British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

The Caesars

Depictions of the ancient world seem to be more prevalent that ever on television, home video and the cinema. Dr Marco Angelini of University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), looks at The Caesars (1968) and some of the other recent examples of depictions of Roman history to be made available on video and DVD and considers how they reflect conceptions of the modern world.

s200_marco.angeliniAbout the reviewer: Dr Marco Angelini is currently Student Equity Project Officer, Equity and Diversity Unit, University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He gained his B.Sc. in Government and History and his M.Sc in Political Theory from from London School of Economic; his Ph.D. on the History of Philosophy from Queen’s University of Belfast. He was Outreach Manager at University College London from 2006 to 2013 before joining UTS.

This article first appeared in Viewfinder 64.

Originally broadcast to great acclaim in 1968, The Caesars has since been almost wholly over-shadowed by the BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius eight years later.  This is a pity in some ways, because Philip Mackie’s six-part series represents the high point of a decade of ambitious and successful drama programming at ITV, centred on literary and historical adaptations such as Saki (1962) and The Victorians (1963), and as such it perhaps merits a more distinctive place in the development of television drama.

It stands up remarkably well to contemporary viewing due to its focus on the grim and pitiless realities of the exercise of political power that is true for any period. Indeed, in this sense The Caesars can be favourably compared with I, Claudius for the more restrained version of Ralph Bates’ Caligula which is somehow more menacing compared to the histrionics of John Hurt’s bravura show-stealer. Similarly, Roland Culver represents a far more impressive and aristocratic Augustus compared to the rough and earthy Brian Blessed; after all, Octavian did not become Augustus by virtue of being the last thug standing in the civil wars – he possessed political and organizational (if not military) skills that exerted an enormous weight on his contemporaries.

The success of The Caesars and I, Claudius however, as well as the consistent interest shown in this period, begs some broader questions about the relationship between these events and western culture and society. Generations of writers, thinkers and filmmakers have been re-creating the events and characters of this set of Romans’; from Frankie Howerd’s music hall romp Up Pompeii! (1969-70) and the Carry On’s ludicrous ‘infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me’ to Shakespeare’s inaccurate ‘Et tu, Brute!’, down to the arched personal and political character descriptions of Suetonius. This should not surprise us – these figures and events are woven into the cultural fabric of the West, and represent an archetypal shorthand for key values and characteristics that we share: liberty, order, conscience, madness… Cicero, Caesar, Brutus, Caligula.

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