First published in 2008, Caligula gave us our first introduction to Bersheba, the emperor’s elephant, cared for and loved by Rufus, the slave of the animal keeper Fronto. Not only does Rufus have to come to terms with his own position as a slave but he must also adapt to survive at the whim of the emperor. In this, he is taught an ugly lesson by gladiator Cupido. I dare you to read it and not flinch.
Cupido, Rufus and the animals that he cares for have only two reasons for living: to make money for their master and, more importantly, to provide amusement for that most unstable of emperors, Caligula.
As the novel opens, we’re left in little doubt about the nature of this man, Caligula, and his self-professed ownership of every living creature within his realm. Whether it’s blinding baby birds, breaking the bones of noble Roman matrons or overseeing the slaughter of human and animal in the arena, Caligula is a man to be amused by the ownership of a elephant. As long as Rufus keeps Bersheba under control, he is able to live a relatively privileged life on the edges of the imperial court. Although the danger is constant, not least because Rufus may find himself at any moment a focus of fun at the emperor’s feasts. However, Caligula is not aware of everything going on around him and Rufus finds himself at the centre of much more than he had bargained for.
In Claudius, Rufus and Bersheba have a new emperor to deal with, another ruler who may well be a sandwich short of a picnic. Claudius, the stuttering emperor (try and put Derek Jacobi from your mind), has a mission to complete what the illustrious Julius Caesar could not, the conquest of Britannia. And what could bring that about more symbolically than the might and majesty of the emperor’s own elephant?
In Britannia, Rufus (and Bersheba) must learn that they are more than ceremonial and the consequences leads to one of the most terrifying scenes I have read in a novel for quite some time – the Wicker Man. In all its horror and violence, we see how Romans and Britons were prepared to treat one another in this time of invasion, connivance and domination.
In both Caligula and Claudius, the emperors may take centre stage on the covers, but both rulers represent more of a threat, an ominous presence, sometimes distant sometimes perilously close, in the lives of Rufus and his faithful Bersheba. The focus is very much on the determination of Rufus to survive. Even when his bride is picked for him, Rufus continues to deal with Rome’s monsters, not least by caring for the enormously large but gentle elephant who could crush a man such as Caligula – and yet does not.
There are moments in both novels of such brutality that I could hardly look at the page. However, as I read on I could fully understand the reason for it. Without the evil, the good would not have been as bright.
If possible, I thought Claudius was even more involving than Caligula. Rufus knows his place and his relationship with Bersheba is fully evolved, but now the two of them face a threat in Britannia that makes even the evils of the gladiatorial arena pale by comparison. The violence, though, in both books, is offset by the beautifully drawn characters of Rufus, Cupido, his friends and the relationship with this trusting animal, Bersheba, so far from home.
I still hope that at some time Douglas Jackson will return to Rufus and Bersheba, two of the most wonderfully drawn characters that I’ve read this year.