Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Caligula by Robert Graves Review (Penguin Pocket 70s)

Caligula is an extract from two of Robert Graves’ historical novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, focusing on the mad Roman emperor as told from the perspective of his uncle Claudius. It’s one thing to read an historical account of Caligula by Suetonius, quite another to read a dramatized account by a skilled 20th century novelist. 

The opening scene instantly grabs the reader. Claudius is summoned to Caligula’s bed chamber in the middle of the night. Kneeling before him, Caligula languidly waves his sword around Claudius as if pondering whether he should kill his uncle, announcing casually that he’s ascended to godhood. It’s brilliantly written so that we immediately know two things: Caligula is menacing/dangerous, and he is totally bonkers. 

From there it’s a rich and compelling revitalisation of history as we see Caligula’s debauched and vicious reign vividly brought to life through Claudius’ fictional autobiography. Caligula is characterised as utterly unstable, his personality swaying from fearful, child-like vulnerability to cruel rages with always a veneer of sneering arrogance beneath the surface. He’s a fascinating figure to read about because his insanity led to such unpredictable and strange actions. 

He lashed together thousands of ships so he could ride his horse, Incitatus (whom he would later try to make a consul), across them, in a ridiculous display of his “godhood” – he can “ride across water” like a god! A storm would later destroy hundreds of ships meaning food imports were severely reduced leading to thousands starving. Later on he would call Claudius and some senators up to his palace in the middle of the night. Fearing they were going to be executed, they were astonished to find the emperor putting on a private show just for them, dressing up and singing! 

Graves superbly builds up the tension until Caligula’s tyrannical rule was no longer tenable. He was assassinated in a style similar to his ancestor, Julius Caesar, and Claudius is made emperor, against his will. 

At roughly 50 pages, it’s a short book and serves more as a taster for Graves’ longer historical novels, but it is nevertheless an engrossing vision of one of the Roman Empire’s most famous tyrants, well-written, informative and entertaining.


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