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Ancient Rome in Historical Fiction: Narratives, Sources and Screen Adaptations

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Honors 2290

Ancient Rome in Historical Fiction:

Narratives, Sources and Screen Adaptations

Spring Semester 2010

Tuesday 3:30-5:30 PM; Thursday 3:30-4:40 PM

Anne Arundel Hall 0120 and 0100

Professor: Judith P. Hallett

Office: Department of Classics, 2407E Marie Mount Hall

301-405-2013 and 405-2024


FAX 301-314-9084
Home: 5147 Westbard Avenue Bethesda 20816 301-229-2706

Office Hours: Tuesday and Thursday 11-12 and by appointment

Our seminar will study the I, Claudius BBC-TV series, and compare this 1976 “small screen” cinematic treatment to Robert Graves’ novels on which it was based—I, Claudius and Claudius the God— as well as to the ancient primary sources on which Graves mainly relied: Tacitus’ Annals, Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars, and the histories of Cassius Dio.

We will examine how Graves’ representation of the emperor Claudius (who reigned from 41-54 CE) compares to that of ancient authors, and how the BBC-TV adaptation of Graves’ novels compares to the representations of Claudius by both Graves and our ancient primary sources. Our focus will be on Claudius’ ancient and modern image as a physically and mentally challenged individual, on his role as a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and on the impact of his story on two twentieth century audiences: that of Graves in the 1930’s and that of the BBC-TV series in the 1970’s.

Our readings will also situate Graves’ novels in the context of other 20th and 21st century works of historical fiction about ancient Rome, most notably Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March. Students are expected to attend a colloquium on Wilder’s novels, several of which deal with classical antiquity, taking place on March 27th. The adaptation of Graves’ novels for the big and small screen will be contextualized through class projects on other major films about ancient Rome such as Gladiator and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Ever since their publication in 1934-35, Graves’ two Claudius- novels—ironically written as “potboilers”, to pay the bills for himself and his family—have been extremely popular. They were also well reviewed by critics at the time, and have passed the test of time: indeed, I, Claudius has been called the best historical novel of the twentieth century. In 1937 the celebrated British producer Alexander Korda attempted to make a full-length film version of both novels, starring Charles Laughton as Claudius and directed by the legendary Josef von Sternberg. But after the actress cast as Claudius’ wife Messalina, Merle Oberon, was injured in an automobile accident, filming stopped and never resumed. Several decades later, the director Tony Richardson and writer John Mortimer collaborated on an unsuccessful stage version in London’s West End.

We will therefore also reflect upon the success enjoyed by the television adaptation, particularly its enthusiastic reception in both England and the US. In this context, we will address such topics as the readership for whom the novels were originally written and the television audiences by whom the BBC-TV series was eagerly watched. We will also consider the special relevance of Claudius, and the Roman empire over which he ruled, to contemporary US society.

In preparing this course, I have relied heavily on the syllabus and other materials from an honors course at the University of Florida, Gainesville, which was taught by the director of their honors program: Associate Provost and classics professor Sheila Dickison. The class is scheduled for a two-hour meeting on Tuesdays to allow us time to view episodes from the BBC-TV series as well as other films, and to discuss them in the same week.

No knowledge of Greek or Latin is required.

There will be three short papers and a final group project.
Required Texts (available at both the Student Union bookstore and the Maryland Book Exchange):
Robert Graves, I, Claudius (Vintage paperback)

Robert Graves, Claudius the God (Vintage paperback)

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, translated by Robert Graves (Penguin paperback)

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , translated by Michael Grant (Penguin paperback)

Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? (Mariner Books paperback)
Required Course Materials (xerox packet; available from instructor):

Judith P. Hallett, “The Julio-Claudians and their Legacies” (essay in forthcoming volume)

Re-reading Laura Riding”, expanded version of review in Amphora 6.2 (December 2007)

Judith P. Hallett and Wayne Millan, “A Julio-Claudian Who’s Who” (appendix in forthcoming volume)

Sandra Joshel,“ I, Claudius: Projection and Imperial Soap Opera”, in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, ed. Sandra R. Joshel, Margaret Malamud and Donald T. McGuire, Jr. (Baltimore and London 2001) 119-161.

John Mortimer, Murderers and other Friends: Another Part of Life (New York 1994) 27-31.

