Orion | 2018 | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book
There are few people in more danger in Tiberius’s Rome than the children of Germanicus. Germanicus, the nephew and adopted son of Tiberius, was Rome’s greatest general of the day, an emperor in waiting. But he is dead and his sons are Tiberius’s heirs while the daughters are pawns in marriage. To be an heir to Tiberius is a dangerous thing, especially with the emperor tucked away on his luxurious island retreat of Capri, having left the business of Rome’s protection to Sejanus, the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, master of an army. Sejanus hates the children of Germanicus. He wishes them reduced in number. The youngest are sent to Capri to live under the nose of an insane emperor in his villa of games, superstitions and murder. There we meet the youngest child, Livilla, sister of Gaius, a boy known to friends and history alike as Caligula. And it’s Caligula’s story that Livilla tells.
Although the Roman senate stopped short of damning Caligula’s memory after his death, thanks to the influence of his uncle and successor Claudius, history has not been kind to Caligula and the stories of his dissolute life and rule have been hard for authors to resist (I’ll never forget John Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula in the TV adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius), but was Caligula really as mad as many would have it? And if he was a monster, was he born that way or was he another victim of Rome’s extraordinary imperial family and its ambitious generals and politicians? This is a topic that can’t fail in my eyes and, after a recent spate of novels re-examining or celebrating the monster that was Nero, it’s good news indeed to now find his uncle Caligula in the spotlight.
The figure of Caligula is undoubtedly a gift to an author but it must be done right. And Simon Turney has done a magnificent job of stripping away the infamy and propaganda to reassemble a fresh image of Caligula, as seen through the eyes of an innocent child, his adoring youngest sister Livilla. But that is just the beginning. We meet Caligula as a boy, living at the edge of a lethal court, in daily risk of exile or execution, but with an innate and ingenious talent for survival. The boy we meet at the beginning is not the man we leave at the end and it’s this transformation which is so immensely gripping and fascinating, and original.
It’s easy to focus on Caligula because he is a tour de force throughout this novel, an exceedingly charismatic and gifted individual, who, at least in the early days, is very easy to like. It’s spellbinding watching him grow. But there are other people to watch here, too, including Livilla who herself is altered by events. Her story is every bit as compelling as her brother’s and it made me weep. We grow particularly close to Livilla because she is our eyes and ears. She is often a secret witness, hiding in gardens, behind curtains, around corners. Little escapes Livilla. It’s what she must do with the knowledge she learns that causes her the most pain.
Another character who instantly grabbed is Agrippina, sister to Livilla and Caligula, and perhaps as notorious to history as her brother. This is Nero’s mother in waiting and we all know what happened to her. She is shocking! There’s no rewriting of history here – Agrippina is a nasty piece of work and there can be no excuses. She is, as a result, a page stealer.
Caligula is a beautifully structured and developed novel. I must say that I was surprised that the author picked a female voice for his narrator but he has done a wonderful job in making her feel real and it was an inspired idea to reveal Caligula through her eyes. This is a Caligula I can believe in. It’s a fine psychological portrait of a damaged man, someone who could have been great, who wanted to be great, but instead became a devil. But it also paints a fabulous picture of Rome and Capri. It’s both beautiful and terrifying and Capri in particular is absolutely horrifying, the stuff of nightmares. It’s hardly surprising that Caligula corrupts in such an appalling and hideous manner. It’s a mesmerising, haunting and disturbing transformation and it literally gave me nightmares.
Caligula is an enormous achievement and most definitely one to be proud of. And what a beautiful cover! It’s great news to learn that this is the first in a series and it has a fantastic title – The Damned Emperors! Irresistible! I can’t wait to see who is next for the Turney treatment.