Why is it that when we think of Roman Emperor Caligula, we recall the late John Hurt’s over the top, mad and malevolent portrayal in the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Grave’s sardonically serious I Claudius.(1976). Or else, Malcolm McDowell’s vicious, almost cartoon villain in Penthouse pontiff Bob Guccione’s semi-pornograpic biopic Caligula (1979).
British author Simon Turney turns I Claudius on its head with the bumbling, stumbling, stammering Clau-Clau of book and film cast as a canny, conniving and ultimately successful player positioning himself to assume the imperial purple. Gone is the Caligula so malevolently and magnificently portrayed by John Hurt. No horses in the Senate. No incest. None of the orgies, explicit sex and delectable cameos of Penthouse Pets. But there is violence and gore – loads of it, in fact – and plots and conspiracies aplenty. But it is Claudius who is “nasty, brutish and short” while young Gaius is tall, blonde and well-intentioned. He’s certainly not all hugs and puppies, but he’s an astute, well-meaning but misunderstood victim of imperial circumstance who rides the perilous waves of bereavement and betrayal to assume the psychotic Tiberius’ throne.
The full title of Turney’s tome says it all: Caligula: loving brother, reluctant ruler and tortured soul (Orion 2017)
It is inevitable that history is written by the victors and throughout the past two millennia there have been plenty of cases of good men being maligned by their successors, as well as evil men canonized by their heirs and successors. Rome was no different and may indeed be the very epitome of this. Being so far removed from our modern world, we have only fragmentary archaeological and epigraphic evidence to directly base our research on – that and the writings of those who lived in these times.
And so it is with Caligula. Turney argues that once the chaff is cleared away, misunderstandings and misrepresentations clarified, and the more obvious cases of character assassination discarded, we are left with a complex man who fell foul of the most influential and dangerous people in the Empire. He could hardly have been the monster he has painted, for while those powerful senators and nobles managed to remove him, the ordinary people of Rome held him up as the golden prince and the army remained his – the latter in part on account of how as a child, he’d accompanied his father on victoriouscampaigns in Germania and Syria, earning the sobriquet “Little Boots” – in Latin, “Caligula” – named for the replica army sandals he wore on these road trips.
So, leave your assumptions and preconceptions at the city gates and enter Rome, 37AD.
Emperor Tiberius Caesar is dying. No-one knows how much time is left to him, but the power struggle has begun. The ailing old tyrant thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order to the chaos and carnage engineered by Sejanus, the cruel commander of the Praetorian Guard. The story is told through the eyes of Livilla, Caligula’s loyal, little sister and confidante. She recounts how her quiet, caring, beautiful brother became the most powerful man in the known western world, how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever. She is an attractive and insightful narrator, drawing the reader into her life as niece and hostage of mad, bad Tiberius and sister of his infamous successor.
Being part of the extended family of the Divine Augustus is a tough gig. The five children of Germanicus appear to be cursed from birth. Their war-hero father is believed to have been poisoned on Tiberius’ orders, and mom and two brothers are arrested for treason, exiled on desert islands, and starved to death. Cold, ambitious, Agrippina is married off to an abusive husband, but keeps her eye on the ultimate prize. Sweet, docile Drusilla is wedded to a mild nonentity and pines for her own true love. Only Caligula and Livilla remain, as virtual captives on Capri, Tiberius’ pleasure island.
The ascent of the family into the imperial succession transforms Caligula from the easygoing lad Livilla knew to a shrewd, wary and calculating young man, used to watching his back and learning the dangerous power game of thrones. As much out of self-preservation as ambition, he maneuvers himself into the top job. A golden age beckons for Rome, but things unravel as political allies, friends, and finally family betray him and plot his demise. He becomes a bitter, resentful and vengeful Emperor, eventually losing touch with reality and his humanity. Even loyal Livilla comes a cropper. Power corrupts and absolute power, whilst not surreal scale of the films, leads Caligula to a rendezvous with the assassins’ knives.
Complementing the human drama of the quasi-Shakespearean rise and fall of a tragic hero, Turney also provides his tale with a political dimension. There is the well known backstory of the Roman Republic and how Julius Caesar was slain by gallant patriots who feared that he was about to make himself King – a concept that was anathema to SPQR, the Senate and people of Rome. Caesar’s heir, Octavius, who became Augustus, whilst hailed as ‘Imperator’, was most careful not to become ‘Rex’. Through Robert Graves’s epic, Claudius as courtier and as Caesar, perennially proclaims his desire to restore the republic – although, truth be told, the republic had run its course, governed by a corrupt and self serving senatorial elite. It was, perhaps, a nostalgic chimera, which, nevertheless, provides numerous conspirators in Turney’s narrative with a worthy motive. Caligula, they fear, is falling under the influence of royal middle eastern friends who advertise the attractions of absolute monarchy. At the end, Caligula’s Caesar complex commands a Caesar solution.
Turney next turns his attention next to another Roman emperor who was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. Skipping the lugubrious Nero, who features in Caligula as a chubby babe in the arms his devious and disloyal momma Agrippina, the projected series of “The Damned Emperors” will jump to Commodus, last seen impaled by Maximus Decimus Meridius, known today as Russell Crowe, in Ridley Scott’s solid if somewhat overwrought sword and sandals saga Gladiator (2000). It would appear that whatever history and show business has conceived, Turney aims to tear asunder.
In That Howling Infinite has traveled the Roman world many times before:
Roman Holiday, the perils of a poet in the time of Claudius and Nero;
What have the Romans Done For Us? A review of Mary Beard’s wonderful history of the republic and the early emperors;
Roman Wall Blues, a riff on WH Auden’s famous poem and a tale of Hadrian’s Wall and the magical museum of Vindolanda; and
A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West.