Jay Parini, “Delving Into the World of Dreams By Blending Fact and Fiction.” Chronicle of Higher Education February 27, 1998.

Miranda Seymour, Robert Graves: Life on the Edge (New York 1995) 212-225, 248-250 and 454-461.

Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March is widely available at public libraries and through both bookstores and online book dealers, and has not been specifically ordered for this course at the campus bookstores.

Selections from Cassius Dio, Velleius Paterculus and other ancient primary sources

Thirteen episodes of I, Claudius, shown in class.

Students are encouraged to buy their own copies (the DVD version contains—“The Epic That Never Was”—narrated by Dirk Bogarde: it includes surviving clips from the 1937 Korda version and interviews with surviving cast and crew members). Students are also encouraged to consult the third edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996), which is in the McKeldin Library reference room.

Course Grading:

1. Classwork (regular attendance, class participation, preparation of study guide, responsibility for one weekly email class discussion) 35%

2. Three papers 45%

3. Final group project 20%

Student Responsibilities:
Attendance: You must attend class regularly. Classwork counts for 35% of your

grade, A good deal of the material for which you will be held responsible in the three papers and final group project will only be presented and discussed in class meetings.

Preparation: You must come to class prepared. I understand that extraordinary and extenuating circumstances--such as illness, extreme demands on your time and energies by other courses, or difficulties with transportation--may make this impossible on occasion. But on those unusual occasions, please come to class anyway. Let me know before class begins that you are not prepared and I will not call on you if you request.

Adequate preparation consists not only of doing the assigned readings (and “watchings”), but also of taking a prompt and active part in our weekly email class discussions. Effort and improvement in classwork will be weighed heavily when classwork grades are computed.

Support Systems: I will be in frequent electronic communication with all of you outside of class: preceding our Thursday meetings each week there will often be a class email discussion, facilitated by a class member and myself, on assigned readings, at times those from ancient primary sources and at times those from outside secondary readings.

If students are amenable to this arrangement, a list of all class members' names, (residential as well as e-mail) addresses and telephone numbers will be compiled and made available after the end of the drop/add period. Keeping in regular and close touch with one or more of your classmates is highly recommended in a course of this sort. You should feel free to obtain from them any assignments or material that you miss if you cannot attend a particular class. You should also feel free to seek their assistance if you experience any difficulties with the work assigned.

Studying with one or more classmates is beneficial to all concerned, even if all concerned have perfect attendance records and are experiencing no difficulties whatever with their work. Collaboration is, however, only acceptable if your collaborator has worked with you and not for you. Students who rely excessively on the efforts of classmates do themselves no service.

Do not be afraid to ask for help from me if you need it. I also want to be as accessible to all of you as possible. Please feel free to contact me--in person during office hours, by phone (in my office or at home), by e-mail at any time--whenever you need information, assistance or just plain moral support.

Papers and Assignments: There will be three short (2-4 page) papers, due on February 19 , March 12, and April 17. Further details, including “rationale sheets” (which specify the number of points to be allocated for organization, following directions, content and exposition), will be provided two weeks before each assignment is due.

The final, group, project is one that we will design together during the last several weeks of the semester. It will involve analyzing ancient Roman historical sources, modern historical novels about ancient Rome, and films about Rome in the classical period.

This project will involve at least two of the following:

A comparison between accounts of Julio-Claudian Rome written by the historian Tacitus (ca. 55- ca. 120 CE) and the biographer Suetonius (ca. 69-140 CE) with accounts written by other ancient Greeks and Romans writing in ancient Roman times.

A comparison of Robert Graves’Claudius- novels with other historical novels set in ancient Rome (e.g. those by Carol Goodman, Colleen McCullough, Steven Saylor, and Lindsay Davis),

A comparison between the I, Claudius TV-series and either a film about ancient Rome or the HBO-series Rome.

Every student will be responsible for preparing a study guide for at least one episode of the BBC-TV series. It should include a listing of the major characters in the episode (with a brief description of each); a brief summary of the episode; a series of (4-6) study questions that aid in our understanding of historical events, relationships among characters and significant actions in the episode; a series of (4-6) questions that aid in our understanding of historical events, relationships among characters and significant actions in the related chapters in Graves.

