius." We hope that this will be of service to the many fans of the series who find the plot confusing.

In those days, everybody was related to everybody else, in some cases, several times over. And there weren't enough names to go around. Girls were all named after their clan. Take Livia, for instance. She should have been named Claudia - her dad was a Claudius - but he had got things muddled up by being adopted by the Livians, so her name had to be Livia. After Augustus died, she was adopted by the Julians, which changed her name to Julia, and finally, the Senate changed her name by statute to Augusta. It must have been hard to keep track of who one was.

Boys all took clan-names, too, but they also had forenames so they could be told apart. But the choice was pretty much limited to Tiberius, Marcus, and Gaius, and most of them were named Gaius. A Roman would read the title of the television series as "Number One Claudius" - a kind of subscript-notation designed to distinguish him from all the other Claudiuses, e.g., I, I, Claudius (Claudius2). The historical Claudius, who stuttered, may have escaped the fate of most of his relatives (murder) by being confused with Claudiuses 2 and 3, I, I, and I, I, I, respectively.

Confusion reigns over the Claudians. The Emperor Tiberius was actually Tiberius Claudius Nero. The Emperor Claudius was actually Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, while a shirt-tail Claudian named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus tried to fade into the background by taking the name Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, or Nero for short.

An early Claudian named Publius Claudius Pulcher had wished he could fade into the background after he was trounced by the Carthaginians in a naval engagement of the Second Punic War. His defeat was attributed by a contemporary source to his mistreatment of the sacred chickens, but as there is a coffee-stain on the MS., this reading is dubious at best. The weight of the evidence seems to rest with Potztausend, who reads the passage as "(he was) scared chicken(s)." But this is beside the point. We reproduce herewith the BBC story-idea.


Livia was married to Tiberius Senior, by whom she had Tiberius Junior. Augustus was so taken by her, even though she was six months pregnant, that he told Tiberius Sr. to get lost. Augustus had just condemned 300 senators and 2000 knights to death, so Tiberius saw his point immediately. Livia and Augustus, whose name was then Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, were married, but they never had any offspring. By his first wife, Scribonia, whom he had also told to get lost, Augustus had had a daughter named Julia. He married her off to a promising young patrician named Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the son of one of his uncle Julius' worst enemies. This didn't strike Livia as the right way for two young people to start off their married life, so she put something into Marcus' wine and he died.

Augustus fixed things up for Julia right away. His school-chum, Agrippa, had been married to Pomponia, and Mr. and Mrs. Agrippa had a lovely daughter named Vipsania. Augustus told Agrippa to tell Pomponia to get lost, and he married Julia off to him, even though he was old enough to be her father (things were such that nobody would have been particularly surprised if he had been). The Agrippas had four children, three of whom were later murdered by Livia. In due course, Agrippa died (on his own), and Julia was a widow again. Meantime, Tiberius Jr. had married Vipsania, Agrippa's daughter by Pompona (remember her?). Augustus told Tiberius to tell Vipsania to get lost, and then he married him off to Julia. Tiberius thus became his own uncle. Julia just got into the habit of changing men every few days, the way her stepmother Livia had got into the habit of poisoning relatives every so often, and when Augustus found out about that, he told Julia to get lost.

Now, one of Augustus' own worst enemies, Marcus Antonius, had married his - Augustus' - sister Octavia. She had also once been married to Gaius Claudlus, Julia's first father-in-law (remember him?). By Marcus Antonius, she had a daughter named Antonia. She was married to Drusus, who was still in utero when his mother married Augustus. Before Livia had a chance to poison Drusus, he had three children by Antonia: Livilla, Claudius, and Germanicus. Livilla married Drusus (the son of Tiberius and Vipsania), thus becoming her own aunt. Eventually, she poisoned him, thus becoming a widow. Germanicus married Agrippina, the only surviving child of Julia and Agrippa. Livia had never gotten around to murdering Agrippina, but her son Tiberius made up for this oversight later by having Germanicus poisoned and Agrippina starved to death.

Of the three children of Drusus, though, Claudius, our hero, had the most exciting married life. His first bride, Plautia, was about eight feet tall, so he had to stand on a stepladder to tell her to get lost. Then he married and divorced Aelia. Then he married Valeria Messalina. After the birth of their children, Britannicus and Octavia, he found out that she was plotting to kill him, so he killed her. Then he married Agrippina. Not his sister-in-law Agrippina, Germanicus' widow. Her daughter Agrippina. His niece. She married her uncle, thus becoming her own aunt. People lived fast in those days. They had to. Before she married Claudius, Little Agrippina had already been married to one Onaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, and their son was later called Nero.

Meanwhile, Augustus had been poisoned by Livia, and Tiberius had been assassinated. Little Agrippina's brother Caligula became Emperor. He was not very zealous about killing members of his own family (possibly because there weren't many left). In fact, there was nobody in the family left to murder but Claudius. So Caligula branched out.

Between them, Little Agrippina and Nero more than made up for Caligula's lack of initiative. He was assassinated and succeeded by Claudius. Agrippina poisoned Claudius, her husband, uncle, and cousin. Then she married her stepdaughter Octavia to her son and nephew Nero, thus becoming her own cousin. Now Nero became Emperor, murdering his brother-in--law and cousin, Britannicus, then his wife, cousin, and stepsister Octavia. Then he murdered his mother, aunt, and cousin Agrippina. He was now related to nobody but himself, which made things ever so much simpler, but also lonelier. There really was nobody left. Nero was so depressed by this unpleasant prospect that he committed suicide. 

Medievalist Gareth Penn stepped back an historical notch in this issue, to enlighten us about various goings-on in the Augustus-Claudius family, which are not unlike certain phases of Mensa politics.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

Contributor Profile

Gareth Penn

Gareth Penn is probably best known as the greatest amateur Zodiac sleuth after his many articles in The Ecphorizer that lead to the identity of Zodiac. However, Penn is much more than that as he has a keen inquisitive mind that finds an interesting story in just about anything from a memorial to a little-known soldier in a park in Vallejo, CA, to his notes about animals, to plumbing the depths of the limerick. Penn's prolific pen is evident in that he has made a contribution to every issue of The Ecphorizer up through Issue #33 (and counting!).