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For Soap Opera, There's No Place Like Rome : Television: Judge Luis A. Cardenas, an amateur historian, will lead a discussion series on 'I, Claudius,' which he sees as an ancient 'Dallas.'

September 09, 1993|JESS BRAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the next 15 weeks, Orange County Superior Court Judge Luis A. Cardenas plans to spend his Thursday nights in the company of murderers, thieves and assorted other miscreants, the kind of people who'd poison their own children, rape their siblings and demand their hapless victims treat them like gods.

But Cardenas, a 17-year veteran of the bench, won't be holding night court. Instead, the jurist and amateur historian will be leading an Anaheim library series on some of the most entertaining villains in Western Civilization's long sweep: Caligula, Livia and the other members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty depicted in the renowned PBS-TV serial "I, Claudius."

"It's got everything: sex, murder, intrigue," says Cardenas. "But it's quite accurately based on the history of the defining years of the Roman Empire. It's like 'Dallas,' only it's real."

Cardenas, who presided over dentist Tony Protopappas' murder trial in 1984 and oversaw portions of serial killer Randy Kraft's case in the 1980s, has made a second career of his passion for ancient civilization.

For more than 10 years, he has taught Roman history in Cal State Fullerton's extension program for senior citizens. Two years ago, he led his students on a tour of Italy, focusing on Roman antiquities.

But in his Anaheim library program, Cardenas will for the first time be able to combine serious history with--on screen, anyway--serious mayhem.

Each week, Cardenas will screen an episode of the 13-part "I, Claudius" series, the 1976 BBC production based on the historical novels of Robert Graves. Starring Derek Jacobi as the stammering Claudius, who succeeded Caligula (John Hurt) as emperor in AD 41, the series depicts the ruthless domestic life of Rome's First Family.

After each episode, Cardenas will moderate an hourlong discussion, correlating the characters and events depicted with contemporary sources, primarily the writings of Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus.

Through the program, Cardenas hopes to spark interest in a culture that has many parallels to our own.

"The influence of ancient Rome is all around us," he says, noting that everyone from the Founding Fathers to the purveyors of vice have drawn on Roman images to legitimize their endeavors.

"It wasn't an accident that the founders of this republic chose to call its highest legislative body the Senate," Cardenas said. "They were seeking to associate their new, secular state with the political and legal values of the Roman Republic.

"And by the same token, the people who built Caesars Palace in Las Vegas wanted to evoke the Romans' well-known image for excess, spectacle, and perhaps a little debauchery."

For Cardenas, the parallels between ancient Rome and modern America go far beyond symbols. "Marcus Aurelius," the second century philosopher-emperor, "called Rome a confederation of nations, which is very much what the United States is," he said.

Both states dominated their epochs, politically, economically, militarily and culturally. The problems of expansion, assimilation of different ethnic groups, economic stagnation and cynicism over political institutions pervaded ancient Rome just as they bedevil American society today, he said.

"Like Rome, America is a country of contradictions. It extends over a massive area and contains multitudes of different ethnic groups and regional differences. At the same time, its culture has a uniformity and consistency that is the world's marvel," he said. Whether built in Britain or Syria, Roman aqueducts and amphitheaters were identical in style. The same could be said for America's cultural outposts--as anyone who's bought a Big Mac in Moscow could report.

Of course, Cardenas notes, there are significant differences between Rome and the United States.

"The Romans would be utterly mystified by some of the issues that cause controversy in our day," he said. "For example, gay rights. The Romans wouldn't understand why it's a political issue at all."

Roman law, Cardenas said, was not concerned with private morals. "Several Roman emperors were known to keep young boys, but because of their public works and just administration, were popular and respected rulers."

Homosexuality, tolerated in pagan Roman times, became a crime when Christian law replaced traditional codes after the fall of Rome in 476. "In a sense," Cardenas said, "gays and lesbians are today fighting to regain rights they lost 1,500 years ago."

But while Roman society was tolerant of individuals' private lives, crimes against the state were punished severely and swiftly, Cardenas said.

"People today think the Romans only crucified one person," he said. "In fact, crucifixion was the standard method of execution. A few criminals were disposed of in the arena, but most were crucified--generally on the outskirts of the city, as a sort of law-and-order message to travelers."

Despite its severity, Cardenas said, Roman law had much to recommend it.

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