It will also include a comparison between the episode and the related chapters in Graves (noting similarities, differences, omissions and changes, with a focus on one major issue); a comparison between the episode and the original sources on which it is based (noting similarities, differences, omissions and changes, with a focus on one major issue); a list of the relevant pages in the Hallett and Hallett/Millan discussions; and a concluding statement about the episode and its place in both the TV episodes and the novels.

Tentative Schedule

Note: Tacitus and Hallett assignments are given in page numbers (with an indication of where to start and end); Suetonius assignments in section numbers of the specific life.

Week One

Tu January 26 Introduction: Why Claudius?

Th January 28 Why Rome?

Reading during Week One: Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? “Prologue” (pp.1-23) and “Epilogue” (pp.185-206) for class discussion on the 28th as well as individual chapters, each assigned to groups of 3-4 students

Reading for Week Two: Graves, I, Claudius, chapters 1-3; Suetonius, Augustus, sections 79-82, 84 and 87; Tiberius, section 14; Tacitus, Annals 1.3 (pp. 32-33” “To safeguard his dominion…For Augustus wanted to have another iron in the fire”); Hallett “Julio-Claudians” 1-11 (…“led to her husband’s departure”); family trees in the back of Penguin Tacitus volume.
The Main Characters (information about some of them is available in Hallett and Millan):

Claudius: emperor of Rome from 41-54 CE (the narrator)

Augustus: emperor of Rome from 27 BCE-14 CE

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, his general

Livia, Augustus’ wife

Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew

Tiberius and Drusus, Augustus’ stepsons (Livia’s sons by her first marriage)

Julia, Marcellus’ wife and Augustus’ daughter

Octavia, Augustus’ sister and Marcellus’ mother

Antonius Musa, a doctor

Antonia, Claudius’ mother as a girl (daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia)

I, Claudius is narrated by the elderly Claudius as he writes his memoirs. The first episode takes place seven years after Augustus becomes emperor.

Week Two

Tu February 2 View episode 1: “A Touch of Murder” (41 CE: 41-12 BCE)

Th February 4 How to write a novel/TV episode study guide

Reading for Week Three: Graves, chapters 4-5; Suetonius, Tiberius 7.21-23, 50. Tacitus, Annals 1.4 (pp. 33-34: “nobody had any immediate worries…that they will tear it in two’); 1.10 (pp. 38-39: “And gossip did not spare his personal affairs…in fact they were criticisms’); Hallett, 11-13 (“family agnomen”). Parini, “Delving into the World of Dreams by Blending Fact and Fiction.”

Class e-mail discussion for week three based on Parini.
New Characters:

Drusus, Tiberius’ younger brother, Claudius’ father

Antonia, Drusus’ wife, Claudius’ mother, Mark Antony’s daughter

Gaius and Lucius, Augustus’ grandchildren, children of Julia and Agrippa

Week Three

Tu February 9 View episode 2: “Family Affairs” (9 BCE-2 CE)

Th February 10 Fiction and authorial-truthtelling. Augustus 34, 64-65 and Tiberius 7, 10-13 and Claudius 3-5; Seymour, selections from Robert Graves, Life on the Edge; Mortimer, selections from Murderers and Other Friends; Hallett, “Re-reading Laura Riding” Class email discussion for week four based on Seymour, Mortimer and Hallett.

New Characters:

Germanicus, Claudius’ brother

Agrippina, Julia’s daughter

Drusus (“Castor”), Tiberius’ son

Livilla, Claudius’ sister

Herod Agrippa, Claudius’ friend

Postumus, last surviving son of Julia and Agrippa

Week Four

T February 16 View episode 3: “Waiting in the Wings” (6 BCE-4 CE)

Th February 18 Interpretation and Authorial Intent. DUE DATE FOR FIRST PAPER.

Reading for Week Five: Graves, chapters 9-12; Suetonius, Tiberius 22; Claudius 4, 26, 41; Tacitus, Annals 1.3-4 (pp. 32-34: “To safeguard his domination…—they will tear it in two”). Thornton Wilder, The Ides of March.. Class email discussion for week five based on Wilder. .
New characters:


Asinius Pollio and Livy: Roman historians.

Week Five

T February 23 View episode 4: “What Shall We Do About Claudius?” (6-9 CE).

