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At the end of a chapter on Livia, the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, in Confronting the Classics (Liveright, $28.95), the Cambridge scholar Mary Beard reminds us that when Masterpiece Theatre first broadcast the BBC version of I, Claudius, in 1977, the host explained to the American audience that Augustus “reconciled the old nobility and the new republicans and merchants and middle classes to a system of government that was fundamentally republican.”

Although, according to Beard, this is “historical nonsense,” it transformed Livia’s (rumored) murder of Augustus into the sort of act that could destroy “the political foundation of the American State.” The twelve episodes of I, Claudius evoked for U.S. viewers and reviewers not the corruption of the Roman Empire but the corruption of Washington, the detrimental effects of women gaining power, and other dangers to American greatness. It didn’t matter what the real Livia had done or not done (there is evidence that she took an interest in herbal remedies and “put her longevity down to drinking wine from Friuli”): she could not evade her posthumous incarnation as a symbol of political threat. Livia’s great-grandson Caligula gave his favorite horse all the perks of nobility, building him a palace and feeding him oats mixed with flakes of gold. Suetonius and Dio Cassius, writing close to a century after Caligula’s assassination, thought this equine pampering was evidence of the young emperor’s madness, but Beard explores the idea that the absurd gesture was meant to expose the nobility as a useless and expensive incubus on the Roman state.

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