Caligula by Simon Turney

Caligula by Simon Turney

My collection of short stories, Cherries, is making its way into the world. Humphrey and Jack, my second novel, will be launched in the New Year. Time for some reading and a couple of reviews. Today, it is the turn of the notorious emperor, Caligula by the prolific Simon Turney.

I finished Caligula some time ago and had been procrastinating about writing a review for the simple reason that Turney’s novel is so tightly plotted and psychologically coherent that it is hard to deal with particular events in detail without being guilty of throwing up spoilers – and everybody hates a spoiler.

Anybody with an interest in the Roman Emperors at all will know something about Caligula, Rome’s third emperor and son of the golden boy, Germanicus. They will know the story of how young Gaius was the darling of the legions deployed in the barbaric North and that he was dressed in a miniature version of military attire along with his caligulae or ‘little boots’. They will know that his accession was celebrated with jubilation on the death of the warped and saturnine emperor, Tiberius. They will also know there followed a time where Gaius enjoyed unprecedented popularity, owing much to his father’s golden reputation, but also to his largesse towards the common people. He might have learnt from his father’s death in suspicious circumstances that it was perilous to be too popular in first-century Rome.

However, the Caligula most will know is the autocratic tyrant who was both creative and capricious in his cruelty. A principal source of this picture of a deranged monster is Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars but perhaps we should remember that Suetonius is a bit of a tabloid historian, revelling in scandal and outrage. and that he may also have been politically biased against the imperium.

Turney has set himself a formidable task here. It’s not that he seeks to overturn the lurid image passed to us from the Roman historians, or even to un-imagine the abominations familiar from I, Claudius. Nor are we led to believe with Voltaire, that to understand all is to forgive all. Instead we are given a psychologically convincing realisation of how the wonder child gradually transmutes into a monster. Knowing how and why means we can allow him some sympathy even as we recoil from his atrocities.

It was a shrewd move to give the narrative to his sister Livilla, thus allowing closeness and yet distance. The treatment of the fatherless family by emperor and senate is appalling. We see how Caligula faces betrayal after betrayal, how his mother and brother are starved to death in exile, how he has to battle continuously with hostile senators (though he retains the love of the people and the army almost until the end). His later belief that even Livilla has betrayed him is the tipping point. I shall say no more except that his older sister Agrippina survives the carnage along with her son, Nero. Enough said.

Absolute power corrupts and it also corrodes the heart and soul. The young man who never wanted to be emperor has spent his life in watching his own back. His actions can often be seen as self-defence.

The characters are delineated with great care and subtlety. These are psychologically realised people not pantomime figures of vice and virtue. The settings too are vivid. Tiberius’ balcony above the rocky cliffs where men and women are pitched to a hideous death on the whim of the old pervert, Tiberius; the assassination attempt on Caligula in the precincts of the Senate; Livilla’s degrading exile remain imprinted on the mind.

Turney’s narrative powers are at their most mature in this stunning novel. To have to put it down from time to time was a frustration, and to finish it, a kind of bereavement.