Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review: Caligula by Douglas Jackson

Several months ago when I began reading "Claudius" by Douglas Jackson, I didn't realize that it was actually the sequel to "Caligula".  Finding "Claudius" well researched with vibrant characters and taut action, I resolved to read "Caligula" as well.

"Caligula" fleshed out the backstory for Rufus, the young animal trainer who eventually became the emperor's elephant handler.  Rufus is the central character in "Caligula", just as he was in "Claudius" and we experience the reign of the emperor Caligula as reflected in the interactions he has with Rufus and with those Rufus holds dear including Fronto, a procuror of beasts for the Roman games who purchases Rufus from a kindly baker, a rebellious gladiator named Cupido who becomes Rufus' best friend, the gladiator's beautiful sister and a diminutive woman chosen by the emperor to be Rufus' wife.

In the opening prologue, Jackson portrays Caligula as an already psychologically disturbed child who tortures little animals as he seeks to learn the limits of physical brutality.   To the best of my knowledge, this is not documented in any ancient sources but it is effective to prepare the reader for some of the scenes of brutality that will follow as the scope of Caligula's brutaliy only increases with the power he acquires as the successor to the dour emperor Tiberius.
Lion and Leopard Mosaic Detail from 
the House of Doves Pompeii Roman
1st century CE photographed by
Mary Harrsch.

As the novel begins, we learn Rufus was initially sold into slavery by his own father, a former Spanish auxiliary who fails miserably at trying to scratch a living out of a plot of land in North African given to him as part of his discharge compensation from the Roman Army.  Fortunately for Rufus, he is purchased by a kindly Roman baker who teaches him the trade.  But Rufus' real calling is made clear one day when he saves a young girl from a rampaging beast who has escaped from the holding pens of one of the arenas where beast hunts are held to entertain the Roman mob.  His courage in confronting the animal is noticed by Fronto, a procuror and trainer of beasts, who offers to teach Rufus the arts of his trade.  The baker agrees to sell Rufus to Fronto and Rufus' career as an animal trainer begins.

Fronto is a hard task master and Rufus learns some very painful lessons (that, as an animal lover, I found difficult to read).  But Rufus is gifted, both in understanding the nature of the animals he is asked to develop and in recognizing business opportunities in the ever shifting world of the Roman public's imagination.  His gifts do not go unnoticed, however, and soon Fronto, who is childless and had planned to adopt Rufus, is forced to sell him to the new emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known behind his back as "Little Boots" (Caligula).

Jackson portrays the mature Caligula as someone who appears to be not openly maniacal but definitely psychologically unstable.  Rufus finds him at times friendly and genuinely interested in the people and events around him.  But these brief periods of lucidity can vanish without warning and then Rufus finds Caligula as dangerous as any beast he has ever faced in the arena.  I think this is a far more realistic portrayal than many past efforts who have presented Caligula as evil incarnate.  My blog post, "Sexual innuendo and character assasination in the ancient world", explains my reasoning on this point.

Jackson does a wonderful job of weaving actual events detailed by Suetonius in his biography of Caligula into the narrative including the construction of a bridge from the Palatine Hill across the forum to the Capitoline which I was unaware of until I read Caligula's biography.  Unfortunately, Fronto's grisly fate is also based on an actual incident detailed by Suetonius as well.  See "The Twelve Caesars" by Suetonius, "The Life of Caligula", Section 27, p449.

Erotic fresco from Pompeii displayed
 in "The Secret Room" in the Museo 
Archaeologico di Napoli in Naples, Italy. 
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
We also gain insight into the perverse nature of Caligula's sister Druscilla, who summons Rufus to her private chambers, dubbing him her "puppy dog".  Rufus has heard the rumors of an incestuous relationship between Druscilla and her brother and must now fear Caligula's jealous wrath if he discovers Rufus' unwanted nocturnal liaison .

Rufus also learns how everyone in the imperial court becomes players in the "game of thrones" as he is alternately threatened and cajoled by Narcissus, the freedman of Gaius' uncle Claudius, who deftly weaves a web of deceit to entrap any who may become an obstacle to his master's ultimate ascension to the purple.

Through Rufus, Jackson gives us a balanced look at life during the reign of Caligula without resorting to Hollywood-esque over-the-top scenes of licentiousness and bestiality. Jackson clearly illustrates the sense of helplessness, though, that so many slaves in the empire endured when under the control of ruthless and unscrupulous masters.   This helplessness, however, may be frustrating for some readers.

Last year I attended a media arts conference and at a presentation on screenwriting, Sara and Gregory Bernstein emphasized that a compelling protagonist should always be a person who is in control or has the capability to control the events in the plotline.  Rufus, as an imperial slave, however, has absolutely no control over his life or ultimately the lives of most of the significant people in his life.  This may be the reason Jackson's publisher asked Jackson to shift gears a little and develop a totally different character for the  books planned after the publication of "Claudius" even though Jackson's "emperor" series was initially announced as a trilogy and was well received.  (I must point out, though, this is just speculation on my part. )

I do think "Caligula" and "Claudius" vividly demonstrate the high caliber of Jackson's skill as a storyteller and I look forward to reading about the exploits of his new "Hero of Rome",  Tribune Gaius Valerius Verrens. Verrens, commander of the veteran legions at Colonia, must face one of Roman Britain's fiercest rebel leaders, Boudicca of the Iceni.  Judging from the title of the book, he must emerge victorious.  That definitely sounds like a protagonist that can handle whatever a plotline can throw at him.

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Blogosphere ~ The Madness of the Emperor Caligula (
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Doug said...

Thanks for another excellent and exceptionally perceptive review. Your theory on why there wasn't a third book is right on the mark. I thought Rufus's position and proximity to the Emperor gave a fairly unique viewpoint of life in Rome, but I always had a feeling of events revolving around him, with little opportunity to make things happen. That was why the publishers asked me to come up with another more proactive character. It must have worked because they've just asked me to write three more Valerius books, which will take him through the Year of the Four Emperors and, probably, to a finale in north Britain with his old comrade Agricola

Mary Harrsch said...

Thanks, Doug, for confirming my theory. I guess those Hollywood scriptwriters knew what they were talking about.

I look forward to sharing the adventures of Valerius and wish you much success with the new series!