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The Sopranos and I Claudius

June 23, 2013


There’s an early episode of The Sopranos where Tony has arranged to settle a grievance within the Hasidic community with extreme prejudice.  The individual they are attempting to torture proves irritatingly resilient and rolls over to taunt Tony, provoking the following memorable exchange.

Ariel: You ever heard of the Masada? For two years, 900 Jews held their own against 15,000 Roman soldiers. They chose death before enslavement. The Romans? Where are they now?

Tony Soprano: You’re looking at them, asshole.

This conversation makes me want to somehow connect the most compelling TV drama series of my childhood, I Claudius (which I was permitted to watch at an absurdly young age) and the most compelling TV drama series of my adulthood.  To what extent is the Boss of New Jersey a Roman Emperor?

Quickly, let it be noted that Tony’s mother is called Livia.  The most sinister figure of the earlier episodes of both dramas is the matriarch.  Both dramas are constantly exercised by questions of succession.  The Roman Empire, like the mob – provides an environment in which family but not primogeniture determines promotion to the highest office.  In the Roman Empire as in the mob, instances of sons directly (and successfully) succeeding fathers are comparatively rare.  “Adoption” of an heir proves to be the real procedure in both instances.

I loved I Claudius when I was (far too) young because it opened a door to a live fast die young world of impossible riches and luxury along with a ludicrously truncated lifespan.  When you learn that the name of Claudius’s friend who has just become Augustus’ heir is called  ‘Posthumus’, you really despair of his longevity.  As Tony Soprano notes to Bobby in one of the final episodes, the end comes suddenly and there’s no preparation for it.  Emperors and mobsters rarely die of extreme old age surrounded by loving friends and families.

There are clear differences between the contexts of the two series of course.  The Sopranos covers one emperor.  I Claudius covers multiple mob bosses in succession.  Emperor Tony has to deal with a city with five rival emperors on his  doorstep and the fringes of his territory are constantly contested.  Roman mob-bosses have to deal with ragged frontier conflicts with Germans and Parthians, but generally these conflicts exist to blood the next generation in leadership skills and do not impinge upon the survival of the imperium.  Also, Tony is not Claudius.  Sometimes he is Claudius, sometimes Tiberius, sometimes Augustus and thankfully very rarely he is Caligula – but his “story arc” (as Christopher would say) does not resemble that of Claudius.

Claudius is “Little Carmine” whose idiocy is assumed by all and whose struggles with the English language represent one of the more heroic ongoing conflicts of the series.  The man who invoked the duality of “the sacred and the propane” is never whacked.  We never even learn of plans to whack Little Carmine.  He is protected by his own ludicrousness, to the point where it is eventually hinted that malapropisms may be a brilliantly strategic and life preserving affectation.  He may be the wisest and happiest mobster in the New York-Jersey area.  He’s a man, like Claudius, who would rather survive than rule, who sees a merit in mere persistence, a man for whom life itself is a blessing.  The intrinsic beauty of the concept of just staying alive is a beauty lost on most characters in both series.

Apparently, back in 1976, Brian Blessed struggled with some of the dialogue in I Claudius, finding it hard to credit or inhabit.  Director Herbert Wise helped him out by advising him “think Mafia” – at which point everything apparently made sense.


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