Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Caligula by Suetonius Review (Little Black Classics #17)

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula (Latin for “little soldier’s boot”, a childhood nickname), if he’s known by anyone today, it’s for being the maddest emperor of Ancient Rome - and there were a few mental bastards! The impression stems from incidents like trying to make his horse head of the Senate and thinking he was a god who could talk to the sea. 

This short book in Penguin’s Little Black Classics series, celebrating Penguin’s 80th anniversary, is an extract from Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, translated by Robert Graves. Though writing 80 years after Caligula’s death, a lot of what we know about the emperor’s short four year reign comes from Suetonius as all of the primary sources have been destroyed. 

While his reputation is uniformly negative overall, it seems the first few months of his reign were surprisingly positive. The people were happy to see him as ruler after the cruel Tiberius. But something about Caligula changed and he quickly became a sadistic, brutal and vicious tyrant, hellbent on bankrupting Rome, having far too much sex with anyone and everyone’s wives, including having incestuous relations with his three sisters, and killing anyone on a whim. 

A bald man, excessively hairy elsewhere, and prone to making snarling faces to frighten people, Suetonius makes clear Caligula was not a handsome man, who had any good-looking men who crossed his path executed for making him look bad! But then he didn’t need reasons for killing - boredom was frequently cited as motive enough. 

And though his erratic behaviour might be attributed to a chronic insomnia (he could only sleep a maximum of three hours a night) and epilepsy, Suetonius hints that the mysterious treatment of an illness from Caligula’s first year is what exacerbated and/or caused the sudden personality change from benign ruler to the very definition of absolute power corrupting absolutely. 

This is a shallow criticism as Suetonius was a first century writer and I’m reading this two millennia later, but I found the writing style to be a bit dry and unengaging. Suetonius has no sense of telling a story even though he’s writing narrative history. He just lists things, one after the other. And while they are shocking details, reading them one after the other as they’re presented makes them seem less so just because it’s so unrelenting. Informative yes, but not terribly enjoyable and not an effective way of conveying the material - that’s just me though. 

It’s interesting that Caligula shared some similarities with his more famous ancestor, Julius Caesar: both were epileptics who were assassinated by being stabbed to death dozens of times, and both assassinations were led by a man named Cassius. 

Caligula’s a fascinating historical figure mostly because of his breathtakingly insane actions, which is why his name is synonymous with madness today. It’s unimaginable how decadent and destructive a ruler could have been allowed to carry on as long as he did, and yet he was. The Romans were a smart bunch but they were really quite dumb when it came to selecting their rulers (I wonder if our descendants will look back at our time and think the same thing - George W Bush was re-elected)! 

Suetonius’ account of Caligula is a brief and informative look at this bizarre man’s life. That said, I much prefer the translator Robert Graves’ own fictional depiction of Caligula from his novel, I, Claudius.

Caligula (Little Black Classics)

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