Th February 25 I, Claudius and its audiences

Reading for Week Six : Graves, chapters 13-14; Suetonius, Augustus 97-99; Tiberius 22; Tacitus, Annals 1.5-7 (pp. 34-36: “Amid this sort of conversation…and stored them up in his memory

Class e-mail discussion for week six based on Wilder.
New characters:

Sejanus, leader of the Praetorian Guard

Camilla Pulchra, chief Vestal Virgin

Week Six

T March 2 View episode 5: “Poison is Queen” (11-14 CE)

Th March 4 Eta Sigma Phi lecture by Professor Donald Wallace, US Naval Academy.

Reading for Week Seven: Graves, chapters 15-21; Suetonius, Caligula 1-7; Tacitus, Annals ???; Hallett 13-15 (“died in 37 CE”).

Class e-mail discussion for week seven on writing the second paper, due March 11.
New Characters:

Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, former governor of Syria

Plancina, his wife

Martina, an expert on poisons

Caligula, Germanicus’ son

Week Seven

T March 9 View episode 6: “Some Justice” (14-20 CE)

Th March 11 Assessing our ancient Roman sources: biography. DUE DATE FOR SECOND PAPER.

Reading for Week Eight: Graves, chapters 22-26; Tacitus, Annals ??? No class e-mail discussion for week eight: spring break.
New character:

Caligula as an adult


Week Eight

T March 23 View episode 7: “Queen of Heaven” (23-28 CE).

Th March 25 View episode 8: “Reign of Terror” (28-31 CE)

Reading for Weeks Nine and Ten: Graves, I, Claudius, chapters 27-34 and Claudius the God, chapter 1 (only pp. 3-6), chapters 5-9 and chapter 10 (only pp. 165-166). Suetonius, Caligula 8 ff. and Claudius ??? Tacitus, Annals ????; Hallett 15-18 (“advised him with Roman senators”); Joshel, “Projection and Imperial Soap Opera.”

Class e-mail discussion for week nine: the Wilder colloquium
New characters:

Epicata, Sejanus’ wife

Helen, daughter of Castor and Livilla


Gemellus, Tiberius’ grandson

Drucilla, Caligula’s sister

Calpurrnia, Claudius’ friend

Caesonia, Caligula’s wife

Cassius Chaerea, captain of the Praetorian Guard

Messalina, Claudius’ new wife

Pallas and Narcissus: Claudius’ freedmen and advisers

Domitia Lepida, Messalina’s mother

Gaius Silanus, Domitia’s husband and Messalina’s lover

Saturday, March 27 Colloquium on the novels of Thornton Wilder

Week Nine

T March 30 View episode 9:“Zeus, By Jove” (31-38 CE)

Th April 1 Discussion of I, Claudius as Imperial Soap Opera.

Class email discussion on reading Sandra Joshel

Week Ten

T April 6 View episode 10: “Hail Who?” (38-41


Th April 8 View episode 11, “”Fool’s Luck” (41 CE)

Reading for Week Eleven: Graves, Claudius the God, chapters 22-29; Suetonius, Claudius ???; Tacitus, Annals???; Hallett 18-24, Class e-mail discussion for week eleven based on Joshel’s essay about Messalina.
New character:

Gaius Silius, Messalina’s lover

Week Eleven

T April 13 View episode 12:“ A God in Colchester” (42-48 CE)

Th April 15 View episode 13: “Old King Log” (46-54 CE). DUE DATE FOR THIRD PAPER.

Reading for Weeks Thirteen and Fourteen: Graves, Chapters 30-32 and sequel (bottom on p. 531); Three accounts of Claudius’ Death (Claudius the God, pp. 508-513); Suetonius, Nero. Class-email discussions for weeks twelve, thirteen and fourteen based on episodes 12 and 13, the third paper, and on finalizing details for final project.
Saturday April 17 Colloquium on the study of Latin, classics and Anglo-American literature in historically black colleges and universities

Week Twelve

T April 20 Meetings of project groups

Th April 22 Meetings of project groups

Week Thirteen

T April 27 Imperial Rome on Film

Th April 29 Imperial Rome on Film

Week Fourteen

T May 4 Presentation of Final Projects

Th May 6 Presentation of Final Projects

Week Fifteen

T May 11 Presentation of Final Projects

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